Close encounters of the Ford kind

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Silverstone, November 2-3: a nice warm feeling, despite the biting breeze.

From the revitalised formula Ford Festival to its natural successor… First run in 2001, the Walter Hayes Trophy espouses everything that was good about the original Snetterton and Brands Hatch Festivals, with a three-figure entry and six heats required to distil the field to 72 semi-finalists and beyond.

The Saturday morning approach was a throwback, too, with brisk progress possible along deserted Northants lanes. The circuit was cast in dense haze when I arrived, the kind of conditions that might delay activities in some spheres of the sport, but soon the air was ripe with a familiar Ford Cortina rasp. One of the first cars on track was a Van Diemen RF88 bearing number 159. It had been 25 years since Vincenzo Sospiri won the FF Festival — and a dozen since he raced anything regularly — but he was back on familiar terrain. There was originally a deal to reunite the Italian with his own RF88 of yore, but that fell through so instead he drove something similar. Initially, he wore the same Camel overalls he’d used in 1990, when winning the British Vauxhall Lotus title (and finishing second in the Opel Euroseries). “They’re a little bit tight here7 he said, pinching his ribs, “but not too uncomfortable!’ The stewards viewed things differently, however, pointing out that his racewear was long past its sell-by date, so he had to find an alternative before racing began. Despite a little rust — and his car’s relative age — the Italian made it through to the final, albeit towards the back. It was a decent effort in difficult conditions, with rain and sunshine alternating on the opening day and a constant bracing wind. In a previous life I might have spent parts of this weekend on the media terrace in Abu Dhabi, watching yachts bob in the harbour, rather than standing at the exit of Becketts in waterproof trousers…

As at Brands Hatch seven days beforehand, the racing was clean and largely close, although Scott Malvern made an early break in the final to render the most significant contest a little one-sided. American Jake Eidson impressed again, challenging for second until a spin dropped him to seventh.

The Historic final proved to be one of the weekend’s highlights, Richard Tarling beating Sam Mitchell by 0.077sec as the top four finishers were blanketed by about eight tenths. Mitchell’s older brother Ben showed well, too, taking ninth in the main event with a Van Diemen loaned by well-known racer Martin O’Connell and an engine provided by preparation specialist Simon Hadfield. “This is the romance of racine Hadfield said, “a few people clubbing together to help a talented young driver who doesn’t have much money. I hear some teams want to charge about £20,000 for this event…”

As well as FF1600, resourceful organiser the Historic Sports Car Club arranged separate Formule Libre events for sports/saloons and single-seaters, with different fields each day. Libre is almost an extinct concept nowadays, but was once a staple at most British clubbies — including the much-lamented end-of-season Silverstone events promoted by such as the Peterborough Motor Club.

Early on Sunday morning, with the paddock fairly quiet (bar one bloke tenderly spannering the front suspension of a Royale RP27) and the main commentary box temporarily silenced because a rabbit had chewed through some key cables overnight, I overhead a couple of sports/saloon competitors chatting. “This is the way to do it,” said one. “Briefing at half eight, practice at nine, race at 11 and home in time for lunch..”

The upshot was an opportunity to watch 1970s F2 Marches taking on more recent F3 machinery while tiptoeing around assorted lapped clutter… and I can’t recall the last time I witnessed a Le Mans-spec Lola EX257 prototype competing legitimately against a Triumph Dolomite Sprint.

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