Formula Ford Festival at 50: The show goes on in its latest reinvention

With another cycle of reincarnation marking the early years of the 2010s, the Formula Ford Festival found fresh health and enticing scholarship programmes on both sides of the Atlantic to attract young talent. Ahead of its 50th edition this weekend, Autosport looks back at its most recent decade

Formula Ford Festival at 50: The show goes on in its latest reinvention

Although the 2010s had Formula Ford switching from a national competition to something that was very much seen as club level, that didn’t detract from the quality of the racing on display. While some would have argued that the stature of the event wasn’t what it once was years ago, the decade still produced moments as dramatic as any that had gone before, and turned more of its winners into future stars of the UK, continental European and even US racing scenes.

Starting in 2010, the Duratec cars shared the circuit with the older Zetec cars on combined grids for the initial races of the event, which produced the format of two heats, two quarters, two semi-finals and then individual finals for Duratec and Zetec respectively.

Future Supercars race-winner and 2010 British FFord champion Scott Pye won heat one after a late pass on the rapid Peter Dempsey, while Tio Ellinas took his Mygale to third place. In the second heat, 2021 British GT champion Dennis Lind was thanking his good fortune that he was even at the event in the first place, and took a dominant victory to repay his grandfather’s sacrifice of forgoing his flight to the UK to instead help the Dane buy an extra set of tyres.

He repeated the feat in his quarter final, beating Josh Hill (son of 1996 champion Damon) by 1.5 seconds as Pieter Schothorst completed the podium. In the other, Ellinas benefitted from Pye and Rogier de Wit coming together early on to take the win from Tucker and Antti Buri.

Lind took another win in the first semi-final from Scott Malvern - who had earlier been hampered by a driveshaft failure before the start of his heat - while Pye also redeemed himself in the second semi, driving from the back to a superb second place behind winner Ellinas with future British Touring Car Championship star Rory Butcher capturing third. Hill was disqualified for ignoring a black flag for an unserved jump start penalty.

At the start of the final, Lind made a super getaway and escaped to victory as a titanic three-way tussle for second engaged Pye, Malvern and Ellinas. While the Australian was successful in his efforts to hold onto second, Malvern lost third on the final lap when he put a wheel on the grass at Clearways.

2021 returnee Dennis Lind won the 2010 Festival

2021 returnee Dennis Lind won the 2010 Festival

Photo by: Alastair Staley / LAT Photographic

The 40th anniversary of the Festival was celebrated in 2011, although the small number of some 30-plus entries for the main Duratec category sadly didn’t really give the event the grandeur it deserved.

Australians headed up the top two places in the first heat as Jack Le Brocq beat Nick McBride, and it was equally close in the second heat in which that year's champion Malvern was chased by Buri until the Finn took a trip through Paddock Hill’s gravel, dropping him to third behind Spike Goddard. Malvern then continued his run with an unchallenged quarter-final win from Buri and Geoff Uhrhane, while gearbox problems for Le Brocq denied him the other top spot as de Wit to beat Schothorst in a photo finish.

McBride put in his best drive of the weekend in the first semi-final by driving from the fourth row to catch and pass Buri for victory in the closing stages, Goddard taking third, as Malvern dominated his semi to win by over three seconds from Schothorst and Uhrhane.

From pole in the final, Malvern had to get his elbows out and defend his lead from a rapid Schothorst, the Dutchman losing his chance to attack in the closing stages when too came under threat from McBride. Malvern's victory capped an almighty season of Formula Ford, which cemented him as one of the best to ever race in the category.

For 2013, a change was needed to reinvigorate the Festival. The solution was to put the Kent category of cars back to the forefront as the main event for the first time since 1992. It marked a transition for the Festival to be seen more as something of a high-profile clubman race event, but didn’t detract  from the spectacle

The Festival of 2012 was one that many would probably choose not to remember due to a distinct lack of entry numbers. Between the Duratec and Zetec cars combined, the total wouldn’t exceed 25 cars, leading to the heats to be scrapped and just a pair of races for each category to determine the grid order for the final. Of those 25, just 13 would contest the Duratec races.

In the first of the two preliminary races, Buri and Eric Lichtenstein ran away out in front until a red flag brought about a mid-race stoppage. Following the restart, Lichtenstein managed to pull off a super pass outside of Paddock Hill to take a lead he wouldn’t lose, leaving Buri to battle with Bart van Os. The second race, essentially the semi-final, once again had the same top two drivers at each other’s throats for the lead, the battle concluding in Buri’s favour thanks to an outside pass of his own through Clearways, once again with the pair ahead of van Os on the podium.

