If you followed national Formula Ford 1600 in any capacity last season, then there is no way you would have been able to miss the name of Niall Murray, who came, saw and conquered across the board in a remarkable 2016 campaign.
Not content with just a dominant title success in the BRSCC British National Formula Ford 1600 Championship, the Irishman would also add victories in three blue-riband FF1600 events, the Martin Donnelly Trophy, Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy.
Murray’s journey to Formula Ford superstardom has been a fascinating one, with him first entering the spotlight in the UK back in 2011, when he entered the Ginetta Junior Championship as the inaugural champion in the Ginetta Junior Ireland series.
Despite battling with limited resources and testing in the small Beacon Racing outfit, Murray enjoyed a hugely impressive maiden season in the competitive BTCC support series, with six consecutive podiums to end the year setting him up for a 2012 title tilt.
Moving to Douglas Motorsport, Murray would go on to compete in a talented field that was headed by now Ginetta factory driver Charlie Robertson, two-time McLaren Autosport BRDC Award finalist Sennan Fielding and McLaren GT young driver Andrew Watson.
Early drama on the second weekend at Donington Park dented Murray’s championship challenge, but the Irishman would eventually end the season having accrued more points than anyone else – though the series’ dropped score ruling left him third in the final standings.
As Murray told TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk at last month’s Autosport International Show, he looks back at his time in the Ginetta fold with fondness, and feels his time in the championship provided him with the perfect grounding both on and off track for his subsequent career.
“Ginetta’s were fantastic for me, particularly the team there. At the time, they were just in the national scene really and there was a real family feel to it, hanging around in the parts trucks with the team just having a laugh and enjoying the weekends,” said Murray.
“My time in the Juniors really matured me as a driver. In Ireland, you were racing on one or two tracks with a relatively small paddock, but you came over here and it was a big step, with ten different circuits to learn and no real testing in my first year.
“I’m glad we spent that first season on the backfoot really, engineering ourselves with no team-mate to work with, as it taught me to learn a new car and new circuits quickly, which are skills that have definitely helped me since.
“I look back at 2012 and one weekend ruined the championship for me, with the problems at Donington Park. I would have loved to have won the title, but I learnt from the mistakes I made that season and came away with lots of race wins, podiums and lap records that stand to this day.”
As his time in Ginetta Junior competition came to an end, Murray saw efforts to stay on the sportscar ladder curtailed by budget restraints, which led to a return to his homeland and an introduction to the world of Formula Ford.
Murray’s entrance coincided with a huge boom in popularity for the Irish championship’s, ensuring he was pitted against a competitive field as he learnt his trade, with his season long progression being ultimately rewarded with a massive surprise win in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch.
“At the end of 2012, we looked to take the step up the Ginetta ladder to the G55’s, but the budgets were out of reach. So we looked to head back to Ireland, and the only championship we had any interest in was the Formula Ford, with 2013 being one of its biggest ever years,” he explained.
“There were 35 cars on the grid for the first race, which is unheard of in Ireland, and it was fantastic to be part of it. Throughout 2013 me and the team were learning the car and single-seaters, so there was no pressure and we managed to win a race during the year.
“It was only during the end of the year that it started to really click, and we went to the UK knowing that I’d always done well around Brands Hatch. We were quick in testing in Thursday and Friday, but with no live timing nobody was really sure where everyone stood.
“As the Irish guy doing it for the first time, no-one expected much from us, but the rumours started going around the paddock on the Friday evening that we had done these times and that gave me a boost of confidence, that we had the pace to challenge.
“To actually go on and win was unbelievable, and it was made all the better by the fact we started back in fifth and had to pass everybody to get into the lead, no-one fell off or broke down, and overtaking had been my main weakness through 2013.”
With confidence high following his Festival victory and the subsequent accolade of being named the 2013 Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year, Murray would go on to truly dominate proceedings in Irish Formula Ford the following season.
A sensational campaign would see Murray win both the Northern Ireland and All Ireland Formula Ford 1600 titles with a weekend to spare. Whilst that success should have catapulted him to the next level in single-seaters, his next move would prove to be a bit of a surprise.
With options limited as the 2015 campaign rapidly approached, Murray found himself making his first foray into tin-top racing with a late challenge in the SEAT Supercup Ireland series – utilising the machinery used in the BTCC-supporting SEAT Cupra Championship in the late 2000’s.
Despite his relative lack of experience and the fact he missed the opening rounds, it’s perhaps no shock that the rapid Dubliner was a front-runner from the off, with four wins in four weekends eventually taking him to championship glory.
“Winning the Driver of the Year award gave us a fully-funded season in 2014. Running with Bernard Dolan, who is unbelievable, we had a fantastic year in Ireland and was quickest in the Festival but didn’t race, and was leading the Walter Hayes before the weather changed,” he recalled.
“When the prize was finished, we looked at our options and despite winning the championships and having proven we were quick in both Ireland and the UK, opportunities didn’t open up for us and we didn’t really have the budget to go and race Ginetta’s, Clios or anything like that.
“We had a deal about 70% done to compete in a European GT4 series with a Dutch team, but that fell through and the week before the first SEAT Supercup races, we looked at a bare shell in the workshop and decided we’d build it up for me to race.
“The championship was just starting and it was only meant to be a one weekend thing to get another number on the grid, but although we didn’t end up getting the car built in time for the first races, I ended up doing the rest of the championship on a weekend-by-weekend basis.
