It’s the nature of Formula Ford that entry lists change drastically every year – even mid-season. But there’s a feeling of a bigger shift at play as the 2019 Avon Tyres BRSCC National Formula Ford 1600 season gears up. Last year’s dominant champion Niall Murray is gone, heading back to his native Ireland to drive sideways in a Nissan Silvia instead of straight ahead in a Van Diemen. There’s no Joey Foster or Don Hardman Racing present either, who are focusing on developing their Firman chassis in test sessions instead, while Luke Cooper is scaling back his involvement to focus on his ‘home’ championship, Castle Combe FF1600. Matt Round-Garrido has crossed the Atlantic to race in the US, while 2018 runner-up Michael Eastwell hung up his helmet entirely at the start of this year.
So what’s left? The grid numbers might be a little smaller but there’s a whole batch of new title contenders and a few dark horses, opening up the prospect of a much closer championship fight than last year’s Murray steamroller.
Four drivers appear most likely to be on the pace from the first lap of the first race at Snetterton. Two of these have a head start on the others, as Team Dolan’s Ross Martin and B-M Racing’s Rory Smith went toe-to-toe during last weekend’s Northern FF1600 meeting at Oulton Park. They scored a win each, with Martin defending masterfully in the first race while driving Murray’s Van Diemen from last year. Smith had the edge on speed all weekend long though, having taken pole position and then pulling away once he had passed Martin in race two. But he is the reigning Champion of Oulton, after all.
Both Martin and Smith are very much on form. Martin comes off the back of two consecutive Scottish Formula Ford titles and, while it wasn’t against the strongest field, he scored maximum points last year. Smith meanwhile found another gear at the National finale at the end of 2018, racking up his first wins in the series at Donington Park in the wet. He seems to be on top of the Medina JL18 now, which he was entrusted with developing at the start of the year.
Kevin Mills Racing and Cliff Dempsey Racing are never to be counted out. Both enter 2019 with drivers likely to give Martin and Smith a hard time. In KMR’s case, they have Martin’s predecessor as Scottish FF1600 champion, Neil Maclennan, who first joined the team at the 2018 Festival. Michael Moyers and Michael Eastwell have both shown the Spectrum is as good as any Ray or Van Diemen on the grid and Maclennan’s already a race winner, though his appearances have been patchy over the past two seasons. Hopefully this time around, he’ll be able to see out the season and contend for honours.
As for CDR, James Clarke’s first season of single-seaters is now out of the way. His pace was transformed by a switch from MCK Motorsport’s Mygale to one of Cliff Dempsey’s Rays, immediately challenging for victory on his debut with the team at Croft last year. If he can continue his upward trajectory into this year, a title challenge is definitely on the cards.
The Dark Horses
Oldfield Motorsport is fielding an all-new line-up for 2019, with its Formula Ford Festival winner Josh Smith moving on to McLaren’s Young Driver Development Program in British GT. Spearheading its line-up this time is a former Team USA Scholarship driver, Aaron Jeansonne, whose best result with the CDR-run Team USA was 13th at the Festival in 2017. But there were signs of his raw pace at the Walter Hayes Trophy, where, after retiring from his heat, he charged from 22nd to seventh place in the wet Progression race, 0.4s shy of the last progression slot. More impressively though, he was 1.3s faster than anyone else over a single lap in that race, with another 0.3s in the bank when considering his ideal splits put together.
Will he be hassling the likes of Martin and Smith from the off? Maybe, though it’s equally as likely it might take a few races to get back up to speed. Jeansonne hasn’t raced competitively since his USF2000 campaign was curtailed due to a lack of budget. That was at Virginia International Raceway, over 10 months ago. And pounding in laps on Project Cars 2 can only keep you so sharp. He can be a race winner this year: the only question is how quickly gets back into the swing of things.
Clarke’s CDR team-mate Jonathan Browne struggled last year. He was quite consistently finishing behind all of his team-mates last year; not only Clarke but Maclennan, Jamie Thorburn (who’ll be rejoining the series with the new Border Reivers team at Anglesey) and rookie Nico Gruber. Nothing seemed to go right for him in 2018. But this year looks like it might be a turning point for Browne – word on the street is that he was lapping at the same pace as Clarke during pre-season testing at Snetterton. If that suggestion bears truth, he’ll be fighting for podiums rather than top 10s this year.
