The 2017 Australian Formula Ford Series was one of the strongest in recent memory, with big fields (over 30 cars in three rounds), a very high standard of competition at the front of the field and some enthralling races.
Here’s an analysis of the top 10 drivers in the final points.
Sonic Motor Racing Services
245 points, 4 wins, 14 podiums, 2 pole positions, 5 fastest laps
The 16-year-old South Australian lined up with Sonic Motor Racing Services for his first full national Formula Ford campaign and was a model of consistency throughout the year, only finishing three races outside the top three to become the youngest-ever Australian Formula Ford Champion.
The hallmark of Vidau’s season was his race-craft and lack of mistakes – quite possibly a product of his prior experience in the South Australian Excel Series. A spin in Race 2 at Sydney Motorsport Park was the only notable error of his entire campaign.
While he didn’t quite have the ultimate pace of Cameron Shields in the second half of the season, Vidau’s metronomic top-three finishes enabled him to take the title. His innocent involvement in an incident in the second race at Phillip Island – which resulted in his only non-score of the season – made the final equation a little tighter than it should have been, but with the title on the line in the very last race of the year, Vidau sealed the deal with a flawless drive from the back of the grid to third place.
As his prize for winning the series, Vidau will participate in December’s Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout in America but his sights appear to be set on the local scene. Graduation to Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge, remaining within the Sonic Motor Racing stable, seems a likely prospect.
231 points, 8 wins, 12 podiums, 2 fastest laps
The definition of a season of two halves, Cameron Shields fell victim to incidents and mechanical problems at Sandown, Wakefield Park and Winton, burying him a lowly seventh in the points – 77 off the lead.
Shields swapped into a different car – the Mygale campaigned by Will Brown in 2016 – at the Queensland Raceway round and his season exploded into life. He won the last three rounds, including a remarkable eight wins from nine races, to finish just 14 points behind Vidau come season’s end.
It raises the question what might have been if Shields – who ran a parallel campaign in the Australian F4 Championship – had a smoother start to the season, but with the 16-year-old from Toowoomba indicating he intends to be back in the Australian Formula Ford Series in 2018, he will surely enter the season as the short-priced title favourite. The next challenge will be dealing with the weight of that expectation.
Borland Racing Developments
195 points, 2 wins, 8 podiums, 3 fastest laps
When Jayden Ojeda drove his brand-new Spectrum 015 to victory in the first two races of the season at Sandown, it looked like Borland Racing Developments was ready to win its first national Formula Ford title since 2008.
But those two victories and tie for round points (Ojeda lost the round win on a countback to Vidau) would be his best results of 2017.
That’s not to say Ojeda had a poor season – far from it. His driving was of a high standard and the team did exceptionally well to stay in the title hunt all the way to the final round, considering their lack of testing miles compared to some of the other contenders.
Ultimately, a couple of mechanical problems and unlucky incidents – such as being rear-ended on a Safety Car restart at Wakefield Park – cost Ojeda a shot at glory.
There’s no doubt the 18-year-old Sydneysider has the talent to progress to the next level but as is so often the case, funding may be the limiting factor. F4 has been touted as a possible next step, or the Toyota 86 Racing Series could be an option for Ojeda to reap the exposure benefits of running on the Supercars support program.
Sonic Motor Racing Services
189 points, 2 wins, 9 podiums, 2 pole positions, 3 fastest laps
Another fast New Zealander making his mark on the Australian motorsport scene, Hunter McElrea provided some of the most exciting moments of the season.
In the opening round at Sandown, he qualified second but fired off the road. He was on pole for Round 2 at Wakefield Park but again slipped off the circuit while battling his team-mate Vidau in Race 1, dropping to last. In Race 2, he produced one of the drives of the season, coming from the back of the grid to cross the line first, only to be stripped of the result for a driving infringement. He made up for it by winning Race 3.
By the fourth and fifth rounds of the series at Queensland Raceway and Sydney Motorsport Park, McElrea had found some consistency to match his speed, scoring another race win at QR and finishing second overall in both events.
But a mechanical problem in qualifying left him buried in the pack at Phillip Island and he again endured the wrath of the officials while trying to fight through the field, copping one penalty for a driving infringement and another for overtaking under yellow flags.
In a performance reminiscent of Sebastian Vettel in his early F1 seasons, McElrea demonstrated he has plenty of raw speed but ultimately a few too many mistakes cost him a top three position in the final standings. Once he irons out the rough edges there’s no question he has the talent to win many races and championships.
McElrea’s ambition is to race Indycars in America, and he undertook a successful USF2000 test recently. If the US option fails to materialise, another season in Formula Ford would allow McElrea to fine-tune his race-craft.
Borland Racing Developments
137 points, 3 podiums, 1 pole position, 1 fastest lap
After a couple of promising guest appearances during Victorian state rounds in 2016, much was expected of Liam McLellan’s first full national title assault. It certainly started well with pole in the season opener at Sandown, and second overall in Round 2 at Wakefield Park.
After that, big results became tougher to come by – the Winton round in particular was an absolute shocker and at Queensland Raceway and Sydney Motorsport Park, McLellan simply didn’t have the pace to trouble the front-runners.
Things seemed to be heading in the right direction at Phillip Island with McLellan chalking up a trio of sixth-place finishes to secure the Victorian title, and in fact the Victorian Formula Ford Championship seemed to have brought out the best in McLellan’s driving – he scored numerous race victories against rivals that included fellow national series competitors.
The 2017 season provided enough evidence that McLellan has the ability to run at the front; his next task is to do it on a more frequent basis to contend for the national title in 2018.
132.5 points, 1 podium
At just 14 years old, Nathan Herne was the youngest driver on the grid at the start of the year and only obtained his CAMS licence on the Friday before the season opener at Sandown. He was also a true rookie, having stepped directly out of karts into national Formula Ford.
