FIFTEEN TO WHICH ONE?
There’s more choice than ever for junior racers. By Stephen Lickorish
that Ginetta Junior is a little bit more expensive but we do more races than anybody else,” says championship manager Ash Gallagher. “If you worked out the cost per minute, we would probably have the lowest value.
“The advantage we have is in terms of exposure. The touring car package speaks for itself. The car is also a great tool to learn in – you only have to look at the people that have come out of Juniors and what they’ve achieved.”
Drivers such as British Touring Car race winner Tom Ingram and LMP3 champion Charlie Robertson started their careers in the category. And while it may not have enjoyed its biggest grids this year, that it managed to attract 17 drivers for its Winter Series at Brands Hatch last month was a promising sign.
“If you look historically, if you have a big grid in the Winter Series that usually transfers across [to the main series],” Gallagher argues. “So I would predict a similar grid size to this year [for 2017].”
But while Ginetta entries may have stagnated at around the 20-car mark, at the opposite end of the budget spectrum the Junior Saloon Car series is flourishing. It averaged 23 cars in 2016, a massive increase on where it was just a couple of years ago.
“We’ve had a fantastic year,” says championship coordinator Dave Beecroft. “In three years we’ve gone from having enough cars to make a championship, 12, up to mid-20s.
“Our taster day was full with 20 people in 48 hours and I’m now going to hold another two days.”
It has even started attracting drivers from overseas with Australian and Greek drivers set to be on the grid next year. Even with nine racers leaving the championship by becoming too old, numbers are still expected to remain in the mid-20s for 2017.
Beecroft attributes that surge in popularity to the series being family friendly – as well as the low budgets. “You can’t do it any cheaper,” he says. “It’s a learning ground where lads and dads can compete with the teams. You
can spend millions of pounds on a Saxo and you won’t make it any faster – it’s not chequebook racing. The only thing you can do with more money is driver testing.”
Junior Saloons has not been alone in enjoying record grids this season, the BRSCC’S Fiesta Junior Championship has also had a major boost in numbers.
“This year in terms of entries it’s the best we’ve had, averaging 16 drivers,” says BRSCC competitions manager Dominic Ostrowski. “It’s good progress – we’ve invested in the whole concept for a good few years right back to the T Cars days.
“I was pushing it a bit stronger this year and the word got round that it’s a good competitive championship and strong package overall with our TV coverage. One of the main focuses is the camaraderie in the paddock, it’s quite strong among the drivers. They’re all competitive by nature but we’ve got a good family atmosphere.”
While all three existing categories are confident of at least matching this year’s numbers the big unknown is the new Clio Junior series.
UK motorsport championship manager Will Fewkes is confident the category will make an impact and that having the full support of Renault UK and Renault Sport will help.
“This is a mass car manufacturer that is entering the junior market,” he says. “Renault Sport has had a massive amount of success in other areas of motorsport before and it’s an exciting product that can move forward in the junior market.
“It appeals to privateer entries as well as teams – it’s a lot more accessible – and it’s a proven car as well. The fact that teams are able to use the junior car in the senior series means you are getting two cars for the price of one so you’re not having to reinvest in another car again.”
This is something that has been done before but WDE Motorsport boss Wayne Eason – who used to run cars in Fiestas – believes the way the Renault series will work makes it more of an advantage.
“Fiestas used to use it as a selling point but both series were at the same event,” he says. “There’s no reason why it can’t work in Clios as the events are different weekends [so damage and failures can be repaired].”
So far a number of teams have expressed interest, including Jamsport – with Going expecting to run four cars – WDE, Ciceley, Pyro/20ten and Finsport all set to field drivers.
But one criticism of the Clio category is that it only offers 12 races from six events, while the other championships all have more meetings. However, Fewkes doesn’t see that as a drawback.
“I don’t think only having six rounds is a problem, this is for children aged 14 to 17 and it’s important they are in school and get their education,” he argues. “They are still entering the Renault Sport arena which has a reputable infrastructure and is renowned for developing young drivers.
“The drivers will have ample track time in a close one-make championship that will look great on their CV. I think that we’re set for an exciting 2017.”
Alongside those four series solely dedicated to juniors, there is one other option out there. When British Formula Ford became an FIA Formula 4 category at the start of 2015, its age limit was lowered to 15. But this year there were only three 15-year-olds competing, although one was Alex Quinn who took three wins and finished as top rookie. However back in 2015, 15-year-old Colton Herta finished third in the standings with Carlin.
So in 2017 there are five options for those aged 15, when drivers are still too young to enter the grown-up racing world. Unsurprisingly, the introduction of the Clio series has received a mixed reaction from the current championships.
Beecroft says it doesn’t affect the JSCC because of the gulf in prices, while it’s targeting a very different market to Ginetta Junior. “It probably waters down all the other grids, it’s difficult to say,” admits Gallagher. “Obviously any new junior series is seen as a threat but I would’ve thought they won’t be attracting the same sort of driver as we are.”
It therefore seems its closest direct rival will be Fiestas. “It’s too early to say [what impact it will have],” says Ostrowski. “There are a couple of our drivers going over to Clios who want to try something else but it’s appealing to a slightly different market.”
Junior team bosses are not so sure. “I think it’s [Clios] bang on the Fiesta money,” says Eason. “If I was running the Fiesta championship I would be more worried.”
Westbourne boss Richard Colburn, who’s squad took James Dorlin and Ben Colburn to the JSCC title, agrees: “I think it’s going to pull from Fiestas. My
opinion is that Junior Saloons is a great place to start at 14 because you’ve got to learn to drive a geared car and learn the racecraft. It’s a great budget series which is available to anybody.
“Ginetta Junior is different because it’s rear-wheel drive so is a good starting point for those going to GT cars, while the Clios will be good for those who want to drive saloon cars.
“I think it’s a positive step forward. It uses later technology so it’s a bit different to others out there and there’s certainly a place for all of them.”
However Going reckons the Fiesta championship still has a strong future.
“I think Clios are going to fit in between Fiestas and Juniors,” he says. “It’s starting quite late in the season [its first round isn’t until June], with Fiestas we will probably have done three or four rounds by then. Fiestas is still a great championship – it has a cheaper car, great circuits and the meetings are more spread out.”
What is for certain is that junior drivers will have more choice than ever before next season. Ginetta G40, Ford Fiesta, Citroen Saxo or Renault Clio – it will be fascinating to see which proves to be the biggest hit in 2017 and if they can all thrive. ■
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