Rain and reduced visibility meant last Sunday’s Formula Ford Festival was declared after just two laps under dark clouds – literally and metaphorically. The paddock wasn’t pleased, but how avoidable was it?
After three days of testing and two days of exciting race action, 30 drivers made their way to the grid (and the Brands Hatch pitlane) ready to start the final of the 51st running of the Formula Ford Festival. The starting lights went out at 5:05pm, and racing got underway on a dry track and with the sun still in the sky.
According to several weather report providers, but not all, rain was scheduled to hit imminently. The teams knew it was coming, and many had gone for car set-ups that would cover off both weather eventualities, while some adjusted the suspension and rideheight ready for a deluge to arrive.
And two minutes after the start, the rain came. The intense and sudden rain storm led to several drivers going off, and lap three was run behind the safety car. Before the fourth lap was completed, the race had already been red-flagged. The remaining runners were stopped on the pit straight while those in the gravel were recovered, and they remained there for four minutes before being led around to the pitlane. That took another three minutes, by which point the cloud cover had blocked out all sunlight and in addition to the continuing rain there was now a fierce wind that had picked up and was blowing leaves and dirt across the track.
While a restart was still being considered, the grid had been sent back to the pits after the clerk of the course issued a message saying adjustments could be made to all cars to make them suitable for the wet conditions. Formula Scout was in the pitlane at the time, and witnessed what happened next.
At first there was confusion, although crews had already headed up from the lower paddock ready to make changes, and the bosses of several large teams got together at the pit exit and had a heated discussion on what to do next.
There was also different stances on race control’s message, as some – motivated in part by wanting to retain a competitive advantage having started the race on a ‘wet set-up’ – were saying the cars could not be touched by team members during red flag periods as they were currently under parc ferme conditions.
Another key difference was in understanding what a restart would mean. Would action resume from the end of lap three, lap two, or would the race even start over entirely? If it was the latter, it made the message to change set-ups make more sense to those in the pitlane. But with the BRSCC not checking what changes were being made, it was a decision made on trust.
The drivers meanwhile sat in the order they had been in at the end of lap three, with Ammonite Motorsport’s Max Esterson leading Don Hardman Racing’s Joey Foster and Kevin Mills Racing’s Jordan Dempsey. It took another three minutes before it was decided not to restart the race, and Esterson was declared winner. His team ran over to congratulate him, and with a clearing sky now behind them as the clouds started to shift.
Once the celebrations were over, the field then awaited the message to head back to the paddock. 2021 Festival winner Jamie Sharp jumped the gun, with the B-M Racing driver departing the queue and splashing his way to the front. He was ordered to stop by several officials due to how many people were stood in what was technically not a live pitlane, and after ignoring those requests and a subsequent summoning to the stewards, he was then disqualified from eighth place on-the-road.
Timing screens showed the results being set back to the end of lap two, which restored Michael Eastwell in fourth after the KMR driver was punted off at Druids by Ammonite’s Thomas Schrage on lap three. But Eastwell was absent from the final amended results, as was Team DDR’s David McCullough who was in seventh before being spun into the pit wall by Schrage under safety car conditions at the end of the lap.
“Coming round out of Clearways I’ve seen that the safety car was out. I slowed down and the people behind me didn’t see I’d slowed down and someone hit the back of me,” McCullough said afterwards.
“It’s disappointing because I had the car on a full wet set-up, which didn’t work very well the first two laps. I lost a couple of places, then the rain started and I think I had a chance. Most of those in front of me had dry set-ups. If it had continued I don’t know if I’d have won it but it could have been a podium. That’s just the FFord Festival for you, it’s a lottery.”
Esterson described the win as “unbelievable”, and didn’t have much to add after that given how little racing he had to do at the front. He was one of the drivers who started on a ‘full dry’ set-up, and said “I managed to hold on for half a lap when it was wet, barely, but it was pretty tricky”.
Ammonite team boss Andy Low added it felt “fantastic” to win and “couldn’t be more happy” for his team, and that the pitlane debates had included “a little bit of politics”.
“Obviously everyone loves the Festival and that’s why there’s so many people here, and repeat entries year-on-year,” Low said. “It’s just a shame that the race had to finish as it did. Maybe in the future we need to sneak it forwards.”
As the rain hit the track in different areas in slightly different moments, Esterson wasn’t actually the first to encounter it, and neither was runner-up Foster the first driver having to handle driving in spray.
“I mean, standing water in these cars isn’t that much of an issue, but is it more the visibility,” FF1600 veteran Foster explained.
“It was quite a thick cloud cover, and that really dimmed the light. And even behind the safety car with the lights being on, it was just bouncing off and reflecting everywhere and made it even harder to see Max, so god knows what it was like back in the spray. Probably the right call, but ultra frustrating we didn’t get a race because five days of build-up, and we had that.”
Dempsey had similar words about the ‘sketchy’ conditions in third place.