Jeansonne isn’t the only transatlantic traveller in BRSCC National FF1600 this year. Fellow American racer Spike Kohlbecker has ended up at CDR in much the same way as Jeansonne did in 2017 – though not officially a Team USA Scholarship driver, it was a recommendation from programme founder Jeremy Shaw that helped seal the deal. He’s got experience in similar cars too, racking up several podiums in Canadian F1600 last year and in New Zealand F1600 earlier this year. That’s quite extraordinary when you consider he’s still only 16 years old. Race wins may be a stretch but he’s immediately favourite for rookie of the year honours.
Oldfield has also entrusted its second full-time National entry to a rookie, Scott Huntley. He’s graduated straight out of karting to the National FF1600 scene, having spent the last few years competing in the BirelART UK Junior series.
Team Dolan is also effectively fielding three National rookies in Morgan Quinn, Jamie Sharp and Clubman class driver Max Marzorati, though thanks to the rules around the brand new class, neither Sharp nor Marzorati are eligible for Rookie honours. Sharp’s cause is helped by experience in Formula 4, which based on Ross Martin’s form since his switch to FFord from said series, will put him in good stead for the year ahead.
There’s one more rookie in the Pro class set to race at the championship opener not mentioned above. Kevin Mills Racing is fielding a third Spectrum for a driver that’s never raced in single seaters before. But this racing rookie is rather different, thanks to being a twice Formula 1 champion. An F1 Esports champion, to be more precise.
Brendon Leigh, who is signed to the factory Mercedes team in the official F1 Esports league, isn’t the first driver to attempt this switch – Sebastian Job switched a game controller for a Van Diemen by competing for B-M Racing last year as part of the JMR Scholarship.
As a double F1 eSports champion, Leigh is one of the most prolific Esports drivers in the world. How that translates to the racetrack will be fascinating to watch. He won’t be doing the full season, with only a part-time season with KMR slated at present, though team boss Mills is very open to the idea of extending their arrangement. His one lap pace is said to be pretty close to that of team-mates Maclennan and Macpherson, according to Mills. If he can get the racecraft right, top 10 finishes straight out of the box might not be that far out of reach.
The Clubmen (and Clubwoman)
Unlike last year, where everyone and their dog were stuffed into the Pro category, there’s a near-even split between Pro and Clubman drivers this year. That’s great news for a category that features machinery as little as three years old to as much as three decades old.
It’s quite difficult to pick out a Clubman title favourite from the names present; much like in the main game, Team Dolan has a strong chance with Max Marzorati, who won the Festival Last Chance race last year, and team-mate Adam Quartermaine was able to pull out some decent pace at Oulton Park last weekend on his debut with the team, aside from an off-road moment when he demolished a polystyrene marker.
Henry Chart looked racy for Oldfield at last week’s Champion of Brands meet but is only entering on a part-time basis, so John Svensson’s eponymous team, made up of the Swedish team owner and Swiss returnee Pascal Monbaron in Van Diemens, might be the main challenge to Dolan’s quest for domination. Another of the ‘big teams’ is represented in the Clubman class too, with B-M Racing fielding Nicole Woods, who competed in her first ever motor race in last week’s Northern meeting at Oulton Park.
Klaus-Dieter Haeckel is trying his hand at the National series after appearing at either the Festival or Walter Hayes Trophy every season for the past nine years, including a Historic Final win at the former in 2017. While he’s driving the oldest car in the championship, a Van Diemen RF88, he’s won a fair few trophies over in continental Europe, including the German-based FFR series, its Continental FF1600 Mini Cup sub-class and the Marcel Albers Trophy at Zandvoort.
Another driver crossing the Channel to race in Britain is Thomas Craincourt, who’s been crowned French Formula Zetec champion in the past. Craincourt is driving a Van Diemen RF92, so has a car the same age as Sam Street, who’ll be racing a self-run Swift SC92F. He was among the fastest Pre93 drivers at the WHT last year, so keep an eye on him mixing it with the drivers from the bigger teams on the grid.