16-year old Conor Daly from the USA won the 8th running of the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone today, but not before team-mate Josef Newgarden took himself out of the lead. The victory was achieved after a tense final race which saw Daly battle it out with the highly experienced Michael Vergers, and Graham Carroll, multiple champions in Fords this season. In the end Carroll was pressured into a mistake and also went off, letting Daly through, while Josh Fisher took advantage of the oversteer Vergers was suffering to claim 2nd from the Dutchman.
The Walter Hayes Trophy, now in its 8th year, is probably the most fun you can (legally) have in a race suit. Time was when the cream of European Formula Ford teams and drivers used to pile everything into the truck and head for Brands Hatch for a week or so in October where they would all compete in the Formula Ford Festival. These days, for reasons that are too tiresome to go into, the Festival is a shadow of its former self and most of the drivers now head for Silverstone and the Walter Hayes Trophy.
This year's entry included young guns like Josef Newgarden from the States, and his fellow US runner Conor Daly (son of ex-F1 driver Derek Daly), and recent British series front-runner Nathan Freke. Then there were the old faithfuls like Derek M Daly (no relation - and does anyone even recall how old he is?), Stuart Thorburn and Simon Kinsey, all of whom are old enough to know better. And for good measure there were some star names ranging from Andy Wallace of Le Mans winning fame through to Touring Car expert Darren Turner. As for the cars, anything goes. There were Mallocks and Swifts and Van Diemens of every vintage, and Rays and Mygales and Reynards, some so elderly they probably shouldn't be treated like this including a Merlyn Mk 11 dating from 1968 and a Mallock Mk 9 from 1969 (the only front-engined specimen in the field and probably the only car where the spare parts came from a Hillman Imp sourced hastily from eBay), some brand new and shiny. Basically, if you have a Formula Ford you can bring it here and race it. And they do.
With such a strong entry the field was divided up into 6 heats to be run on Saturday. The first eleven in each heat are guaranteed a place in the semi-finals, while anyone finishing 12th to 16th makes it into the last chance race, or (from 17th downwards) into the progression race on Sunday morning, from which the top 6 will make it to the last chance race.
Saturday started badly with a freezing cold night giving way to a grey, damp, windy morning. The frosted patches on the track became damp patches, and the track never dried out, leading to all sorts of embarrassing moments as the Avon tyres refused to come up to temperature. People spun off all over the place, sometimes even on their out laps (yes Mr. Kinsey, we do mean you) and qualifying was interrupted more than once as cars had to be rescued from the gravel traps. Despite all of this, we eventually got as far as the heats, which was when the fun really started.
It was horribly slippery and bitterly cold when the racing started and most people had a great deal of difficulty getting any heat into their tyres. As a result there were cars sliding around all over the place, and Brooklands in particular saw a lot of marshal activity during the course of the day.
Heat One saw Freke and Conor Daly fight it out over 8 laps for victory, the win eventually going the way of Daly, while behind the two of them pole-man Felix Fisher (brother of ex-Formula 3 racer Josh) lost out to the two of them and for good measure ended up having to cede 3rd to James Nash before the end. Afterwards, everyone was complaining about how treacherous conditions were, with the quote of the day coming from Bernard Baxter, who was heard to mutter that "I'd have been more in control riding a tea tray down the Cresta Run!"
Heat Two was won by Robert Barabble, probably not entirely surprisingly, leading home Nelson Rowe and Gary Jones. The main interest in this race was provided by a mid-field scrap between Jim Morris (who made a recovery drive of great ferocity after an early incident dropped him right down the order), Nigel Thompson, Jonathan Davis and Neal Patten.
Heat Three went to Josef Newgarden, who is quite clearly a class act, after a fierce early stage battle with William Herron and a very assured drive, while Noel Dunne was 3rd. Meanwhile Darren Turner in an elderly Gulf- liveried van Diemen had an interesting time fighting David Grady that saw him end up 5th.
