MSA Formula season review: A worthy successor to Formula Ford
In its first season, British Formula Ford's successor, MSA Formula, produced close racing, a compelling title battle and a worthy champion in Lando Norris. Valentin Khorounzhiy looks back.
The announced transformation of the long-running British Formula Ford series into an FIA-backed Formula 4 venture for 2015 raised a couple of eyebrows at the end of last year.
But, with the inaugural MSA Formula season now in the books, few would dispute that it was a good move, especially given the somewhat underwhelming Formula Ford grid numbers in the years prior.
The clumsily-titled MSA Formula (the Formula 4 trademark in the UK belongs to Jonathan Palmer's rival BRDC F4 series) was what resulted from that switch, and a gruelling 30-race season on the BTCC support package produced a worthy and extremely promising champion in Lando Norris.
But while 15-year-old Norris stole the post-season headlines, there were plenty of twists, turns and subplots along the way, and a number of drivers who did their best to be noted.
As the season went on, the points lead changed hands round after round, while no fewer than nine drivers took to the top step of the podium, making up a convincing entry-level grid despite established opposition in the form of BRDC F4.
The MSA Formula title run looked like a three-horse race between newcomers Norris and Dan Ticktum and Formula Ford convert Ricky Collard, son of BTCC stalwart Rob, from very early on.
But while they traded the points lead after almost each race early on, Collard soon started to break away, helped by Croft drama between Norris and Ticktum that saw the former register a costly DNF and the latter a one-race exclusion, which was bumped up to three races after he appealed.
Yet Norris eventually reeled in Collard, the duo entering the final stretch about level when the scales began to tip - first in Collard's favour when his Carlin rival was ruled out of contention in the final race of the penultimate round at Silverstone, only for the Arden driver himself to retire from that very race shortly thereafter.
Having subsequently entered the Brands Hatch finale 10 points adrift and not managing to make up the ground, Collard said: "I was gutted to not win it this year but, you know, we've had some bad luck, especially with after what happened at Silverstone."
His misery was compounded by the fact the Silverstone drama was no usual retirement. Instead, it was a crash with Ticktum under the safety car, after the latter was spun off by Collard during green-flag running and sought retaliation, earning a one-month suspension.
When the title fight concluded, Collard was adamant that it was the Ticktum incident that cost him the crown. "I think we could've had at least had 25 points and then we could have been in a very strong position coming into Brands," he lamented.
"I'm very frustrated with what he's done and it's cost me quite badly.
"But we've gone all the way to the end, we've fought all the way to the end and we've never given up. I drove with my heart in my sleeve and tried my hardest," he added, ending the season as runner-up with six wins, 42 points behind Norris.
The late bloomers
Had the series been a couple of rounds longer, the chances are that Colton Herta, son of IndyCar race winner Bryan, would've worked his way into title contention.
Seventh after the first five rounds, Herta was the top scorer in the championship's second half by a hefty margin - and notched up four wins in the process, taking his points haul from 101 at halfway to 355 at the season's end, just 16 shy of Collard.
"I think it was just a turning point in my driving," Herta said, having previously been fairly critical of his early-season efforts. "I think I just matured a little bit."
He wasn't the only one who improved as the campaign wore on, as Enaam Ahmed, who had had 35 points to his name after 15 races, ended the season on 176 - and the rookie title to boot.
The early struggles of Ahmed, who had swept the World and European Karting Championship titles in 2014, were as obvious as they were unexpected. But he clicked by the end of the season, claiming five guest wins in the SMP F4 series and adding an MSA Formula win as well.
"I had quite a bad start to the season and that made me work harder, made me more hungry," he said. "And once I started working on the areas I needed to work on, I became a lot better - and also I became a lot more confident with throwing the car around, which is quite important in these machines.
"I basically had to forget everything I learned in karting. In cars, you can't just jump in like I could in karts and be quick - it takes a lot more effort to get there. You have to have the full package to be able to do the proper lap time.
"I'd like to really say thanks to my family and my managers at Edge, who really helped me get back cause they supported me through such tough times in the beginning."
Of the championship's many, many races, the absolute majority were won by established UK single-seater squads - Carlin, Fortec, Arden, Double R.
But three times in the season the spoils went to JHR - a team largely known for their tenure in the Ginetta championships on the BTCC support bill.
The victories all came courtesy of Chesterfield driver Sennan Fielding, who had pulled off the first and, thus far, only BRDC F4 round sweep last year and powered his way to fourth in the inaugural year of MSA Formula.
"It would have been nice to make the progress [to Europe] - and I think we would've been ready for it - but unfortunately it's all down to budget, as a lot of people know with motorsport," Fielding said.
"But I can't say thank you enough to JHR and my sponsors Amigos for actually putting me out on the grid this year.
"As a team, we've come on amazingly. From where we were at the start of the year and how much we progressed.
"We've kind of shown you can compete against the top teams with no budget at all. We've literally had no testing. The budget some of the other drivers are spending is absolutely phenomenal."
His sentiments were echoed by Louise Richardson, the series' top female driver, who drove for family-run Richardson Racing.
"I hate to be one of those people who says 'oh, they've got all of the money' and things like that," she said. "But, with the amount of testing that they can do, they can test absolutely everything, whereas I only had, I think, one full test day this season outside of the race weekends.
"And what you can do at the race weekends is limited. You kinda go into every race with changes made to the car and not really knowing what to expect."
Richardson, all in all, endured a difficult year, although three top-fives at Croft, including a maiden podium, proved decisively that she could cut it in the series.
"It's been a tough one," she admitted. "We've tried a few things with the car and it's not really worked out. Each round we've learned something new, but we just haven't had a chance to put it all together."
The job of a junior single-seater racer is one that doesn't come with a lot of job security - and most of the drivers on the grid will spend the rest of 2015 frantically looking for a 2016 drive.
Series champion Norris has confirmed a rather clear goal of making the Eurocup Formula Renault category next year, but he's the exception rather than the rule - and his rival Collard, for instance, is still unsure of his future destination.
"We're definitely looking to move [to the international scene] next year," Collard said. "I'd like to look into GP3, Formula 3 or Eurocup.
"I'd say we've got some good guys behind me and some good sponsors. I'm gonna go and look at trying to make a package next year. What team it'll be or what series it'll be I don't know yet, but we'll be working hard over this off-season.
Similar options probably exist for Herta although, at 15, the American is certainly young enough to consider a sophomore season. Whatever he picks, he's set to stick around in Europe, dubbing it "the best place to learn".
Just a couple of months older than Herta, Ahmed confirmed that staying put in F4 was an option, although Formula Renault was considered as well.
"I'm honestly not sure yet," he added. "It depended on how I did this weekend [at Brands] and I won a race, so that helps a little bit.
"We'll see by Christmas, hopefully."
Fielding is likewise unsure, as budget remains an issue. "Obviously I'd love to stay in single-seaters, because that is the aim," he said. "But it's very difficult to make the next step, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see. We've got a few things lined up and hopefully something good will come out of them."
For Richardson, meanwhile, the long-term goal of a GT racing career could finally come to fruition.
"I prefer the GT cars, more comfortable in them," she said. "So I'm hoping to look at a GT route.
"There's a couple of things in the pipeline, but, again, you can never be certain until pen's to paper."
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