MURRAY DOES THE TREBLE
Irishman makes history by adding Walter Hayes glory to his 2016 collection. By Rob Ladbrook
There were more than a few furrowed brows when Niall Murray crossed the line in his heat, losing by just 0.093s to Wayne Boyd.
That in itself wasn’t unusual – Boyd is a regular winner at the Walter Hayes Trophy and not an easy driver to beat. But what was unsettling for some was that Murray fell less than a nose short while running with half a gearbox.
If he could do that with disconnected gear linkage, what could he do with a fully functioning Van Diemen?
The answer was simple – Murray dominated this year’s Walter Hayes Trophy. This season has been nothing short of sensational for the Irishman, who has become the first driver ever to win the holy trinity of Formula Ford events, triumphing at the Martin Donnelly Trophy, Festival a few weeks ago, and now the Walter Hayes.
Like him or loathe him, Murray drove exceptionally in the tricky wet finale, leading every lap from pole to take the glory by the second-largest margin ever seen at the Walter Hayes – falling one tenth short of Scott Malvern’s crushing 2013 victory.
The win in the difficult conditions was a vindication for Murray, who has been the centre of much speculation over the legality of his engine, which has been stripped and inspected multiple times this year and deemed clean at every instance.
“I’m actually glad the final was wet,” said Murray. “We’ve had a lot of crap thrown at us this year with people saying my engine was bent and it was all the car. Well, in that race I could have had a one-litre engine and it would have made no difference, the conditions meant it didn’t come down to power, as there was so little grip.
“It’s good to win in a race like that. It proves that it was me that won it, not my car.”
After his heat difficulty, Sunday was more like a serene cruise for Murray, who was never really troubled on his way to a semi-final win and then the big one later that afternoon.
The only man who looked capable of challenging Murray, Boyd, had his own issues, and they ultimately conspired to strip us of the tight battle that was bubbling under.
The first semi final gave us a glimpse of what could have been. Boyd started that race on pole, with Murray back in fourth. But, by the time the pack ran into Brooklands, Murray was ahead.
“He’s got a monster engine in that car, I just can’t live with him on the straights,” said Boyd after Murray used the tow to slip past. “I’m having to take a different approach.”
Boyd was running in the new John Loebell-built Medina chassis, which was fresh out of the box for the Walter Hayes. The car was fitted with the same Neil Bold engine that ran Graham Carroll to victory in the event last year, so it had its own proven powerplant. But what did differ was the set-ups each driver was using.
“We’ve tried a lot of radical things to try and find traction with the rear over the course of this year – some have worked, and some haven’t – but now we’ve probably got the most stable rear of any car here,” said Murray.
His point was proven by his clear traction advantage exiting both Becketts and Woodcote, where he could pull lengths on Boyd. But, with the tight tail, there had to be some sacrifices with the front end. Murray took noticeably wider lines through corners to maximise his drive out of them, whereas Boyd could enter the turns faster with the more pointy Medina.
“I was way faster into the corners, and he was often more sideways,” said Boyd, who wouldn’t let Murray escape in that semi. He chased hard, and benefited when Murray’s chosen lines picked up oil from expired runners. But even then Boyd couldn’t get past. Things were made even tougher when Boyd was demoted by one row for the final for a track limits penalty, meaning he could only start as high as row three and would be dependant on somebody else taking the fight to poleman Murray.
Step forward Team USA man Oliver Askew. Mightily impressive at Brands Hatch before a puncture ruined his Festival party, Askew took a hardfought win in his semi final to secure the front row alongside Murray.
That race was a great four-way fight between Askew, Luke Williams, Michael Moyers and three-time WHT winner Joey Foster, with all four trading the lead.
Askew had to pick his moment, and it came on the last lap when he slipped around the outside of fighting leaders Moyers and Foster on the entry to the complex to snatch the win.
Askew felt confident he could tackle Murray, and then the rain arrived. Askew had never raced in the wet. Ever.
Murray didn’t get a great start on the soaking track, but his traction was still enough to hand him a one-second lead by the end of the first lap, as Askew fought to stay with him on a track he had to relearn as he went.
“I had no idea where the grip was, so I
was guessing every corner where to brake and how hard to get on the throttle,” said Askew. “It was a real learning curve.”
Askew chased as best he could, but ceded time to Murray in the early laps that he wouldn’t get back. When he skated off at Brooklands after outbraking himself, it was game over.
