Chances are you haven’t heard of Rick Morris. A career Formula Ford racer, Morris might not be a household name. But back in the early 1980s, Morris was the thorn in Ayrton Senna’s side. The year was 1981. Senna, having relocated to the UK from Brazil to chase his F1 dream, was signed up as Van Diemen’s lead factory driver for its Formula Ford 1600 campaign.
By then, Briton Rick Morris had already become a staple of the European Formula Ford scene. What started as a one-off race with Motor Racing Stables had led to Morris buying a £400 Formula Ford in the early 1970s, before he was drafted into the Hawke factory team in 1975. After a brief stint with PRS, Morris was lured over to Royale for the 1980 season to work alongside young gun engineer Pat Symonds – now of Williams fame. Morris was then promoted to full factory status for 1981 – where his primary target was to take it to Van Diemen and their new Brazilian karting guru Ayrton Senna.
“I spent the year battling with Alfonso Toledano and Senna,” recalls Morris. “My car was better on the faster circuits; I won the Thruxton races, I won two of the Silverstone Grand Prix races, and I beat Ayrton both times at Brands.
“We used to call him Harry, because his mechanic Paddy, a legendary Van Diemen mechanic with very long hair, started calling him Harry.
“Ayrton was such a funny bugger. He wouldn’t test in the morning when it was cold. His gloves were always inside out sitting on the radiator.”
According to Morris, racing against Senna was a relentless endeavour. Between the Brazilian’s natural talent, and his commitment to his craft, Senna didn’t let up. And Morris had to learn to play along if he wanted to compete. “Van Diemen had this thing where they could always use the Snetterton circuit at half past five when everyone else had pissed off home, and they had it for half an hour or 45 minutes. So they were going around and around,” explains Morris.
“But that taught me a lot. There was the old Russell Corner; it was a flat-out chicane with kerbs either side. I figured that if the car wasn’t too stiffly sprung, you could go through there flat. It hurt your arse, because the car was bouncing over the kerbs, but it meant I could stay with the Van Diemens. They always left me behind on the hairpin before the bridge, particularly Ayrton with his karting experience. He was great off that corner, but I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t have the traction in the Royale. But I’d get him through Coram, and I’d get him through Russell, then I could stay in the tow onto the straight.”
“It taught me that there is always a way. If you’re determined enough, you’ll find a way.”
While it was Senna who ultimately came out on top in 1981, (Morris: “I was leading that for most of the year, then I had an accident which f####d me up”), the rivalry with the Englishman left a bad taste in the Brazilian’s mouth. What irked Senna most was that Morris wasn’t a professional. He was a family man, well into his 20s, with a day job. Senna, meanwhile, had already dedicated his life to motorsport – and didn’t take kindly to being pushed to the limit by a part-timer.
“When I was dicing with Ayrton, I won the Brands round before the Festival. I had a photo of him being really pissed off. He later signed it for me, and said ‘I really f###ing hated that!’” recalls Morris. “He didn’t feel like anybody should be giving him any grief.”
Once they weren’t racing against each other, however, Morris and Senna’s relationship changed. “We did eventually become friends, but only after the 1981 season had finished and Ayrton had moved on to FF2000.”
“The friendship came through Mauricio Gugelmin. He and I, we were great mates. He was very talented too, but a completely different temperament to Ayrton. Even though we were bashing the hell out of each other, Mauricio and I were mates. He wasn’t the sort of guy that would come over and say ‘you f###ing c###’, he was a nice guy. He was living with Ayrton, they had a house near Virginia Water in the UK. So I spent a lot of time with Ayrton during 1982; he was doing FF2000, and if the races didn’t clash he would come to our 1600 races with Gugelmin.”
“Ayrton was still making his mark then, but people started giving him things. I remember he won a race in a Mercedes somewhere, and was given a 190 2.3 16-valve thing. I still remember he came up to me at Brands when we were racing 1600s, and the joy on his face… ‘Rick, come and look at this. They gave me this. You have to see it’.
“Anyway, I have photos of my son Stevie, who was born in 1981, sitting on Ayrton’s shoulders in the paddock in ’82. Ayrton has a big smile on his face, he liked kids. His wife actually came over with him in ’81, Liliane, but she didn’t like the cold. They divorced soon after. She was a lovely girl, but she was very quiet. And Ayrton wasn’t thinking about his wife, all he thought about was racing. He was very self-centred…” Was it obvious, even at that stage, just how good he would go on to be?
“Yeah, but you had plenty of these kids coming in,” says Morris. “He was obviously the best of the ones there at the time, but I didn’t realise he was going to become the legend that he was.” The best part of four decades after beginning his career, Morris is still racing. He regularly commutes from the UK to South Africa where he races contemporary Formula Ford, and he recently travelled to Australia to race as part of a 50-car historic FF grid at the Phillip Island Classic. But he also acknowledges that the motor racing world has changed. The late 1970s/early 1980s were heady days for junior open-wheeler racing. Categories like Formula Ford didn’t have a control chassis, which meant manufacturers actually had genuine factory teams and employed young drivers. It was an arms race, but it meant genuine opportunities for young talent to develop without always having to bring a huge budget.
“We used to live with the cars,” says Morris. “I spent a lot of time as a works and development driver for Hawke, for PRS, for Reynard, and for Royale… and we were testing a couple of times a week.
“Not that I ever did it full-time; I used to have a job as well, to pay the mortgage. It was a bit different.
“In my days, it was all about talent. You couldn’t buy a better engine, you couldn’t buy a better car. The cars were so simple. The engineering was very basic.
“I started with no money at all; I grew up in a council estate. But the nice thing was, if you made an impact, and you were seen to be potentially good, the manufacturers had the money coming in, the engine builders wanted to lend you engines, so you could make your way.”