'FORMULA FORD,' says Dave, 'is just like big-time motor racing. Real cars, proper engines, real drivers, completely dodgy finances.' Dave, 35, and wise in the ways of single-seater racing, has been on the fringes of Formula Ford for some years now - a form of racing in which young drivers get their first taste of real competition and where men in their thirties and forties come to rest after the adventures of their youth.

We are in the 'paddock' at Brands Hatch, a secure car-park for the competitors' cars some way from the racetrack. Dave looks over to where a grey-haired man in overalls is attacking the suspension of a racing car with a mallet. 'He used to be very big,' says Dave, 'back in the Seventies. Before the drink.'

Formula Ford is unique in the world of motor racing. Unlike most other kinds of competition, it is open to the amateur and to the relatively impecunious; but it is also sufficiently dynamic for the championship to count in the world of motor sport.

The cars, although puny in comparison with Grand Prix machines, none the less look a bit like them; enough to fire the blood. And it attracts hundreds of men like Dave. 'Mansell started in Formula Ford racing,' he continues. 'James Hunt, Ayrton Senna. Course, Senna had money.'

It so often comes back to money. Once intended as a cheap and accessible way into single- seater racing, Formula Ford has become bogged down in money over the 25 years it has been in existence (it celebrates its Silver Jubilee this year). Even though the cars are at present required to use obsolete Ford engines and primitive tube-steel chassis in order to keep them cheap, trends in suspension and aerodynamics have pushed the prices higher.

It now costs about pounds 80,000 to run a good Formula Ford team for one season. This will buy you a transporter, two or three full-time mechanics, tyres, fuel and a couple of cars costing pounds 10,000 apiece; leaving enough money for spares and the inevitable and costly accident repairs. 'He was a great driver,' Dave remarks of a friend. 'Last time he drove for us at Thruxton, he totalled the car and we took it home in two small cardboard boxes instead of the trailer.'

Sponsors do exist to defray some of the costs: the top teams bear the logos of Duckham's oil and Marlboro cigarettes. Others have to make do with whatever backing they can get - Metro Breakers, Bristol Discount Cars, and something called 'Home Panda'. The prize money, meanwhile ranges from pounds 250 for a winner down to a humbling pounds 35 for 10th place.

The drivers, at least, are cheap. Unlike Mansell and Senna, who earn millions of dollars every year, the drivers are either hobbyists who work during the week and race at weekends, or very young men who require only a floor to sleep on and an occasional meat pie to keep them happy. But the boys are also the stars.

'Jamie is seriously quick,' is the word around the track at Brands Hatch on this particular Sunday. Twenty two thousand people had gathered amid the dust, hamburger fumes and shabby glory of Britain's best- known racing circuit, partly because entry was free and partly because Nigel Mansell's Grand Prix win the previous weekend had aroused their interest. Some had even come to see Jamie Spence win Round 11 of the Rapid Fit Open Formula Ford Championship. 'Jamie has got it,' a couple of fans in the grandstand add seriously. 'He's better at this stage in his career than Mansell was at the same age.'

Spence is a 19-year-old Londoner, the son of a carpet fitter, possessed of a beaming smile. He devotes all his time to racing and he smiles a lot because he is leading the championship by a good margin and he knows the future is bright. 'I've won four races and got two seconds so far this season,' he reflects, leaning against a stack of grimy tyres inside the team truck behind the pits.

'If it all goes well, I might get a drive in Formula Three next year. Then, ideally, on to Formula 3000 and then Formula One.' He has already started to work out in the gym to build up his neck muscles in preparation for the strain of Formula One racing. He also has a glamorous girlfriend, in correct Grand Prix style; and he is on friendly terms with a man who manages racing drivers. 'Whoever gets me to Formula One is going to make money out of me,' he says, going straight to the heart of the matter.

The career plan of a young hopeful at this level is as formal and rigidly defined as that of any would-be barrister. Instead of public school, Cambridge and the Inns of Court, the order runs: Formula Ford, Formula Three (faster, more challenging and much more expensive), Formula 3000 (a kind of trainee Formula One) and, at last, Grand Prix. It is rigorous and imposes a strict schedule. You should be into Formula Three by your early twenties; followed by big-time racing three of four years later. To fail at the first hurdle - to be stuck in Formula Ford at 25, say - is to consign yourself to mediocrity.

