On the road with Simon Arron

Best saved until last

Silverstone, November 5-6: familiar old names grace one of British motor racing’s annual highlights

The M1 might have been closed, but the M40 and A43 were quiet and free-flowing. The world generally feels a smaller place in this day and age, but the UK shrinks similarly on mornings like this. The trip to Silverstone was dispatched at least half an hour more quickly than would customarily be the case – a good start to one of British motor racing’s most keenly anticipated staples: the Walter Hayes Trophy for Formula Ford cars.

It might be the self-styled ‘home of British motor racing’, but for much of 2016 our paths hadn’t crossed. I managed a single day at the Classic but had missed my home Grand Prix for the first time since F1 cars had clutch pedals and drivers’ crash helmets were actually recognisable. Upon arrival, a force eight gale was brewing and my Fiat Punto’s on-board computer – not always entirely accurate, admittedly – had issued an ice warning: the authentic Silverstone experience, then, but a £4 paddock delicacy – two sausages in a brioche bun – and a flask of coffee provided adequate insulation.

The first driver I encountered was Kevin McGarrity, racing in FF1600 for the first time since 1995 (when he won the Formula Ford Festival, but lost the British title to Bas Leinders after a Silverstone showdown). Appropriately, Leinders was also present – this time as one of McGarrity’s team-mates.

“Somebody asked me when I won the Festival,” McGarrity said. “After I told them, they pointed out that Seb Melrose – another of our drivers this weekend – wasn’t even born at the time, which rather puts things in perspective.

“I’ve done a bit of testing and am not sure I’m entirely happy with the way the tyres feel, but I didn’t complain about them 21 years ago so I guess I should just get on with it.”

He would make the final and finished 29th, a lap adrift of winner Niall Murray, while Leinders was eliminated when he tangled with a rival in his semi.

Theirs were relatively short-term comebacks alongside that of Fernando Ribeiro, who had last competed at this level in 1980 before stepping away from the sport “to deal with a personal crisis”. He returned during the 1990s, driving in the States in an unsuccessful bid to carve an Indycar career, but this was his first event at Silverstone since McGarrity had been at primary school. Driving the Van Diemen RF80 Alex Medeiros used to win the 2016 Classic FF1600 title, he maintained a broad smile all weekend and finished eighth in the consolation race for historic cars.

For much of the weekend the track was soaked in sunshine, but for the final few races it was simply soaked. That did little to temper the ferocity of competition (one driver managed to spin during a formation lap, a few seconds after accelerating from the pit lane on cold tyres), no matter how comfortable Murray’s margin of victory might have been in the closing race. The bygone, triangular Silverstone club circuit was perfectly suited to the slipstreaming requirements of Formula Ford combat and the current model, while not quite as good, isn’t too far short.

Americans Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood impressed again, as they had at the Formula Ford Festival. Askew was best of the rest behind Murray, while Kirkwood was involved in an accident in his heat. He fought his way back through assorted ‘last-chance’ races to finish 12th in his semi and fourth in the final – quite some performance, that.

And then there were the support races, the organising Historic Sports Car Club’s usual anything-goes end-of-campaign cocktail that pitched Lola T70 against Vauxhall Firenza and Ford Falcon against Clubmans Mallock. There were supposed to have been a couple of Arrows F1 cars in the single-seater race, but technical maladies sidelined both. Nominated drivers Neil Glover and Jamie Brashaw still turned up, but brought along F5000 cars instead.

It was also nice to see the new Medina JL16K score a debut victory in Wayne Boyd’s hands, the Ulsterman beating Murray by less than a tenth in his heat after the latter had to adapt his driving to cope with a couple of missing gears. 

Formula Ford might be a long way from the artisanal glory days of the 1970s, when there were small-scale manufacturers the length and breadth of the land, but the return of Van Diemen founder Ralph Firman (now with cars bearing his own name) and the presence of such as Medina gives the category a little extra impetus – the perfect tonic as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary.