Three qualifying sessions topped from three. Five fastest laps from six. Ending with a crushing unbeaten run of four race victories. And it all helped him to a Mazda Road to Indy shootout ticket, with a prize on offer that he’s coveted since early this season.
This year’s Champion of Brands series was mostly about one man. Formula Ford’s rising star Michael Eastwell of Kevin Mills Racing.
And the trajectory of his rise should not be underestimated. At the point of June’s opening Champion of Brands round he’d never won a car race. By the end of the three-round series, it was as if he couldn’t do anything else but triumph. It was down to the usual brew of experience plus the assurance brought from knowing you can win.
“I would just say myself I’ve improved a lot over the last couple of years,” Eastwell explains. “[I have] a bit more experience and the first [Champion of Brands] weekend I felt very much set to win that race but that would have been my first race win in cars. And the difference two months later [for the second round] was I’d already won two races at Silverstone in the Northern round.”
Furthermore, the Brands Hatch Indy circuit is a particularly happy hunting ground for him.
“It’s somewhere that I just sort of gelled with this year, really started to enjoy driving there,” Eastwell continues. “It’s somewhere that’s just really flowed for me and in all honesty I’ve been up against quite a few different people in the team this year and I’ve had just a little bit over everyone there this year, just seems to suit my driving style.”
The first double-header round didn’t go to plan for Eastwell however, despite starting his Spectrum from the front in race one.
“I was on pole position and leading the race, a third of the race,” he says, “and we came up against some backmarkers and unfortunately I got boxed in.” It meant Ollie White – a man with plenty of Champion of Brands success on his CV – was able to jump him and take the win in his Medina Sport. Luke Cooper’s Swift Cooper got past Eastwell before the end too, leaving him third.
“Considering, [it] was still really good,” Eastwell notes of the result.
“Unfortunately the second race trying to move back up through the field, tried to make a move on Nico Gruber and we had some contact and I finished in the wall.
“It was one of the only few DNFs I had in the year but it was a weekend that promised a lot and left a little bit deflated having set the pace, but such is racing.”
White though was far from deflated, and not just because he won the round’s second race too, again holding off Cooper.
“The first Champion of Brands was probably my most satisfying meeting of the year,” White says. “I hadn’t driven the car since the Walter Hayes the previous year, we literally turned up on the day, put the car on the track in qualifying on old tyres and we managed to win both races which we were really happy about.
“Luke Cooper also drove really well and put me under some pressure, we had a great race in the second race.”
The second Champion of Brands meeting, sponsored by VeriVin and taking place in August, was a different story. Eastwell claimed two imperious wins, while White mysteriously lacked pace and only managed distant second and fourth place finishes.
“The only conclusion we came to was we had a bad set of tyres because the car was just sliding around all day, we had no pace at all,” White says. “We back-to-backed the tyres in the testing at the Festival, we found half a second when we put a different set on.”
In a reversal from the first meeting though, Eastwell was pleased this time, particularly with receiving the Bert Ray Memorial Trophy for his second win of the day. “That was probably one of the highs of the season, it was really fantastic to win that,” he says.
“Actually that weekend we did a day at Brands on the Saturday and won those two races and then we went to Castle Combe on the Monday, we won the second race at Castle Combe so we had three out of four wins that weekend! Good memories for sure.”
Eastwell also bagged the two wins in November’s season-closing Champion of Brands round, sponsored by TetraBoost. Despite by now being well into his imperious habit Eastwell had another close challenge, this time from Kevin Mills team-mate Neil Maclennan. Eastwell only just held off the Scotsman in race one and also was briefly headed by him in race two before winning with more comfort.
“Obviously he finished runner-up in the National championship last year and he’s always quick,” Eastwell notes of his rival, “so [he] definitely kept me on my toes that weekend but fortunately just continued my really good pace at Brands.
“I really can’t stress how fantastic Kevin and the team have been this year,” Eastwell continues, “they’re a really a great bunch of people and he’s given me a great car this year and last year but my skillset has come on a lot since 2017, I’ve just been able to deliver the goods a little bit more this season. I can’t thank Kev enough and I can’t recommend him enough to everyone, a really fantastic operation that he runs.”
The respective grid numbers in the first two Champion of Brands meetings this year were 20 and 18, but it dropped to 10 for this final round. Eastwell feels that despite this, the series maintained real strength in depth among the frontrunners.
“It tended to be that the top six were really close to each other,” he notes, “especially the August rounds, but all rounds have had really good competitors in because in June I was racing Ollie White, Luke Cooper, Nico Gruber and then in August yet again I was racing Ollie White, I was racing James Raven who’d won the Festival there, Jamie Thorburn, Rory Smith, certainly some good names. And then even the end races of the year keeping me on my toes [was] Neil Maclennan.”
Series organiser James Beckett was happy too. “I was really pleased with it this year,” he says of the 2018 series. “It was really solid, it was probably the most competitive Champion of Brands in depth and with numbers that there’s ever been in the time I’ve run it. I brought it back in 2010 and it’s ebbed and flowed and it’s had some reasonable grids, it’s had some strong grids, it’s had some poor grids, but this season was solid throughout.
“It was good, it was solid, it’s got a stalwart base, runners who traditionally come from the South or the South East of the country, and we’re looking to do more of the same next year.”
And as noted, it got even better for Eastwell too, as his Champion of Brands success helped him get the SuperSeries nomination to take part in the post-season Mazda Road to Indy shootout near Phoenix, where the prize on offer is a $200,000 scholarship to race in the USF2000 series, the fourth tier on the Road to Indy ladder. Eastwell moreover has for months identified USF2000 as his ideal next career step for 2019.
It means Eastwell is a particularly strong advocate of competing in the Champion of Brands. “I’d say anyone that wants to have a chance of getting to the shootout and potentially the next step on the Road to Indy then James Beckett’s series was just an amazing opportunity to go and do that,” he says. “Any other drivers that want to do that I would definitely be looking towards James Beckett’s series for 2019.
“Winning Champion of Brands has given me the opportunity to do this shootout, and I just think honestly James runs an absolutely fantastic series.”
Former shootout participant White is similarly positive. “I really enjoyed the Champion of Brands this year, where it’s one-off individual races you can pick and choose which ones you do and keep the cost down! It’s a very fun series with a really likeable crowd.”
It’s been particularly fun for Eastwell this year. “It’s been a great 2018, it really has,” he concludes, “and the Champion of Brands for sure has been one of our highlights.”