Keith Donegan winning the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship shootout is three things: 1) a deserved break for a very exciting young talent; 2) emphatic validation of Formula Ford 1600’s revived potential as a career springboard; 3) a beacon of hope to drivers who think a professional chance is beyond their resources.
Unable to continue racing after being Ginetta Junior runner-up in 2014, Donegan came off the sidelines for a partial 2017 FF1600 season in a Van Diemen, self-run with a very small team of family and friends on one of the smallest budgets of any frontrunner (and that budget included buying the car).
Now he has a $200,000 cheque and a clear path towards IndyCar in a ladder system that genuinely rewards success. That’s an exceptional return on not very much (in junior single-seater terms) investment.
There had always been hints of paddock scepticism about FF1600’s MRTI tie-up – fears that ultimately the prize would always go to an American for marketing reasons, or that the myriad methods by which shootout ‘tickets’ were on offer across multiple UK FF1600 series and one-off events somehow diluted the message.
That message now looks pretty simple: just get yourself an FF1600 and you really could end up racing on the IndyCar ladder. Run that FF1600 yourself if need be or hook up with a team if you want the comprehensive racing education on offer with one of the paddock’s big guns, contest every race you possibly can or cherry pick with Mazda ticket opportunities in mind.
No matter what your budget, there could be a path for you.
The door opens both ways, too. A year ago Matt Cowley was a promising young FF1600 talent but relatively unproven. He used the MRTI/FF1600 link to make his own path in America independently and dominated the US F1600 Championship with sometime IndyCar team Pelfrey Racing, then walked back into the UK FFord world this autumn as a man ready to fight for Festival victory.
Things went awry for Cowley in the Festival final, which was where Donegan really, really made his mark. All weekend at Brands Hatch, the body language of Donegan’s car had an ‘I’m going to make something happen’ urgency.
His moves were bold and incisive, and he came oh-so-close to pulling off a Festival-final-winning one on Joey Foster, the ultimate FF1600 benchmark.
In the paddock afterwards, there were some questions about whether the shootout ticket for the Festival winner definitely did automatically pass down to Donegan because Foster was outside the scheme’s age range.
When that was put to Donegan, he laughed, grabbed some tools and joked that anyone trying to take that ticket off him would have to fight pretty damn hard to get it out of his hands.
He’s going to take that edge and against-the-odds determination to America with him, combine it with his sublime racecraft, and do FF1600, his family and the UK and Ireland proud.