Heat Four saw Josh Fisher, Stuart Gough and Rory Butcher battling for the lead off the line after a restart caused by an initial crash that took Ryan Sharpe out of contention. The scrap ended with Gough being edged out by the other two, while Butcher led Fisher home, claiming fastest lap en route to victory.
Heat Five was entertaining, with Formula Ford expert and GT regular Michael Vergers giving multiple-2008 champion Graham Carroll a lesson in FF tactics though in the end the Dutchman's tail-happy Van Diemen RF92 proved not quite a match for Carroll's 1990 model in the increasingly wet conditions. Behind them Peter Barrable had a look at passing Vergers once or twice but couldn't quite make it stick.
Heat Six provided drama at the start too, when Joey Foster - three times winner of this event and a great favorite with the spectators - was punted into the gravel at Brooklands by Jonathan Hoad. Hoad bogged down so far that his race ended there and then, while the marshals dug Foster out and sent him on his way. He was dead last at that point, but his attempts to claw his way back earned him the fastest lap of the race and meant he avoided the progression race by finishing 15th. As he'd been leading when he was pushed off, that handed the lead and victory to Patrick McKenna, though he had to fight Noel Carey for it.
Sunday morning dawned damp and horrible still with temperatures hovering around 7C (45F) and daylight not bothering to appear. And just when the guys out there though the news couldn't get worse it turned out that Peter Dempsey, twice winner of this event, had turned up unexpectedly and was being allowed to take part. Admittedly, having not practiced or taken part in the Heats, the young Irishman would start the progression race from the back of the grid. All eyes were on the No. 1 car at the start of the dash for a place in the Last Chance race. He certainly started well, as did Steve Chapman who was at the front. Unfortunately their efforts were to no avail. Seamus Wild on the other hand started badly, got on the slippery stuff and ended up turning sharp right across Paul Walton's path. With the pair of them stranded in the middle of the main straight, the organizers had no option but to red flag it.
At the restart Dempsey again got off the line very fast indeed, while Steve Chapman claimed the lead from Lavender, while behind him Jonathan Hoad and Sean Macklin were battling away ahead of Alistair Dow, Oliver Bull and Rory Farrell. As they came round to start lap 2 Dempsey was 4th from 28th and dead last! You had to wonder how he'd done it and what else he could do. It didn't take him long to snatch 3rd while a little further back Sharp was also on the move and had hauled himself up from the low 20s to 5th.
Dempsey wasn't done providing excitement either when he slithered off from 2nd and took the long way through the Brooklands gravel - it didn't seem to trouble him and he was soon on the move again, snatching 2nd on the last lap and then making a move on Chris Acton for the lead on the last corner. Bull was 3rd, Sharp finished 4th and the final two to make it to the next stage were Robert Hall and Ben Norton. Everyone else could now pack up for the day. The top six would go through.
Last Chance Race:
The excitement wasn't over. We now had the last chance race where again only the top six would make it to the semi-finals. This was getting interesting, especially with Dempsey, Sharp and Foster all in this race and all likely to make it through. Foster had the easiest job, only needing to make up 20 places to win. Dempsey started 31st, and Sharp 34th.
This time the race start was not complicated by a crash and Peter Lavender who was at the front in the Merlyn Mk 11a, the oldest car in the event got away nicely though he wasn't ever going to be able to hold off the faster, newer cars behind him. Dempsey again didn't hesitate, and neither did Acton, the latter hanging on to Dempsey for as long as possible. An incident at Copse led to yellow flags but was soon cleared, which meant we could go racing. Foster leaped up the order and was soon 4th. It didn't take long to convert that to 3rd and he was soon on Neville Smythe's tail. Dempsey by now was 5th, and Sharp had made it to 12th in his first Formula Ford event.
However, all eyes were on Foster as he chased down the leader. A fastest lap soon came his way as he grabbed 2nd, but Dempsey was there too and clearly wanted another win as soon as possible. A stalled car at Luffield gave both of them a nasty moment and provided a little breathing space for Foster, but it couldn't last. And it didn't.
