Festival Saturday: All bar three victory contenders progress

With a 76-car entry for the Formula Ford Festival, the best in recent seasons, and only 60 spots on the semi-final grids, it was almost inevitable that some genuine contenders for the Neil Shanahan Memorial Trophy would miss out on progression. Three such drivers have either packed for home or face a wait for a tentative second chance.

Luke Williams can perhaps count himself most unfortunate, with the failure of a 20p part ruling him out of his heat – from a reasonably strong position – with a broken throttle cable. Although he was National champion it is the Festival – as it is for so many – that he really wanted to win, and the Firman driver will head back to North Yorkshire empty-handed.

Although he has shown his FF1600 credentials on previous occasions, Jake Byrne was a dark horse for the Festival as he’s kept his powder dry for much of 2017, focusing instead on academic pursuits. But the Irishman put his Ray on pole position and led heat three before making the most dramatic of exits, slithering at Surtees before colliding with the Clearways barriers.

Like Byrne, Oliver White has rarely been seen behind the wheel this season, but he climbed aboard one of John Loebell’s Medinas this weekend. It started promisingly, the multiple CoB winner topping the heat three qualifying times for a while, but he slipped back to fifth and then got pinged from the session for a red flag infringement. No matter: the talented White set fastest lap en route to fifth in the race, and he was back in with a shout. Until, that was, a second expulsion, this time for failing to heed waved yellows. He’s seventh reserve for the first semi-final: there is almost no hope.

White’s exclusion had a significant bearing on the World Cup competition running alongside the Festival itself. The Southern England team (of which he was a part, along with heat one winner Joey Foster and Luke Cooper) had been sitting atop the standings, but now they are sixth, 22 points behind the Republic of Ireland squad of James Roe Jr, Keith Donegan and Jordan Dempsey. Scotland’s second-string are next, 11 points adrift, but then just three points cover them and USA/Canada, Scotland 1 and Northern England.

It’s worth focusing in on USA/Canada, because the scholarships from the respective countries have brought three drivers to these shores and in particular the awning of Cliff Dempsey. Canadian Ben Hurst had the best day of the trio, placing sixth in heat one, while Americans Jonathan Kotyk and Aaron Jeansonne were eighth and 12th in their respective heats, the latter after a late spin. Historically, the Team USA drivers in particular come on more strongly as the weekend develops. They line up on rows six and eight in semi one, whereas Hurst is on row five for semi two.

Hurst has been the strongest North American performer so far this Festival.

With due apologies to the likes of Keith Wood (a Champion of Brands this year) and Felix Fisher (out in Tom Margetson’s 1988 Reynard), everyone else of note has made it safely through to the semi-finals, from which the top 12 in each will automatically qualify for the final, with the next 15 going to the Last Chance repechage (meaning that a solid finish really is essential to progress).

It is difficult to pick which is the stronger of the semis, although semi one has two heat winners in US F1600 champion Matt Cowley and triple WHT winner Joey Foster. Ex-Ginetta Junior Keith Donegan, multiple National race winner Luke Cooper, Northern champion Joshua Smith and star Scot Jamie Thorburn add depth. Semi-final two has Chris Middlehurst on pole with Stourbridge’s Matt Round-Garrido alongside him on the front row, well-placed to land a shock. National championship runner-up Neil Maclennan and returning local Festival star Darren Burke go from row two, while Rory Smith and Ross Martin start from the next rank. In both races, there are drivers further back that it would not be a surprise to see filling podium positions.