Put me in front of a modern Formula One race and the chances are I’ll drift-off into some sort of hazy daze: Send me to Brands Hatch for a weekend of raw cut and thrust from Formula Fords of all ages and I’ll happily stand trackside in any type of weather, lingering in their purity.

Megan Gilkes (r) goes wheel-to-wheel with Rick Morris, ‘the man who beat Senna”

If I had my way, every young racer who wants to step-out of karts and into F4, then F3 should be made to enjoy a year of Formula Ford racing first. It’s raw, it’s demanding and you’ll learn more about set-up and response with an old-school mechanic, one set of all-weather tyres and a box full of gear ratios than you ever will with a £200k per annum budget and a motorhome. It’s just good, honest racing; no tricks, gimmicks or aids, just input from the driver and someone to carry the battery and make tea.

The Formula Ford Festival 2020

Rory Smith, Formula Ford Festival winner 2020

The impact of COVID-19 has ravaged grids right across the globe, and whilst there were many notable absences from this year’s event, some fifty cars still lined-up (across three heats) to test themselves against not only their rivals but the rain and the ever-challenging Brands Hatch circuit too.

To me, Brands Hatch is just about the most perfect setting for any wingless car. Tight, twisted and undulating, it demands bravery and skill from the driver and compliance beyond adhesion from the cars. You have to be late on the brakes, very late, yet composed enough to maintain your line and sure enough to get on the gas early. The two short straights of the Indy layout seeking precision over power and delivering opportunity to those who have patiently set-up a move, often from the lap before.

Three-a-breast out of Paddock Hill bend

In qualifying, Jordan Dempsey, Jonathan Browne and Ross Martin all secured pole positions. Martin, and last year’s winner Browne going-on to win their heats comfortably, but Dempsey losing-out to Rory Smith after a hard-fought tussle that saw Chris Middlehurst and fast American rookie Bryce Aron following close behind.

Jonathan Browne withstood an early onslaught from GT4 race winner Matt Cowley

Position, Position, Position

With so many fast and hard racers in very equal machinery, to win at the Festival, you have to be consistent and at the sharp end for each of the races (heat, semi, and final); just one wrong moment and you can wave your chances goodbye.

The two semi-finals saw very mixed conditions. At times the track was drying, but a moment before or later it was drenched. Heat winners Browne and Martin were drawn against each other and they went on to deliver some truly outstanding laps, Browne crossing the line two seconds to the good, Martin heading third-placed Aron by nearly a dozen. Morgan Quinn, Jordan Dempsey and Max Esterson all showed strongly in the latter stages but lacked the early pace to make a challenge.

Martin heads Browne in the opening laps of their semi-final

The second semi was a far more dramatic affair. Smith and teammate Jamie Sharp held the front row with Matt Cowley and Chris Middlehurst taking-up position immediately behind. As the red lights went out, Smith and Sharp charged swiftly towards the first corner but not so Cowley and Middlehurst. They remained static, Cowley with a sticking brake whilst Middlehurst had stalled. It was the end of ‘what could have been’ as the pack swarmed past. Both drivers would go-on to show remarkable speed when finally in the mix, Middlehurst finishing in P4, Cowley in P5, but they were too far back to close the gap on the leaders. Instead, it was national champion, Neil Maclennan who had worked his way into the lead. A magnificent move around the outside of Paddock Hill displaced Smith into second whilst a grassy moment for Sharpe saw his hopes slip down the order, allowing Jack Wolfenden to bring his Firman RF17 home in third.

Maclennan reaffirmed his credentials with an important race to victory in the second semi’

The Final

And so the scene was set for the Grand Final. 2019 Festival winner Browne on pole position and 2020 champion Maclennan alongside. Martin would start in P3 with Smith beside him. Meanwhile those startline dramas for Middlehurst and Cowley in the semi’ had cost both dearly, resulting in Middlehurst lining-up in P8 with Cowley two places further back.

Jonathan Browne leads the Final

Browne flew off the line and for the opening couple of laps, it seemed that he might be on his way to a magnificent double. But Smith was fired-up and loving the changing conditions. Having scythed past Maclennan on lap 2, he set about hunting-down Browne, harrying his quarry, probing relentlessly in an attempt to open a gap, which in turn prompted Maclennan to recharge his effort and close-in behind Smith.

Browne’s defence was stoic. He placed his car carefully, determined to keep Smith at bay, but Smith knew that this was his chance to add his name to the Festival’s long roll of heroes and so heading into Clearways at half-distance, he quickly switched off the wet line to leap across the kerb and into the lead.

Smith lines-up a move on Browne heading towards Surtees

Once in front, he was able to make a gap as Browne now faced pressure from Maclennan, but a lock-up at Paddock shot the young Scot onto the painted run-off strip and quickly into the barrier.

The safety car was called out whilst Maclennan’s Spectrum was recovered

With the safety car called-out, Smith’s lead was cut right back but he made a determined job of the restart and once again was able to keep his Medina ahead of Browne. Meanwhile, Cowley and Middlehurst had both been making-up places and were soon on Martin’s tail. Clearing Aron in the Team USA car, the three teammates looked set to head in succession to the line but pressure from Cowley saw Martin run wide; the GT4 front-runner needed no other invitation and seized his chance to make the pass.

At the end, Smith held on to take the win, his first at the Festival and likewise for the B-M Racing squad. Browne was close behind in second whilst Cowley fought-off the attention of Middlehurst to complete the podium line-up.

Cowley shone in the Final, racing from P10 to claim a podium place
But it was Smith who did everything asked of him to make-up for losing-out on the national title

The Gallery

You can see a gallery of these featured images below, but if you head over to our Facebook page, you’ll find over 50 of our favourite images from this fantastic spectacle of racing.