- Daring Formula SA had great potential, surprising outcomes
A Franschhoek Motor Museum Initiative
South African motorsport was going through something of a hiatus in the late 1970s. Local carmakers were developing machinery for a most expensive, exclusive, and highly modified saloon car formula. The South African Manufacturers Challenge was expected to take over as the country’s foremost racing championship.
Racing’s powers that be however, still insisted that a top single seater category was necessary as a major attraction of any motor race meeting. “Single seater racing has a charisma different to that of the saloon cars,” influential Sports Car Club chairman Mike Reid explained in a 1978 newsletter. “Single seaters attract the best drivers and are more difficult to drive.”
SA once had its own Formula 1 championship
South Africa had of course run Formula 1 as its premier category from 1960 through to ‘75. Formula 5000 and Formula 2 were included alongside SA F1 in its latter years, to attract less financed competitors and privateers to the fold. So, there were usually only three or four Formula 1 cars in every race, each car heavily funded by major sponsorships. The racing had become dull, but the cars were fast. And very expensive.
After much criticism, it was decided to reinvent the premier South African single seater class and adopt new Formula Atlantic rules. Powered by identical 1,600cc Ford BDA racing engines, Atlantic had quickly evolved into a top international class and was already racing in the USA Canada, the UK and Ireland, and Australia. South Africa joined New Zealand, Japan, and Southeast Asia in adopting Formula Atlantic as its premier category in 1976.
SA racing authorities expected that Formula Atlantic would attract fields of between 15 and 20 equally matched cars to the new series. The concept was that anybody could acquire the same production built racing equipment and race it on an even playing field.
BIG SPONSORS just kept on spending
Unfortunately, all that transpired, was that the major sponsors spread their SA F1 sponsorships over a few more cars in Formula Atlantic. They set such high standards that privateers stood little chance and soon shied away. So, by late 1978, it was back to rather dull, expensive, and exclusive Formula Atlantic racing.
Not even the quickest future grand prix stars the likes of Gilles Villeneuve and Rupert Keegan could make an impression on the top local teams and drivers when they came to race in SA. It was also clear that the local teams had developed their Formula Atlantic cars far more successfully than anywhere else in the world.
The press was however, once again critical of the premier formula, complaining that the racing was boring, fields were too small and that nobody could compete with Ian Scheckter.
Another new SA racing dawn for 1979
With all of that in mind, South Africa’s leading Formula Atlantic sponsors, teams and drivers proposed radical changes for the 1979 season. Aimed at reducing both the considerable cost and expertise required to buy and maintain complicated Ford BDA engines, the idea was to once again encourage larger fields to compete.
From June 1979 the BDA would no longer be eligible to score points. They were to be replaced by an all-new engine formula. Three different types of South African manufactured engines would be permitted. 3-litres with pushrod valvetrains; single or twin overhead camshaft 2-litres with two valves per cylinder, and 1.2-litre rotary engines.
The new rules were meant to keep costs down. Engine modifications like those in the successful Modified Saloon Car series were allowed and up to four carburettor chokes could be fitted. It was anticipated that the new engines would produce around 220 horsepower, or slightly more than a BDA could muster. Hopes were also high that the heavier, torquier engines would make for more spectacular, sideways racing in the corners.
And so, Formula South Africa was born
Other changes saw the championship season revert to fit into a calendar year after a few seasons of running from the second half of the year into the first half of the next. The new series was to be known as ‘South African Championship Cars’, which was to “replace the ‘rather horrible Formula Atlantic name!” It did not take too long for the press to christen it Formula South Africa. Or Formula SA, as it soon became universally known.
Local carmakers Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Sigma all expressed interest, quickly offering financial support to Formula SA competitors interested in racing their engines. Young gun Bernard Tilanus was reported to be working on a Mazda rotary engine out of the RX2, while Ian Scheckter and Roy Klomfass’ teams were said to be developing the Ford Cortina’s Essex 3 litre V6 in time for June. Bobby Scott’s team remained uncertain, but manager Andrew Thompson was looking to develop both a Ford V6, and a Mazda rotary and compare them.