They arrived at Brooklands next time round side-by-side as Dempsey tried to go up the inside. Foster resisted and only lost out in the end as they reached the start/finish line again. Foster attempted to get through but a backmarker was in the way. Dempsey demoted Smythe, and then Foster did the same on the very last corner of the last lap. And so, to no one's very great surprise, Dempsey, Foster, Smythe, Sharp, Acton and Bull moved on to the semi-finals.
Semi Final 1:
As we moved ever closer to the final race of the meeting, the tension was rising. Dempsey, Smythe and Acton would start the first semi final at the back, but it didn't mean that Dempsey at least couldn't claw something back. At the front, it was all down to Carroll and Vergers, the former getting away cleanly when the lights went out. He was joined by a rapid Josh Fisher who snatched 2nd from Butcher and Stuart Gough. Vergers, struggling with permanent - and seemingly incurable - oversteer was 5th but wasn't about to give up yet, especially with the slow starting but nonetheless rapid McKenna just behind him. Nor was Dempsey who had made his third greased lightning start of the day and was now 23rd and looming ominously in the mirrors of the men ahead.
A lap later Gough made a mistake which let Vergers up to 4th, while Dempsey had fought his way onto the tail of the top ten and was threatening to join in there unless anyone could stop him. The departure from the race of Butcher helped him (as it did Vergers), and not long after Glynn Geddie also dropped out, pulling into the pits with a technical problem. That moved Dempsey to 9th, which was impressive. And he wasn't done yet. Mind you, while Dempsey was progressing, Vergers was in the groove. The fastest lap of the race was set while he set off after Fisher who soon found he had a fight on his hands. And all the while Carroll continued to pull away, enjoying an apparently untroubled lead. If Vergers could get through, then perhaps things wouldn't be so calm for the Scot.
Vergers saw an opportunity as they came in to Brooklands again, and dived up the inside. Fisher tried to hold the Dutchman off, but he couldn't manage it. By the time they pulled into Luffield, Vergers was through and promptly set off after Carroll, while behind Fisher Gough and McKenna were so busy scrapping that they maybe failed to notice they had Dempsey with them.
The situation was further complicated because the front runners had now caught up with the backmarkers, and needed to lap them. It wasn't going to be easy and in fact it wasn't, with cars spinning merrily in all directions and the leaders having to second guess where they needed to go to avoid a crash. In effect, Vergers could progress no further as a result, while Dempsey was able to profit enough to sneak into 5th in the closing seconds of the race. Later Dempsey was penalized two places for gaining an unfair advantage by cutting a corner, which meant he ended up 7th. The result of semi final 1, then, was Carroll from Vergers, Fisher, Gough, McKenna, Peter Barrable, Dempsey, Noel Carey, Matthew Parr and Paul Dagg.
Semi Final 2:
In this race it was Foster and Sharp that we would be looking to for overtaking maneuvers. Meanwhile, the two young Americans, Newgarden and Conor Daly were the likely front runners, starting from the front two rows alongside Robert Barrable and Herron. When the race started Barrable managed to defend well off the line but he couldn't keep Newgarden at bay for long. Further back Foster made a good start, and was already pushing hard in 16th, while Sharp wasn't quite so quick - but then he doesn't have the same level of Formula Ford experience.
The weather was deteriorating and it wasn't long before people again started spinning off all over the place, Foster benefiting hugely though he did have to second guess the situation more than once to avoid being collected by a wayward fellow competitor. At the front Newgarden was holding off Barrable, the latter showing a determination to get his lead back. Conor Daly settled in behind, while in 4th Herron and Dunne were fighting for position. With the rain coming down harder there was a compromise to be made between charging as hard as possible, and staying on the tarmac. A number of people made the wrong choice. One of them was Freke who dropped out on lap one, though he wasn't the only one.
