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Special feature

The secrets for success at the Formula Ford Festival

The much-loved Brands Hatch event is back this weekend with another mix of young and seasoned drivers battling to write the latest chapter of its long history. An expert panel of past winners and behind-the-scenes players share their top tips for success at the Festival

Rory Butcher, Van Diemen RF92 with Scott Malvern, Ray GRS06 at the start

The Formula Ford Festival may no longer hold the same prestige as during its heyday as a crucial proving ground for future Formula 1 talents, but it remains a big ticket event that brings back category stalwarts year after year to take on promising up-and-comers.

The event, which celebrated its 50th edition in 2021, has three previous winners on the entry list for this weekend's jamboree, with Niall Murray, Rory Smith and Jamie Sharp seeking to beat the likes of regular frontrunners Chris Middlehurst and Jordan Dempsey, plus National champion Jordan Kelly, Historic Formula 3 title winner Samuel Harrison and US F1600 champion Porter Aiken.

Autosport rounded up previous winners and the people who supported them to learn the secrets of success at the Festival.

Drivers

Gerrit van Kouwen (1984)

Gerrit Van Kouwen kicks back at claims his final was

Photo by: Sutton Images

Gerrit Van Kouwen kicks back at claims his final was "boring"

“People say that my final was boring. They’re wrong – it was the best ever! I’d enjoyed winning across Europe in 1983, but nothing prepares you for your first time at Brands Hatch. I made the final that year, but that was it, so for 1984, we set about doing things right. I had fantastic backing from Lola and, weekend after weekend, we transformed the T644E, carefully building up a very different car to what we’d started with.

“I worked closely with Minister too. Dave [Minister] and Graham [Fuller] were developing a way to pre-heat oil, as this showed an instant benefit of 2-3bhp on leaving the line. We fitted an industrial kettle element into the bell housing and ran it off a portable generator. You don’t win by standing still.

“Approaching Festival week, Graham told me not to join the early tests but to let others risk damage and set the times. The benchmark was 49.5s. We arrived on Thursday, I did just five laps, recording 49.2s. We knew we were quickest; now everyone else knew it too.

“On pole for the final, I maintained the three-tenths margin we held in testing, enabling me to control the pace, which involved a hugely satisfying 48.8s best. I’ve been to every final since, apart from 2020 [due to COVID-19], so can confidently say to win it, you need to start at the front because, if you’re chasing, anything can – and will – happen.”

Anthony Davidson (2000)

Davidson played it smart to secure Festival honours in 2000

Davidson played it smart to secure Festival honours in 2000

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“I was a late starter in Formula Ford and was immediately aware that Jenson Button – who I’d raced in karts – had just finished as top rookie in British F3 and was already rumoured to have a freshly inked Formula 1 contract.

“Three wins in the championship in 2000 was a solid start but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. Didier [Stoessel, manager] had suggested me to Rick Gorne at BAR, who was looking to establish a junior driver programme, but it was made clear nothing could happen without a call to say that, just like Jenson in 1998, we were Festival winners.

“Going into that weekend, I knew it was all or nothing. The opposition would be mighty, but I had their measure. My Mygale wasn’t as quick, but it was planted and predictable. Plus, I knew that around the Indy circuit, it’s almost impossible to overtake a fast and perfectly positioned car on a damp or wet track.

“Against the odds, I beat the favoured Van Diemens to pole for the final and, from the start, their intentions were clear. The line had dried and first Robert Dahlgren’s and then James Courtney’s noses were smashing into me, but it was my lead and that’s how it had to stay. Then the red flag came out as marshals recovered two stranded cars.

“Back on the grid, my team used the delay, brute strength and a crowbar to bend my battered suspension back into shape. The restart was much as before but, whereas I could trust James to be fair, Dahlgren was a different proposition.

“I sensed his frustration and quickly decided that, before he took me out, he should take himself out. With just a few laps remaining, charging past the line, I dummied him by lifting off slightly. This was his chance to pass, and he switched to the outside but, by the time he drew level, I was already back to full throttle – which left him with nowhere to go, other than straight onto the damp, then the marbles, then into the gravel.

“I knew I could win. The team gave me a brilliant car, and I was able to make everyone else do the hard work and make their own costly mistakes… and we made that call to BAR.”

Joey Foster (2003, 2017)

Joey Foster won the Festival in 2003 and 2017

Photo by: Gary Hawkins/Motorsport Images

Joey Foster won the Festival in 2003 and 2017

“Confidence and command – that’s mostly it. Believe in yourself, trust your car. You need to respect the occasion too, and always be at the top of your game.

“We made a mistake in 2018 when I switched to the Firman. I’d been winning in the Ray that year and naively thought we could carry right on. But the car was completely different and I didn’t have the track time to find the confidence to push it to where I needed it to be.

“This is where team work counts. Don [Hardman] and Keith [Bodicoat] know how to get the best out of both me and the car. A good team will work tirelessly for you, but then you need to prove to them that the long nights were worth it.

“Testing is important, but nothing beats time pitched against those you have to beat. You also need to know Brands Hatch better than you know anywhere else. Make a mistake here and it punishes you first, then kicks you while you’re down.”

Max Esterson (2022)

Max Esterson, winner in 2022

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Max Esterson, winner in 2022

“For me, it was all about correcting mistakes from 2021. I’d led the [National] championship on points but lost the title on dropped scores. Then, at the Festival, I chose to save my new tyres in the semi, which left me paceless and starting the final from the midfield.

