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Esterson worthy winner as Formula Ford Festival ends in farce

Leading every lap of his heat and semi-final put Max Esterson on a path to win the 2022 Formula Ford Festival - 12 months after he came agonisingly close. But forecasted heavy rain shortened the final at Brands Hatch and left competitors angry with the organisers

Esterson Final  007.JPG

Max Esterson banished the disappointment of just missing out on Formula Ford Festival glory 12 months ago with victory in the 2022 edition – albeit the shortest ever final in the event’s 51-year history. But, while the main race proved an anti-climax, with a result declared after only two racing laps as heavy rain and darkness descended, the American had earned the right to victory with his performances earlier in the event in leading every lap of his heat and semi-final.

With dark clouds looming overhead and lightning striking in the distance, Esterson’s Ray GR18 held the advantage from pole for the scheduled 20-lap final, while Joey Foster’s Firman RFR20 moved into second after getting the better of front-row starter Michael Eastwell (Spectrum 011C). Eastwell slipped behind Kevin Mills Racing team-mate Jordan Dempsey after running slightly wide at Graham Hill Bend, with the front trio soon pulling out a gap to the chasing pack.

But at the start of lap three, heavy rain – which had been forecast to fall since the start of the day – began to pound the Brands Hatch circuit, with the safety car immediately called into action. As competitors slowed along the start/finish straight, David McCullough was hit from behind by the Ray of Team USA Scholarship driver Tom Schrage. With McCullough’s Van Diemen RF00 stranded in the middle of the circuit after also making contact with the pitwall, the red flag was deployed before the drivers had completed their fourth lap.

With competitors instructed to head to the pits, confusion reigned as teams were eventually given permission to make changes to the cars, aiding those who had edged towards a dry set-up while angering those who had already gambled on wet settings. In the end, the tension and disagreements counted for nothing when, with darkness shrouding the circuit, the ‘race’ was declared with Esterson the victor in a somewhat farcical situation.

“It’s by no means a fluke, I was first every session before it – it’s not like I got lucky and made up 10 spots when everyone fell off the track,” said a delighted Esterson. “I just can’t believe it really, especially as I haven’t driven the car all year.” “He’s a deserved winner – he won the Walter Hayes Trophy last year, he was second here last year,” acknowledged Foster. “He was always going to be the toughest opposition I saw heading into this weekend; he’s always had the car hooked up around here.”

Max Esterson kept Joey Foster at bay in both semi-final and shortened final

Max Esterson kept Joey Foster at bay in both semi-final and shortened final

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Indeed, GB3 race winner Esterson never looked out of place on his FF1600 return with Ammonite Motorsport, and qualified comfortably on pole from 2022 National Formula Ford champion Dempsey for the opening heat. Although there had been a pace advantage in qualifying, the same couldn’t be said during the heat itself as Dempsey relentlessly pressured Esterson throughout on a damp but drying track.

While Dempsey was looking to take the lead, he also had to be mindful of Rory Smith in his mirrors, with the 2020 Festival winner briefly moving ahead just past the halfway point at Druids, before losing the spot on the exit of Graham Hill Bend. Esterson held on after a “stressful” race, and faced a different challenge in the first semi-final, again held on a damp track.

The groundwork was done off the line when he got the better of polesitter Foster, who also dropped behind Dempsey and Schrage. At half-distance, Foster disposed of Schrage into Paddock Hill Bend and, two laps later, demoted Dempsey’s Spectrum for second. A lead that had stood at two seconds soon began to dwindle for Esterson, and he went defensive into Clearways on the final tour to keep Foster behind by 0.146s.

Foster had earned pole for the semi with victory in his heat, aided by pre-event favourites and previous Festival winners Jamie Sharp and Niall Murray colliding. Murray seemingly had victory assured, his Van Diemen BD22 taking the lead from polesitter Sharp at Clearways on the opening lap before edging away. But a small mistake at Graham Hill Bend on lap five allowed Sharp back in front. One lap later the pair spun off at Surtees when Murray tried to get back ahead on the inside. Murray rejoined 12th, while Sharp retired in the pits with damaged suspension.

“It’s just silly moves, especially after he came up to me before the race and said it’s the first race of the weekend, let’s not do anything silly,” said a frustrated Sharp. Murray admitted: “I was a bit too eager to get back past him. Look, it was a racing incident but I shouldn’t have put myself in that position.” Their collision paved the way for Lucas Romanek (Oldfield Motorsport Van Diemen) and Schrage to complete the podium, with Murray recovering to seventh, while Sharp would still head through to the semi-finals via the first progression race.

Michael Eastwell won second semi-final on Festival return

Michael Eastwell won second semi-final on Festival return

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

While the first semi-final contained no fewer than seven previous winners of the Festival, the second, won by Eastwell, had none. Still, it was an impressive showing from Eastwell, who had not driven his Spectrum for three years prior to the National FF1600 round at Donington Park last month.