Tony Martin was linked to an Audi engine, while Dave Hart, Clive Cooke and Mike Domingo were considering BMW units for their March chassis. Formula SA had also attracted Clive Scott and Len Booysen’s attention, and possibly even multiple SA champion Dave Charlton to return to the championship. Pending sponsorship, Charlton was linked to a Sigma-backed March with a Mazda Type 12 rotary prepared by UK specialists Racing Services.
The Formula SA picture comes into focus
Most established teams would however stick with their existing BDA engines for the beginning of the ’79 season, while they plotted their second half attacks. But Nols Nieman sat on the sidelines as Formula SA approached, after Texan Cigarettes ended its sponsorship.
As the dreaded June deadline approached, the Formula South Africa puzzle started to fall into place. Andrew Thompson had fitted a Ford Essex V6 to Bobby Scott’s much updated three-year old Kronenbräu March 772. It was reliable but needed development to become competitive. Thompson was confident of eking 240 HP out of the hefty V6, with plenty torque for good acceleration out of corners.
Bernard Tilanus had meanwhile jumped the gun. He was quick to get his ex Nols Nieman Wheatcroft B18 to lap considerably quicker than it ever had before. His DAW team had also proven his self-developed Mazda rotary to be quicker than the outgoing BDA. But he was struggling with reliability. Being the first driver to use a South African engine, he was however at an advantage. Tilanus had ample time to develop the combination.
First Formula SA race failed to deliver
The first official Formula South Africa race in Welkom proved a bit of a disappointment. Ian Scheckter, Trevor van Rooyen, Tony Martin, Evan Boddy and Dave Hart all arrived in Welkom with BDA power. They promised they were preparing their new engines. Scheckter strutted to a pointless win ahead of van Rooyen. Leaving third on the road Bobby Scott to take the winner’s 9 points. Dave Hart running a 2 litre BMW in his March 782 picked up 6 points for ‘second’. Unlucky Tilanus’ Wheatcroft Mazda retired, but not before he’d made a great impression.
So, the Formula South Africa focus switched to Kyalami, with the South African racing community agog for the first real race of the country’s new premier series. Details were starting to emerge on the new cars from all fronts. The biggest surprise came from Ian Scheckter, who had after all fitted a Fiat engine to his Lexington March 79A as part of a new tie-up with the Italian carmaker’s local office.
Ian had originally planned to use a Ford V6, but that engine proved too broad to fit into his Formula 2-based wing car. The Fiat engine was a modified version of the unit fitted to the 2000 Racing with belt-driven twin overhead camshafts. Locally developed by tuning genius Roger Taylor, it was a surprising choice. “I think the Fiat should be the best engine,” Ian explained. “But I could be wrong, it’s certainly going to be interesting!”
Scheckter went with Fiat, van Rooyen BMW
Trevor van Rooyen’s non-wing car Team Gunston March 79B was fitted with a 2-Litre two-valve BMW 4 cylinder. Team guru Eddie Pinto had called on BMW Motorsport in Germany and opted to use a highly modified 2 litre unit. Based on the new BMW 520 engine, it was reputed to be an expensive choice. But reliable ‘to the point being almost unbreakable’. The BMW was also said to be torquey and powerful.
There were conflicting reports around Tony Martin in the build-up to Kyalami. His original Audi idea was followed by a Ford 2-litre notion. Excitement however grew as the big day drew near. It became apparent that the South Coast team was putting the finishing touches to a revolutionary new race car. Based on Tony’s Chevron B45 chassis, the Ken Gillibrand developed Lucky Strike BP Martin wing car (top image and below) was powered by a Ford V6 after all.
Designed to dispense with aerofoils altogether, the Martin team opted to fit wings for the first race. The wizard Gillibrand pointed out that very little of the original Chevron remained. He went so far as to invert the rear uprights as he pursued latest Formula 1 trends of creating downforce by ducting airflow underneath the car. To create a vacuum and pull the car downward for optimum traction.
