Where do you start with the 2017 Ginetta Junior Championship?! A season that truly had it all. As well as serving up more of its entertaining brand of action-packed, wheel-to-wheel racing across the biggest season in championship history, the series also featured some headline-making exclusions, suspensions and plenty of paddock politics.
Sadly 2017 will likely be remembered as the year Ginetta made the monumental decision to suspend from competition the championship’s longest-serving team in JHR Developments mid-season, uprooting over a third of the grid including two of the title contenders with only three meetings remaining.
It shouldn’t though. The season should be reflected upon as another vintage year of on-track Ginetta Junior competition, with an immensely talented field producing some exceptional racing that further cemented the series’ status as the clear fans favourite on the TOCA support package.
Heading into the season all eyes were on the reigning Winter Series and Rookie Cup champions Sebastian Priaulx and Dan Harper respectively as the prospective men to beat, while fellow 2016 race-winner Harry King was also a highly anticipated returnee to the grid.
Sliding under the radar during pre-season however was Tom Gamble, who’d finished his previous campaign four weekends early with only a trio of outright top six finishes under his belt – but once the action began back in April at Brands Hatch, it was clear he would be a contender as well.
The first race of the season showcased just how dramatic and unpredictable the 2017 season would turn out to be, as contact at the final corner between Gamble and Priaulx as they fought for the lead sent them spinning and allowed rookie Harry Dyson through to be a surprise first victor of the campaign.
The second race of the weekend at Brands Hatch would give a clearer indication as to the expected front-runners for the year though as Priaulx led home Gamble, Harper and King, while Connor Grady completed a fifth place double which turned out to be his highlight of a lukewarm campaign which ended prematurely.
Gamble and Harper would make their statements of intent next time out at Donington Park, the former taking a double win and the latter a pair of pole positions and a first win of the year, though Priaulx would hit back around the fastest circuit on the calendar, Thruxton, with a qualifying double top and race victory of his own.
It was following that weekend that the fire would ignite under the championship battle though as JHR Developments trio Priaulx, Dyson and Matt Luff were excluded from parts of the Thruxton weekend after engine infringements were found on their Ginetta G40’s during post-event scrutineering checks.
That meant Gamble, who had taken a win and a second place in Hampshire, would now hold a clear championship lead and Priaulx would drop back to seventeenth in the standings, however the reigning Winter Series champion would show the perfect response as he hit back with a sensational run of four consecutive victories.
Priaulx’s double double at Oulton Park and Croft meant he was clearly the driver in form heading into the mid-season summer break, with Harper having endured a couple of difficult weekends, while Gamble had bounced back from a tough Oulton with the final win at Croft.
During the seven week lull, JHR successfully appealed their Thruxton exclusions to the MSA National Court and were reinstated to the results, meaning that by the time the paddock reconvened at Snetterton in August, there was a new name atop the championship standings in Priaulx.
While that filled him with confidence, it was Harper who seemed to have gained most from the time off as he swept to a double victory in Norfolk, the start of a hugely impressive run of form for the Northern Irishman as he started to close an 86 point deficit to Priaulx in the standings.
After the annual trip north of the border to Knockhill, there would be another bombshell dropped on the series though as Ginetta elected to suspend JHR from all their championships pending an investigation, leaving seven drivers needing to move teams for the final three meetings.
While Dyson would bow out to focus on an eventual switch to British F4, having added a second outright podium finish at Thruxton to his Brands win, the remaining six managed to find new homes before Rockingham, with the title contenders Priaulx and Gamble moving to HHC Motorsport and Elite Motorsport respectively.
As they settled into their surroundings, Harper took full advantage in his Douglas Motorsport G40 as he built momentum with another pair of victories, but his heroics were eclipsed by Gamble at Silverstone next time out as he truly stamped his authority on the championship battle.
Gamble would make Ginetta Junior history as the first driver ever to win all three races in the same weekend, with the milestone achievement giving him some crucial breathing room atop the standings as he headed into the Brands Hatch season finale with a fifty-five point advantage.
That meant that despite Harper going on to take a fantastic third double victory in five weekends and Priaulx picking up the other win on offer, a seventeenth podium finish of the season in the penultimate encounter would be enough for Gamble to wrap up the title with a race to spare.
That statistics show that the right man emerged as champion, with Gamble’s tally of eight wins and seventeen podium finishes being better than his two title rivals, however it would be Priaulx who came away as the best qualifier on the grid with eight pole positions and a qualifying average of 2.75.
At one stage there was the possibility that it could be a four-way scrap for the title meanwhile, as rookie revelation Kiern Jewiss threatened to enter the battle with a sensational campaign, showing a level of front-running consistency that few first year contenders have ever enjoyed in the series.
A late deal to enter the championship with Douglas Motorsport meant the multiple British karting champion endured a slow start at Brands Hatch in April, but next time out at Donington Park he was qualifying on the front row and securing his first outright podium finishes and class victories.
