x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pole Position: The legacy of Ralph Firman

The history of one man links the Formula Yas 3000 and the Formula Gulf 1000.

Abu Dhabi's investment in the Yas Marina Circuit and international motor racing has created the opportunity to experience driving an F1-like single-seater racing car, the Formula Yas 3000. For more ambitious drivers, Formula Gulf 1000 offers a UAE-based single-seater race series that is the first step on the ladder to international racing. Coincidentally, both of these racing cars have something in common: Ralph Firman.

Firman's involvement in racing can be traced to 1969 when he was a mechanic for double World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. In 1973, Firman created a company and race team called Van Diemen that would become the UK's largest and most successful race car constructor, employing 50 staff and producing more than 3,000 single seater racing cars.

Twenty-nine years later, Firman sold Van Diemen to Don Panoz, an American entrepreneur and founder of the American Le Mans Series.

One of the young drivers who passed through Van Diemen's racing academy commands pride of place on Firman's office wall: Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian moved to England in early 1981 and joined Firman's Van Diemen team; they won two Formula Ford 1600 championships and the next season he won both British and European FF2000 titles.

Astonishingly, Van Diemen graduates would go on to win the Formula One World Championship, the Champ Car title, Le Mans 24 Hour and Indy 500. Other drivers who learnt their trade with Firman include Eddie Irvine, Roberto Moreno, Jonathan Palmer, Mark Webber, Mark Blundell and Gil de Ferran.

So why was it that Firman's cars were so dominant and in such demand? Firman had turned to one of the country's top race car designers, David Baldwin, who as the chief designer at Lotus was responsible for the Lotus 59 and Lotus 69, which was the inspiration for Firman's first successful car, the Van Diemen FA73, which won the Formula Ford Festival in 1973.

Perhaps Firman's most successful car was the RF90, which became known as the "Stealth Bomber" after it ushered in a new generation of FF1600 cars and won more championships globally than any other.

There were also a number of one-make or "spec racers" built by Van Diemen including Formula First, the SCCA Spec Racer 2004 and the Star Mazda. The most well known was the "Formula Palmer Audi", commissioned by Jonathan Palmer. Fitted with an Audi engine, these cars were raced in the UK for many years. You can drive these fantastic race cars, now known as the Formula Yas 3000, at the Yas Marina Circuit powered by a 3L Jaguar engine.

A few years after selling Van Diemen, Firman and Baldwin got bored with retirement and started RFR Cars. They designed and developed the acclaimed RFR F1000 specifically to win races in the F1000 series in the US and this is also the car we will race here in Formula Gulf 1000. I found this to be quite an interesting coincidence, but when you look at Firman's history, perhaps it should not have been such a surprise.

Barry Hope is a director of GulfSport Racing, which is hoping to produce the first Arab F1 driver through the FG1000 race series. Join the UAE racing community online at www.singleseaterblog.com