FESTIVAL FEVER DESCENDS ON BRANDS HATCH ONCE AGAIN


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Every October, Formula Ford racers of all ages, chassis, nationalities and experience levels turn their attention towards Kent to contest one of the last bastions of major single seater competitions. A unique knockout-style race event that pits the best of the formula against each other around the short, challenging and intense Brands Hatch Indy circuit. This is an epic contest that can make lasting memories and create superstars overnight, and after more than 45 editions it’s still held in high regard. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the 47th running of the prestigious BRSCC Formula Ford Festival.

To give a very quick history lesson, the first Festival was held at Snetterton in 1972 as an end of season thrash for all Formula Fords in the UK and beyond, however it switched to Brands Hatch in 1976 where it became the event’s permanent home to this day. Ian Taylor took his Dulon LD9 chassis to victory in the inaugural Festival, but a lot has changed since then. Drivers compete in pre-drawn heats before progressing to the semi-finals where 12 drivers from each head through to the main final, along with 6 drivers from the ever crucial Last Chance Race, a final throw of the dice for anyone to join the back of the grid for the main event on Sunday afternoon. Every race promises a high amount of drama and suspense, as anything can happen including big names falling foul and suffering bad luck. That’s what makes the Festival one of the most coveted race events to succeed in.

This year’s Festival is full of diversity. No less than 12 different nationalities will be represented on the grid spanning the UK, Ireland, continental Europe, North America and South America, harking back to the days when drivers from all over the world flocked to compete. Alongside this, the 2018 edition will also feature no less than 14 different Formula Ford chassis constructors, spanning the entire history of the Formula Ford category – from Elden, Lola and Crossle, all the way through to the latest Ray, Medina Sport and Spectrum chassis. That said, it’s technically possible that any chassis from any year can be successful provided that it’s both engineered and driven well enough. As we said, literally anything is possible in this event.

At this point, we need to start talking about the drivers that will be battling for victory. At the time of writing this, 69 cars are entered for the main event however this looks set to rise beyond 70 and even reach par with the same number achieved at last year’s Festival. Nonetheless, there’s a fantastic range of talented drivers of all experience and success levels, so picking a true favourite is nigh on impossible.

The best place to start would undoubtedly be the defending champion of the event, Joey Foster. After charging his way through the heats and semi-finals he made a “high, wide and handsome” pass for the lead in the Final to pick up his third Festival victory and his second in a Kent chassis. Having kept himself fresh in this year’s Avon Tyres National Formula Ford Championship, Joey will be keen to become the first driver in the event’s history to win three Kent Festivals outright. However, he will have one key nemesis that will be out to achieve this same feat. National champion Niall Murray may well be saying goodbye to Formula Ford after this weekend, so he would dearly love to make history of his own. Given that these two are the most recent Festival champions, this will be the perfect chance to settle the score once and for all. Murray is almost untouchable on his day in this category, so if this really is the last time we’ll see him in one of these cars, savour the sight of it while you can.

But that’s not all – out of the blue and looking to go one better from last year, an unexpected appearance from 2017 runner up and Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout winner Keith Donegan is also on the cards. The young Irishman has been racing out in the USA making the most of his $200,000 prize cheque competing in the USF2000 Championship, however he still owns the very same car that earned him the Shootout ticket this time 12 months ago. It’s clear that once you get bitten by the Formula Ford bug, you just can’t keep away from it! He could have a very real chance of victory should everything hold together. Another Irishman who also knows what it’s like to compete and success stateside is Peter Dempsey, son of team boss Cliff who has elected to make a surprise return to the Festival. Dempsey is best known by some for winning THAT 4-wide finish in the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis a few years ago, but the allure of the Festival also seems to have been too strong to keep Peter away either. He could be the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons too, if luck go his way.

What about other strong drivers from the National Championship? Three that will clearly be out for glory are Michael Eastwell, Matt Round-Garrido and Luke Cooper. While Eastwell may not have won a National round this season, he has been consistent enough to place runner up in the Pro Class points standings, while both MR-G and Cooper has tasted victory more than once. Cooper even managed to win a soaking final race of the year last weekend at Donington, so if the weather gets damp he could be one to watch. All three, along with Foster, have been Murray’s main pursuers so they’ll be itching to put one over him if possible. Others who have tasted success this year include Neil Maclennan (3rd place man from last year’s Festival), Rory Smith and Joshua Smith, with each holding at least one win to their name from this season. Plus, keep an eye on Jonathan Browne and American racer Carter Williams.

Speaking of Americans, the Team USA Scholarship makes its traditional annual pilgrimage to the UK with two bright new names to watch out for – Jake Craig and Colin Mullan. Both have certainly already made quite an impression at the final National rounds at Donington with Craig even capturing a superb 2nd place in the wet final race! The USA Scholarship has helped discover well known US drivers such as Bryan Herta, last year’s IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden and more, so these two may be a couple more that make it to the top. They’ll be joined by Guillaume Archambault, the latest winner in the Team Canada Scholarship who will also make a bid for his own glory.

We’ll pick out a further handful of names that you should also keep an eye on over the weekend that could spring one or two surprises. Former Northern FF1600 champ Matthew Cowley comes back to the UK after spending most of the year competing in the F4 United States Championship powered by Honda. Multiple-time Festival podium finisher and former National champion Stuart Gough is also in the field too, while one of the biggest unexpected entries comes from former BTCC racer and two-time Festival competitor Vincent Radermecker of Belgium. He joins forces with Monegasque racer Geoffrey Horion with a two-car team in a bid to resolve what he calls “unfinished business” – that’s a serious statement! Maybe he could defy the odds and take the fight to the expected favourites. Sebastian Melrose should also be another name to run near the front.

Now go through that lot and pick a definitive favourite – it’s impossible! There are so many talented drivers all sporting their own credible accolades that quite literally, any one of them could end up on the top step of the podium holding the perpetual Neil Shanahan Trophy aloft as this year’s Festival winner. No matter who it is, they will have survived everything their competitors could throw at them to write their name into the history books.

It’s not just contemporary machines to look out for – Sunday afternoon will also play host to the Historic Finals for Pre 90, Pre 82 and Pre 72 chassis, and the prospective grid for it looks pretty tasty too. The bulk of the entries have made the trip across from Northern Ireland with key names including Alan Davidson, Ian & Ashley McCulla, Jamesy Hagan and Ryan Campbell. Conor Murphy has been a frontrunner in this race more than once, while Classic Formula Ford stalwart Adriano Medeiros aims for glory aboard his 1980 Van Diemen. Also, keep an eye on Rick Morris, a true Formula Ford legend who is still competing at the age of 71! Finally, a real possibility for the Historic win could be Tom McArthur, a competitive racer at both National and Northern level who has elected to compete in his Reynard FF88 rather than his contemporary Van Diemen chassis.

Whatever happens, enjoy one of the best loved weekend in British club motorsport. It just wouldn’t be the end of another fantastic season for the British Racing & Sports Car Club without it, and it continues to make the steady march towards its 50th anniversary. Sit in the grandstands, stand on the spectator banks, make yourself comfortable, choose your favourites and cheer them on. If you want a raw, pure and above all else fascinating weekend of motorsport to round off your year, look no further as we once again begin the two-day quest to find our next Formula Ford Festival champion!

Scott Woodwiss