Formula 5000 was first created in the United States, where it evolved from a category known as Formula A, which appeared in 1965 and was designed for 3-litre racing engines (as was to be the case in F1 the following year). In this form, the category stumbled along until 1968, when the Sports Car Club of America decided to open up the class to stock block engines up to five litres.
This started the boom, with serious manufacturers such as Eagle, McLaren, Chevron, and perhaps the most successful of all – Lola – building cars; with drivers such as Mario Andretti, the Unsers Al and Bobby, Brian Redman, and Sam Posey competing.
The concept spread rapidly to the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The first British F5000 Championship (1969) was won by Peter Gethin. Australia’s own Frank Gardner won in 1971, driving Lola T192 and T300 cars.
Following a transitional year (1970) the Tasman Series (four races on each side of the Tasman) switched solely to F5000 in 1971. It ran for five years, won by the legendary Kiwi Graham McRae (McLaren M10B and McRae GM1) the first three times, then Peter Gethin (Chevron B24) and finally Aussie Warwick Brown (Lola T332), before it ended.
However, the four races in each country also counted as national championships, and these continued on separately, the Australian Gold Star championship awarded via F5000 until 1981. In New Zealand, their Gold Star utilized F5000 until 1976.
This was the golden era for Formula 5000 in Australasia, with massive crowds following the Tasman/Rothmans Series championships. Names such as Brown, Gardner, Kevin Bartlett, Frank Matich, Max Stewart, John McCormack, John Leffler, Johnnie Walker and latterly Alfie Costanzo from Australia battled with Kiwis McRae, David Oxton (three-times NZ champion), Graham Lawrence and Kenny Smith and visiting internationals in races people still talk about.
It was fast, noisy … and dangerous. The aluminium-tubbed cars of the 70s combined with circuits without modern safety standards took their toll. Stewart died in a crash at Calder. Many took leg and ankle injuries into retirement.
Then, as quickly as it had boomed, thanks mainly to spiraling costs, F5000 faded, replaced in this part of the world by the (supposedly) cheaper Formula Atlantic/Pacific. In the US it was effectively absorbed (with sportscar bodywork) into the Can Am sports car series. In the rest of the world, the cars disappeared, into sheds, stores, garages … and the F5000 era was over.
As the new century ticked over, enthusiasts – especially in New Zealand – began to find cars, restore them and run in various club events and historic outings. As time went by, the numbers grew, and ultimately, the NZ Formula 5000 Association was formed in 2002 to co-ordinate events and grow the category in its historic form. That it has been a success is an understatement.
Today, over 50 cars make an appearance in one or more rounds of NZ’s annual MSC Championship series each year, which includes rounds in Australia – most noticeably appearances in 2009-11 as a supporting event to the Australian F1 Grand Prix. In Australia, numbers are growing. The category has had strong support from the Victorian Historic Racing Register (VHRR), and the Historic Sports and Racing Car Association (HSRCA) over the years, headlining major events at Phillip Island and Eastern Creek respectively … and in 2011, Formula 5000 Australia was formed to work with its Kiwi counterpart to continue that growth.
Images courtesy ‘F5000 Thunder’