“Having to come through the pack is a very different race to controlling it from the front. The new rubber allowed me to pull a few special moves but I soon found myself blocked by Jamie Sharp and Neil Maclennan, who were fighting over P1. My speed was there, but I couldn’t get by.

“So last year, I had to make amends. The conditions suited my style and I won my heat, then got past Joey [Foster] to win the semi too. Lining up on pole for the final, all I had to do was hold my line.

“Joey was straight on my tail, but I could see that he wanted us to break free and settle it later. However, later never came. A deluge of rain scattered cars in every direction. I was able to keep Joey behind until the safety car came out, then the race ended.

“You can’t win the Festival without time spent in the car, and won’t win without understanding how the track responds to the weather.”

The supporting crew

Michael Vergers (Driver coach)

Michael Vergers finished second in 1989 despite an off at the start

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Michael Vergers finished second in 1989 despite an off at the start

Michael Vergers is remembered for one of the Festival’s great drives in the 1989 final; pitched into the Druids gravel at the start, then stunningly driving beyond everyone else’s limit (including David Coulthard’s) to finish second.

“Confidence is key, but you have to find the right switch to turn it on,” says Vergers. “Every driver’s personality is different. To produce the best, you first have to understand what triggers belief.

“Yes, you need a good season behind you. You need to know who you’re racing and how to beat them, but you also need to be tuned into your car and trust in its response. The process of driving is quite simple, but the art of racing demands skill and perfection, lap after lap.”

Alan Cornock (Constructor)

The name Royale Cars may nowadays be consigned to the past, but former owner Alan Cornock is a man who has seen his share of both winners and losers.

“Winning today is a very different thing to when we won back in 1975,” he says. “Then, Formula Ford cars were constantly evolving, and our team [which included designer Rory Byrne] led a never-ending search for speed through innovation on the drawing board. Today, top teams know their cars intimately so, whereas we had to take risks, I will confidently say ‘stick to what you know’.

“At a place like Brands Hatch, with its climbs, drops, cambers and surface changes, you won’t win without precision, and that only comes through experience. Luck, of course, often plays a part, but winners tend to make their own.”

Gavin Ray (Constructor)

Ray Race Cars is one of the most recognisable names in Formula Ford history and still builds new chassis today.

“Thirty years ago, chassis design was all about lightness, which could make cars susceptible to change over the course of a race,” Gavin Ray explains. “If you’re not being driven into at the Festival, you’re not fighting for the lead, so new cars are much stiffer, giving drivers a more responsive, consistent feel. Older machinery might leave an awning with the geometry straight, but mere minutes of wheelbanging will often see it knocked out of shape.

“From a constructor’s point of view, the chassis and set-up need to work in harmony. Peak performance comes in quite a small window, so teams need to stick to what they know and let the driver make the difference.

“Can you win the Festival today with an older chassis? No. You’ll only achieve the consistency needed from a car that’s as true at the end of a race as it is at the start.”

Graham Fuller (Engine builder)

Names like Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell are easily woven into history, but to Dave Minister and Graham Fuller, they’re just two of many who raced and won with the finest Formula Ford engines of the day.

Insight: The legendary Formula Ford engine that made Festival kings

“Let’s be straight, winning in Formula Ford requires much more than just a good engine,” states Fuller. “But, when the talent is evenly matched, that’s where engineering and development can make a difference – knowing how to deliver power consistently throughout the race.

“Operating temperatures are key, as are oil types and levels. So too are individual components. You’ll only get the most by using the best; in terms of machined quality and fit, and in packaging too. Designers build cars for aero efficiency, but this can easily be at the expense of restricted engine performance.

“The best advice I can give to any driver and team is to listen to their engine builder and work as a collective.”

Bernard Dolan (Team manager)

Bernard Dolan now runs Team Dolan Racing having won the 1989 British FFord title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Bernard Dolan now runs Team Dolan Racing having won the 1989 British FFord title

Like Vergers, Bernard Dolan was an accomplished racer, winning the 1989 British Formula Ford Championship. Now he runs Team Dolan Racing, where he’s guided drivers to victory at both the Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy.

PLUS: Dolan's long wait for FF Festival revenge 

“As a team, we produce a strong car but, to win, you’ve got to be able to get the best from it,” says Dolan. “If we change a set-up to suit a driver, what you gain from them, you risk losing more from the machine.

“One of the biggest problems at Brands Hatch is changeable conditions. Confidence should overcome this, but knowing the circuit and finding a rhythm are also key. You won’t win from way back, so you must aim to lead, inch-perfect all the way, because the moment you go off line, the quick guys will feed off you, and anyone else who gets in their way.”

Chris Davison (Tyre tester)

As an accomplished racer and professional tyre tester (formerly with Avon), few people understand the importance of the relationship between the car and its tyre as well as Chris Davison does.

“The ACB10 is a great tyre to race on, but you have to know it well, and how small changes in temperature and conditions affect optimum pressures and levels of brake bias,” he says. “A damp or wet track requires a lot of work to find and maintain grip but, the more you practise, the more it becomes second nature.

“Luck will always play a part but, if you’re confident in your car, and can predict the response from your tyres, you can explore the limits the track will allow.”

So there we are. Ten of the most knowledgeable people in the paddock, all pointing to pretty much the same: that winning the Festival doesn’t just rely on confidence and speed; it needs trust (in your team); faith (in your car’s responses); experience (of racing closely with those you must beat); reactions (to changing conditions); and, most probably, just a little bit of luck.

Winning the Formula Ford Festival isn't just a case of confidence and speed

Photo by: Gary Hawkins/Motorsport Images

Winning the Formula Ford Festival isn't just a case of confidence and speed

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