“With the darkness it was a little bad, but we all knew it was coming all day,” he said. “We could have pre-empted it maybe and moved a few things. But, it is what it is. Very, very disappointed because those couple of laps we were racing, I was so much quicker than the lads in front of me. I think I was eight tenths quicker a lap or something like that, so I really felt this win is mine and I was fired up for it.”
Dempsey had gone from fifth to third on lap one, then on lap two had been 0.864 seconds faster than the leader.
“I was kind of on a in-between set-up. I think Joey was on a full wet, so if it did rain I think it would have been – well it did rain – if it went ahead it would have been hard to beat him.
“It’s just when the adrenaline kind of cools down you just really feel the disappointment of what could have been.”
“It’s been a brilliant year,” added the 2022 BRSCC National FF1600 champion. “I’ve had best result I’ve had in everything. Like I’ve barely even finished a Festival, never mind get a podium at it. So I suppose I have to be pleased with that, but nobody remembers who comes second and third at the Festival, it’s only the winner. And to be the National champion, a week, two weeks before the first round, I didn’t think I was going to be racing anything until Kevin gave me the call.”
Dempsey won’t be contesting next week’s Walter Hayes Trophy, as he’s working as a mechanic in a six-hour Ford Fiesta race.
Team Dolan’s Chris Middlehurst, Dempsey’s predecessor as National champion, was less impressed with how Sunday ended.
“Big anti-climax. Testing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, building the car from scratch. We had the chassis, that was it,” he said.
“We get here and we had a good weekend, and we gambled for wet set-up for the final. And that rain started to come in, and I thought ‘this race is ours now’.
“I knew Niall [Murray] was similar on set-up, we had a strong chance of winning that. A podium at the least I think, 100%. But for them to call it so early. I’m not sure of the exact rules, but the principle of it really, all that effort and to race for two laps.
“It just really is hard to take in. All the effort, and you don’t get a proper race. They started the race too late, should have been 4pm, 4:30pm. But 5pm, we knew that the rain was coming, and more the point the sunset today was 5:47pm. So you start the race at five, by 5:25pm the sun’s already over the trees at the back of Clearways, the light is rapidly falling away from you.
“This time of the year, it’s probably a good chance it’s going to rain, so it’s just common sense to have the race earlier and put some of the other races back that have got headlights. Saloon cars, etc. They should be after. But we need to as a group, as a paddock, get together and argue that this shouldn’t have really happened that late.
“If I am to compete in this event again, which I obviously will like to, but at this moment I don’t really want to because they’ve annoyed a lot of people with how they handled it. Especially like under the red flag, people working on cars, parc ferme conditions and they said under safety grounds you can change set-up. Which is kind of irrelevant because you’ve got the one tyre in this formula, so set-up is really an opinion.
“Yes we know that set-up has a big influence on the car and you could argue – but the fact remains that it’s one tyre so whether you put 10psi or 50psi in it, that’s your call. If you go off in the gravel and crash, or you’d have to come in because you got no pace, that’s your own fault. One team can’t argue that it’s safety grounds because they got the set-up wrong.
“We gambled wet, we were in a very strong position, a lot of commotion in the pitlane because people were protecting the fact that they had the set-up right and people were trying to change it because they were wrong. It’s just a mess. I’m not very happy about it, and we just didn’t get a fair race at all, really. So I don’t think they should really have awarded it, to be honest with you. It’s a bittersweet thing I suppose for them.”
Middlehurst called for next year’s final to start no later than 4:30pm. What needs to be considered in this debate is the race date. If the 2023 Festival is on the final weekend of October, then the final will be on the day the clocks change so sunset would be an hour earlier.
“Get the semi-finals done in the morning and do the final in the afternoon. It’s always the case here, that fading light. Yes it creates a bit more [emotion] about it; it is quite cool if it’s dry and the sun’s setting. But it’s proven today that it was a massive failure because all these people have come from all over the place, all over the world in fact: America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. We wanted to see a race and we didn’t get a race today, so from that ballway, everyone’s come all over the place to watch that final.
“We all know it can be the most amazing racing you’ll see on the planet, literally, but that wasn’t to be today. And the BRSCC are unfortunately to blame for that. I’m sorry, but they are.
“And I just want to say also there was a real lack of scrutineering I found, we didn’t even get weighed in the semi-final. So really need to tighten the belt for next year, because a lot of effort goes into behind the scenes, people don’t realise.”
Middlehurst’s team boss Bernard Dolan was just as damning about the event organisation and the red flagged final.
“It should never have happened, and the only reason why it happened was the red flag, that’s parc ferme,” Dolan said.
“The rules are simple, you’re not allowed to touch your cars. Irrespective of what the clerk of the course says. That is the spirit of the class, always has been and always should be respected. If so and so goes on a certain set-up before the race, that’s it, end of story. We don’t have wet tyres, we have just one type of tyre. So that didn’t help the situation. And that scenario of us team bosses having heated discussions only happened because of the clerk of the course making that decision. Which should not have been made.
