Why thrilling Formula Ford Festival still has important areas to address
OPINION: This year’s Brands Hatch Formula Ford showpiece featured a thrilling final, banishing memories of last season’s misery, but the event lacked entries
Niall Murray leads Rory Smith
Now that is what a Formula Ford Festival final should be like. Forget the damp squib that was last year’s brief affair, this was a proper contest. Twenty laps of uninterrupted action that had the crowd enthralled, featuring unbelievable overtakes between quality drivers and uncertainty over the winner right to the end.
There was even some late unreliability drama for the brilliant Niall Murray to add another twist. It’s no wonder that Jamie Sharp, the 2021 victor who was part of the lead squabble, says: “You can never guess what’s going to happen – it’s the most unpredictable weekend!”
It was the perfect tonic after the misery of last season, when risky scheduling and a reluctance from those in charge to react to the expected bad weather meant predicted rain arrived shortly after the final began and insufficient daylight for it to be restarted when conditions improved. Autosport, and many others, gave the organising British Racing & Sports Car Club a hard time for not foreseeing such problems and, to its credit, changes were made this year, with the final brought forward to 1600 and no longer being the event’s last race.
But this year’s cracker was the perfect way to banish memories of the madness of 2022. And BRSCC chairman Peter Daly wants to take advantage of the brilliant battles to promote the event in the future. “We’ve got it filmed and available and will see how we can market it,” he says.
Yet, for all the final’s thrills, there is a problem. The Formula Ford Festival is an historic event with an incredible collection of previous winners and frontrunners. But this year just 55 drivers took part. It is an enormous reduction on the 78 of last year, which followed the 97 when its 50th edition was celebrated in 2021.
Only for the pandemic-affected 2020 instalment have fewer gathered for the Brands Hatch showpiece. For what is supposed to be a blue-riband event, having so few entries that every single one was guaranteed a place in the semi-finals somewhat undermines its knockout nature.
“Our original ambition was 80-85 cars,” admits Daly. “As the year’s gone on, all clubs have seen numbers dwindle. I was hearing people were running out of budget early in the year because of the increases in prices of tyres and fuel or early accident damage.”
While the on-track action was thrilling, the number of entrants was notably down on previous years with every single one guaranteed a place in the semi-finals
Photo by: Gary Hawkins
There is certainly no doubt the cost-of-living crisis has taken a toll and there were other factors at play. Take the calendar clash with the Donington Park British GT finale. That meant GT race director Daly – who won the historic final in 2020 – and his partner Lorna Vickers could not take part, and also ruled out FF1600 regular Matt Cowley, who was busy winning the GT4 title! It also impacted upon teams with Kevin Mills Racing focusing on its GB4 drivers at Donington. Further afield, the Northern Irish championship finale at Kirkistown may have attracted a meagre grid but it still potentially cost another couple of entries in Kent.
Two-time winner Joey Foster was another on the sidelines as budget difficulties meant he instead switched roles to run Historic Formula 3 champion Samuel Harrison in a Firman. However, he remains optimistic the event’s fortunes will improve.
“You have to look at Formula Ford over the years and it does this,” he says, making an up and down movement. “There’s still youngsters coming through and it’s a great place for drivers to start. But it’s very difficult for people who have no spare cash to spend.”
Foster feels some sort of incentive is needed to lure drivers, like the boost provided when UK Formula Ford champions secured places on the Mazda Road to Indy shootout approaching a decade ago
While some feel last year’s shambles has put drivers off, Foster – who plans to return to the driving seat for next weekend’s Walter Hayes Trophy – does not believe that is the case. “Lessons have been learned,” he says. Instead, he feels some sort of incentive is needed to lure drivers, like the boost provided when UK Formula Ford champions secured places on the Mazda Road to Indy shootout approaching a decade ago.
It is something that Daly is certainly considering. “I think it would be nice to have a prize fund for it – it might bring one or two higher-level drivers in,” he says. Daly also believes the reduction in Formula Ford racing next year with the BRSCC’s National championship ending and MotorSport Vision Racing’s United category instead flying the flag for ‘modern’ cars could assist with the budgetary situation.
Also set to help is the “passion” of Alan Bowles, who was recently appointed Super Classic Pre-’99 championship coordinator and will be working on the Festival, too. Bowles organised an impressive Elden reunion at Brands last weekend with drivers travelling from as far afield as the States to reminisce, while he also assembled an eclectic mix of cars in the paddock to again try to spark some interest. His enthusiasm can only help.
Ultimately, the BRSCC has learned from the mistakes of last season but now it needs to ensure the fantastic final this time around is used to convince more to race in the years to come. The Hayes has traditionally attracted larger fields than the Festival and, if its numbers are substantially greater this season, it would provide a clear demonstration of the challenge still ahead.
Smith's triumph came after a memorable Festival, but organisers can't afford to rest on their laurels
Photo by: Gary Hawkins
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