Tony MarTin’s revolutionary wing car
Interestingly, unlike the Kronenbräu team’s four induction trumpets in a line atop an inlet manifold plastered with duct tape to prevent anyone copying its design, the Martin’s Ford V6 had its two twin-choke Weber IDAs placed side-by side. All of which led to much positive comment in the local press, praising Formula SA for its speed of development and expertise. It made the new formula most diverse and interesting on the technical front, too.
Perhaps surprisingly, no-one had opted for Alfa Romeo’s 2-litre twin-cam engine. Many believed that all-aluminium engine to be perfect for privateer teams. Especially considering that it had once proven a mainstay to several teams in early-1960s South African Formula 1 in its smaller 1,500cc incarnation.
The new rules had however already attracted a few Formula SA newcomers. Steve Herbst’s March 77B and Dave Hart’s March 782 joined fellow BDA runners, Evan Boddy’s South Coast Motors Chevron B34, Abel d’Oliviera’s Chevron B29 and Mike Domingo in his March 76B on the entry list. Several other drivers were said to be preparing cars, but they would not be ready in time for the first race.
Excitement in Kyalami Formula SA build-up
The new cars were reported to be beautifully turned out. “Their South African made engines fitted to their chassis as neatly as if they had been designed especially for the job.” The local press carried regular stories in the build-up. In the week leading up to that vital Kyalami race, Ian Scheckter was reported to be very happy with the performance of his albeit brittle Fiat engine. Ian had lapped Kyalami in 1 minute 24.8 seconds versus Bobby Scott’s 1m25,8 in testing, before Scheckter’s Fiat suffered a valve failure.
“That should be the quickest time of the day,” Ian was heard to say. Scott however went out again and lopped a full 2 seconds off Scheckter’s mark. Before Kronenbraü team manager Thompson pulled him in. Despite a brief outburst, Scheckter, Roger Taylor and the team were soon flat out at work in search of more power from the Fiat mill. Ian even missed official practice. Come race day morning, Scheckter managed a lap almost as quick as pole man Scott, setting up a most interesting first race.
Ian settled into fourth behind Scott, van Rooyen and Martin. But turning into Sunset Lap 3, Scheckter slowed and parked at Clubhouse. His Fiat engine had dropped another valve. Even though it was also no secret that none of its highly modified reciprocating parts were anything close to Fiat originals.
Bobby Scott’s Ford V6 won the first race
So, Scott led van Rooyen, Martin and Tilanus. Nobody would stop Bobby up front, but Tilanus was soon past Martin struggling with his high downforce handling. Bernie set off after van Rooyen and duly went ahead late in the race. But Trevor pulled a last lap out-brake to wrest second back on the final tour. Behind them, Bonzo was clearly coming to grips with the BP Martin. He turned in a record 175.7 km/h 1 min 24.1 lap as he sped to the finish.
So, the first race for new Formula SA cars saw three completely different engine types on the Kyalami podium. Scott’s Kronenbräu March 722 had a three-litre Ford V6, van Rooyen’s Gunston March 79B a 2-litre BMW 4-cylinder and Tilanus’ DAW Wheatcroft was powered by a 1,200 cc Mazda rotary.
Was Formula SA a success? Was its promise fulfilled? “The new Formula needs time for sorting out and settling down,” great Citizen scribe Evert van Niekerk jotted. “Potential backers must realise that worthwhile returns can be garnered without laying out six-figure budgets. “There is enough driving talent available to see a dozen or more competitive chassis give our premier formula the boost it so badly needs.”
Formula SA’s future remained unclear
There were other concerns. “On the face of Saturday’s showing two-litre engines do not look to have been the right choice. “But that could be an over-simplification,” legendary Star Motoring editor Leicester Symons quipped. “There have been suggestions that the rules should be changed to equalise the power outputs of all engines. “I feel that this would be a mistake, when the new formula has hardly started reducing costs.”
Another school of thought suggested that one engine would always emerge from Formula SA’s battle of the survival of the fittest.
Still, feathers were flying before the dust had even settled on Kyalami’s first Formula SA race. News soon broke that, spawned by his Fiat failure, Ian Scheckter had laid claim to the Racing Services Type 12A rotary originally destined for the Dave Charlton project. That did not go down too well!
