On the road with Simon Arron

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Turning up the heats

Brands Hatch, October 22-23: The Formula Ford Festival might be less intense than once it was, but it retains the capacity to absorb

It felt like the kind of morning when you’d leave the pits and start to generate tyre temperature about three weeks the following Tuesday, but Formula Ford Festivals were ever thus. Through the unshifting autumnal mist, the first thing I spotted was the jaunty hat of commentary doyen Ian Titchmarsh. Remarkably, despite having cradled a microphone more or less since the wheel’s invention, he had never previously attended a Festival – even though the 2016 edition was the 45th (the first four at Snetterton, the subsequent 41 at Brands).

The event’s zenith might lie somewhere in the past, when the entry nudged 200 and required eight heats to begin separating cream from crop, but the competitive tension survives. Anthony Davidson (2001) was the most recent Festival winner to graduate later to a Formula 1 race seat, but to many the event retains its pedagogic purpose. That’s why the United States and Canada send young race scholarship winners to this and Silverstone’s Walter Hayes Trophy (which will doubtless feature here in the next edition).

Earlier in the month on the Brands Hatch GP loop I’d watched the final rounds of UK motor sport’s contemporary entry-level class, the awkwardly named ‘F4 British Championship certified by FIA – powered by Ford’. The field was ripe with gifted youngsters, but beyond the start the slicks-and-wings racers tended largely to follow each other equidistantly. Yes, in most cases the drivers have learned about positional racecraft in karts, but to achieve the same thing in cars (useful, if one day you fancy defending against Max Verstappen) there is still no substitute – to my mind – for the uncluttered purity of an original Kent-engined Formula Ford chassis.

With sufficient cars only for three heats, two semis, one last-chance race and the headline final, the balance of the programme featured Ford Fiestas, Classic and Masters FF1600, the Ireland-based ASK Supercars (a cocktail of Stryker kit cars and saloons that look a bit like short-wheelbase Mondeos) and Sports 2000. The timetable was tight – not helped by several red flags – but the BRSCC kept things ticking over with remarkable vim.

If organising clubs behaved this urgently during the summer’s height, they could probably add an extra couple of races to most meetings.

Festival winner in 2011, Scott Malvern (Mygale GV15-K) took pole for the final and led until Niall Murray (Van Diemen RF99) found a way through and pulled clear. That left Malvern to fend off Chris Middlehurst (Van Diemen LA10) and Luke Williams, driving in one of the Firman RF16s crafted by Van Diemen founder Ralph Firman (who returned as an FF1600 constructor in 2016 after a lengthy absence).

Spare a thought for Team USA scholar Oliver Askew (Ray GR15), who had competed in only three car meetings before being thrown in at the deep end with a Kent engine in Kent. The 19-year-old finished on the podium in his heat and semi, then briefly challenged Malvern for second in the final before a puncture stifled his challenge – a reminder of the Festival’s capacity to showcase emerging talent.

There was disappointment, too, for successful Mini racer Jonathan Lewis, who had long been planning a return to Formula Ford (which last he graced circa 1980, in a slightly tatty PRS). Now armed with a pristine Reynard FF89, he had planned to race at Snetterton earlier this year, but foul weather persuaded him to postpone his comeback. Mini commitments then dominated his season, but now he was poised. “I never competed in the Festival back in the day,” he said, “probably because I was usually skint by October.”

A misfire compromised his performance in qualifying and his distributor then failed as he sat in the assembly area, awaiting the start of his heat. That was his Festival over before it had started – and in the Masters race he was eliminated after a lap and a half when another car spun into his path. Despite all of which, he described it – in both sporting and social terms – as “a great event”.

I’m inclined to agree.

The ASK Supercars were by no means as entertaining as the Northern Irish Zetec Fiestas (the 1995-2001 variety) they had effectively replaced on the bill, and the second S2000 race was probably a bit too long for the occasion, at half an hour in gathering darkness on Sunday afternoon, but much of the racing was a delight to behold. 

As post-race festivities commenced in the Kentagon bar, I returned home to butter some toasted crumpets – the perfect seasonal accompaniment to a fine weekend.

End of the campaign trail

Thruxton, October 8 & Oulton Park, October 15: The season winds down on the western side of the UK, at venues 200 miles apart

My 54-plate Fiat Punto doesn’t have many extras, other than more or less knowing its own way from circuit to circuit, but I did take the liberty of fitting a DAB radio – useful for cricket test matches and, occasionally, Formula 1. It would have been nice, buzzing along the A303, to hear some authoritative analysis of how the Japanese GP weekend was progressing at Suzuka, but instead the headlines were still being made by Lewis Hamilton’s perceived petulance.

As I peeled into the car park to watch my first motorcycle race meeting at Thruxton, I suspected few of the participants were likely to be taking photographs of each other and adding rabbit ears via the miracle of Snapchat filters. I’m not sure there could be a greater contrast anywhere in sport than that between the F1 paddock and the no-nonsense, real-world stance of a bike clubbie.

Time, then, to douse a sausage sandwich in HP sauce and get on with the day.

A clashing car fixture at Castle Combe probably didn’t help crowd numbers, but – sidecars apart – a concurrent bike meeting at Brands Hatch appeared not to have a deleterious effect on the entry. Most grids were full and classes were mixed in such a way that, occasionally, two riders would be using the same race number at the same time, but that seems not to matter in bike racing.

Thruxton might be used relatively infrequently, but on its rare race days it revels in its status as the UK’s fastest permanent circuit. Average lap speeds might be some way short of prime-time Manx TT, but the body language of amateur racers lapping an old airfield just shy of 110mph remains something to behold.

* * *

Contrary to what TS Eliot might have written about April, October always used to feel like the cruellest month for it signalled the annual curtailment of racing at Oulton Park. As, indeed, it still does.

Despite that regrettable inevitability, it remains one of the best times of the year to appreciate the circuit, with the backdrop caught in two minds between summer and autumn. The immaculate green and gold Cortina GT of Alan and Kelvin Hassell complemented the surroundings perfectly, though sadly it was destined not to race after being significantly rumpled against the Warwick Bridge tyre barrier during practice. Paul Greathead’s Lotus Elan came to an even more violent halt at the same point, the impact being sufficient to separate the car from its fuel tank although the driver was unharmed.

As has been mentioned previously in this column, the Classic Sports Car Club sets a shining example in this day and age, with an open-door policy that ensures full, diverse fields at the vast majority of its meetings.

Many of the races lasted 40 minutes, though the combined special saloons/modsports field was restricted to 15 to accommodate period temperament. Some might have found the former too long, but it offered spectators a chance to watch from different vantage points and gave drivers enough time to make up for time penalties that are applied to winners from one race to the next, in a bid to keep things interesting.

The meeting concluded with a Meteor Suspension Open Series twilight race that finished in almost pitch darkness. It produced a stirring battle between Caterham drivers Gary Bate and Jonathan Mitchell, who swapped positions frequently and were but half a second apart when the chequered flag fell after 36 minutes.

Their opposition included many other cars of similar stripe, a few BMWs, a couple of Honda Integras, a Lotus Elan and, engagingly, a Triumph Vitesse.

Not often that you see one of those in competitive trim.