Steve Deeks is making his Formula Ford return in 2022, returning to the series where his career began. He talks to Vintage Formula Ford about endings, beginnings and why Formula Ford is still relevant today.
2022 is going to be Steve Deeks’s last season in a single-seater. After calling time on a nine-year professional career some time ago, the Stratford-based presenter and driver coach was bitten by the bug again at the 2018 Walter Hayes Trophy, when he borrowed Richard Tarling’s Van Diemen RF80.
“It was that that reminded me, how much I loved the formula which I left behind in 1989,” is how Deeks summed it up.
At that time, he did not intend to stay in Formula Ford any longer than he needed to. It was a step on the single-seater ladder that he hoped, like his rivals, would lead to a Formula One race seat.
“Obviously I was conscious that Senna had done it, and Mansell had done it., James Hunt…everybody, I mean everybody did Formula Ford when I started out. It was a big deal.
“I did six races in ’85, because that’s all the money I had. I owned my own car. It was a Hawke DL11. And I did another six races in ’86. So I can tell you, when I started out, Formula Ford was taken really seriously.”
Even taking the first steps as a racing driver had to be taken very seriously. Deeks did not have a childhood spent karting and learning the ropes. He and his brother grew up in care, being moved between different foster homes around Europe and being more concerned about “staying out of childrens’ homes and having enough to eat” than lap times.
Still, he carried a dream of being a professional racing driver and set about earning enough money to do so, as soon as he was old enough. He became a hotel chain’s youngest manager.
“I got a bonus for running this hotel which was doing really well financially, and I spent all my bonus on buying an old Hawke DL11.
“I got a group of the staff who were friends, chefs and waiters at the hotel. We ran that first racing car from the garage at the back of the hotel. We hadn’t got a fucking clue what we were doing. Literally, my mechanics were commis chefs and kitchen porters. As a manager I would do the rotas, so I would rota the staff’s days off, even if it wasn’t good for the hotel, so they could come to test days and races with me.”
Deeks is always quick to credit those who have supported him. The motley crew of hotel workers were not his only allies during this period of his career. Former BTCC racer Mike Jordan was also a big help during the early days. Having seen Deeks set the fastest-ever pupil lap at the Mallory Park racing school, he offered him a job instructing at the track.
“Basically, my pay when I worked for Mike was every day, he’d give me ten laps. I would be strapped in and do ten laps in one of the school Formula Fords. I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world. Through my own wit and cunning, I managed to broker that deal. I got no money, but I got what I wanted.”
Initially, he raced in Pre-’74 Formula Ford and ran as high as third at the Pre-’74 Formula Ford Festival. His big break in a modern car came when he swapped a Formula First car he had bought for five races with a professional team in the Top Gear Winter Formula First championship, held at Brands Hatch. He was second in his first race and was talent-spotted by the Performance Engineering Services team for the junior Formula Ford championship in 1989. This ended with the 1989 Festival, where he was shunted off the track in a tangle with Adrian Fernandez, while driving the BBC Grandstand camera car.
Indycar racer and ALMS champion Fernandez is only one of the names that Deeks has raced against. Warren Hughes, Kelvin Burt and David Coulthard were regulars on the Formula Ford grid at the time. All of them, were “ferociously career-minded” and keen to move on to the next stage.
Racing becomes more expensive as a driver progresses and Deeks has always been always been good at gaining sponsors and forming partnerships, through necessity to begin with. Usually this was beneficial, although his strong loyal streak meant that he did not always jump teams when he could have done and was not always in the best cars.
Fast forward to now. The answer to the question “why Formula Ford again?” is simple.
“When I did the Hayes in Tarling’s car, I absolutely fucking loved it.”
This, however, was not his original plan. About five years ago, he was approached by someone to run in HSCC ’70s Roadsports, driving a Porsche 911, once the car was finished. As is the way with so many classic car projects, the Porsche is still not quite ready.
