On the road with... Simon Arron
Brands Hatch October 17-18 & 24-25: annual finale for one of Britain’s best inventions and a new dawn for an old favourite
The seasonal aroma was both familiar and distinctive. This had nothing to do with customary paddock scents such as barbecued sausage: as soon as you stepped out into the car park you could smell the Formula Ford Festival, a musk borne of moisture in the cool air, dew seeping into your boots and sundry other elements that combine to give north-west Kent a certain ambience as the clocks go back.
That, though, was a week hence. First there was the significant matter of the British Superbike Championship’s unravelling on its customary stage: the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, still an appropriate name even if contemporary Formula 1 cars haven’t graced it in almost 30 years.
I’ve watched the BSB a few times now, but still haven’t quite adjusted to the effect you feel when one of the quicker riders first looms into view at full tilt. It challenges everything you thought you’d been taught about the laws of physics – and if you happen to be standing at the exit of Surtees, there’s a fair chance that the front wheel will be airborne while the rider applies a touch of what can only be described as opposite lock. It’s as fine a spectacle as any in motor sport.
The title fight between Josh Brookes (Yamaha) and Shane Byrne (Kawasaki) was settled in the former’s favour after the first of three races on the opening afternoon, but that proved no deterrent to the public. By early Sunday morning there were queues building outside the circuit as spectators arrived for a second helping. Not too surprising, really.
The supporting cast was slightly less potent, but just as spectacular – not least when Taz Taylor (Honda) beat Scott Deroue (KTM) by all of 0.002sec in the first Motostar event. It’s not just the racing, though. The rivalry might be absolute, but complete strangers nod and bid you “good morning” in the paddock – evidence that this is essentially a warm community.
And then there’s the showmanship, the way in which competitors slow down after the flag to perform crowd-pleasing burnouts. It’s natural that winners should celebrate thus, but some riders do it when they’ve finished about 23rd.
If a racing driver were to loosen their belts and attempt any form of post-race exultation, they would doubtless receive a summons from the stewards. In the bike world, it’s perfectly acceptable to stand on your pegs and wave.
Seems a better approach, somehow.
Seven days later, the large rigs and hospitality awnings had been usurped by a cocktail of caravans and trailers. The Formula Ford Festival has endured lean times since the Kent engine’s heyday, but there is again growing interest in an original concept that remains both simple and (relatively) affordable. Durable assets, both.
It was 34 years to the month since first I spoke to Martin Donnelly in a Formula Ford paddock (at Aintree, back then), yet here we were again. The Ulsterman was taking part in his first FF1600 event since the 1982 Festival – in the Masters race, arranged to lure a few familiar old-timers. “These modern cars seem to be designed only for drivers of Anthony Davidson’s size,” he said, pondering his Mygale. “I’m stuffed against the bulkhead and there’s a chassis rail sticking into my coccyx, but I’m trying hard and have the bruises to prove it. Am I enjoying it? I’m definitely enjoying the social side…” He’d finish fifth.
Long-time entrant Jonathan Lewis was also present, running a car for Miles Johnston – just as he did back in the day. “I was chatting to Martin,” he said, “and thought, ‘Look at us, still doing what we were doing 30-odd years ago. It’s almost as though we’ve achieved absolutely nothing’…”
Period hero John Village was racing, too, in a Crosslé 25F he acquired early in 2015. “I should just be here to enjoy myself,” he said, “but when I’m out on the circuit I get a bit frustrated that I’m not quite as quick as I’d like to be.”
They can burn long and hard, old fires.
More than 70 cars took part in the main event – light years from the great Festivals of yore, but edging back in the right direction – and provided a platform for some wonderful racing (including, in defiance of customary mathematical principles, three ‘semi-finals’). Wayne Boyd, the weekend’s most consistent force, eventually took a reasonably comfortable victory after the final was briefly red-flagged to allow a major oil slick to be cleared. At one point, though, he headed a lead chain featuring about 10 cars – it was quite hard to be precise, mind, in gathering gloom.
A week later Silverstone’s Walter Hayes Trophy would attract a Formula Ford entry that nudged into three figures – but only 30-odd drivers had also done the Festival. Fine events, both, but with a little co-operative collaboration they could surely be better yet.
Silverstone, October 31-November 1: warm enough to wear shorts at the Walter Hayes Trophy? Strange, but true
The opening morning’s mist took an age to shift, despite a stiff breeze. That could only be autumnal Silverstone. One day later the circuit was bathed in non-stop balmy sunshine. Usually, that could be absolutely anywhere apart from autumnal Silverstone…
Run as ever by the Historic Sports Car Club, the Walter Hayes Trophy featured its traditional blend of Formulae Ford and Libre (open and closed wheel), with the deciding round of the Historic FF2000 Championship and the Geoff Friswell Trophy for Classic Clubmans cars thrown in.
Competitive proximity was a given, but the racing was mostly as clean as it was fierce. Only in Sunday’s grand final did things become a little wayward, with a series of almost simultaneous collisions breaking up the huge lead chain and triggering a lengthy interruption. Such, though, has always been the nature of the beast.
Entries for the three Libre events included everything from the new-spec MSV Formula 4 car (having its first race) to an LMP3 Ginetta via modsports Davrians, an ex-Al Unser IROC Camaro, a brace of DKWs and a March 742: diversity at its most beguiling.
Tom Smith beat Andrew Park to the FF2000 title by a solitary point after dropped scores were taken into account (they had hitherto been level), Matt Cowley won the Historic FF1600 final after pipping race-long leader Nigel Thompson with just a couple of corners to go and Graham Carroll eventually scooped the main prize once the mid-race mayhem had dissolved.
There were ample stories behind the stories, mind. Castle Combe champion Roger Orgee qualified his Van Diemen seventh for the sixth and final heat – having been bumped back on a drying track – but suffered a driveshaft failure as he left the assembly area.
That put him 36th (aka last) on the grid for Sunday morning’s ‘progression’ race, from which the first five drivers qualified for the final ‘last-chance’ event ahead of the semis. Orgee stormed through to win the first, then lined up 31st in the second and rose swiftly to eighth before the red flag came out. Cars were restored to original grid order for the restart, with distance reduced from 10 laps to eight, but that was time enough to register victory number two. He subsequently rose from 27th to seventh in his semi and 14th to sixth in the final, though that became fifth when runner-up Peter Dempsey was excluded for a HANS infringement.
A reasonable day’s work, then, during which he’d passed more cars than some drivers manage in their entire career.
Carroll deserved all the plaudits that came his way, but was by no means alone.