The 2018 Castle Combe Formula Ford 1600 season was a far cry from the height of previous years when the Wiltshire-based circuit would attract grids of 30 cars to tackle the run from the start line, through Folly, up Avon Rise and into the braking area for Quarry Corner.
It sometimes struggled to maintain a grid in double figures – the peak grid being 14 cars and the low point being nine, with mechanical issues in qualifying sometimes a factor in that low number – but it still provided the racing expected of FF1600 cars: close, wheel-to-wheel action for the 10 or 15 lap races around the 1.85 mile circuit.
Occasionally the racing ended up in wheel-banging as two, or sometimes more, drivers went side-by-side. It sometimes – rarely, admittedly – ended up in contact or with drivers retiring from races.
The 2018 season was all about Luke Cooper driving the family-run Swift SC16. Based very close to the circuit, this is very much his, and Swift Cooper’s home and a largely dominant campaign resulted in Cooper taking the title in round seven of nine. He joins brother Jason (2009 Saloon Car champion) and uncle Martin (1984 FF1600 champion) in the Combe hall of fame.
Dropped scores meant Wiltshire College Motorsport’s David Vivian kept the title fight going to round seven, despite Cooper winning the first six races of the season and picking up all but one bonus point for fastest lap point.
Vivian needed to outscore Cooper by 21 points heading into the race but Cooper’s pole position – 0.032 seconds ahead of BRSCC Avon Tyres National Championship runner-up Michael Eastwell – coupled with Vivian qualifying fifth gave Cooper the advantage.
Multiple CCRC FF1600 champions Josh Fisher (2007 and ’17), Roger Orgee (’15 and ’16) and Adam Higgins (’13 and ’14) battled with Cooper, Eastwell and Vivian at the front before, one-by-one, they began to fall.
Vivian spun out in his Spectrum mid-race before Higgins and Eastwell collided. It meant Cooper, who dropped to sixth on the opening lap, was now closing down Fisher for the lead. Heading into the fast right-hander of Camp for the penultimate time, his engine blew.
“It was really strange,” Cooper says. “There was no prior warning to it going. I was in the process of setting fastest lap after fastest lap, catching Josh up and came into Camp. There was no indication that it was going to go. It just went bang as I went into Camp corner.”
And while the championship wasn’t on Cooper’s mind at that point, the rest of the season was: Cooper still had to compete in the FFord Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy.
“At that moment I thought that was going to be the end of the season for me,” he says matter-of-factly.
“It was heartbreak really, very frustrating. But it was kind of bittersweet when afterwards it was announced I’d won the championship that weekend. I wasn’t really able to celebrate how I would’ve liked to because it was very disappointing the engine went at the same time we won the championship.”
While the engine blowout stopped Cooper taking a clean sweep of wins in Combe – Fisher claimed two wins in the final three rounds with Eastwell the other – Cooper still had six wins from six under his belt.
“The first half of the season was absolutely amazing. We went into the first round of the season – it was about the same weekend as the first round of the National championship – so we went into the first weekend full of confidence after a great win at Silverstone.”
The unbeaten run at the start of the year was not easy for Cooper. With Kevin Mills Racing’s Eastwell and Wayne Poole Racing’s Fisher on the grid, it meant he had to fight for each pole and win he picked up.
“It was brilliant. Both Josh and Michael, I raced against both last year and I’ve raced against Josh for a few years so we’ve all had those battles,” Cooper says.
“We’ve had quite a few close battles and obviously battling with Michael in the National championship as well, we’ve got that little bit of trust in each other [about] where we could go wheel-to-wheel and know we’re not going to force each other off the track.”
“Those guys are both very talented drivers and going wheel-to-wheel with them is always great fun.”
While the smaller grids at Combe didn’t reflect well on the championship, Cooper believes it didn’t take away from racing at the front of the grid even if it was “disappointing” there were not more cars on the grid.
The numbers do support this too. While Cooper was on pole by almost a second at the first two races, the gap did fall as the season progressed – and it was mostly the same in races too with the exception being when a lead car retired late on from the race.
“I think the racing at the front was still really good. We still had very top drivers battling at the front and a lot of people coming to do guest rounds and stuff. So the championship itself towards the front still maintained quite a high level,” Cooper explains.
“It was disappointing that the grid wasn’t as high, as normally you want to race against as many people as possible. And there were a few people missing from the leading battle that had raced in previous years.”
But while the grids were smaller, the Combe season did provide two team owners a chance to race: Kevin Mills for KMR, which usually ran Eastwell and Orgee (and Hugo Bentley-Ellis for a short period early in the year), and Wayne Poole for WPR.
And while Mills described it as just about having a day out when none of his full-time racers were available, he did manage to put his Spectrum 011 third on the grid in the final race of the season before coming home fifth in the race.
Poole’s run out left him last on the grid in qualifying before he progressed through the field to finish in seventh place and claiming the fastest Class C fastest lap and finishing ahead of Pre-’90 class runner-up Michael Phillips.
In the final standings, Vivian finished second, ahead of Fisher in the overall classification, although the positions were reversed in the Class A league table, which uses a different scoring system.
Paul Mason won six times to beat Shaun Macklin, Alex Rivett and Paul Barnes to the Class B title in his Swift Cooper-run SC94, which suffered a chronic misfire. Mason was only driver of the four to compete in every round, while Barnes competed in two races and won both.
Rivett was the only driver not to pick up a class victory in the Pre-’96 division during the season with Macklin taking victory in the final race.
WPR’s Steve Bracegirdle took the Class C title in a Van Diemen RF89, outscoring Phillips after taking victory in the first seven races. Phillips won once, and finished 26 points adrift. Matt Hallam – who later won the Search for a Star contest, meaning he will race in the top class in a Wiltshire College-run Spectrum in 2019 – entered two races (his first ever) and claimed one class victory in a Reynard.
And the final title winner, in Class D, was BRDC British Formula 3 driver Joshua Mason although there was rarely more than one driver in class at any race.