As Ralph Firman’s first new Formula Ford design of the 21st century got ever quicker during the 2016 season, driver Luke Williams suggested it had the potential to “dominate”.
Williams, a Duratec-era FFord race-winner, hasn’t quite done that, but dominating the most competitive field seen in a season-long FF1600 contest in two decades would be a lot to ask.
What he certainly has done is stay a step ahead of his rivals all year. Pole and two wins from the Brands Hatch opener planted him atop the table and served notice of what Williams and the Firman would be capable of in 2017.
Since then, he’s taken at least one race win from every event bar Oulton Park and Kirkistown. He got to the front even at tracks he felt didn’t suit the Firman as well as rival chassis, and at his personally least-favourite venues too.
It was Silverstone qualifying in August that summed up Williams’s season best. For much of the session an astonishing 17 cars were within a second, and the provisional pole was changing hands by margins of thousandths. Then Williams popped out and grabbed pole away by a full two tenths. The win he took from that pole position later in the day helped bring him to the cusp of sealing the title at Anglesey this weekend. He arrives in Wales with a 57-point championship lead.
Cliff Dempsey Racing’s Neil Maclennan has been Williams’s main rival. An incisive racer, he has sometimes left himself with too much to do after low-key qualifying sessions, running out of time to carve through to the front in several incident-disrupted races.
But it was developments between races that really stymied last year’s Scottish champion’s hopes of a National title this season. The lack of unanimity over the plan to reschedule the abandoned third Castle Combe race for the following Silverstone meeting meant a race Maclennan had pole for never happened. Around the same time, he learned that an appeal against the loss of Knockhill victory for a yellow-flag infringement had been rejected. It was a double blow that made Maclennan’s life much harder.
Much of Williams’s year has been spent wheel-to-wheel with another Luke: Swift Cooper man Luke Cooper, who has proved to be one of the toughest racers in the field – even when stricken with chicken pox – through an extremely impressive 2017 campaign. It won’t bring him the title, but it’s cemented his status as one of the UK’s top FFord racers.
For the fourth man in championship contention for most of the year, 2017 has been a season of growing self-belief. Seeing Jamie Thorburn’s confidence develop has delighted his Cliff Dempsey Racing team, which had a lot more faith in Thorburn than he appeared to have in himself early on. You don’t win at Kirkistown in a field this strong without exceptional racecraft, though, and Thorburn is now firmly at home among the frontrunners.
All the best FF1600 grids have a few rapid young racers from across the Irish Sea on them, and this year Team Ireland scholarship winner James Roe Jr and Jordan Dempsey have led that contingent.
Roe’s Kirkistown and Donington Park wins would’ve set up a stronger title challenge had he not been the victim in too many collisions during the season, while Dempsey – son of long-time FF1600 racer Morgan – sat out the early months to focus on his education but was straight on the pace when he appeared. Headlined by pole at Donington in his second meeting and a win at Castle Combe in his third, Dempsey’s progress has taken him up to seventh in a championship he only joined at the end of June.
The championship standings are frustrating reading for former MSA Formula racer Josh Smith. Ninth in the points with a single podium so far, Smith’s recent months have been spent frowning at a puzzling lack of straightline performance or raging at rivals following incidents. Those issues have compromised his parallel Northern programme too, though he still has a title shot there at least.
Regional series frontrunners have provided several starring cameo roles in the National field. In between winning the Scottish title, Graham Brunton Racing’s Ross Martin has been a National series semi-regular. A winner at his home round at Knockhill, he’s sixth in the championship despite competing in only a little over half the National events.
Josh Fisher and Wayne Poole Racing are in the thick of the Castle Combe championship hunt again and have also been National frontrunners on a pair of appearances. As a man who finished third in the inaugural Formula BMW Championship – ahead of the likes of Sam Bird and Oliver Turvey – Fisher makes an excellent benchmark for FF1600’s new generation. FFord’s at its best when there’s a battle between not-even-old-yet deserved-to-be-professionals and teenaged want-to-be-professionals, and the 2017 National field has certainly exemplified that.
With the profile it’s gained this year and the boost of joining the TCR UK support package next season, National FF1600’s 2018 season already looks even more promising than this year. One man who’s had his eye on 2018 from the outset is Kevin Mills Racing’s main National contender Michael Eastwell. The karting graduate is highly-rated by Mills (not an easy man to impress) and always regarded 2017 as a learning year. He’s feared gaining a bad reputation having been caught up in a number of incidents, but a breakthrough podium last time out at Silverstone suggests he’ll soon be talked about for all the right reasons – much like FF1600 itself.