Kent buy me love

Brands Hatch, October 26-27: some fresh pep for an old favourite.

It was the first time in years that I’d attended the once-compulsory Formula Ford Festival, my appetite having been sapped by the event’s dwindling glamour — a consequence of the familiar 1.6-litre Kent engine being dropped in favour of the 1.8 Zetec in 1993. Since then, mainstream Formula Ford has become steadily less plausible… while Kent-engined cars have remained hugely popular amongthe grass-roots cognoscenti.

This year, to general acclaim, the Festival was handed back to the Kent community — which had recently played only a supporting role at the event. Few anticipated that the overall winner might graduate to F1 any time soon, but the racing was bound to be good…

It was fitting, as I drove through the gates at breakfast o’clock on Saturday morning, that the first thing I spotted was the snout of a Van Diemen RF80 in the paddock — this a chassis that only slightly predates my first Festival, in 1982. Back then it ought to have been quite a tricky meeting to cover singlehandedly, with 200 cars on the entry list, but it was actually very simple. You sat in the Paddock Hill Bend grandstand to chart the action.., and once their race was run, the leading drivers would all come to watch from the same place: you didn’t have to scour the pits looking for them, because they gravitated towards the best seat in the house.

There were only about 50 cars entered this time enough for two heats, although the cars were then mixed and matched for two notional semi-finals before the main event. Some of the machinery was fairly new, but there were many welcome bygones including Conor Murphy’s Marlboro-liveried Van Diemen RF83. Thirty years earlier I’d interviewed a newcomer who raced an identical car at this same event, little appreciating how Carlos Sainz’s career might proceed…

Among the seasoned campaigners, the Festival showcased some promising youngsters this year, too. America-based English writer Jeremy Shaw has overseen the Team USA Scholarship scheme for the past 24 seasons and exports his drivers to contest the Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy. “I still don’t think there’s any substitute for Kent Formula Ford in terms of developing racecraft,” he said, not that his charges seemed to have much to learn. Jake Eidson, 18, and Joey Bickers, 21, had no previous experience of standing starts and Californian Bickers was unused to the concept of rain, but you’d never have guessed as much from their performances. They were first and second respectively in damp heats, but dropped back a little in the semi before Eidson stormed from 11th to fifth in the final (in which Bickers discovered another Festival tradition the accident).

Niall Murray won the feature race in virtual darkness on Sunday, but had to pick his way through what had, at one stage, been a nine-car lead chain. It was a reminder that in terms of spectacle there are few substitutes for simple, wingless chassis that slide around and allow drivers to race, uncompromised, a matter of millimetres apart.