It was finally time for the Northern Ireland season to start last weekend as the 500MCI opened the gates of Kirkistown for the opening rounds of many of their various championships.
The entry list made for interesting reading in the week coming up to the event, as many of the best FF1600 drivers in the UK and Ireland had flung their hats in the ring. Niall Murray, who had a stellar 2016, had purchased the ex Motorsport Ireland Van Diemen and stayed with Bernard Dolan, whilst James Roe had done a deal with the same team to drive Murray’s similar all conquering machine from 2016- which now belongs to Dolan. (Confusing, isn’t it?) Alan Davidson was of course on the entry list in Hugh Reid’s incredible Mondiale. To take nothing away from Davidson, who is as quick as any, this car is a phenomenon in Irish FF1600 circles. Originally a 1989 car, it seems to have no problem running with far more modern and fashionable machines, as Jonny McMullen and Kevin O’Hara have previously shown us. Jake Byrne, who has always gone well at the fast former airfield venue, dominating in 2015, had also dusted off his beloved ABR Ray chassis and would surely be in the mix too.
Speaking of Kevin O’Hara, he had also prepared his LOH Van Diemen machine and headed North, no doubt as confident as ever. Like Murray, O’Hara is a former Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of the year and also holds the Mondello Formula Vee lap record (at an incredible 59.96)- so his speed has never been in question. Supercar champion Andy O’Brien was also returning to the class, this time with a beautifully liveried Van Diemen and former UK Ginetta Junior winner Keith Donegan was also entered, in a 2013 Van Diemen machine.
As ever in FF1600, indeed in motor racing, everyone was fastest in testing during the week, but one thing was sure; whoever won this one was going to deserve it! After qualifying it was O’Hara who claimed the all important pole position, with a sub lap record lap of 1:00.646. The ever confident James Roe just a tenth behind, no doubt glad to have stepped out of his RFFF machine and into a proven winner. Jake Byrne was third, and first non Van Diemen, from Davidson and Murray, who was unhappy with the engine in his car and decided to change it before the first race. Next up was a new name, Dean Macdonald, ahead of Donegan with Will Herron, O’Brien and Jamesy Hagan rounding out the top ten.
Kevin O’Hara is the master of the leisurely FF1600 start and this time was no exception, as Roe charged away to assume the lead. Davidson assumed second but O’Hara was soon up to speed and took the place back, immediately chasing Roe down. Byrne was running fourth with Murray, having changed the engine, in fifth. As Murray ousted Byrne for fourth, O’Hara, having measured Roe up for a lap or two, made his move and snatched the lead away, the pair now over four seconds to the good over the rest of the field. O’Hara looked comfortable until a moment out of the chicane saw Roe under his gearbox again. From here on, it seemed O’Hara was quicker around the lap until the chicane exit, where he struggled and Roe was clearly quicker. Murray’s car appeared to develop a misfire, later diagnosed as a problem with the rev limiter, so at the flag, it was O’Hara, eight tenths ahead of Roe with Byrne in third, albeit well back, and Davidson in fourth.
In race two, Roe led again early on, with O’Hara closing him down again and slicing by, aiming for the double. Roe was not going to be easily denied though, and fought back hard. Unfortunately a failed challenge at the hairpin saw him take to the grass and fall down the order. That took the pressure off O’Hara and he cruised to the double, almost five seconds ahead of Davidson, who had Murray right under his gearbox as they crossed the line. Roe took fourth from Donegan, O’Brien, Macdonald, Hagan and former Fiesta exponent Andrew Blair.
Kirkistown was also part of the SuperSeries for Formula Ford season , with James Roe winning the Quantum Racing Suspension Driver of the Race award for his performances on the day. As a registered SuperSeries competitor, James has qualified himself for November’s SuperSeries Shootout at Silverstone. The shootout will decide which SuperSeries Formula Fordster will travel to the USA for the Mazda Road To Indy Scholarship Finals at Laguna Seca in December.
So, two poles, two wins and two fastest laps for Kevin O’Hara and LOH Motorsport but as Kevin said “It looks good on paper but we had to fight for it!”
It bodes well for the 2017 FF1600 season, on both sides of the pond and we look forward to the start of the UK National series as well as the next round at Kirkistown in April.
Images from Tom Maxwell, Raceline Photography.