I recently received an invitation to a School Reunion in London later this month. It got me thinking about the number of people whom I’ve met over the years who have spoken fondly of their “old school network.” They relate stories of how school friends later helped them acquire a job, gain promotion or perhaps introduced them to an influential figure in their industry or profession. Some refer to it as the “old school tie” factor.
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In my case, I had some really good mates at school, but sadly none have really figured in my later years. The one exception was in my class and the same football team. Ian Gillan. After leaving school he went on to become the lead singer for Deep Purple (Smoke on the Water!). We still keep in touch and he recently invited my wife and me to watch Deep Purple perform live in Cape Town, actually sitting on the side of the stage. Great stuff!
So what’s this got to do with motor racing? Well, it dawned on me that although I don’t have a network of “old school-friends”, I do have something that’s proved a lot more effective. It’s the incredible network of contacts that I have developed through being a part of the 1970’s Formula Ford scene in Britain. So many of the people who I competed against week in, week out, in various regional and national Formula are now in influential positions within motorsport worldwide. Many competitors became great friends, whilst others developed into respected long-standing business colleagues.
In that era, Formula Ford was THE place to start the journey towards the heady heights of F1. This applied not only to drivers but also to designers, engineers and many marketing people. A high number of people today still reckon that it was the best launching pad ever. I know it’s easy to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but it’s a fact that we had entry lists of around 120 drivers for most Rounds of the major Formula Ford championships. They had to compete through qualifying sessions and then heats, just to make it into the Final. The F3, F2, and F1 team owners knew that there was only one place to look for up and coming talent and that was Formula Ford 1600. I think it’s true to say that there was far more emphasis placed on talent-spotting then, as opposed to wallet spotting.
Many competitors became great friends, whilst others developed into respected long-standing business colleagues.
If you reached a Final in a national championship Round, you could be rightly proud of yourself. Just take a look at some of the drivers who shone in Formula Ford at that time, before progressing through F3 to F1: Nigel Mansell, Derek Warwick, Chico Serra, Kenny Acheson, Geoff Lees, Tiff Needell, David Kennedy, Derek Daly, Rupert Keegan, Jonathan Palmer, Jan Lammers … the list is almost endless. What it tells you is that the system worked.
I must admit that there were times in my early career when I felt that I had missed out by not having an old school network to help me. However, once I began to recognise the power of what I had been a part of in motor racing, the more I realised how lucky I had been. OK, so I wasn’t good enough to get to F1 as a driver, but so what? I’ve built a career in the sport about which I am so passionate. I raced professionally for 11 years and then made it to F1, albeit in a different way to what I’d anticipated. Looking at the drivers I’ve just referred to, I can honestly say that not only do I know every one of them, some better than others, but that if I met them they would also know me. It’s because we all grew up in a unique category of racing at that time. Just how good a platform is that for building an influential network?
It’s true to say that not everyone with whom I competed in that era of Formula Ford made it to F1. Many had the talent, but maybe not the out and out determination. Nevertheless, many still became influential figures with motorsport. I’m grateful to many of them for personally helping me achieve certain goals.
A good friend and very talented Formula Ford racer, Mike Blanchet, went on to become the Managing Director of Lola Cars. When I returned from racing in South Africa in 1991, Mike asked me to join Lola as its F1 Marketing Director. I doubt if that would have been the case had we not built a relationship all those years previously, racing Formula Fords at venues such as Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and Snetterton.
Matthew Argenti is now one of my very best buddies. As with Mike Blanchet, we first met through racing. Matthew was a regular race winner in his McInnes-Amcron sponsored Formula Ford and was just one point away from winning a prestigious championship. He went on to become a senior figure within the global IMG sports marketing agency, working closely with clients such as the Leyton House F1 Team and Sir Jackie Stewart.
Some 20 years after competing together, the Formula Ford network proved itself once again. Mathew became Managing Director of Alan Pascoe’s API sports marketing group and invited me to join the agency as its Head of Motorsport. He had negotiated a deal with the Benetton F1 team appointing API as its worldwide exclusive sponsorship acquisition agency. Having put down a £500,000 “Guarantee of Sponsorship” with Benetton, he was relieved that I quickly found success and secured multi-million pound sponsorship deals with Gillette and then FedEx, the deal which first brought FedEx into F1. Matthew and I enjoyed some great times together working with Benetton F1, despite having to deal with the unique business style of Flavio Briatore. I eventually became the Commercial Director for the Team, reporting directly to Rocco Benetton.
Other high profile motorsport personalities whom I know from my Formula Ford days include Williams F1 Technical Director Pat Symonds. He was then the chief designer for Hawke, one of the more successful Formula Ford constructors. I drove one of their cars for three seasons.
Another young engineer from that Formula Ford era became one of the most successful F1 designers ever. Rory Byrne, then with Formula Ford constructor Royale, went onto become the chief designer for Ferrari F1 and designed many of the cars that helped Schumacher win 7 World Championships. Interestingly, the man who owned Royale when Byrne was there, Alan Cornock, is a good friend, despite my never buying a car from him! He later played a role in helping me establish the Motorsport Industry Association in 1994 and became a Committee Member for many years. Not surprisingly, however, the Formula Ford bug that bit so many of us in those early formative days, stayed with him and today Alan is one of the stalwarts of the category, representing the French constructor, Mygale.
I can’t list all of the people from that 1970’s Formula Ford era who have helped and often influenced me over the years, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include Ralph Firman, the man who built up the most successful Formula Ford business of all, Van Diemen. To spend time with Ralph, as I have been lucky enough to do, listening to him talk about all of the drivers he has helped over the years, including Ayrton Senna, is just magic. He’s yet another person I knew from my early Formula Ford days who in 1994 helped me set up the MIA, playing both a practical and a supportive role, without ever asking for anything in return.
By now, two things should have become apparent to you.
One is that I have always been and still am a great supporter of Formula Ford. I’m delighted that Ford is now investing significant time, money and effort into positioning this famous category of racing as the primary junior category of the sport. One of the biggest problems facing young drivers, seeking sponsorship to develop their early involvement in the sport, is trying to explain to a business executive how the clutter of different motor racing categories is structured. Let’s make just one category THE recognised entry-level. I personally believe it should be Formula Ford.
The second point that should have become apparent as you read this article is that I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been a part of the 1970’s Formula Ford success story. I never cease to be amazed at the number of times I meet people throughout the world of international motorsport who recall those long-gone times with such fondness. Few have forgotten attending the Formula Ford Festivals, originally at Snetterton, then from 1975 at Brands Hatch. Entry lists of up to 200 Formula Ford 1600s give an indication of the success of the category. It was always the climax of the season, fiercely contested, but also very much a social gathering.
It was also the starting point for my comprehensive and valuable book of contacts!