There’s no way to describe the Luna Logistics Classic Formula Ford Championship other than “the Benn Tilley show”. The polite and unassuming Lincolnshire teenager took his 1970 Merlyn Mk20 to most of the season’s wins, despite being in a pre-’74 class B car that is theoretically slower than the early-’80s cars normally found at the upper end of the grid.
Tilley is the undisputed number one in 2018. If everyone who raced, won and challenged this year had run for a full season, he would have had a far larger job on his hands. His modus operandi was consistency and mechanical sympathy, but a string of superb individual performances showcased both his individual abilities and FF1600 as a whole.
Tilley’s season can be looked on as a series of challenges against a rotating cast of rivals. The competition arguably reached its highest peak at Snetterton in August. The then 18-year-old went up against Formula Ford legend Rick Morris, one of the few drivers to get the better of Ayrton Senna in a fair fight. Morris, at 71, is 53 years older than Tilley but no-one would guess this seeing them go head to head.
The second race at the Norfolk circuit was probably the best of the season: Morris passed poleman Tilley for the lead at the start and led for much of the race, but Tilley’s outstanding lines through the Bombhole and Coram allowed him to catch Morris’s Royale. He eventually made the Coram move stick and the two crossed the line almost together; Tilley came out on top by 0.047 seconds. Such narrow margins of victory were not uncommon.
Morris had his own trials in 2018. He had a strong start to the season on the Silverstone National circuit but managed to write off his Royale RP26 on the Grand Prix layout in May, barrel-rolling during a charge from the back of the grid. His Royale looked as if it had been dropped from a very great height but Morris himself suffered only bruises and annoyance. It was doubly frustrating as he had only just repaired a broken suspension beam that put him out of the first race. A newer RP29 arrived in August, just too late for Mallory but in time for Snetterton and the superbly nailbiting clash with Tilley.
Tilley’s other major early-season challenger was Mike Gardner. The mercurial Newark man only attended the Silverstone rounds having suffered a house flood, so this is more of a “what could have been”. Gardner won the first race at Silverstone in his Crossle 30/32F and set himself against Tilley for what could have been an epic scrap. His trademark long-range overtaking moves continued to rub people up the wrong way, particularly at the Silverstone National circuit where Brooklands is his favoured hunting ground; it is perhaps not a bad thing that some of his rivalries were allowed to die down. Love him or loathe him, he’s as quick as his car can makes itself wide, and something interesting always seems to happen when he races. His Silverstone efforts alone should be recognised for their speed and audacity.
The 2018 season should have been a shootout between the two Ben(n) T’s, Tilley and Tinkler. Tinkler was the chief challenger for the mid-part of the season. Rotten luck with retirements at both Silverstone events gave way to class wins at Donington and an outright victory at Mallory, after a superb battle with Tilley. Without the reliability issues that plagued his early season, even his later absences for work and family affairs wouldn’t have kept him too far out of contention. When his Van Diemen is fast, it is very very fast and he has the sort of neat and precise driving style that should be rewarded by consistency, if mechanical gremlins don’t ruin everything first.
Their rivalry was played out directly on track as well as on the time sheets, with Tinkler in hot pursuit of Tilley at Donington being one of the tensest and most exciting races of the year.
It would be great to see Tinkler come and give the championship another go, having straightened out some of his Van Diemen RF80’s tendencies to self-destruct, but he may have his eyes on bigger historic sports car prizes in 2019, having raced an MGB in various events in 2018. Another softly-spoken and outwardly mild-mannered driver, Tinkler works in the historic motorsport field and is therefore extremely well-connected. However, if he fancies settling some old scores in 2019, then he is likely to be a Classic FF1600 one to watch.
Class A champion Mark Armstrong was rather overshadowed by Tilley’s performances but his consistency paid off. He managed a class win in the first round at Silverstone but it was a string of second and third places towards the end of the season that cemented his place at the top of the leaderboard. It would have been easy for Armstrong to write off 2018 as his car developed a recurring misfire over the summer. At both Mallory and the second Snetterton race, he had to retire with a very slow Van Diemen RF80 that was doing its best impression of a tractor. He had finished third in the first race in Norfolk. The misfire was sorted slightly too late for Classic wins to be on the cards, but Armstrong’s superb showing in the Walter Hayes Trophy, where he made the Grand Final, demonstrates what a good car and driver pairing it can be. That showing came two weeks after the championship finale at Brands Hatch, where Armstrong did enough to ensure that the reasonably consistent (and consistently reasonable) Steve Pearce would finish no higher than second in the standings with his faithful Van Diemen RF78.
Also at the Formula Ford Festival, a late surge by Scott Mansell prevented Tilley from resting on his laurels too early. The Crossle 35F driver was defeated across two quite brilliant races by a combined total of 0.038s, Tilley snatching the win on the final drag to the line on each occasion. Mansell posted a class win on the Silverstone GP configuration in May, in a fevered and rather manic second race.
That meeting showcased the “Best of the Guests”, with race wins from returning champion Adriano Medeiros and historic preparation expert Simon Hadfield, whose wife Mandie is the owner of Tilley’s Merlyn. Hadfield won the first race in his Titan, passing Mansell just before the line. Tilley had been trying to follow Hadfield but could not keep up, having to settle for third, albeit less than a second down.
Medeiros won the second race from the back of the grid, having retired from the first due to troubling noises from his “Jesus Saves” Van Diemen’s exhaust. It was possibly the best individual drive of the season, as opposed to a battle, and was a welcome high point after a red flag for Morris’s accident. Gardner was second, in front of Hadfield, Mansell and Tilley.
One of the other later challenges of Tilley’s quest came from FF1600 veteran Nigel Lingwood, who managed a single win at Cadwell. It can be argued that he only won because Tilley’s axle broke in race two, but Cadwell in the wet is a cruel battleground . That didn’t seem to bother Lingwood, who with qualifying abandoned after a multiple-car incident before event the first corner, lined up fourth on the grid for the opener based on free practice times.
He was extremely fast at Mallory but was not as lucky in avoiding the dramas of others. His seventh place from a back-of-grid start showed strength in the face of chaos.
Most of the field being The Best of the Rest leaves little room for discussion of The Rest of the Rest, but we can have a go. There were one or two promising debuts in 2018, including Richard Yeomans in his Crossle, who went from struggling backmarker to regular overtaker in the course of a season.
Stuart Kestenbaum had to concede his Class B crown to Tilley but was always ready to pounce for points if the opportunity presented itself, which it increasingly did towards the end of the season. Ongoing problems with his Crossle’s suspension set-up did not seem to slow him down.
Ian Jeary had his rare Dulon out to play on a couple of occasions as well as his Elden Mk8. Jordan and Mark Harrison shared a car and Jordan, Harrison Jr, was especially strong at Mallory before something fell off his car and dumped him out of the second race. A piece of debris, this time from Mark Bates’ car, was implicated by Kevin Mansell in a crash at Mallory; he hit the debris on the exit of Gerard’s which damaged a front brake pipe and in turn caused him to crash into the barriers at the Esses.
Images courtesy of Andrew Ellis at Focus Photography