Andre de Kock
"I put my life into motorsport, and can not change, even when the game throws curve balls at me".
Most young South African motorsport enthusiasts will know Gary Formato as the founder of the Global Touring Car category – and with good reason. GTC has been the country’s premier circuit racing category since 2016, when Formato launched it, and it will remain as the most credible top driver yardstick this season.
What many youngters do not know is that Formato was one hell of a race car driver in his time. His exploits incorporate single-seater cars here and overseas, World Championship sports cars, WesBank V8 Saloon cars, plus rear-wheel drive and front-wheel driver Production Cars.
It started in 1994 when Formato tackled Class B of the Formula GTi title chase with a very second-hand Swift. “I tried karting before that, but I was too tall and always battled to meet the minimum mass requirements. It did teach me a lot about racecraft though, and switching to single seaters on long circuits seemed natural,” Formato says.
Formato started his long circuit career in 1994, finishing second in that year’s Formul GTi title chase with this Swift. Picture: Tony Alves
He finished second in the title chase, but something more important happened in November of that year. “There was an international Formula 3000 race at Kyalami, won by Jan Lammers, and I won the supporting Formula GTi races on the day. At the end of the day Yvonne Pinto, who ran the Durango team, offered me a drive in the European F3000 series, in exchange for some money.”
Mick Formato, Gary’s father, decided to throw him in at the deep end, and he contested eight 1995 European races with the team’s Reynard 95D Cosworth. “We ran out of money by the end of the year, and I also realised that we had tackled too much, too soon. However, the experience made me feel comfortable in high-powered, rear-wheel drive cars, so I tackled the 1996 WesBank V8 series in a Ford Telstar. The car was terrible, broke down a lot, and we resolved to do better the next season, ” Gary says.
Nineteen-ninety-seven saw Formato rebound in a STP-sponsored Ford Mustang, and he become a front-runner. The final race meeting of the year saw him beating Ben Morgenrood, then the undisputed maestro of the series, in a straight race. The following year was Formato’s year – he won almost all of the season’s races and clinched the WesBank V8 title with two race meetings in hand. At the end of the year he shared a Riley & Scott Ford with Phillipe Gache, to win the international sports car race at Kyalami.
In 1998 Formato dominated the WesBank V8 Saloon Car championship in this STP Ford Mustang. Picture: Tony Alves
The Mustang ran in Penzoil colours the next season and Formato again clinched the WesBank V8 title well before the end of the season. He also took part in various World Sports Car races with Gache in the Riley & Scott, including the Le Mans 24-Hour event. “We did not finish, but I got to experience the magic that is Le Mans, and decided to take the sports car racing seriously.”
The year 2000 saw Formato racing a Riley & Scott Judd V8 in the World Sports Car championship, winning the Monza 1000 with Mauro Baldi. In November he won the Kyalami International with a Kremer Lola B98 Ford, alongside German sports car veteran Ralph Kelleners. In 2001 Formato drove for the Panoz team at Le Mans and had talks with them about a seat in 2002.
“Then the 9/11 attacks came. The world’s economy took a dive and the Panoz team went all-American patriotic, informing me they would only employ American drivers the next year. I came home, could not find an international drive for 2002 and sat out the season.” Formato returned to the WesBank V8 championship in 2003 and 2004, struggling to make a Jaguar XKR handle.
In 2000 Formato shared this Kremer Lola B89 Ford V8 with Ralf Kelleners, winning the international sports car race at Kyalami. Picture: Tony Alves
“In 2004 we rebodied the car as a Mustang and developed it with the help of Australian tuning ace Bruce Harre – we won some races and found the development experience very rewarding.” Formato switched to Production Car racing in 2005, driving a Sasol Nissan 350Z to second place in the championship.
“The next year they gave me a terrible car that simply would not handle. I left the team at the end of the season, reasoning I would rather not compete than having to fight against the people in my own team to get competitive equipment.
“At the time Ford dealer Shaun Duminy approached me to help him build and run Focus ST models in Class T of the championship. It was great – we stayed with the project until 2015, when Production Car racing took a dive, and I figured South Africa needed a new premier racing class,” Gary says.
Formato drove a works Sasol Nissan 350Z in the South African Production Car championship during 2005 and 2006. Picture: Tony Alves
Over the next year Formato spent a lot of time in Australia, studying their V8-engined Global Touring Car series. “That was what we proposed here – rear-wheel drive cars with identical chassis and V8 engines, but the manufacturers decided against it, since none of them sell V8 engined cars here.
“They insisted we run turbocharged two-litre vehicles, which we have been doing with success since. Sadly, the series lost its name sponsor two years ago, but Volkswagen and Toyota should fight for the Manufacturers’ title this season, with a new, affordable SupaPolo class also bringing 11 competitors into the category,” he adds.
He does miss racing himself, but has found other ways to stay in the sport. Starting in 2001, Formato hosted South Africa’s Formula One television show for 18 years. “Great fun, but it could not last for ever. I put my life into motorsport, and can not change, even when the game throws curve balls at me. I have to keep planning – the next thing we need here are longer races, where drivers get more seat time for their money.
Formato’s first front-wheel drive race car was the Ford Focus ST, that he and Ford team-mate Shaun Duminy developed and raced between 2006 and 2015. Picture: Tony Alves
“It is already working in the South African Endurance series, where privateers get to share the running costs of a car between two or three drivers. That represents value for money, and is something we have to look at carefully for the future'” Formato concludes.
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