Abu Dhabi’s investment in the Yas Marina Circuit and Formula One created the opportunity for the public to experience driving an F1-like single seater racing car, the Formula Yas 3000. For more ambitious drivers, Formula Gulf offers a competition driving school 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.
Ralph’s involvement in motor racing can be traced back to 1969 when he was a mechanic for double World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. In 1973 Ralph created a small company and race team called Van Diemen which would go on to become the UK’s largest and most successful racecar constructor, employing 50 staff and producing more than 3,000 single seater racing cars.
Twenty nine years later, having grown the business from a cottage industry to a world-wide leader, Ralph sold Van Diemen to American entrepreneur and founder of the American Le Man Series Don Panoz.
One of the young drivers who passed through Van Diemen’s racing academy commands pride of place on Ralph’s office wall – Ayrton Senna. He moved to England in early 1981 and joined Ralph’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.
You may also recognise some of the other young drivers who learnt their trade with Ralph:
* Eddie Irvine, who won the FF1600 title and Formula Ford Festival in 1987,
* Roberto Moreno, who won the BRSCC FF1600 and the Festival in 1980,
* Jonathan Palmer, who won FF1600 in 1979 and 1980,
* Mark Webber, who won the 1996 Festival,
* Mark Blundell, who won the BRDC FF1600 title in 1985
* Gil de Ferran, who won FF1600 in both 1988 and 1989.
So why was it that Ralph’s cars were so dominant and in such demand. Ralph had turned to one of the country’s top racecar designers, David Baldwin, who as Chief Designer at Lotus was responsible for the famous Lotus 59 and the Lotus 69 that was the inspiration for Ralph’s first successful car, the Van Diemen FA73 which won the Formula Ford Festival in 1973.
The FA73 was the first of a long line of cars that either dominated Formula Ford or became the basis of one-make championships around the world. Perhaps Ralph’s most successful car was the RF90 which became known as the ‘Stealth Bomber’ as it ushered in a new generation of FF1600 cars and won more championships around the world 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 know was the ‘Formula Palmer Audi’ which was commissioned by Dr Jonathan Palmer, who had been a Van Diemen racer. 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 F3000, at the Yas Marina Circuit powered by a 3 litre Jaguar engine.
A few years after selling Van Diemen, Ralph and David Baldwin got bored with retirement and so started up in business again under the name, RFR Cars. Given their 40+ years of experience of designing and constructing race winning cars, it is perhaps no surprise to find that their latest chassis the RFR F1000 (used by BRDC F4, Formula Gulf and US Formula 1000) have been so successful.