The pair did battle one last time in the final as Buri led again from pole, until Lichtenstein slipped by at Druids on lap five. After several more laps of pursuit, Buri tried to capitalise on a Lichtenstein mistake at Clearways but made contact, putting Lichtenstein into a spin - although he recovered to second place by re-passing van Os soon after. Contact or not, the win was Buri’s to claim, becoming the only Finnish driver ever to win the 'main' Festival.

Buri won the poorly-supported 2012 event

Buri won the poorly-supported 2012 event

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography / LAT Photographic

For 2013, a change was needed to reinvigorate the Festival. The solution was to put the Kent category of cars back to the forefront as the main event for the first time since 1992. It marked a transition for the Festival to be seen more as something of a high-profile clubman race event, but didn’t detract  from the spectacle.

With enough cars for two heats, two semi-finals and a final, the format was set to essentially what we know it as today. The 2003 victor Joey Foster returned to score an easy win in heat one, while Team USA Scholarship driver Joey Bickers took second after contact with young Irish rookie Niall Murray. Meanwhile, Bickers’ fellow Scholarship driver Jake Eidson put in a clinical drive to come from the fourth row to win heat two, driving around Stephen Daly at Clearways.

Foster took the first semi-final in his stride, coolly passing Daly before the first lap was done and surviving a safety car to book an easy passage into the final, ahead of 2008 winner Wayne Boyd and Daly. Despite both Team USA drivers locking out the front row for semi-final two, it was 2006 Kent Festival winner Noel Dunne who prevailed ahead of Oliver White and Murray.

The faster semi for Dunne put him on pole for the final and he capitalised instantly from the start, Foster's pursuit ending when he hit trouble and dropped back after just four laps. After a safety car bunched the pack up, Murray almost had the win fall straight into his lap as both White and then leader Dunne successively took to the grass and lost places. Murray held on to win from Boyd and White, the Irishman's victory a launchpad to become one of the best Formula Ford racers of modern times.

With the Kent cars now the main focus again, momentum started to build once more for the Festival into 2014 as entry numbers began to rise again. The year was also the last that Zetec and Duratec cars would have their own standalone races, the Festival once again for Kent-engined cars only from 2015.

The prospects of Team USA’s Aaron Telitz were initially very strong, as despite losing the lead at the start of the first heat to Dunne, he deftly carved past him back into the lead. Future IMSA GTD racer Telitz held the position all the way to the flag for a first win on his European debut, heading the Irish pair of Jonny McMullan and Sean Byrne as Dunne dropped back. The other heat was taken by Boyd, from Chris Middlehurst and Scottish champion Ciaran Haggerty.

Telitz followed up his heat success with another victory on Sunday, this time in the semi-final where he survived two safety cars to beat Middlehurst and James Raven, the latter recovering from a qualifying off in a dramatic turnaround of fortunes. Boyd’s fortunes in turn tool a sharp nosedive, his second semi-final lasting just a single lap before a suspension failure spun him out of the race at Paddock, leaving McMullan to win the best race of the weekend from Stuart Gough and Haggerty behind.

Stalwart Boyd reinvigorated his career with second Festival win in 2015

Stalwart Boyd reinvigorated his career with second Festival win in 2015

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography

While he started the final from sixth on the grid and seemed an outside bet for victory, Raven put himself right into contention from the start, picking off Haggerty, Gough and Middlehurst after two laps. After Telitz spun out of second at Paddock Hill Bend, only leader McMullan stood in Raven’s way but when the Irishman hit oil after Middlehurst’s engine blew, Raven was through into a lead which he extended to six seconds in a sensational Festival win. McMullan and Gough joined him on the podium, but it was Raven’s day to celebrate.

The 2015 Festival marked the 40th edition of the event to be held at Brands Hatch since the 1976 switch, with a special Masters race that included Martin Donnelly and Tiff Needell reliving their past glories on the support bill. With enough cars to extend to three heats, entries were healthy and the Festival was wide open in terms of potential winners.

In those heats, Boyd started strong by dominating his wet race by almost five seconds, followed by Team USA driver Michai Stephens and Luke Williams. In the second heat, Daly’s performance was just as impressive, although his winning margin over Foster was a little smaller at 2.5 seconds. Another young North American racer, Team Canada’s Michael Adams, also impressed many with his heat three victory, just keeping McMullan and Kevin O’Hara at bay thanks to slick work through traffic.