Spence's great rival this season is another prodigy, Jan Magnussen from Denmark. Magnussen is the same age as Spence, but looks even younger. 'I had my first win last weekend,' he admits, pinkly. 'I'm lying third on the grid today. I feel pretty good about things right now.' At present he is kipping down in the home of one of the mechanics and living on subventions, away from his family in Denmark. 'I don't mind,' he says. 'Motor racing is my life.'

As Magnussen speaks, a vast, black, pounds 150,000 Lamborghini noses its way through the crowd around the main grandstand, driven by one of the Formula Ford team owners. 'The jellied- eel king,' says a punter with scorn. 'If he spent as much money on his team as he did on his own car . . .' The punter is interrupted by a dour-faced mechanic in flares. 'Eyes right,' mutters the mechanic as a young woman in denim hot pants and a small singlet saunters past. 'At least 20 per cent of the bosoms are bra-less today,' he goes on. 'But you want to get to Snetterton when the sun's out. I mean, topless]'

The thing about Magnussen and Spence, these racing lads with their cheerful, unlined countenances, is that they exude heroism. In fact, anyone who competes seriously in one of these races has a stature quite unrelated to his size, shape, or general manliness. Even low-level, knockabout races - the Big Boys' Toys Beetle Cup race for old Volkswagens or the Toyo Tyres Road Saloon Championship - produce cars that thunder along the straight at well over 100mph and which crash with monumental vividness.

Moreover these heroes, the racers, seem even bolder when compared with the rest of the men who form the race-track crowd - men of the second division: punters, wiseacres, fatties in promotional T-shirts, men who know that to compete is all and that to spectate leaves you somehow emasculated. This cruel division of the world into heroes and inadequates makes it hard for racers to stop racing. How can they confine themselves to mediocrity when they have been giants? They can't. Many of them carry on competing well into their thirties, forties and even fifties.

In the end they may have to quit for a less stressful kind of racing. But they compete, all the same. Alan Kelly, now 34, has raced Formula Ford for 10 years. 'I was forever the proverbial runner-up. I was second in the Irish Championships three years running. I had the chance to get into Formula Three, but . . .' There was a problem with Mrs Kelly. 'The sponsor thought that a married man wasn't worth the risk.' So it was back to Formula Ford, until last year.

'I'll tell you what really made me give it up. Two little boys, both under two years of age.' His face has a ruefulness in it, quite absent from Spence's or Magnussen's. He now competes in a supercharged Volkswagen Polo ('At least the thing's got its wheels covered') which still bears the scars of a roll at Snetterton the previous weekend. 'Don't touch that roof]' he calls. 'It's new.'

By this time the Formula Ford Championship Race is due to start. 'The grid's all back to front,' someone complains. Pole position is held by one of the Marlboro Spaniards, with a Belgian, Vincent Radermecker, beside him. 'Magnussen and Spence are way down the field. Still,' the spectator adds, 'should make for some sweaty racing.'

Which it duly does. The lights turn green and the field takes off. After a couple of laps Radermecker is leading with Andrew McAuley, another young star, pursuing. Then Radermecker crashes, taking McAuley with him. Magnussen promptly takes the lead, while Spence begins to work his way up to second place. Magnussen loses ground. Spence is now only feet behind and the crowd is vocal in its support. 'Come on Jamie, my son]' bellows a fat man in a Mansell: The Power And The Glory T-shirt. 'Stick him one]'

But Magnussen holds off the challenge and wins by a length: the Danish tearaway locked in battle with Britain's finest. After the race he is be found in a quiet, oily corner of the pits, his face split in two by a grin of elation. He drags fiercely at his cigarette (drivers smoke; it's the only way they can keep the tension at bay) and says: 'I feel excellent.'

Meanwhile, down in the pit lane, a man with trainers and a mobile phone is reminding Magnussen's team of the most important thing: 'They take three weeks to send the prize money. I always make a point of phoning up after two weeks to make sure that it's going through. I mean, I know it's only pounds 250; but you've got to, haven't you?'

Jim White is on holiday.

(Photographs omitted)