That success put Jewiss onto the tail of Brands race-winner Dyson atop the Rookie standings and he quickly moved ahead, with Dyson’s challenge fading following a third and final class victory at Thruxton, with reigning Scholarship winner Adam Smalley stepping up as the chief competition as the season progressed.
Smalley wouldn’t get close though as Jewiss produced a stunning run of form either side of the summer break with eight outright podium finishes in nine races, and while it seemed like he would never step onto the top of the podium after incredibly finishing second on nine occasions, a richly deserved maiden victory finally went his way at Knockhill.
While Jewiss would then suffer surprisingly tough outings at Rockingham and Silverstone, he would complete his season on a high as a twelfth outright podium finish during the Brands finale completed his dominant march to the 2017 Rookie Cup title, succeeding his Douglas team-mate Harper to the honours.
Jewiss’ title success means Douglas Motorsport have housed the Rookie champion for two years in a row following Harper, and the duo’s contributions this season guided the Irish outfit to their first Teams Championship title ahead of HHC and JHR, the latter having led the standings prior to their departure.
Smalley meanwhile would end the season in a clear second in class, having been a regular presence in the overall top six throughout his Scholarship year. Pushing hard throughout the campaign with JHR and then HHC, he would shine at Snetterton with a top four treble including a maiden outright podium result.
Finishing ahead of Smalley in the championship standings to complete the top six overall were 2016 Elite team-mates Tom Wood and King, with Wood hoping a switch to former champions HHC would push him forwards, while King stuck with the Elite team that guided him to two race wins in his rookie year.
While neither driver would ultimately be able to deliver the title challenge they desired, they were both able to steal the headlines from the top three at points over the campaign with some standout results, the duo ultimately coming away from the campaign with nine podium finishes each.
The first half of the season was pretty slow for King, but he came on stronger as the season progressed and following a dominant victory at Knockhill, his sole win for the campaign, he would finish his spell in the Juniors on a high with a podium finish in each of the final six races of the year.
Wood meanwhile started strongly with six podiums across the first half of the campaign before grabbing a superb, last gasp maiden championship victory at Snetterton, however he wasn’t quite able to build any momentum from that success and only featured in the top three once more in the final eleven races.
One driver who didn’t get the podium finish that they arguably deserved was Jordan Collard, who showed lots of potential across the campaign with HHC. A number of promising runs saw him in contention for the top three, but luck never seemed to fall in his favour and he came away with a best of fourth on two occasions.
Back in the Rookie ranks, while Jewiss was the runaway class leader, it was pretty competitive behind him as a number of drivers, including the aforementioned Dyson and Smalley, battled hard on track to make their mark on the series and share out the remaining class victories and podium finishes.
One of the perennial front-runners was Ruben Del Sarte, who started as he meant to go on with a double class podium during the Brands Hatch season opener and went on to add six more podium finishes across the campaign with HHC, but would never make the ascent to the top of the rostrum.
Luke Browning meanwhile fought hard over the first half of the season as a single-car entrant with Richardson Racing, and his persistence was rewarded in the latter stages as he notched a breakthrough rookie win at Rockingham and a surprise outright pole position at Silverstone.
Browning had been joined at Richardson for the final meetings by JHR refugee Luff, who took three class podiums across the year, while hotly rated karting graduate Tom Canning was a four-time rostrum visitor with the Douglas squad as he snatched the final position in the overall championship top ten.
Finley Green ended the season with the strange record of having raced for three different teams across the campaign, taking a best overall finish of eighth across his spells with Fox Motorsport, JHR and Elite, while his one-time Fox team-mate Keaton Samra rose to a best of tenth during his half season.
One rookie who didn’t get the chance to showcase his full potential meanwhile was Scott McKenna, who starred at Donington Park with a fantastic front-row start, a class win and two outright fourth place finishes, however that would prove to be his final outing of the season as budgetary restraints put him on the sidelines.
The sheer competiveness of the Junior championship this season was proven by the fact that 22 of the 24 drivers that competed this year took an outright top ten finish, with the last of those being two late additions to the grid in Louis Foster and James Hedley, each impressing with three top tens in the last four races each.
The other drivers to reach the milestone were Charlie Digby, Greg Johnson and Jenson Dineen, while the two to miss out on a top ten breakthrough were Elite Motorsport pairing Isa Deen and Emily Linscott, who each contested three weekends in the second half of the season.
2017 will therefore go down as one of the most unforgettable seasons in Ginetta Junior history for a number of reasons, one of which will it being the year that standout talents like Gamble, Priaulx and Harper stepped into the limelight and kicked off what could well be hugely successful careers.
The landscape of the 2018 Ginetta Junior Championship isn’t clear at the moment, with the future of former champions JHR up in air as we head into the winter, but what is known for sure is that the next batch of teenage racers are sure to continue tradition and produce more sensational racing next year.
The full final championship standings can be found here: http://tsl-timing.com/file/?f=TOCA/2017/173903ptsgij.pdf