The off-season doesn’t get longer but it sure feels like it does as the years go on. This is my 5th time waiting for the season to start and the same strange forces that seem to make the season fly by in a second, warps the winter months into eons.
There is now light at the end of the tunnel though with the official test only a few weeks away and the season proper set to kick off in April. One way I’ve found to while away the time each year is to put together a season preview, with the main runners and riders, as I see it, across the multiple Official Caterham Motorsport Championship series.
2017 Caterham Academy Championship
The bright eyed and bushy tailed Academy class of 2017 have started to take their first forays out on track with their new shiny machines. As ever, there are some that look more prepared than others for the challenge ahead but what’s a sure thing is that none of them truly understand the adventure they are about to set out on.
It wouldn’t be fair at this point to call out any names to watch out for. Firstly, because I’ve only seen a few of the people out on track and secondly, because things change so quickly during this learning period that it would be wildly inaccurate.
There will be surprises along the way and it’s rarely time spent on track that dictates the front of the field. What is a certainty, is that the whole paddock will be watching on trackside, cheering their successes and reminiscing on their own time spent in the Academy.
2017 Caterham Roadsport Championship
Over 40 Academy graduates have signed up for the 2017 Roadsport season. The Autumn trophy at the tail end of the 2016 Academy season was the first time that the Green group and White group got to race each other and it was a fascinating glimpse into what could be a highly competitive year.
The Roadsport car is a great step up from the Academy car. With a much more balanced feel and more grip from the Avon ZZS tyre, every year we see some fresh faces towards the front of the grid who perhaps didn’t get on with the Academy car.
We also tend to see the whole grid close up in lap time. Even those who don’t immediately improve their grid spot are now in reach of those top 10 positions. With the additional 5 mins in race length added to the mix, some more tactical awareness is also a bonus.
So, on the basis of last year, who are the Championship front runners? With Champion Tozer departing, Pete Spencer and Tom John lead the Green Group charge. Pete’s single lap pace was strong throughout 2016 but he’ll need to cut out some of the mistakes, often caused by over exuberant driving. If he can start stringing laps together, he’s going to be a potent force which the others may have to subdue with further drinking challenges in the bar on Friday nights.
Tom John was often the fastest man out on track in race, however, this was equally as often because he was fighting back through the field from a mistake. He’s pounding the tracks again this winter and will definitely figure on the podiums. A consistent season could see him take the trophy.
The White Group duo of Gillias and McCormack were fast from the off and romped away with 6 out of the 7 wins on offer through the Academy. The only other winner was Beardwell at the opening round. However, with James heading off the the 310R series, it could be down to Ben and Jay to hold White honours.
Ben Gillias dodged a bit of a bullet with a Rockingham race restart early in the season but made the most of this luck to hold together a great Championship campaign through the Academy.
Jay McCormack was often downright rapid on track and had some great consistency on show as well. Mostly, it was these two fighting alone out front throughout the season. That means the only question mark hanging over them is if they have had the experience of pack racing and how they’ll cope with that through 2017.
The real interest in the 2017 Roadsport season lies behind these front runners though. Both groups saw a healthy chasing pack through the Academy and watching how everyone settles in is going to be fascinating.
Pete Walters, Marcus Rawlinson, Ian Johnson, Nick Graham and Carl Varney all figured in their race weekends last year and it wouldn’t take a massive leap in speed to be competing for wins.
Philip Bianchi, Eric Tiv and Spencer Wright all regularly competed in tooth and nail fights alongside the departing Beardwell through 2016. They are equipped for the battle and at least a couple will step onto the podium through 2017.
Waiting in the wings are drivers like Anthony Taylor, who had a great tail end to the season last year, and Caroline Everett who has speed but needs to cut out mistakes. Matt Gray and Arnaud Graebert are dark horses to watch as well.