“This year has been a dream,” said Murray, whose performance made the finale a pretty sedate affair in the end. “I can’t thank the team enough for what we’ve achieved together.”
Askew was a delighted second, ahead of the fight of the race for third. Boyd made up ground to run fifth behind Stuart Gough, who had struggled in his semi with a cracked wishbone mount that led to rear instability. As good as he is in mixed conditions, Boyd had never driven the new Medina in the wet. “I was struggling to see and didn’t really know the limits of the car, so I was driving to where I could see to be safe instead of where the grip actually was,” said Boyd, who endured a spin at Brooklands that dropped him out of contention.
Moyers’ challenge ended when he skated into the gravel at Luffield and damaged his clutch, and Williams did the same but beached himself. Foster struggled for grip in the wet, suggesting incorrect tyre pressures led to his issues and a spin at Becketts.
Last year’s victor Carroll was also struggling, complaining of a lack of straight-line speed from his Firman. He wound up just 17th.
The final podium spot came down to a fight between Rob Hall, Josh Fisher and the charging Kyle Kirkwood. After a titanic fight to even make the final, Kirkwood drove superbly to climb from 23rd to enter the fray. He snuck ahead of Hall through Luffield on the penultimate lap to run in what would have been a sensational podium place, but Fisher had the final say, snatching the last step with a late-braking move into Brooklands on the final tour.
Saturday’s heats produced some cracking competition, and also a fair dose of controversy when two pre-event tips both effectively lost their shot at glory in the very first outing.
Ben Norton qualified on pole for Heat One, but was eliminated when Team USA man Kyle Kirkwood tipped him into a spin as he attacked for the lead headed towards Brooklands ( see below).
With the leaders out of the way, Jordan Dempsey headed the fight with Luke Cooper for second. Cooper spun on oil when attacking for the lead at Brooklands late on, handing second to Matt Hamilton with Robert Barrable third.
Rob Hall took advantage of trouble for Heat Two rival Stuart Gough to win. Gough took pole but was then pinged back to second for a track limits infringement. Hall spun his wheels at the start, allowing Gough back ahead, but he couldn’t pull away. “I was struggling to get the frontend to bite for some reason, and didn’t have the grip,” said Gough, who fell behind Hall on lap four. Oil dropped at Brooklands limited passing chances and almost caught Gough out. He held the slide to chase Hall to the flag as Felix Fisher bagged third.
Festival winner Niall Murray probably should have won Heat Three after forging a one-second gap on the first lap, but gear selection problems hindered him. “The gear linkage broke and I had no third gear and couldn’t find second for most of the race,” said Murray, who was jumped by Wayne Boyd for the lead. Murray held on and regrouped to chase Boyd to the flag after holding off pressure from Josh Fisher in third.
Heat Four will go down as one of the races of the season, as Joey Foster came out on top of a frantic six-car lead battle. Foster took pole ahead of Michael Moyers, but nobody could break the tow. Soon a train consisting of Foster, Moyers, Josh Smith, Chase Owen, Luke Williams and Abdul Ahmed formed, with the lead being traded almost every lap into Brooklands. Five of the six drivers took a turn in front before Foster made the decisive dive down the inside of Owen a lap from home.
“It was just amazing as nobody could get any space and nobody really wanted to be in the lead before the last lap as the tow is so strong around here,” said Foster. “My car is mega this year. It’s finally something I can fight with.”
Williams grabbed second ahead of Moyers, Smith, Ahmed and Owen.
Ed Moore snatched a late win in a superb Heat Five, after taking advantage of the fight ahead of him. Team Canada man Parker Thompson and Richard Tarling traded the lead initially, before Neville Smyth and Moore closed in. Moore pounced when Thompson and Tarling ran wide at Copse when fighting two laps from home. Thompson held on for second ahead of Smyth and Tarling.
While one Team USA driver struggled, the second shone as Oliver Askew took a crushing win in Heat Six. It was the only race of the day to feature a red flag stoppage when James Raven and Stephen Daly had a scary incident after hitting oil at Becketts, with Daly’s car vaulting over the front of Raven’s.
When racing resumed Askew bolted clear of defending WHT champion Graham Carroll and Chris Middlehurst. The pair gave chase, but ended up tripping over each other through Brooklands as a clash of wheels sent both spinning. Carroll recovered to hold second, albeit eight seconds adrift of Askew, with Bas Leinders inheriting third. Middlehurst was eighth.