The most magical part of the Formula Ford 1600 season is about to begin, with the FFord Festival kicking off the duo of major trophy races that are such a big part of what makes the category so special.
Will this be a year when season-long form carries through to Brands Hatch and the main championships’ dominant drivers claim the autumn shootouts too? Or will 2018 prove to be one of those seasons when the returning FFord legends and wildcards upstage the season-long combatants at the Festival?
The FF1600website and Autosport teams predict the winners, and suggest some results they’d love to see.
Who’s going to win?
Matt Beer (Autosport.com deputy editor)
If you’re being totally logical, Niall Murray’s record at both Festivals past and now in two dominant National Championship seasons makes him the overwhelming favourite to rack up another win in the greatest Formula Ford event of them all. But being utterly logical isn’t really the point of a feature like this, is it? So I’m going with Keith Donegan. There is logic here too, though. 1) He’s absolutely mega and 2) a season racing in America turned Matt Cowley from ‘promising FFord racer’ to ‘potential Festival winner’ last year, and Donegan was already six tenths of a second away from being a Festival winner 12 months ago even before the huge boost of his Mazda Road to Indy Shootout triumph.
Ian Sowman (Autosport contributor)
As ever, while the field is wide open there is that nagging feeling that Niall Murray has just that slight edge over everyone else. But edges can easily be blunted at the Festival and I just wonder if this might be Oliver White’s time to shine in a major FF1600 showpiece. He is a multiple Champion of Brands over recent seasons, and has a tremendous 2018 record in Heritage FF1600 – he’s also come remarkably close to winning knockout events, notably the Walter Hayes Trophy, without actually doing so. A Souley Motorsport-run Medina provides an effective platform to launch the bid for his first major triumph.
Jack Benyon (Autosport group national editor)
Having won last year, switching cars seems odd. But Joey Foster should never be ruled out, and the car he’ll be jumping in on October 22 isn’t a bad one. It’s based on the car that won in 2017! Foster has done development work for Ralph Firman over the years, and driving the Firman 2018 at Brands may be a formidable combination. But never rule out Niall Murray!
Stephen Lickorish (Motorsport News deputy editor)
Predicting a winner of the Formula Ford Festival is almost impossible, particularly with the strong entry this year’s contest features. It’s more like choosing the Grand National victor than picking the winner of the Scottish football Premiership. But having said that, I will go with the formbook and reckon Niall Murray will triumph. He’s been dominant again this year, knows what it takes to win the Festival and will be very tough to beat.
Phil Waldron (2001 FF1600 Winter Series champion)
I’d have to pick Joey Foster for a back to back. I raced with him when he started in FF1600. He was quick from the outset and we had some good dices, so while it’s partly nostalgic, it’s also because he’s always a front-runner in FFord. I’ll also mention Niall Murray – because he’s just so fast!
Alasdair Lindsay (FF1600website Scottish FF1600 reporter)
This question has as much hope of being answered accurately by pulling a name out of a hat as it does answered in an expert manner. There’s several names who we can undeniably say are in the winning ballpark – whether it’s a literal Champion of Brands, Oliver White, Festival legend Joey Foster, Keith Donegan returning to British shores sharper than ever – and this list goes on for a fair while. But it’s hard to look past Niall Murray. The last time he was on imperious form in National FFord two years prior, he capped his title with the winner’s trophy at the Festival and Walter Hayes. With this his last FFord race in the foreseeable future, he’ll be even more determined to clinch his second Festival win.
Elliot Wood (FF1600website National FF1600 reporter)
Going off meteorological predictions, the summer heat shouldn’t be appearing at Brands Hatch this weekend, which should help 2016 winner Niall Murray’s rivals. Having waited so long for his first FF1600 win and then taken handfuls of them late in the year, my money is on Michael Eastwell to deliver.
Graham Keilloh (Autosport contributor)
A cruel question, given the extreme premium the Formula Ford Festival places on fortune and survival – in turn reducing the impact of pace and the formbook in advance. So with this is there a perverse back-to-front logic in backing Luke Cooper, on the grounds that this will be the time that his notorious extended Festival foul luck at last turns?
Mark Paulson (Autosport contributor)
You’d be hard-pushed to argue against Niall Murray being the favourite, but I’m going to tip Neil Maclennan for top honours. The super-fast Scotsman has raced only sporadically this season, but has gone well whenever he’s been in the car, and will feel like he should have won last year.
An underdog to watch
SL: Peter Dempsey hasn’t contested the Festival since 2010. He’s never won it or even taken a Final podium, and hasn’t raced in FF1600 since 2015. He even says he’s just making a return this year for “a bit of fun”. But while he may lack the recent experience of his rivals, don’t be fooled. He’s a fierce competitor and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a good result.
MB: I promise I’m not intending to insult this proven National champion by calling him an underdog, but because he missed out on a full season this year and is with the too-often under-rated Oldfield Motorsport team, I’m going to have a keen eye on Stuart Gough. He’s got a very wise racing head and knows how to pick his way to a Festival podium.