It’s a very hard series to call but I’m going with (subject to him doing some testing!) Jay McCormack’s natural speed. Gillias and Spencer are my shout for the lower steps but they’d better be ready for some hard fights and Tom John certainly could spoil their party.
2017 Seven 270R Championship
After a tense end to the 2016 Roadsport season, the march up the Caterham Motorsport Championship ladder continues on into the 270R class for many of the drivers.
At time of writing, Rui Ferreira and Guy Hawkins are not signed up to be among their number. Given Guy’s spectacular move through the grid in 2016 there will be a few sighs of relief no doubt from some.
Russ Olivant and Dan Quintero have proved themselves to be class acts on track. Able to consistently be at the head of the field and often times stepping on the steps of the podium come the chequered flag. Dan has suffered from some on track incident though and, ultimately, it is this that separates the two when the points get added up.
Behind these two, Rob Watts has turned into quite the competitor. Regularly on the podium in 2016 he’s just missing that elusive win at the moment and if his progress continues upwards, 2017 could be his true breakthrough year.
Cooper, Lloyd and Bevan all show patches of raw pace but equally suffer from slips in form, incidents or get stuck in the midfield. With slightly more space at the top of the field this coming season, it could leave the route to the podium slightly easier for this chasing pack.
Alex Jordan is a good call for dark horse of the championship. With some race experience under his belt now and some of the racing lessons learned, he could push the leading group.
So, my call is for an Olivant championship, Quintero in second and Watts taking third. Racing has a funny way of surprising you though and I can see a great season ahead.
2017 Caterham Supersport Championship
By popular demand, the 2016 specification Supersport Car has retained its place in the official Caterham Motorsport Championship ladder. With over 30 entrants signed up, it’s not hard to see why and with an absolutely spectacular 2016 season, many people want another run at glory.
Now that Will Smith has moved up to the 420R Championship, it may actually leave some winners trophies for others. There’s still plenty of rapid talent at the head of the field though so all podiums will be oversubscribed with contenders.
Henry Heaton will go in as many people favourite. He picked up an impressive string of podiums through 2016 and was only out of contention once through the year. Some uncharacteristic errors in the wet at the final round saw him lose 2nd in the championship. However, mistakes were few and far between. More of the same will see him pick up more wins and be a hot favourite for silverware at all rounds.
Ben Tuck’s run of form at the tail end of the 2016 season was impressive and fairly ominous for the 2017 season. A young gun looking to move up into professional motorsport, sometimes that eagerness to succeed caused issues through the season. However, with a years experience under his belt, and assuming incident can be avoided, there’s no denying his underlying pace and desire to succeed.
Szaruta should be looking forward to 2017. But for a couple of slipped results through 2016, he has proved not only to be a fast and consistent driver but also a great racer. On a grid with so little time between the drivers, Szaruta is only 2 stone away from being able to take the trophy.
Behind this strong triplet, Dickens, Gore and Hutchinson will be looking to bring home results and show the young guns a thing or two.
Dickens in particular has proved he can string a Championship together better than most and after a disappointing 2016 he’s hungrier than ever to get back on the top step. There were still plenty of signs of life in Dickens and he’ll not be making anyone’s life easy at the head of the field.
It’s unclear at this point if Mike Evans is splitting his season between Supersport and 420R but at any round he turns up at, he’s sure to plant himself firmly towards the front of the field.
With a slightly more open mid field this year, there will be plenty of drivers joining onto the lead pack and capable of podiums. Weaver will likely lead this charge. Regularly rapid but also often caught up in battles, incident and suffering car troubles meant 2016 was a tough year for him. Again, he’ll be looking to move up the field and bring home some silverware.
There are also some new names to add to the mix which will inject some uncertainty to proceedings.
My call for the Championship is Tuck, Heaton then Szaruta. However, it’s so close to call that I have little confidence in this analysis. If Szaruta turns up to Snetterton in a slightly more athletic guise, he could surprise everyone and the reality is that any of the top 6 are in with a realistic shout.