“Every weekend we realised I was getting closer to the championship lead, so decided to just do another one and another one, and I’m delighted to have come away with the championship, especially with my season having cost less than nine thousand euros.”
Following his tin-top excursion, Murray headed back to familiar ground in Formula Ford last season and certainly showed that the year out did him no harm as he pieced together a sensational maiden campaign in the BRSCC British championship.
A run of ten victories in fourteen races ensured he won the title with three races to spare, and that wasn’t all for the Irishman, who added victories in the Formula Ford Festival, Walter Hayes Trophy and Martin Donnelly Trophy – success for which Murray gives all the credit to one man.
“Bernard [Dolan], simply, was the key. His level of preparation with the car was extraordinary. It was the same car I used to win the 2013 Festival, but he’d completely reworked the car, the details of which he wouldn’t want to be published, to get it exactly how he wanted it,” he enthused.
“The car was unbelievable, and I knew that from the first test session I did in it. We made a couple of clicks here and a couple of turns there with the set-up that day, and then did we didn’t have to touch the car set-up wise for the majority of the season.
“It didn’t matter how different the tracks were, or whether it was for qualifying or the race, we didn’t need to change anything and that shows just how perfect Bernard’s car was, and it’s no surprise he’s won the championship the last two years.
“A number of times through the season I’d have to drive the rental car back to the hotel at 11pm just to get some sleep, but Bernard would stay behind working on the car, sleep in the garage and then be back working on it again first thing in the morning.
“The level of dedication he puts in is unbelievable, and thank god his workshop is at his home, or else he’d never be home to see his wife! His son Sam works for us and has the same work ethic, they don’t go home at 6pm, they just keep working all night until the job is done.”
Murray’s end-of-season victories mean he’s written his name in the history books as only the second driver ever to win both the Festival and Walter Hayes in the same season – a feat that he acknowledges he will always look back on with immense pride.
“It’s brilliant. I wanted to be the first driver to win the Festival two years in a row, but it didn’t go our way in 2014, so to then come in this year and not only win the Festival for a second time, but in the same year as the other successes, it’s truly unbelievable,” he enthused.
“After winning the championship, I remember saying to Bernard that all we had to do now was win the Festival and the Walter Hayes, but deep down I knew that even if I was quickest at both, I might win one if things went my way.
“With over one hundred entries, anything can happen on those weekends, with mistakes, contact, mechanical problems and everything. I needed luck on my side, and fortunately all the stars aligned and it all clicked for me.
“The car was there, it was so good it made my job so easy, so I just needed to do the lap-times on track and managed to bring it home both times. It was a fantastic team effort and I can’t thank them all enough for helping me make history like that.”
Murray’s title success in the BRSCC series was rewarded when he was invited to Laguna Seca in December to compete in the coveted Mazda Road to Indy shootout, which saw him battle twenty other drivers to try and win a $200,000 scholarship for an entry into USF2000.
The contest brought together champions from across the globe, with Murray impressing on his way to the final six. While he missed out on the ultimate prize, he says the experience highlighted to him just how valuable racing in the competitive Formula Ford class can be for a driver.
“70, 80% of the people at the Autosport Show here today that are involved in motorsport will think nothing of Formula Ford, viewing it as some club racing, and Dad’s wanting to move their kids from karts to cars will ignore it and go for Formula 4 or similar,” he commented.
“It’s sad that Formula Ford isn’t noticed, it’s such a good class and teaches you so much more about set-up and on track racing than slicks and wings cars do, and the shootout in America really showed the level that Formula Ford championships are at around the world.
“It was brilliant to meet drivers from across the world, all at a similar age group, and hear their stories about how they got into the sport, and it was great to pit myself against the best drivers from the most competitive Formula Ford series in the world.
“Unfortunately I didn’t come away with the prize, but it was a brilliant experience. I finished fastest on day one, despite having not driven the car or circuit before which others had, and got into the final six drivers which was fantastic.”
Murray admits his scholarship experience has opened his eyes to American racing and the wealth of opportunities for a young driver across the pond, with his ambition to race in USF2000 next year being clear – though he accepts that the chances of him making the move are looking slim.
“All I want for 2017 is to be in a race suit in a race car, and where that is doesn’t bother me too much. Deep down, I know that the most opportunities for my career are in America and it’s unquestionable that I would want to go out there and race,” he concluded.
“Seeing how well the Scholarship was run, everything about the preparation and execution was perfect, and that shows how well they run their race weekends and championships, plus there’s the proper ladder of progression there unlike anywhere else in the world.
“I would love to go into USF2000, but the cost of the new cars and spares are higher than the teams expected and therefore budgets have naturally skyrocketed, which has sadly put it out of our price range for now.
“We spoke to the teams out there and they’re really proactive, trying to get tests together and do deals with us. We’re looking at maybe trying to do the first couple of rounds over there and see if we can continue after that, but I’m keeping my options open.
“Whether it is GT’s, prototypes, touring cars or single-seaters, I’m confident that I can jump into something new, learn it quickly and do the business straight away. I’d love to drive anything to be honest, I just need the next opportunity to show what I can do.”
While it’s not clear what the future will hold for the speedy Irishman, if his recent history is any indication, then Murray is destined for plenty more success as he tries to climb the motorsport ladder … on which side of the Atlantic that is remains to be seen.