LONDON, England – Having your fourth-ever car race be the British Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, with the expectations that come with being a Team USA Scholarship recipient, is about as much pressure as I’ve ever felt in my life. It was also the greatest racing honor and opportunity I’ve ever had… and it was just the beginning!
You can read the Festival details in my previous blog, but leaving it behind we had one more race weekend to show what we could do – the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.
When I saw the WHT had almost twice as many cars entered as the FF Festival, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We kept our heads down and prepared as much as we could. The Silverstone National circuit is a drafting track, with two long straights and only six corners, so anyone lapping within half a second can hang on in the draft. I watched hours of onboard videos from past WHT races with my coach James Theodore to ensure I knew what to do to put myself in the right position to win when we started the last lap.
Once again, our red-white-and-blue Cliff Dempsey Racing machines rolled off the trailer on Wednesday morning in immaculate condition. The guys and girls at the shop take extreme care of the cars to ensure no mechanical failures and every nut and bolt is inspected.
Testing from Wednesday to Friday was very straightforward. Little adjustments were made to the car to suit the changing conditions throughout the day. Mornings were just above freezing and we continually received rain every afternoon. Rain experience would prove to be vital come the main event on Sunday.
We just had two sessions on Saturday, both very important – qualifying and a heat race. The field of 110+ cars was split into six random groups for qualifying and the heat; I was drawn in Group Six. Being the last group out, I could watch the first few sessions in order to understand the track conditions and prepare myself to push from lap one. Luckily CDR teammate James Raven was in the same group as me so we planned on going out together to draft off each other. For almost the whole session, James was bump-drafting me down both straights. I’ve never bump-drafted in a car before so this was definitely an experience. With what felt like a new Formula Ford MPH record, James and I qualified 1-2 to start the first heat race!
We won the heat race by a large margin, albeit helped when the top few behind me were taken out on Lap Two going though Maggotts Corner. Someone in the field had dropped oil all over the braking zone. I narrowly escaped disaster by going straight off the track and through the access road, but the others weren’t so lucky. The race was red-flagged and completely restarted.
My overall time from the heat race was quick enough to put me on pole for Semi-Final Two. This 12-lap race on Sunday morning turned out to be one of the best races of my life. I swapped places with the top four drivers every lap with occasional tire-to-tire contact. It was intense, and the type of WHT racing I had been expecting. I passed the last-lap board in third place, watching the two cars in front start to defend. Going down Wellington Straight, the front two started to crowd each other on the inside and I received a massive draft before out-braking both of them on the outside going into Brooklands for the win. I had to pinch myself after seeing the checkered; it was one of those races where I found myself in the right place at the right time and given the perfect opportunity to execute. But it wasn’t the time for celebration; the main event was soon…and the rain had begun to fall. With the Semi-Final win, I would start on the front row for the final alongside 2016 Formula Ford Festival champion Niall Murray. To get in the right mindset for wet track conditions, I debriefed with the mechanics and watched more onboard video.
With the near freezing temperatures and wet track, it was very hard to build heat into my new set of tires. Luckily, the stewards gave us an extra lap before lining up for the standing start. The conditions turned out to be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a car, and there was a lot more water on the track now than there was during testing. I’ve only practiced in the rain; this would be my first wet race….
Niall got ahead on the first lap and pulled the lead to about one second. The gap stayed the same for the first half of the race until I broke too late and had to go wide in Brooklands which stretched the gap more. With nobody close behind, I kept my position and held on for my third podium of the weekend.
Although I very much wanted to take the win, I felt relieved to end this incredible journey and my time in the U.K on such a high note. I could not have done it without Jeremy Shaw, the Team USA Scholarship supporters, and all of the knowledgeable and hardworking people around me at Cliff Dempsey Racing. I’ve learned so much and hope to use this experience as a stepping stone in my career.
To cap it all off, I got to meet and share the podium with motorsports legend Sir Jackie Stewart!
Thanks for reading,