2017 Seven 310R Championship
The newest addition to the Caterham Motorsport ladder is the 310R Championship. With a bump in power over the previous Supersport Category, the car specification looks great and initial feedback from the drivers is really positive.
The 2016 Tracksport grid are joined by some new names and some returning drivers. Hopefully this will see a true return to form for the class of the 2014 Academy. After a dip in numbers, things are looking good with over 20 signed up to date and a few more waiting in the wings.
With Tracksport Champion, Barnes, heading to the 420R in search of glory and Bremner heading off to race other cars, this is one of the most wide open Championships on the ladder this year.
Of the returning drivers, Steve McCulley and Barry Moore bring the most form with them. Often times, they were the next drivers up after the Barnes and Bremner duet. But it was a hard fought mid-field which saw Ebdon, Rimer, Wells and Lambert tough it out through the year. That battle is sure to continue. But the interest in this championship is as much the new names that are coming on-board.
James Houston makes a return to racing after a year off to do whatever you do when you’re not racing… always there or thereabouts in the past, he will figure when the flag comes down.
After a brief foray into the Graduates Caterham Series where he narrowly missed out on the Championship win, Lee Bristow is back in the Official Caterham fold. Regularly competing at the pointy end of all the grids he’s been a part of, there’s nothing to indicate this is going to be any different this year.
We’ve got a few ‘jumpers’ who’ve skipped steps of the ladder. Including James Beardwell and Paul Bradey heading straight from Academy. That’s a big step to take and although speed may not be a particular issue, experience will almost certainly tell through the season.
Al Calvert also deserves a strong mention. It’s been a while since he has been able to run a full championship campaign but if he does, then he will be capable of winning it.
Last, but very much not least, is the return of Gordon Sawyer. Extremely rapid, a previous winning driver, he’s going to make an impression and is a dark horse to take the Championship by storm.
My call for this Championship is Bristow, McCulley then everyone else… If Calvert runs a full campaign, I’d put him on the top step and I also suspect that Sawyer may well feature more prominently in my mid season review.
2017 Seven 420R Championship
What a tasty, tasty proposition the 420R Championship is this year. It’s got a bit of everything going for it. A vacant position at the top up for grabs; check. Great new drivers; check. Great returning drivers; double check. Huge grid; check.
With Aaron Head off to race his classic Porsche, the Championship is as open as it has been for a while. Lee Wiggins finished another year as runner up in 2016 but returns again this year to go one step higher. It won’t be easy by any means though. Jack Sales returns after a spectacular debut season with more experience and a hunger to grab the trophy. Danny Winstanley looked back to full strength at the Donington finals and he will also be looking to launch a strong season.
Steve Nuttall proved to be human for the first time in 2016 and there’s no way he wants to leave without a trophy for a second time. Dyer will also be hoping for more of the ups and less of the downs through 2017.
Of the people moving up to the series, William Smith is reunited with Sales, his Group 2 Academy Rival. Last year was all high fives and congratulations between the pair but it’s all going to go serious again this year. Will comes off the back of a spectacular Supersport campaign but it normally takes a couple of years to truly compete at the top with this thoroughbred race car.
Jack Brown, Richard Ainscough, Andres Sinclair, Tony Mingoia, Christina Maple all jump up from the highly competitive Supersport grid and if their performances there are anything to go by, more than a couple will appear on a podium at some point.
Mikins and Barnes jump from Tracksport and we have Wes Fox and Elliott Norris returning to Caterhams after some time off. All have been competitive. Some highly. Barnes had a great showing at Donington when he tried out the R300 ahead of this full season. Will the time off have blunted Norris and Fox? Only time will tell.
Trying to place all these brilliant drivers into a firm order is pretty much impossible. At this stage, I, like many others in the paddock, would love to gift Wiggins the championship. However, my call at this stage is Sales, Winstanley then Wiggins – but as we all know, past performance is no guarantee of future results.