The opening two races of the shortened Avon Tyres National and Northern Formula Ford Championships saw former title contender Neil MacLennan make a bold opening statement in his quest for National honours with a pair of hard-fought victories amidst challenging wet conditions at Oulton Park this past weekend.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic putting a delay on the start of motorsport activities until the end of June, an amended three meeting schedule was implemented with a combined grid for both National and Northern entrants to race together. As a result, this produced a stellar 35 car entry for the season opener with a healthy mix of familiar and returning names alongside a handful of drivers making their Formula Ford debuts.

Qualifying on Saturday morning turned out to be the driest track running the cars would see all day, as Neil MacLennan announced a triumphant return to the wheel of his Kevin Mills prepared Spectrum chassis to take pole position. Formula Ford veteran Chris Middlehurst took up a front-row slot just a tenth slower in 2nd ahead of Rory Smith and 2019 Formula Ford Festival champion Jonathan Browne on the second row. Defending National champion Ross Martin returned to the grid with 5th quickest ahead of former Northern champ Matthew Cowley, with Jamie Sharp and an excellent effort from Low Dempsey Racing rookie Grant Palmer making up the fourth row with Oliver White and Morgan Quinn completing the top 10. In the Northern ranks. Andrew Thomas placed his Mygale on pole for the category, just ahead of BRSCC chairman Peter Daly and Nigel Dolan.

MacLennan got away cleanly from the lights to head the field into Old Hall for the first turn of the 2020 season, with Browne and Smith going side by side for 2nd place as the pair both closed out Middlehurst, as everyone battled through the spray. Browne took 2nd and immediately began to pressure MacLennan heading into Cascades with the field running line astern down Lakeside and towards Island Bend and Shell Oils Hairpin. The rest of the opening lap ran mostly trouble-free, apart from a couple of cars further back in the field getting together amongst the Northern runners.

It was evidently clear that the top four runners were setting a pace that very few were able to match as MacLennan and Browne were paired off in a battle for the lead, just ahead of Smith and Middlehurst who were dicing for 3rd. Smith was able to gently edge closer to the top two as he took fastest lap early on and soon enough the leading pair became a quartet. Smith made a move on Browne at the start of Lap 3 and immediately went on the attack to attempt a pass on MacLennan, getting close as the pair run up Clay Hill towards the bridge with Smith deciding to back out at the last moment. The safety car was then thrown as the drivers headed back on the pit straight due to the Oldfield Motorsport Van Diemen of rookie Daniel Mackintosh left stalled on the outside of Druids after spinning a lap earlier.

With the field bunched up, an extra five minutes added on due to the safety car and the rain falling a little heavier, MacLennan had a real challenge to remain in the lead as the race got back underway with Smith reapplying the pressure once again. With MacLennan, Smith, Browne and Middlehurst again making up the lead group with Ross Martin looking on in 5th place (left to his own devices after Cowley slithered off the road and down the order at Druids), a battle for 6th was brewing between several cars headed up by Northern regular David McArthur, with Oliver White and Bryce Aron going side by side behind him for 7th into Hislops with the latter taking to the escape road after running out of room.

While this was happening, Smith managed to finally pass MacLennan for the lead, but then a sequence of events would eventually lead to the race’s stoppage. First, Jack Wolfenden and Milan de Laet both found themselves entangled in incidents at Knickerbrook before Morgan Quinn would also skate off the road at Druids and into the tyres. With cars requiring some clear up, the red flag was thrown, but as per the rules the result was counted from the last completed lap. As Smith hadn’t crossed the line in the lead on the lap he’d made the pass, the order was reversed with Neil MacLennan indeed being handed victory and Smith dropping back to 2nd place ahead of Browne, followed by Middlehurst and Martin in the top 5, then White, Sharp, David McArthur, Aron and Palmer completing the top 10.

Over with the Northern runners, it was a superb result for BRSCC chairman Peter Daly, as he’d been able to pass category pole man Thomas early in the race and remained in front until the red flag to not only win the Super Classic B class, but also win the Northern segment of the race outright. Nigel Dolan placed 2nd overall and Class P winner with Thomas claiming 3rd, while Super Classic classes A, C and D went the way of Neil Plimmer, Colin Lawson and Samuel Harrison respectively.

Smith was almost able to squeeze past MacLennan on the outside line but again settled for 2nd place heading into Old Hall, and the rest of the lap saw most of the field make it back to the start/finish line, expect for Nigel Dolan retiring just before Cascades and both Neil Patten and Thomas Ward also forced out of the race too. With MacLennan leading Smith, Browne and Middlehurst, a few cars back Bryce Aron was making the most of his debut with Low Dempsey Racing and picked off both champion Martin and then Oliver White to move up into 6th place early on the second lap.

Smith, meanwhile, was getting racy as he hustled all over the rear end of MacLennan’s car including putting under severe pressure through Hislops and Knickerbrook. Rory took another look at the beginning of Lap 3 but with the door firmly shut, it briefly gave Browne an opportunity which eventually saw him lose 3rd after running wide into Cascades, giving Middlehurst a free pass into a podium position. Further round the lap, Browne’s LDR teammate Aron came under threat from Martin heading towards Hislops, but locking the rear tyres only left him heading down the escape road, although he was able to rejoin still in position. Martin then had to defend from Jamie Sharp through Lodge and managed to maintain the place.

The top four continued to race in an unchanged order, the quartet running nose to tail and MacLennan continuously coming under threat from a persistent Rory Smith. As the minutes ticked down, backmarkers played their part as the leaders weaved their way through, and heading into the last lap Smith was again trying everything he could to steal the lead before the chequered flag. Before the last few corners, Middlehurst went on the attack to try and grab 2nd in the dying moments of the race, but wasn’t able to find a way through when he made an attempt heading into Lodge. So it was that MacLennan sped to the chequered flag and completed an exceptional double to round off the weekend with a near maximum score in points to head the championship leaving Oulton Park. Smith and Middlehurst joined him on the rostrum with Browne just behind them, the top four crossing the line just over a second apart, while Ross Martin was next to finish a further 6.6 seconds back in 5th. Jamie Sharp and Bryce Aron came next in 6th and 7th respectively, ahead of racing returnee Adrian Campfield, Matt Cowley and Luke Cooper.

Behind them in the Northern Championship, Peter Daly once again made it home as overall winner in that contest, claiming another Super Classic B victory in the process ahead of Neil McArthur (P Class winner), Neil Plimmer (Super Classic A winner) and Samuel Harrison (Super Classic C winner); Super Classic D fell the way of Jason Cheetham on this occasion.

A superb day’s racing and a fantastic occasion for Formula Ford itself, as Oulton Park proved that the category is still very much enjoyed by both existing and new names both from the UK and also from overseas. With this year’s championship now underway, the next stop will be the isle of Anglesey in North Wales, where the battle will resume next month!

Scott Woodwiss


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