Michai Stephens: My Roller Coaster Ride at Brands Hatch
Updated: Feb 8
Brigstock, England – Hey there folks, the weekend of the 2014 Formula Ford Festival finally came to an end, and the constant action of on and off-track experiences was amazing! It included a full five straight days of motor racing, by far the longest stint I have ever been a part of. Every day was different from the other; some were good while others not so much. The people and the atmosphere were amazing and to see and to be a part of it all was so cool. The Team USA Scholarship, along with all its great supporters deserve a tremendous THANK YOU for sticking behind my teammate Aaron Telitz and I, allowing for such a grand experience.
Once Aaron and I arrived at Brands Hatch, we took to the track on foot along with the Team Canada driver, Chase Pelletier, who joined in on the adventure. The circuit had very impressive features to it. The pure cleanliness and pristine feeling were immediately noticeable, and the elevation and camber changes smacked you in the face as well. The track was still damp and at times we found ourselves sliding along rather then walking. We took note of all the details we could pick up and shared different scenarios with one another.
With a busy day ahead of us, Aaron and I found the hotel’s pool/sauna, then made it to bed.
The following morning we finally laid eyes on the Cliff Dempsey Racing hauler at full sprawl.
It was definitely a sight to see – the already impressive hauler was now sporting an attached awning that ran its entire length. Cliff had also managed to snag a primo parking spot, so you couldn’t miss it even if you tried. Wednesday and Thursday’s four 45-minute practice sessions allowed for a good amount of dry running, for which I was very grateful. The short track – just 1.2 miles – paired with long running time was helpful. I found Brands to be pretty challenging. Like all the other circuits so far, Brands definitely demanded and rewarded a sharp mind and precise car placement. Aaron and I set off trying to bring our times down lap after lap. At day’s end we had both had made some great progress.
Another bit about Brands that was cool was the location of the hotel where we were staying. It was literally within walking distance, right next to the main entrance. So in the morning and evening Aaron and I were able to stroll to and from with no hassle. We continued on our second day of testing on a high. Aaron was showing great pace while I was lacking just four tenths behind. We fed off one another’s data to help put together the perfect lap. After another long day, a well-deserved rest was in store.
Now onto Friday, and the final driver for Cliff Dempsey Racing, James Raven, showed up to join in the action. James has been racing with Cliff for a couple of years. The team felt as if it was always growing. From the moment we got there until the moment we left, more and more people swung by to visit. It made for a great atmosphere. Hospitality was off the charts, mechanics were on point, and the driver coaches were top notch!
The day would also start a trend of not so great luck for me. The first two sessions were damp/ wet. Under braking into the first corner, Paddock Hill Bend, I misjudged my line and locked up the front brakes. As the gravel trap and tire barrier got ever closer I scanned for a way out. Fortunately I managed to point the car just a bit down hill. This allowed me to brush up against the padding and walk away with no damage. The second session presented even wetter conditions and a mix of cold tires, brakes, driver and misinterpreted bias setting caught me out once again. I locked up the fronts once more as I was entering Turn Two, Druids, and found myself panicked for a way out. Unfortunately this time I was unable to redirect the car and made a beeline for the tire wall. A rookie mistake to say the least and one I am not looking to make again. That would end the day for me, so I spent the remainder of the time observing and studying data and video of my teammates.
Finally, the first day of the 2014 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch was upon us. The sun shone through the hotel window as Aaron and I looked forward to the day. I believed all my misfortune was behind me at this point and looked forward to turning it all around. A 15-minute qualifying session was first on the chopping block. Trying to find a proper gap would allow me to run some consecutive laps while improving my time lap time. I began warming up to the circuit and started to knock off the time. A few laps into the session, my pit board read “P5″ and I knew there was much more time on the table. As I was rounding the final corner, Clearways, exiting onto the front straight, I came across a slower car, and as I dove to the inside of him, I suddenly noticed his car moving in my direction. I tried to sidestep him by inching onto the grass. Then it all went wrong. His car continued to turn down on me and I had nowhere to go. The steering wheel was ripped from my hands and his car began to take flight. For a fleeting moment, time stood still, then quickly snapped back into speed when I realized the wall was approaching fast!
I managed to gather her up and stayed off the wall. Red flags came out and from that point forwarded I battled yellow flags around the back portion of the circuit. I wasn’t able to improve on my time while a couple of others did, so I rounded out qualifying in seventh and was reasonably content because I knew there was more pace to be found.
An hour or so later it was time for the heat race. Within that time I watched Aaron take control of his heat race and bring it home. Just watching all the cars take to the grid was a sight to see. It was then time for my own heat race. The nerves were buzzing like crazy as the lights lit up. I brought the revs up and slowly backed out of the clutch, the lights went dark and away we went! After a missed gear on the restart followed by more yellow flags, I found myself back in 10th. With a few laps to go heading into Surtees, I played the gofer and found the spilled oil left by another car. This caused me to lose the back end entering the turn and sent me spinning off the track. I was unable to restart the car due to a starter motor failure.
This result consigned me to the back of the grid for my Semi Final race, and meant I would have to fight my way into the top 14 in order to advance to the Final; a challenging but not impossible task. As I took to my grid position, the nerves had fallen away. I felt confident and focused. The start of the race was crazy with cars heading in every direction. In Skip Barber this year, we have had at most 12 cars on track. I was now looking down the back of 28 racing cars all with one goal and a mind of their own. A few laps in I began making my way through the field. I was finally beginning to find a rhythm and was really enjoying myself. Looking to my pit board, I noticed I was in the 14th position, mission accomplished! With more cars just ahead I continued pushing because every position was worth a row on the grid in the Final. So the higher I finished, the closer to the front row I would start.
Soon I was up to 13th and right on the gearbox of the guy in 12th. I quickly noticed that this gentleman was not going to be as polite as the others. I began to get schooled on the intensity and aggression behind the racing in England! Every which way I went I was getting my nose chopped or being run off the road. After three laps of pure headache, I found my opening. Around the outside of Clearways presented itself with two laps to go, so I began motoring around the outside. All was well; the pass was going to stick. As my rear right was just clearing his front left, however, I saw a green nose pop in my direction. I thought, oh, crap, not again! I tried to sidestep the inevitable but couldn’t escape the misfortune once again. I was then sent spinning off the circuit and into the gravel trap. RACE OVER and more importantly I lost the chance of being in the Final.
Jack Mitchell/JAM Motorsport Photography images.
Through the many ups and downs, you always have to look to turn things around. I learned a tremendous lesson this weekend about perseverance and luck. One you can control and one you cannot. No matter the circumstances doing your best to rise to the challenge is all you can do at times. Continuing to and always having faith in the possible rather then the impossible will keep you going.
I want to congratulate Aaron on a job very well done and thank absolutely everyone for the wonderful weekend. All the supporters of the Team USA Scholarship and everyone at Cliff Dempsey Racing will always have a special place in my heart. I might not have walked away with a victory, or even finished a race. But I know where I stand and I know I have keep faith!
Thanks for helping to keep this dream alive!