GK: I may be stretching the definition of an underdog, but Michael Eastwell is one to keep a close eye on. He benefits from that intangible, but powerful, quantity called momentum having had a series of wins lately and he trounced the rest at a recent Champion of Brands gathering. The Brands Hatch circuit seems to suit his style. If he keeps his nose clean he’ll surely be in the frontrunning mix.
AL: I’m going with a choice that could easily backfire on me here but the mercurial Josh Smith might pull a surprise. For months he struggled to gel with the Oldfield-run Van Diemen, languishing in the National FFord midfield. His car seemingly transformed at Croft, Smith was suddenly lighting the timing screens purple at every opportunity. The raw speed is there to pull a surprise – it’s just a question of how in tune he is with the car this weekend, and if he can keep the aggression that sometimes spills over into incidents and accidents in check.
MP: I was impressed by Team USA scholarship driver Jake Craig on his UK debut at Donington Park last weekend, including in the wet. But fellow Californian Carter Williams has steadily improved over the season and may be ready to spring a surprise.
JB: A regular frontrunner but never quite pulling it altogether, Chris Middlehurst could be the man to watch at this year’s Festival. Having worked hard on his Van Diemen LA10 in recent weeks, and with a switch to Bernard Dolan’s eponymous team, everything could come together for the St Helens driver.
PW: Peter Dempsey on his return to FFord. He can just get in and drive the wheels off anything. He did just that at the Walter Hayes Trophy in a Kevins Mill Racing-run Swift SC92 in 2013 but had a few mechanical gremlins which held him back. Just watch his one-handed qualifying laps in the rain!
IS: It is always fascinating to see which of the Pre-1990 entrants can get among more modern machinery. BRSCC Northern race winner Tom McArthur won’t be far away but, based on his form when the National championship visited Kirkistown, I will be keeping an eye on Mondiale-mounted Alan Davidson.
EW: After impressing on his UK debut in the National round at Donington Park, I think Team USA Scholarship winner Jake Craig could fight for overall victory if he keeps it clean.
What would be a heart-warming result?
MB: Peter Dempsey on the podium. Though some of the people he’s clashed with over the years might not like the idea of ‘Peter Dempsey’ and ‘heart-warming’ in the same sentence, he’s an electrifying racer whose emergence was a big part of the mid-2000s FF1600 revival, he’s got an Indianapolis (OK, in Indy Lights) win on his CV and it’s great to have him back.
IS: Luke Cooper has historically had pretty wretched luck at the Festival, whether it has come in testing, qualifying or during the races themselves. But he has an impressive pedigree – he’s previously won the Triple Crown and took this year’s Combe championship in the most Luke Cooper way possible, blowing his engine in the race that clinched the title. He deserves a good crack at the Festival, and having won in Nationals this year (including the final round), if he gets one he will be right at the front.
AL: Despite winning the Tourist Trophy and finishing runner-up overall to Niall Murray in National FFord this year, Michael Eastwell has gone all year without a race win when up against the best National has to offer. His consistency was unrivalled, scoring top 10 finishes in every single National race this season. But so many times he only one or two steps away from the top. It would be great, almost in a Joey Foster-esque manner, if Eastwell were to continue his strong end-of-season form by finally defeating all his National rivals with one of the biggest victories FFord has to offer.
EW: Having previously coached George Russell, who will become a Williams Formula 1 driver next year, I think Joey Foster taking a record fourth victory would be a good reminder that not all great British talents end up in F1.
JB: With a fitness regime that puts drivers half his age to shame, I’ll be looking out for the zealous and exuberantly-driven Royale RP29 of Rick Morris this weekend. The one-time FF1600 rival of Ayrton Senna, category champion and all-around rapid pilot is in his 47th season of racing and his 71st in life. What a great story if he can do some giant-killing and teach a few whippersnappers a lesson.
GK: Surely few competitors encapsulate the Festival spirit of friendliness, competitiveness and the technical thread of Formula Ford history quite like perma-smiling Irishman Mark Armstrong, who is competing in his now 38-year-old Van Diemen RF80. At last year’s Festival he gave those in newer machinery plenty to think about, and missed out on qualifying for the final by a mere half second. It’d be great to see him make the final one year on.
MP: Hopes were high for past champion Stuart Gough’s return to the National Championship this year, but after sponsorship funds failed to materialise, his season ended after just one round. A good showing at the blue riband event would be the perfect recompense and show what might have been.
SL: I would like Vincent Radermecker to get a decent result. Back for the first time in over 25 years, his return to the Festival is a brilliant story. And speaking to him, it’s clear he loves this event. He may be in older machinery and hasn’t raced single-seaters for decades but it would be great for him to improve on his previous Festival best of ninth.
Do you agree with our selections? Who do you think will be standing on the top step of the podium come Sunday afternoon? And which stories in the paddock will you be following closely as the weekend unfolds? Below is the confirmed draw for Saturday’s trio of heat races – a chance to map out your favoured driver’s route to victory.
Of all three heats, the third might be considered the most stacked of all, with Foster, Cooper, White, and Eastwell, plus other National frontrunners Rory Smith and Matt Round-Garrido all together. Let us know in the comments below who your picks are for Festival winner, dark horse and potential feel-good story of the weekend.
Update: Heats were redrawn on Friday, with our article updated accordingly.