“And then the other thing which boils down to the BRSCC, this event always starts at 4pm, for years and years. Why on earth did it start at 5pm. Absolute, utter farce. So the BRSCC need to have a good look at themselves in the mirror, going forward as a club, how they run things. Because collectively as a group we do not want to partake in such events which are not run properly. If you look around this paddock, look at the expense that it has taken, from a lot of people coming from abroad here, to be run by a bunch of clowns. I’m sorry, it’s [true].”
In recent years the Festival final has begun at around 4pm, although in 2018 the final officially began for a third time at 5:41pm as the race had to be restarted twice due to crashes in the two and six-lap stints that took place before the eight laps of running that were taken as the results, in 2017 it started at 4:44pm and in 2016 at 5:05pm. The three before that all began before 4:30pm, despite the 2015 edition being another that had to be restarted.
Dolan’s criticisms went beyond what Formula Scout has put to print, but added that the farcical conclusion to this year’s final – which was being livestreamed around the world via YouTube – now “makes it hard for us to attract drivers from abroad”.
But the paddock reaction was not a situation where one time could speak on behalf of all with their gripes, and there were more magnanimous views around the outcome of the day’s events.
“I don’t think anything could be done about the timing of the final during the day,” KMR boss Kevin Mills commented.
“The timetable was set a long time before they knew the rain was coming. But perhaps some learning in the future would be not to run the final last. I know it’s always been like that, but we quite often end up running in quite dark conditions. So maybe bring it forward to 3:30pm, just bring the timetables a bit forward for all the FFords, and I think we would all prefer that.
“Scrutineering, I think it’s been okay. We’ve had cars weighted and rideheights and things done. Not [weighed] every session, but that’s not always the case anyway. If any of my cars have finished anywhere near the front, they’ve been weighed.”
On the race control message that allowed set-up tweaks during a red flag period, he added: “I think that was the right choice. At that point we might have still been going out racing, so it was dangerous to send the cars out [unchanged]. We had set our cars up for the conditions we had at the beginning of the race, which was dry.
“Yes, some teams gambled on it raining, but we’d not done three laps, it was counted back, it was to be a full restart, there was no reason not to be able to change the cars to make them safe. It was unsafe, so I think it was the right choice. I don’t think they did anything wrong.
“It was just a pure safety thing. Half of the grid was set up for dry conditions, and we could have had a really bad accident. When you see we’d already had a bad accident this weekend with Matt Rivett, we should all be thankful he’s okay. So to be arguing about making the cars safer as the conditions had changed is just stupid really. The clerk made the right call there.”
Formula Scout put the competitors’ complaints and concerns to Andy Holley, the BRSCC’s senior clerk of the course over the Festival weekend, as when their remarks had been made they had yet to discuss their concerns directly with the BRSCC and therefore gain an understanding of how differently proceedings could have actually played out.
“I will disagree with your assertation that ‘knowing that rain would be arriving at exactly the time it did‘,” Holley said in reply.
“As a professional pilot I was checking every weather resource available to me on the Sunday (as I do every day) and there was absolutely no consistency in their forecasts. When it did became clearer at lunchtime from the Met Office weather radar that there was a squally line of showers approaching from the south, I was confident that the heavy rain within them would only affect the circuit after the final, but that the final might be affected by light rain ahead of the squall line [the fast-moving forefront of a storm].”
The storm brought thunder and lightning, which was an additional danger for spectators and marshals around the track without immediate shelter to move under should the lightning have struck the track.
“Nevertheless, I pushed on with the timetable as much as possible, and considering the number of accidents, incidents and stoppages that occurred, to be ahead of schedule when the final started is testament to the efforts of the marshals, recovery crews and officials,” continued Holley.
“There have been suggestions that the Last Chance Race should have been sacrificed to make way for the final; however there was a published timetable and start time for the final, which for a variety of reasons (live television etc.) should be honoured. The fact that the showers arrived with an immediate biblical downfall of rain was not forecast nor expected.”
“The decision to allow changes to be made to car settings whilst in parc ferme conditions was only made after consultation with an experienced FFord driver and the Motorsport UK steward, and it was made on safety grounds.
“Whilst I am aware that some teams had already made set-up changes ahead of the final, the Motorsport UK steward and myself are ultimately responsible for the safety of competitors and officials, hence the call.”
“The decision to declare the results at lap two and to not restart the final was again taken in consultation with the Motorsport UK steward. We considered the fact that an electrical storm was over the circuit, and that there was standing water on the circuit in several places; and that conditions were unlikely to improve significantly before dusk. We also considered the safety of the volunteer marshals and officials in making our decision.”
At the end of the day, there is no criticism that can really stick on a race being stopped and not restarted when that is the safest possible thing to do, and the FF1600 community would far rather live with a two-lap encounter rather than the ‘what if’ of carnage that could have occurred had more racing taken place.
But while Formula Scout was collecting paddock reaction post-race, the skies cleared almost entirely and set up a stunning sunset-lit vista that it would have been great to see the Festival final restart under. And there was no doubting that Esterson was a deserving winner. It just means competitors are now even more hungry to do well in next week’s Walter Hayes Trophy!
Addtional reporting by Steve Whitfield