Dissention in the ranks
“We are trying to cut costs and encourage new blood to come into the sport,” Tony Martin complained. “Cost doesn’t seem to matter Ian. “Bringing in overseas engines is defeating the object of the exercise.” Motorsport Control then announced that South Africa would join the world trend to ban wing cars in all classes except for Formula 1. That immediately ended development on the BP Martin and had Scheckter searching for a new chassis.
By the next race in Welkom, Scheckter had duly fitted his March with the Racing Services Mazda rotary. Bobby Scott’s March Ford V6 led the early stages. But Scheckter was soon past him and went on to dominate on his way to a maiden Mazda rotary victory. Tony Martin’s older Chevron B34 Ford V6 came in second from Tilanus’ Wheatcroft Mazda after Scott stopped. Trevor van Rooyen had gone the Ford V6 route, but he did not start the race.
Scheckter then won at Roy Hesketh in Pietermaritzburg and again in Welkom. he went on unbeaten at Kyalami and at Killarney in Cape Town as he romped on to his fifth consecutive South African driver’s championship. And just a few races after the first multi-engined Formula SA race, it was already clear which engine would survive…
BIG sponsors dropped Formula SA
It seemed a blow when Lexington, Gunston and Kronenbräu all withdrew from Formula SA at the end of ‘79. Scheckter went off to concentrate on BMW’s controversial 535 low rider Manufacturers Challenge effort with Ken Howes. Van Rooyen was left on the sidelines. The tobacco exodus however proved far from fatal. All it really did, was to finally level the playing field and attract a strong new field of privateers.
The theory of the survival of the fittest South African engine also soon rang true. Of the record 16 cars on the grid for the season opening 1980 Kyalami Highveld 100, fifteen were Mazda rotary powered. Only Derek Ziman continued with a Ford V6 in the ex-Scott March 772. Tony Martin’s Chevron went on to beat Tilanus and Tommy Dunn’s Marches to that second and final 1980 Formula SA title.
Against many expectations, South African single sear racing had shrugged off the notions of a necessary multi-engine formula, big sponsor money and super teams. It went on to enjoy something of a purple patch into the early 1980s. The Mazda rotary became the only engine allowed when Sigma came to the party to back the 1981 SA Formula 2 Championship. Tilanus fought Martin, Graham Duxbury, and Roy Klomfass off to take that year’s title. And Duxbury took the ’82 championship as Trevor van Rooyen returned.
ONLY Formula SA’s fittest engine survived
Ian Scheckter was back with Gunston backing and Ken Howes running his team for 1983. Ian promptly won the ’83 and ’84 titles, before retiring again. That left van Rooyen to take the ’85 title before Wayne Taylor clinched the 1986 championship. Sadly, South Africa’s incredible premier single seater class was fading and soon disappeared. Standard, Touring and Modified Saloon Cars stole the local racing limelight as an incredible 26-year single seater era came to a close.
To call the Formula South Africa era a fiasco would be unfair. True, it never lived up to its multi-manufacturer promise. But looked at from the angle that the era’s fittest engine would survive, then it was indeed an unqualified success. That fittest engine, the Mazda rotary would go on to be developed to produce more than 270 horsepower. The rotary also saw premier class South African single seater racing through its most prolific era.
However, one can only ponder how good it could have been, had race officials better controlled the equivalency of the different Formula SA engine formats. Or even chosen a more universal 2-litre 4-cylinder only solution. For the excitement in those few months leading up to those first Formula SA races was clearly more palpable than it had been for many a year. Maybe there’s something in that, for another future South African racing generation? Now wouldn’t that be a treat!
This Auto Classic Feature is a Franschhoek Motor Museum Initiative
The Franschhoek Motor Museum has a regular display of significant cars, articles, and memorabilia on display including several out of South Africa’s significant Formula 1, Formula Atlantic and indeed the Formula South Africa eras. Visit www.fmm.co.za to learn more and plan your next visit.
Auto thanks the Motorsport Legends Benevolent Fund and the extensive Franschhoek Motor Museum Archive for the opportunity to comprehensively research this feature.