Considering these factors, sixth in the standings was a commendable achievement. He capitalised on some drama in the season opener at Sandown to finish fourth overall, and steadily worked his way forward at Wakefield Park to finish in the top six by the end of the weekend.
After getting his bad weekend out of the way at Winton, Herne was back in the top six on home turf at Queensland Raceway and stayed there at Sydney Motorsport Park.
In the last round at Phillip Island, Herne qualified third and finished third in Race 2, giving a glimpse at the sorts of results he will be aiming for more often during his 2018 sophomore campaign.
DREAM Motorsport/Mygale Race Cars Australia
130 points, 1 podium
In the first three rounds, Cooper Murray – driving the ex-Thomas Randle 2014 championship-winning car – was accumulating points very nicely indeed. He finished third overall at Wakefield Park, and had worked his way up to third in the championship after Winton.
More consistent top-five finishes followed at Queensland Raceway and Murray was well within striking distance of second in the standings thanks to his consistency and lack of poor results.
But then came a disastrous round at Sydney Motorsport Park where Murray chalked up two DNFs due to mechanical problems, effectively ending his chances of a top three series result.
The Phillip Island round was a tough one as well; Murray was running inside the top three before being turned around in Race 1, and he was penalised for overtaking under yellow flags while trying to recover in Race 2.
With the points table packed so tightly, Murray’s difficulties in the last two rounds saw him fall to seventh which was unfortunate given they were mostly not of his own doing. Like other Formula Ford returnees, he will be aiming for regular podium finishes and race wins next season.
He may have missed out on a top-three race finish in 2017, but Sunshine Coast teenager Harri Jones scored no less than six fourth-place results, and in the final round at Phillip Island his consistency was enough for him to stand on the podium for the weekend.
Considering his lack of karting pedigree, Jones did a good job to be competitive with his rivals who had more experience in the junior ranks of the sport.
The main hurdle Jones needed to overcome was his qualifying form; generally the pattern of his weekend was to qualify in the mid pack (outside the top 10 on several occasions) and then spend the races trying to make up positions. He did this effectively at Queensland Raceway and Sydney Motorsport Park but at other events he was left vulnerable to the cut and thrust of the midfield shenanigans, notably at Wakefield Park and Winton.
Outside Formula Ford, Jones has established an impressive reputation for versatility – he already has a Bathurst 12 Hour GT4 Class win under his belt, has driven a Group A BMW M3 to some fine results in Heritage Touring Cars, and scored a race victory during a cameo appearance in the Australian Formula 3 Series. Over the summer break he will continue his development by competing in the Middle Eastern and Indian-based MRF Series.
Team Soutar Motorsport
While many Formula Ford competitors drive for well-resourced teams with experienced engineers and technical crew, it is still possible to run competitively as a privateer, as demonstrated by Zac Soutar in 2017.
Despite no previous Formula Ford experience, Soutar performed solidly throughout the season, chalking up numerous top 10 race finishes and ending a commendable ninth in the standings as the highest-placed privateer. Against the depth of competition, this achievement is not to be understated.
Notable highlights were a couple of seventh-place race finishes; lowlights included crashing out of races at Wakefield Park and Phillip Island.
If Soutar and his small, family-run team can build on the experience gained this season, look for him to contend for top five results in 2018.
77 points, 1 fastest lap
Another privateer running on a shoestring budget, Lazzaro competed in four of the six rounds and was often a thorn in the side of the more highly-resourced operations, especially in the Winton round where scored a fourth-place finish.
Lazzaro also finished in the top five at Phillip Island and ended up only 1.5 points behind Soutar in the battle for the Privateer’s Cup despite missing two rounds.
Lazzaro and his family are passionate advocates for Formula Ford and it’s great to see them continuing to support the category.
Ben Reichstein was one of the big improvers of the season, driving with the Borland squad and recording a number of top 10 results, and running in the top five at Phillip Island. He is to be congratulated for flying in from Darwin for not only all the national series rounds, but all the Victorian Formula Ford Championship rounds as well.
Sonic Motor Racing driver Courtney Prince competed in five of the six rounds and after a conservative start to the season, she hit her stride at Phillip Island, finishing second in Race 2. Along with Hamish Ribarits, Prince will be the backbone of Sonic’s assault on the 2018 season and the pair will have big shoes to fill.
Jett Bennett had a consistent season driving with Synergy Motorsport, his best result of sixth coming – predictably – on his testing ground at Wakefield Park.
After finishing on the overall podium at Sandown and in the top five at Wakefield Park, Jordan Boys departed the category to progress to the Kumho V8 Touring Cars where he won on debut at Phillip Island to further re-inforce Formula Ford’s status as the primary stepping stone for drivers pursuing a career in Supercars. He later stepped up to the Dunlop Super2 Series at Sandown, finishing in the top 10.
Aaron Cameron also only competed in two rounds but took pole, a race win and the round win at Winton before concentrating on the Toyota 86 Series. Nic Carroll was another driver who ran parallel Formula Ford and Toyota 86 Series campaigns.
Formula Ford’s elder statesman Paul Zsidy contested another full season and enjoyed taking the fight up to – and sometimes beating – the young guns. The highlight of Zsidy’s season was Phillip Island, where he finished in the top 10 on genuine speed.
Cody Donald showed glimpses of pace while the other point-scorers were mostly state runners competing in one-off rounds, such as Lachlan Gibbons, Jackson Burton, Conor Nicholson, Jake Donaldson and Lachlan Mineeff. Mineeff qualified a fine third outright at the Sydney Motorsport Park round.
Also worthy of mention is the Kent Class Champion Mitch Maddren, who is planning a step up to the Duratec Class in 2018.