Eastwell started eighth, benefited from Shawn Rashid (Ammonite Ray) spinning out of the lead on the opening lap at Clearways, and was sitting third when a safety car was called at the halfway point. He passed Abdul Ahmed’s Firman into Druids at the restart and moved into the lead ahead of McCullough at Clearways on lap 10 of 13, with Chris Middlehurst (Van Diemen LA10) slipping through into second.

Eastwell’s lowly grid position for his semi-final was partly due to a high-speed 360-degree spin into Paddock Hill during the third heat when he inadvertently downshifted to first gear instead of third. That cost him only two places before the red flag was shown on lap seven following a horrific crash for Matt Rivett. Rashid, who led at the stoppage, won the four-lap dash from Jordan Kelly, and Ahmed just held Eastwell at bay for third.

McCullough won the last heat with a lights-to-flag display from Middlehurst, and was running seventh in the final before being hit by Schrage. Despite also collecting Eastwell at Druids as the rain arrived, the American was classified fourth in the final. Brandon McCaughan (Oldfield Van Diemen JL13) and Middlehurst completed the top six, with his Team Dolan stablemate Murray claiming seventh.

But none of them had the chance to usurp Esterson, who next month will hope to emulate Murray and Foster to become only the third driver to win the Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy in the same year.

Senior Fiesta title went
the way of Jenson Brickley

Senior Fiesta title went the way of Jenson Brickley

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Senior and junior Ford Fiesta championships crowned their 2022 title winners after three races apiece that headed the undercard on Formula Ford Festival weekend. Last year’s junior champion, Jenson Brickley, triumphed again in the senior ranks, while Sid Smith replaced Brickley at the top of the junior standings.

Brickley and Alastair Kellett came to Brands level on overall points, but dropped scores gave Brickley an advantage. But neither driver had an answer to Zachary Lucas, who won both of Saturday’s races and the finale on Sunday. Kellett almost caught him with a late charge in race two and netted fastest lap, cutting Brickley’s championship lead to eight points.

Lucas’s third win came after a challenge from Marlo Cordell, who backed out after making contact at Druids on the last lap. Brickley survived a heart-in-mouth moment at Clearways on lap one, which dropped him to eighth, but he was soon back in the main bunch and passed Kellett for fifth, putting him firmly ahead on points.

Smith arrived as Fiesta Junior favourite, but any significant problems would open the way for Thomas Jack Lee, with Albert Webster an outside bet. Luke Hilton won all three races on the road, heading Lee and Smith in race one, but an out-of-position-start penalty relegated him to fourth in race two.

The battle raged for second on the road, the championship leaders apparently determined to live dangerously, but they survived for Lee to head Smith at the flag and inherit the win. Hilton had a point to prove in race three and, from fourth on the grid, he took the lead on lap seven of 16 and disappeared into the distance. Smith followed runner-up Lee to secure the title.

Luke Hilton won all the Fiesta
Junior races on the road
but lost race-two victory

Luke Hilton won all the Fiesta Junior races on the road but lost race-two victory

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

A huge Modified Ford entry was split into three groups, with each group having a race against the other two. James Allen’s Focus RS beat Neil Jessop’s Zakspeed Escort Mk2 in the opening encounter after Jessop had led until a caution period allowed Allen to pounce. Jessop was squeezed off the road by a backmarker when in the act of retaking the lead, while Rod Birley’s troublesome Escort was also in the mix, challenging for the lead before fading to third.

A late misfire couldn’t prevent Birley scoring an easy win on Sunday, with Jessop’s car absent from the front row and Saturday winner Allen due out later. Five drivers all wanted to be second, but the honour was taken by David Guthrie (Fiesta). Rory Jose’s Focus ST, mended after breaking its gearbox in qualifying, lost second with a gravel trap visit at Clearways.

Allen won again on a drying track, but only just fended off Steve Goldsmith’s quick Anglia. Kester Cook (Fiesta ST) was third, while Jose made fourth from 31st and last on the grid.There were no holds barred between brothers Daniel and Lewis Smith in some frantic opening laps of the first of two Intermarque races. They traded the lead while multiple winner Malcolm Blackman looked on. A misfire dropped Lewis back to fourth, while Daniel fought off a late challenge from Blackman to win.

It took little time for the quick men to reach the front again from a grid with the top nine reversed for race two. The Smiths again hounded Blackman, who took a decisive lead when Lewis Smith failed to stay with him around the outside of Paddock Hill Bend.

Reports by Stefan Mackley and Brian Phillips. Photography by Gary Hawkins. Want more reports from the world of national motorsport? Subscribe today and never miss your weekly fix of motorsport with Autosport magazine

Rod Birley's Escort WRC was a winner in the Modified Fords

Rod Birley's Escort WRC was a winner in the Modified Fords

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

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