This weekend’s 49th annual BRSCC Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch truly lived up to expectations as a trio of young Americans played their part in providing some exceptional racing action in extremely tricky conditions.
Bryce Aron, from Winnetka, Ill., looked set for at least a podium finish in his Team USA Scholarship/Low Dempsey Ray. The 17-year-old ran strongly in third place until being elbowed down to fifth following a late-race Safety Car interruption. Teammate Jackson Lee, 18, from Avon, Ind., finished 10th after starting the Grand Final from the 15th grid position.
Fellow American Max Esterson also took full advantage of having competed in a couple of Champion of Brands Formula Ford 1600 races earlier in the month, running extremely well in another Low Dempsey Ray to cross the line in sixth.
Englishman Rory Smith scored a hard-earned victory in the Grand Final aboard B-M Racing’s Medina JL18, narrowly edging the Low Dempsey Racing Ray of last year’s winner Jonathan Browne.
A memorable day began with Lee and Aron lining up fifth and sixth on the grid for the first of two Semi Final races. On an extremely wet track, Aron immediately moved up two positions and began to close in on Jordan Dempsey, last year’s Walter Hayes Trophy winner. On lap 11, Aron made a clean pass on Dempsey to finish third behind Browne and 2019 Avon Tires National Formula Ford 1600 champion Ross Martin.
A little farther back, Esterson, after starting fourth, finished a creditable sixth, two positions ahead of Lee who continued his steep learning curve to comfortably earn a direct qualifying position for the all-important Grand Final.
The second Semi Final was won by recently crowned National champion Neil Maclennan, who would line up alongside Irishman Browne on the front row of the grid for the 20-lap Grand Final. Martin and Smith shared row two, with Aron leading the American contingent in fifth.
The weather had brightened significantly in time for the climax to the weekend, although the track remained mainly wet — and promising to make life extremely tricky for anyone who strayed off the slowly drying racing line.
Browne took off into lead, chased by Smith and Maclennan as the trio soon put a little breathing space between themselves and their pursuers. Aron took a couple of laps to dispense with fast-starting Englishman Jack Wolfenden, but once into fourth place began to close quickly on the leaders. Aron even posted the fastest lap of all at one stage as the track slowly continued to dry.
By Lap 11, Aron was right with the three leaders, having dragged Martin along for good measure to ensure a thrilling five-car scrap for the lead.
A mistake on Lap 14 saw Maclennan exit stage left into the gravel trap at Paddock Hill Bend. By then Smith had made a slight break, leaving Browne to fend off Aron and Martin, with the rest of the pack having been dropped far behind. But all that changed when the safety car was deployed to permit the removal of Maclennan’s KMR Spectrum from its precarious position.
The race was restarted with only three laps remaining. Unsurprisingly, the action only intensified from there. Aron, unfortunately, fell victim to a dive-bomb pass at Clearways by Martin, who edged the American wide and cost him valuable momentum. By the time Aron was back up to speed, he had slipped to sixth behind Martin and a pair of experienced Englishmen, Matt Cowley and Chris Middlehurst, although he regained one of those positions a lap later when Martin had a spin of his own.
“Bummed I got shoved off by Ross Martin, which cost me the podium, but all is fair in hard racing,” said Aron. “Overall it was an absolutely amazing experience running against the best in some very tricky conditions. I learned a lot about race craft and mixed conditions throughout the week and am excited to get back at it next week for the Walter Hayes Trophy.”
Esterson crossed the line hot on Aron’s heels in sixth, with Lee making up a couple of positions in the frantic final stages to claim 10th at the checkered flag.
“This past week has been an experience like none other,” said Lee. “I have been a part of big races before, but nothing like the Formula Ford Festival. The atmosphere of the event rivaled some of the biggest races in the world.
“The amount I was able to learn this week was immeasurable. Racing against the toughest Formula Ford drivers in the world has already changed me as a driver. I am much more calculated when setting up passes and I have gotten more rain racing experience this week alone than in my entire racing career.
“I wish that we had another day or two of racing here at Brands Hatch. Now that I’ve made these strides as a driver, I feel I would be able to really challenge the leaders. I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned next week at Silverstone.”
So a successful weekend for the Low Dempsey team saw all four cars finish among the top 10. But there will be no time to relax as on-track preparations for next weekend’s Walter Hayes Trophy event at Silverstone begin on Wednesday.
“I’m so proud of how these young men acquitted themselves in very challenging conditions,” said Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw. “This has been a difficult year in so many ways, but I am extremely grateful for our cadre of supporters who make this program possible. Thank you all very much.”