Daly, meanwhile, was looking very surefooted as he tried to get back on terms with Barrable and Newgarden. It got him a fastest lap though that may well have been because the two up ahead were distracting each other as they fought for the lead. With people tagging each other all over the place, the top ten was shifting and it soon included Foster, despite the fact that the car he was driving is older than he is. A further change came at the top when Barrable went wide and then spun, letting Daly through into 2nd. Foster was still charging hard too, and past Turner and then Gary Jones was in his sights for 7th. He wanted the place - he tried repeatedly to get it, and even got ahead briefly, but it was slightly too much and he had to give way again, finishing 8th. The order at the end was Newgarden, from Conor Daly, Dunne, Nash, Grady, Felix Fisher, Jones, Foster, John Ferguson and Matt Rivett, while Sharp survived again, this time to finish 14th.
The final would be contested by the top 18 from each semi final, 36 drivers lining up in the damp, almost dark conditions for the 8th Walter Hayes Trophy. Pole position went to Carroll (his semi-final was faster), from Newgarden, Vergers, Conor Daly, Josh Fisher, Dunne, Gough, Nash and McKenna. With youth and enthusiasm on one side of the grid and age and experience on the other, it was a mouth-watering prospect, even if it was getting too dark to see by now. Just to add to the interest Dempsey would start from 13th and Foster from 16th.
At the start Newgarden was creeping which handed Carroll the advantage. The Scot streaked off the line into the lead, while Vergers and Fisher barged Daly out of the way. Carroll was having to work very hard to keep Newgarden at bay and a mistake from the Scot led to him running wide, allowing the American to snatch the lead. Shortly after that Newgarden pushed too hard into Brooklands and ended up running across the gravel trap. To the amazement of the crowd in the BRDC grandstand he was able to drive back out again, though he glanced the barriers and by the time he was able to rejoin the race he was back in 20th. Carroll was now leading again, with Vergers 2nd and Conor Daly 3rd. Meanwhile, Dempsey was battling Nash for 7th and Foster was knocking on the door of the top ten too.
The battle for the lead was not over yet though. Carroll had slipped back into the grasp of Vergers, but Vergers also had Daly to contend with. It was a choice, and he had to defend rather than attack. That allowed Carroll to edge away again, though as it would turn out he was probably trying too hard. Vergers was now under enormous pressure from Daly, and finally the youngster drove round the outside at Becketts, an impressive move from such an inexperienced driver. Carroll was pushing ever harder, but Daly was catching him when the Scot went off at Luffield, joining the car park that had been building up there since the race started and which was now full it seemed. After another driver went off there and a marshal was almost clipped trying to move the stricken vehicle, the Safety Car was scrambled.
The Safety Car failed to pick up Daly, who was now leading, but instead collected the 7th place man, leaving Daly to behave impeccably despite not having much experience of Safety Car procedures. He led the five cars behind him round at a sensible pace while the organizers sorted it all out, and eventually the field bunched up properly while the wreckage was cleared away. Carey wasn't helping much with that, his car showing distinct signs of wear and tear and dropping bits out on the track. However, it wasn't that big a problem for the leaders.
When the race finally restarted with five laps left it was obviously going to be a sprint to the finish. Daly controlled the restart well, and the loser ended up being Vergers, as Fisher was able to catch him and pass him while the Dutchman struggled with the ever-present oversteer. Vergers spent the final laps all over Fisher, but Fisher was not to be denied 2nd. A further incident that saw McKenna bog down in the Brooklands gravel gave the hardworking marshals another vigorous workout, but they extracted him quickly and the Safety Car didn't have to be re-scrambled to the relief of all. Just for good measure, Gough crashed out letting Dempsey up to 4th, and that was pretty much the end of his charge. It had been mightily impressive, someone afterwards working out that he passed at least 75 cars during the day!
And so Conor Daly won the Walter Hayes Trophy from Fisher and Vergers. Dempsey was a stunning 4th, from Grady, Felix Fisher, Nash, Foster, Dagg and Turner. Daly also set the fastest lap of the race. Trophies were awarded to the top three and to Dempsey, Foster and Rivett for the historic cars. It was a terrific weekend's racing. Long may it continue!