In this battle of the Lotuses, Tiff Needell, former host of Top Gear and Fifth Gear, reacquaints himself with the old Lotus Formula Ford 1600 that started his entire career. Back in the seventies, before karting had become the big entry level racing format, Formula Fords were the way young, aspiring drivers got their foot in the door. These lightweight machines boasted little power, but despite their anemic, 107-horsepower, Ford Cortina engines, they were quick thanks to their low weight. However, they were made of steel and aluminum, and weren’t very stiff or grippy by today’s standards.
Small tires, as is common with all eras of Formula Ford 1600s, meant that mechanical grip was in short supply and drivers had to be incredibly smooth with their inputs to find their quickest laps. This was the category in which drivers learned their basic racecraft, and without wings or big tires, they weren’t affected by much turbulence and could dice wheel-to-wheel. They were also reasonably cheap to run, which is part of the reason they’re still driven these days. So if this category, which launched the careers of too many F1 champions to name, is still relevant today, does that mean it can keep up with modern machinery?
Tiff’s Lotus 69F might be light, but it is antiquated by all other standards. Contrast that to the Lotus Elise S Cup, which boasts a supercharged, 217-horsepower engine and weighs less than 2,000 pounds. With the aero kit from the racing version, the Elise R, this car produces 145 pounds of downforce at 100 mph, and employs sticky tires much wider than the ancient crossplys on the Formula Ford. In terms of numbers, the Elise has the old canoe beat, but critically, the Formula Ford weighs a paltry 925 pounds — about half of the weight of the Elise.
Surprisingly, it’s the Formula Ford that wins out in the end, besting the Elise’s best time by 1.5 seconds! Tiff’s brilliance behind the wheel has something to do with this, but ultimately, it’s a matter of weight trumping grip and power. Ultimately, the 2,050-pound road car is heavier and slightly less focused than the vintage racing car, and despite the power and downforce advantage, light weight allows for more maneuverability.
More interesting than the comparison between these two lightweight beasts is the fact that these sorts of cars could launch the career of an aspiring driver. As Tiff notes, he won this 69F and used it successfully for several seasons. Compare that route to the hoops a modern driver must jump through just to start racing, let alone with any success, and it seems painfully simple. Back then, a driver with a day job, a trailer and a friend to do the wrenching were enough to turn heads and move up the ranks, but nowadays, a fitness coach and a group of degree-holding engineers are needed to win, even at the lowest rungs of the ladder. It’s a pity, especially when the joy of Fifth Gear’s most enthusiastic host is palpable from miles away. Old or new, it’s clear that a bout in an old single-seater like this is an experience any motorhead should add to their bucket list.