“It owes me an absolute fortune,” he says of the Porsche, which he has still not raced.
Hard times hit again in 2020 with Covid-19 and lockdowns, and in a roundabout way, this pushed him back towards Formula Ford. Faced with the closure of his business and a complete lack of work, Deeks had to downsize and find some alternative income. This came via Tarling, whose father offered him some labouring work, which kept him going through the first lockdown. He remains incredibly grateful to the Tarling family for this.
The coronavirus crisis hit him hard, but Deeks is more used to adversity than many and managed to create opportunities. Their friendship led to a greater co-operation with Linton Stutely’s Enigma team, which runs Tarling’s cars.
“Over the course of the last year, Tarling became one of my very best friends. Stutely the same. Being involved in Enigma – I coach pupils, I coach drivers, then I take them to Enigma. Keeping it in the family, effectively.”
The partnership’s first success has been Joe Ahrens, who was coached by Deeks in a Mazda MX5, bought with Enigma, and had a strong debut year in Tarling’s Van Diemen RF80 in Classic Formula Ford.
Lockdown also triggered some reflection for Deeks, who had to sell off his detached home, motorcycle and sports car to stay afloat; almost everything apart from his famous Bengal cat. It stirred his old determination not to let circumstances set him back.
“I vowed never to waste a single second. I lost a year and a half of my life. Financially it wiped me out. So I thought, this is it. One last roll of the dice.”
Formula Ford was the obvious choice. He rates his 1989 Van Diemen as the best car he has ever driven, and Tarling and Stutely have a wealth of experience in working with the cars. Inicdentally, the RF89 has admirers further afield: it was shipped to Australia where it still runs in historics there, with a replica livery from 1989 including sponsor logos from companies that no longer exist, a tribute described by Deeks as “awesome”.
There is a sense of ending by returning to the beginning and completing a circle, but it isn’t just nostalgia driving this. Despite nominally leaving the category behind in 1989, he is still a great supporter of Formula Ford as a training ground for aspiring drivers. Other junior series have come and gone, but it endures and he believes it still has a lot to offer.
“When my pupils ask me what I should race, I tell them, if you are in it because you want to be a racer, forget about posing, or driving round looking cool, or being an Instagram bunny, if you’re in it because you want to race, I mean really want to race, there’s only one formula to do. And it’s the same today as it was in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and it’s Formula Ford 1600.
“You will have the closest racing that you will ever have in any car race formula. There’s nothing better.”
The close nature of the racing is not the only thing to recommend it.
“It’s like that children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are”. When you’ve seen an intense Formula Ford heat for the Hayes, for example, it just makes other racing look pretty timid. Formula Ford has an extra dimension. You have to have your wits about you. You have to be hungry, you have to be brutal and you have to have fantastic racecraft. And you can’t use your car as a battering ram really, as you won’t get away with it. You’re not going to finish.”
From young drivers to not-so-young drivers: with several of his old rivals out on track, including Kelvin Burt, Warren Hughes and Chris Goodwin, racing in 2022 will be recreational for Deeks.
“Back in the day, if I wasn’t absolutely on the money, I’d be sulking the big one,” he admits. “I was only interested in being on pole, or fastest lap or whatever. Anything else was absolute ruin. This time around, I’m still hungry for success and still competitive, and still want to be as good as I can be, but this time I’m going to concentrate on enjoying it, rather than beating myself up if I’m not on pole.
“To a degree, I took it too much for granted, that it was my divine right to be in a racing car. Whereas now all these years later, I know it’s just a blessing.
“At my age, to be back in a racing car? Fuck it, that’s cool enough.”
He will be racing a Crossle 25F in HSCC Classic Formula Ford in 2022. The car, which made him “grin like a Cheshire cat”, was raced by Richard Morgan in period and was highly successful, with more than thirty wins in the 1974 season.
As of now, Deeks is unsure how many races he will enter, although he plans to include the Formula Ford Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy in his programme.
(Images copyright Steve Deeks)