The 50th Formula Ford Festival ended in sensational style this afternoon with a thrilling 20-lap Grand Final in which Team USA Scholarship drivers Max Esterson and Andre Castro finished second and third behind Englishman Jamie Sharp. It was the first time two Team USA drivers had finished on the podium, although Josef Newgarden won the Kent Final in 2008 in Team USA Scholarship colors, and Brett Smrz and Neil Alberico gained third-place finishes in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
Esterson (shown above right with Scott Dixon) provided one of the drives of the event by climbing from 13th on the grid to third at the checkered flag. Castro finished hard on Esterson’s tail after starting from eighth. Both drivers later benefited when Scotsman Neil Maclennan was disqualified for overtaking under yellow flags during a frenetic final race.
It was the second runner-up finish in as many years for Low Dempsey Racing. Ireland’s Jonathan Browne, the winner in 2019, finished in second place last year, with Team USA Scholarship representative Bryce Aron taking fifth.
As was the case yesterday for the Heat races, the fickle English weather played its hand to the fullest effect with heavy rain in the morning causing the start of the two Semi Final races to be delayed by half an hour. Ironically, after a short period during which conditions improved significantly, the rain returned with a vengeance just as the 28 starters for the opening race of the day ventured out for a pair of sighting laps before forming up on the starting grid.
Castro lined up sixth on the grid for the first Semi Final in his Ray GR19. He lost a place on the opening lap and, after an early Safety Car interruption, became involved in an intense battle for fourth place with Jonathan Browne which was settled on the last lap at Clearways, the final corner, when Castro dived past in what had now become a trademark inside-line pass.
Irishman Niall Murray (Van Diemen), Formula Ford Festival winner in 2013 and 2016, won handsomely from Maclennan (Spectrum), with Sharp (Medina Sport) finishing third.
Esterson lined up on pole position for the second Semi Final, which was also held in very wet conditions. Right away it became apparent that the race would be a struggle for the young New Yorker as poor traction caused him to lose a place on the run toward the first corner, Paddock Hill Bend. He slipped back to seventh place inside the first five laps, and battled hard in the closing stages of the 14-lap race to maintain that position ahead of Low Dempsey Racing teammate — and 2010 Formula Ford Festival winner (and 2021 British GT Champion) — Dennis Lind, from Denmark.
The race was won by another former Festival winner, veteran Englishman Joey Foster (Firman).
Foster and Murray duly lined up on the front row for the Grand Final, sponsored by Clapham North, by which time the track was almost completely dry. The action was hot and heavy from the outset with Oliver White (Medina) and Tom Mills (Spectrum) also part of leading quartet that was blanketed by inches. Esterson, meanwhile, was immediately on the move, climbing inside the top 10 by the completion of lap two. An unfortunate clash of wheels between Murray and White at the exit of the daunting Paddock Hill Bend saw both drivers crash out of contention, with Mills also involved. The Safety Car was scrambled while the track was cleared, and soon after the resumption, Foster also made a mistake when he slid off the road at Clearways. Thereafter, a snake of 11 cars waged a spectacular battle for the top places for the remaining 10 laps.
Esterson climbed quickly to third by the half-distance mark, making a series of excellent passes. He was demoted briefly by Chris Middlehurst (Van Diemen) before regaining the position with five laps remaining. Esterson stayed glued to the two leaders, with Castro fighting his way past Irishman Jordan Dempsey for fifth place on lap 15. Middlehurst also was still hot on their heels. With one lap remaining, the top six cars were blanketed by less than a second. Ultimately, though, a jubilant Sharp held on to take the checkered flag less than a tenth of a second clear of Maclennan. Esterson, Castro, Dempsey, Middlehurst, Northern Irishman Ivor McCullough, another former Festival winner, plus the recovering Foster, Browne and Lind completed the top 10, all separated by just over two seconds.
“I’m thrilled with a podium finish at the Festival, especially after starting 13th,” said Esterson. “I just kept my head down and pushed forward with a few wild moves into Clearways and Paddock. Thanks for everyone’s support this weekend and hopefully we make it to the top step next week at Silverstone!”
“I can’t put into words what it means to podium at my first Formula Ford Festival,” added Castro. “We worked on our speed all week and when it came time for the races, we gained spots every time. We kept moving up from our grid slot every race, and persevered in the final after being 12th at one point. To have Max on the podium with me is incredible, as he had an amazing drive as well. The Walter Hayes next week should be exciting and I can’t wait. Thanks so much to the guys at Low Dempsey Racing and all of Team USA’s partners for making this experience a success.”
“What a fantastic weekend,’ said Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw. “The racing was intense and it was so cool to see stars such as Scott Dixon, the six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion, and ex-F1 drivers Jonathan Palmer and Bruno Giacomelli present at the post-race celebrations. All of them agreed the quality of the competition was absolutely outstanding. It truly was. It was also fun to see former F1 and long-time Corvette factory driver Jan Magnussen having such a good time — and finishing a strong 11th in the Final — in another Low Dempsey Racing Ray. He’s already plotting his return in 2022!”
The two Team USA Scholarship drivers have several other opportunities lined up during the early part of this week before beginning preparations for next weekend’s Walter Hayes Trophy event at Silverstone on Wednesday.