WALKER AND SMITH TAKE OPENING NATIONAL FORMULA FORD SPOILS AT DONINGTON


The Avon Tyres National Formula Ford Championship got underway in earnest this past weekend at Donington Park in Leicestershire, as last year’s Rookie Cup winner and the defending Formula Ford Festival champion shared the winning honours between them.

The weather that greeted the teams and drivers on Saturday morning for qualifying was far from the conditions they had been wishing for. A strong wind and heavy rain left the circuit somewhat treacherous and challenging to set a fast lap time on, but the driver that coped with it all the best was Team DOLAN’s Chris Middlehurst, who snuck into pole position right at the end of the session to deny Low Dempsey Racing’s Max Esterson. Joey Foster put the 2021-spec Firman chassis on the second row in 3rd alongside fellow Festival winner Rory Smith for B-M Racing, followed by his teammate Jamie Sharp and returnee Carter Williams with Oldfield Motorsport, Kevin Mills Racing’s Alex Walker and Jack Wolfenden in his 2017 vintage Firman run by Souley Motorsport. The rest of the grid was filled out by rookies Colin Queen and Lucas Romanek, Luke Cooper, former W Series racer Megan Gilkes and Will Everington – the last of that sequence had been due to start in the final grid slot for Race 1, but mechanical issues in the assembly area forced him out before the start.

Middlehurst won the drag race to Redgate with Esterson to lead on the opening lap while Foster did well to maintain 3rd from Smith and Sharp, the top 5 starters all maintaining their positions. Smith then broke that when he passed Foster into Redgate and attempted to set off after the top two ahead. By the time he caught them, Esterson had taken the lead and immediately put Middlehurst under pressure, who in turn had to go on the attack on the American ahead of him to defend from behind. Smith made a dive past both into the Roberts chicane to no avail, but his second attempt at Redgate caught Middlehurst off guard, as he tagged Esterson’s wheel and spun his way down to 10th as a result, immediately ending his chances of victory.

Moments later, Smith had the lead from Esterson and he quickly created a gap in front for the remaining 6 minutes to leave Max to deal with both Alex Walker and Jamie Sharp as they challenged for P2. Alas, the positions remained the same until the flag as Smith clinched the first win of the season from Esterson, Walker and Sharp, with Foster completing the top 5 ahead of Williams, followed by Wolfenden, Romanek, Cooper and the recovered Middlehurst, who couldn’t improve on 10th but still managed to bag the fastest lap as a consolation prize.

Thankfully, the weather was substantially better for the second race where Esterson managed to sweep across Walker and Smith to take the lead into the first corner, but quickly got shuffled down to 5th just a few corners later to put Walker at the head of the back. The start of Lap 2 produced two dramatic moments as first teammates Smith and Sharp made contact to put the former out wide, while just behind Williams spun out and beached his rear wheels in the gravel, prompting the runyourfleet.com Safety Car to appear and an extra 5 minutes added to the race time to make up for that lost while Williams’ car was recovered.

Walker was quick to get the jump on the restart and didn’t waste time creating a gap, while Foster’s race ended just one corner after the green flag when a mechanical issue forced him wide onto the gravel and out on the spot. With Walker seemingly uncatchable, 2nd place became the most coveted prize as Esterson ran too wide exiting McLeans to gift two positions to both Sharp and Middlehurst, with Cooper and Romanek also latching on to make a five-car scrap for the podium. Sharp took his turn at the head of the group and batted away Esterson’s constant attacks time after time, eventually using the remaining minutes to create a gap of his own in his efforts to catch Walker. But the Kevin Mills Racing driver was too far in front and he duly took the flag to score his first National Formula Ford win to his and the team’s delight. Sharp ended up a comfortable 2nd after Middlehurst retired late on, which left an almighty fight for P3 in his wake as the last couple of minutes ticked down. Eventually, Esterson muscled his way into the final podium spot, beating Smith, Romanek, Cooper, Gilkes, Wolfenden and Queen as the entire group finished together in a thrilling conclusion.

A partially reversed grid put Queen and Gilkes on the front row together and the former remained in the lead from pole with Cooper and Smith following suit. Queen managed to resist the pressure from Smith initially, but couldn’t hold him off on Lap 2 at the Old Hairpin, which then opened the floodgates as Cooper, Walker and then Sharp all moved past in quick succession. Ahead, Smith and Cooper were running nose to tail as two of the category’s stalwarts of recent times, but it wasn’t long before Walker joined in the party and began pressuring for the lead. He quickly picked off Cooper for 2nd, but a dive at McLeans on Smith only let Cooper back past both of them into the lead with Sharp also in the fight now in 4th.

The group continued to squabble and bicker for positions, so much so that it also brought Foster, Middlehurst and pole man Queen into the mix too with 5 minutes left. Cooper continued to pressure Walker for the lead, who wasn’t being allowed to run away as he had done in Race 2 earlier in the day, but once again Smith was pushing hard with Sharp and Esterson in tow. Eventually, Smith re-caught and passed Cooper for 2nd, but by this time Walker had already managed to escape by a couple of seconds, a gap and a lead he would not relinquish. He drove on to collect his second win of the weekend with Smith just behind in P2, while Cooper beat Esterson and Queen in the end to collect the final podium place.

Thanks to his stellar results, Alex Walker leaves the opening rounds as the points leader from Smith and Esterson, while Lucas Romanek is top of the Rookie standings ahead of Queen and Everington. The next stop for the National Formula Ford grid is a trip across the border into Scotland and the awesome Knockhill Circuit in Fife on June 6th. This will be the first visit since 2018 when the Reverse layout was used, plus there’s set to be an influx of some top local Scottish talent as the David Leslie Trophy will also be up for grabs as part of the National rounds taking place that weekend.

Scott Woodwiss