FF1600 in Ireland is something of an enigma. We have a history of producing some of the fastest and best FF1600 drivers in the world. Happily, this continues to be the case in the modern era. Niall Murray, Kevin O’Hara, Wayne Boyd, Jonny McMullan and many more have run right at the front and won on the UK circuits in recent years. Kirkistown has always been strong in terms of FF1600 quality and the former airfield circuit never yields easy wins in the class. Having heard about, but missed, the season opener, I made sure to head north for the second meeting last weekend.
Kevin O’Hara is a former Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of The Year. He is not alone in that it would be fair to say that his career stalled somewhat once he left the MI prize drive a few years back. He still has a FF1600 though, and when he dusts it off, he is always on the pace. He was the man at the opening meeting, although young James Roe, in the ex Niall Murray all conquering Van Diemen, made him work hard all the way. Murray, who blitzed pretty much everything FF1600 related in 2016, also returned to the class, this time having bought the ex Motorsport Ireland car- and back with his Bernard Dolan Racing team (alongside Roe). Former UK Ginetta Junior frontrunner Keith Donegan has also joined the series this year in a 2013 Van Diemen, run by legendary category ace Pat Duffy. Alan Davidson, as ever, was on the entry list too in Hugh Reid’s evergreen Mondiale, which is still capable of outpacing many more modern machines. (I know the Van Diemen drivers are keen to explain that it is practically a brand new car, but I wonder if a “new” 1988 Van Diemen or Swift could run at the sharp end of this grid?)
O’Hara it was who clinched pole position, with Murray, his engine woes from the opening weekend a thing of the past, alongside him on the front row. Roe lined up third from Davidson. David McCullough was next up from Donegan and Will Herron, the third driver in the Dolan team.
O’Hara may be one of the fastest around, but his standing starts have always been his Achilles Heel and today was to be no different. When the lights went out, Murray streaked away as O’Hara was swamped. Roe grabbed second from Davidson with O’Hara next up. I was watching at the chicane with Wayne Boyd, Jonny McMullan and a few others and any thought we might have had of savouring one of O’Hara’s famed recovery charges were soon dispelled as he went around at the entrance to Colonial, coming to rest with a rear corner gone off his KCMG/Baxter Van Diemen. The resultant safety car period allowed time for plenty of speculation and banter in the crowd and when the pack were released again, Murray timed it to perfection- streaking away into a strong lead. Nobody though, had budgeted for the incredible pace of Roe. After a tough 2016 season in the new RFFF machine, he was relishing the chance to have a real go in a fully sorted car and with a string of fastest laps, he reeled in the leader. Murray didn’t have to do a whole lot of defending in 2016, as he simply dominated most times he was out, but this was going to be a different story. Or was it? As Roe was about to find out, the multiple FF1600 Champion is as good at defending as he is at attacking! The two Dolan run Van Diemens ran in formation for the duration, with Murray covering every move, leaving Roe unable to translate his stunning pace into an overtaking move.
Speaking afterwards Murray was matter of fact “I covered the inside at Colonial and Fishermans and I was quicker out of the chicane so I was happy enough.”
As the Dolan team mates laughed and joked about the restart, there was drama in the LOH awning as Luke and Kevin raced against time to replace the rear corner before race two. Thankfully, at least for the expectant crowd at the chicane, they managed it and the red Van Diemen arrived in assembly, as immaculate as ever. Once again however, Kev was a touch on the tardy side off the line, allowing Murray to lead away for the second time. Roe immediately showed his earlier pace as he closed up on his team mate. O’Hara, however, was to uncork a stunning drive, scything through the cars that had beaten him off the line and setting incredibly quick laptimes, one of the them quick to eclipse Ivor McCullough’s long standing lap record, as he eased onto the tail of the lead pair.Almost immediately Roe, switching to the outside in reaction to Murray covering the inside, snagged the back of the leader and went skywards. “Game On” muttered those in the know up at the chicane. This was what many had travelled to see- some of the top FF1600 drivers in the country, if not in the world, go at it. Roe, rejoined, but with all chance of victory gone, he didn’t give up and began to charge back towards the sharp end, despite bent rear suspension! Up front one sensed that Murray was going to have a fight on his hands but as the laps reeled off he held station at the front. A few times O’Hara got alongside on the drag out of the hairpin but Murray had just enough in hand to ease back in front as the rounded Debtors. Some wondered if O’Hara was keeping his powder dry for a last lap charge and indeed as they started the penultimate lap, he definitely became more aggressive, moving around in the braking areas and trying to unsettle the leader. For the second time of the day though, Murray showed he wasn’t about to be rattled and crossed the line a few fractions ahead of his challenger for an impressive double. “Delighted to win that one”, said Murray afterwards, “Kevin was far quicker today though and if he got by he would have been gone. His nose was broken and that hampered his straightline speed and made it easy for me.” Mature words, after a mature drive….
Star Drive this time out has to go to Niall Murray. In neither race was he quickest, but he never got rattled and one would suspect that if either of those two races were still running, he would still be leading them! If KOH manages to nail his starts, FF1600 could be become very boring though. As for James Roe, well he has shown stunning pace and his first FF1600 race win just cannot be too far away. So no shortage of talent in the class then, which is where I came in! Murray was also awarded the Quantum Racing Suspension Driver of the Race award for the meeting and hence, qualified himself for the end-of-season #MRTI SuperSeries Shootout at Silverstone- and possibly a second shot to the Mazda Road To Indy programme. Roe already qualified, thanks to his performance at the opening rounds of the series last month.
There were a few tweets posted after the event suggesting that it was a shame that the class doesn’t race in Mondello. Whilst I would agree with the sentiment, lets make one thing clear- that is not the fault of the circuit! During my days there I attracted the backing of Abrakebabra and a few others and we had a prize fund of over €6,000 for the Formula Ford Festival- with the aim of relaunching the class at the Kildare venue. Looking at the image below, it is hard to believe that that event was just three years ago.
As a quick aside, I had a chat with Arnie Black in the bar when the racing was over. One of the quickest about back in the day, the Crosslé man still enjoys his racing as much as ever. He had enjoyed a great dice with Andrew Blair and felt that although his Hollywood built machine handled better than Blair’s Reynard, it was losing out on the long back straight- maybe because of aerodynamics. I wondered if a similar conversation at the Crossle workshops back in the late 80s prompted John Crossle to pick up the phone and call Francis Costin. The result, lest we forget, was the Crossle 70F, a car which made the Fiat Multipla look positively attractive! That however, is a story for another day- so I will take the anorak off until the next time.
Header Image from Tom Maxwell/Raceline Photography