Boyd continued unbeaten as he glided through the semi-finals, prevailing despite consistent pressure from both Foster and Robert Barrable behind him. The same went for Daly too, who fended off Team USA’s Dakota Dickerson and 2014 winner James Raven initially before Williams pushed him to the end after a safety car, with Dickerson a strong third. This put Boyd and Daly on the front row for the final together, while the returning Murray held off countryman Jake Byrne in the third semi. Stephens ensured both Team USA drivers comfortably made the final.

When Murray’s turn came, he lived up to his status as the man to beat in heat two ahead of Williams in the new Firman chassis and impressive Team USA driver Oliver Askew

Boyd led Daly as the final got underway, the latter losing his bodywork cover from the top of his nose moments from the start. Boyd escaped in front until Murray’s engine blew, sending Foster and several other cars spinning to force a mid-race stoppage. But after the restart, Boyd still couldn’t touched out in front and won his second Festival from Barrable in second and Gough's 1992 Van Diemen. The victory helped to reignite Boyd’s career again, the Northern Irishman now a regular in sportscars with United Autosport. 

The BRSCC capitalised on the increasing resurgence of Formula Ford racing in 2016, where two modern greats in Murray and Malvern squared off in search of a second Festival victory. Murray entered the weekend the favourite, as National champion and Martin Donnelly Trophy winner, and was on the pace from the outset.

Before he could dominate his own heat, Gough (in a more modern car this time) picked up victory in the first from Andy Charsley and Noel Robinson. When Murray’s turn came, he lived up to his status as the man to beat in heat two ahead of Williams in the new Firman chassis and impressive Team USA driver Oliver Askew. Malvern then won on his return in heat three to progress ahead of Luke Cooper and Neil MacLennan.

Murray, pictured in 2018, became a two-time winner in 2016 by beating Malvern

Murray, pictured in 2018, became a two-time winner in 2016 by beating Malvern

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography

In the battle of the semi-finals, both affected by safety cars, Malvern’s proved the faster of the two by virtue of spending one lap less under full course yellows. Either side of the break in racing in heat one, Murray was untouchable and dominated the restart to win with ease ahead of future IndyCar racer Askew and Gough. Malvern, meanwhile, had a feisty Williams to contend with in the second semi, before Patrik Pasma demoted the Firman driver to third. With both Murray and Malvern locked in for the final in the front row, anticipation was at fever pitch.

Immediately, the pair were wheel to wheel for the lead from the start, Malvern remaining in front from pole. Their battle almost ended in disaster when they touched and interlocked wheels down the pit straight, but once Murray completed the pass for the lead at Paddock moments later, he never looked back and pulled four seconds on Malvern by the finish to score his second Festival win as Middlehurst took third.

The 2017 Festival marked another anniversary as the Formula Ford category celebrated the 50th anniversary of the very first race at Brands Hatch back in 1967. In addition to a special standalone race in tribute, the best placed driver aged 25 or younger would win a ticket to the Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout and a chance to get onto the ladder to IndyCar.

From the outset, Foster was in formidable form, with so much pace in his heat that he managed to lap backmarkers on his way to the win from MacLennan and Joshua Smith. Middlehurst was equally formidable on his way to victory in heat two, passing Jamie Thorburn to beat Irish youngster Keith Donegan and Darren Burke. Byrne shot into the lead in the third heat, but he dropped out in the closing stages leaving current British GT ace Matt Cowley to win from Matt Round-Garrido and Luke Cooper.

Foster then won his semi-final, leading fellow heat winner Cowley to the flag from pole and through a safety car period, as Donegan took third. MacLennan drove superbly in the second semi-final, passing both front row men Middlehurst and Round-Garrido to grab a front-row start for the final alongside Foster.

MacLennan led initially as he and Foster pulled away, but their advantage was nullified by a safety car, after which Foster slipped by and pulled away to become the first driver ever to win a Festival Final three times - following up his 2003 Zetec and 2004 Kent wins. As an ecstatic Donegan took second and the Road to Indy Shootout ticket, MacLennan narrowly missed out in third.

The 2018 edition was another one to remember, and kept spectators guessing until the very end. Smith started the first heat from pole position, but returnee Murray pinched the lead in the early stages before streaking to a win by over seven seconds, Donegan too overhauling eventual third-placed man Smith. MacLennan took pole for the second heat, but ended up second best to Cowley as Middlehurst took the final podium place.  Thanks to pole position and an early safety car, Michael Eastwell marked himself out as a possible contender by leading the final heat all the way from Oliver White and defending winner Foster.

