Team USA Scholarship drivers enjoyed a sensational start to the 40th anniversary Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch on Saturday as Neil Alberico and Trent Hindman both won their respective Kent heat races. Spencer Pigot finished 10th with a recalcitrant car in his Duratec heat race.
Alberico set the ball rolling in the opening practice session of the day by snaring pole position in his No. 21 Team USA Scholarship/Cliff Dempsey Racing Ray GR08. The recently turned 19-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif., took full advantage by storming into the lead at the start, chased by pre-event favorite Ivor McCullough and a frantically battling pack of cars which included Team Canada representative Xavier Coupal.
On lap 5, McCullough made a move to the inside of Alberico on the entrance to Paddock Hill Bend, but it was the Irishman who came off worst. McCullough spun and was fortunate to be able to resume in mid-pack. Alberico emerged unscathed but had no respite as Englishman Kenneth Thirlwall, Coupal and Matthew White immediately filled his mirrors, with Adam Quartermaine, Noel Robinson and Noel Dunne also in close attendance to ensure a thrilling seven-car battle for the lead.
Coupal passed Thirlwall for second place on lap 9, but Alberico narrowly maintained his lead to take the checkered flag a scant 0.334sec ahead of the Canadian.
“The main goal was to get to the semi-finals,” said Alberico. “We did that. Ivor was pressuring me from the get-go and ended up going for a couple of passes and didn't make it work. On his third try he went up the inside and I was already committed to turning in and, unfortunately, we made contact. He spun and I was able to get away with it. I guess that's racing. He's a really good driver and I respect him a lot. Overall a great day, a perfect start to the weekend. It wasn't easy but it's great for Team USA and Cliff Dempsey Racing.”
Heat 2 for the Kent contingent took place an hour or so later and proved to be rather less fraught. Hindman had secured the pole during a qualifying session interrupted by a red flag after oil from a blown engine was dumped all the way around the 1.2-mile track. Fortunately, the 16-year-old from Wayside, N.J., already had set a fast time which no one was able to approach once the session was restarted.
Hindman made an excellent getaway – his first-ever from a standing start – to lead into the daunting Paddock Hill Bend, and was never seriously challenged during the 12-lap race.
“I was a little bit nervous about the standing start – just having never done it before,” admitted Hindman. “I was just hoping I could get a good run and not stall or do anything catastrophic like that. Luckily, I was able to get a good start and pull out a strong gap. The Safety Car was a little unexpected, because all the procedures are a little different over here, but I was happy that it all happened. It was a great learning experience for sure. I am really happy, really thankful for everybody involved in the scholarship. I can't ask for anything more right now.”
Pigot endured a frustrating day in his No. 20 Team USA Scholarship/Cliff Dempsey Racing Ray GR11. After posting extremely competitive times yesterday during testing, Pigot today struggled with excessive understeer which restricted him to 12th on the grid for his heat race. He battled hard in the race, spending much of it embroiled in a heated battle for fifth place before eventually taking the flag in 10th.
“I moved up a few positions from qualifying, so that was good,” said Pigot, “but I am still looking for a bit more time in the car. It was really close and I was battling with a pack of six or seven cars. If we can pick up a few tenths, I think we will gain quite a few positions, so we'll just see what happens tomorrow.”