Smith made opportunistic pass to win 2018 Festival

Smith made opportunistic pass to win 2018 Festival

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography

Murray jumped into the lead in semi-final one, while Eastwell slipped behind Smith before suffered mechanical woes that ended his Festival prematurely. As Murray won with relative ease, Smith held back MacLennan, Foster and Team USA’s Jake Craig. In the second semi, Cowley made a great start from pole but White eventually succeeded in creating an opening before pulling away to set up a front-row grid slot alongside Murray for the final. Cowley just kept Peter Dempsey back to finish second.

In the twice red-flagged final, the top three on the grid (Murray, White and Smith) proved the main protagonists for the 20-lap shootout, the key moment arriving on the last lap. White attacked leader Murray down the outside at Druids, distracting them both enough to run wide at the top of the hill as Smith stole the lead. Making his car wide, Smith sensationally held on to snatch a dramatic Festival win and the Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout prize, from a disappointed Murray and White. 

The Festival received live online streaming coverage for the very first time in 2019, helping to increase the profile of the event and showcase the best of Formula Ford racing to a global audience again. Rain plagued the heats all day on the Saturday, where Foster started on pole for the first. Incredibly, Cowley climbed from sixth to second on the opening lap to challenge him before grabbing the lead at Paddock. Behind Foster, Team USA’s Josh Green impressed many with third.

Once Browne found his groove, he simply managed to outpace the experienced Murray and charged on to an incredible win, taking a British F4 Scholarship shootout prize as his reward

Jonathan Browne drove flawlessly in the slippery conditions to claim heat two from Middlehurst and Eastwell, while Murray worked his way past an all-Dempsey front row (Jordan on pole, Peter alongside) in the final heat to win by eight seconds from Oliver White and Rory Smith.

Thankfully, the weather was much brighter and drier for the Sunday morning semi-finals, as Browne converted pole alongside Cowley into an early lead. He charged away from a safety car restart, leaving Cowley and Eastwell to scrap over second downwards. Murray easily won the second semi after a red flag and then a safety car that followed the second start, followed by Middlehurst and Cooper.

In a battle of the Irish hot-shots, Browne and Murray faced off on the front row for the final. Following a brief safety car interruption, Murray initially put Browne under immense pressure. But once Browne found his groove, he simply managed to outpace the experienced Murray and charged on to an incredible win, taking a British F4 Scholarship shootout prize as his reward. Murray was magnanimous in defeat in second place, while Cowley captured third.

The most recent running of the Festival in 2020, like many things during the year, wasn’t immune from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The BRSCC was fortunate the event could be completed before the inclement winter lockdown was put in place just a few days later, with just over 50 cars in attendance. But while numbers was down, quality definitely wasn’t in short supply.

The Formula Ford Festival continues to generate interest, 50 years after it began

The Formula Ford Festival continues to generate interest, 50 years after it began

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography

While Jordan Dempsey charged away from pole in a wet heat one, Rory Smith soon reeled him in having climbed from fourth. Once in front, Smith’s ominous pace allowed him to escape drama immediately behind between Dempsey, Middlehurst and Team USA's Bryce Aron. Defending winner Browne and Cowley formed the heat two front row and the pair remained in grid order at the flag with Browne ahead, Jackson Lee taking third in the other Team USA entry. In the Saturday's last heat, outgoing National champion Ross Martin took a lights-to-flag win from Jamie Sharp and Max Esterson.

Overnight rain meant the circuit was still wet for semi-final one, where Martin kept Browne at bay for most of the way before the 2019 Festival champion squeezed past to make it five Festival race wins on the trot, Aron completing the top three. While Smith managed to keep the lead of the second semi until the safety car restart, National champ MacLennan made a classy outside pass at Paddock to take the lead and stay there to win, with Smith holding off Jack Wolfenden for second.

Browne and MacLennan made up the front row to start the final as Smith made a great start to take third, then grabbing second from MacLennan. After MacLennan slid off at Paddock, Smith reeled in and challenged Browne for the lead, making a brilliant block pass at Clearways to win as Cowley claimed third.

Action and incident aplenty can be expected at this weekend's 50th anniversary celebration

Action and incident aplenty can be expected at this weekend's 50th anniversary celebration

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey Photography

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