Champion’s Story 6: Ralph Firman (2002)
Ralph Firman’s family produced chassis for racing in categories such as Formula Ford. Ralph Sr., who was of course well-known in the racing community, brought his son up by educating him to drive in hopes of becoming a Formula One driver one day. Ralph Jr., of course worked hard to fulfill his father’s dream. At the age of 10, he began karting–where he won title after title in England. It was when he was 18 that he began racing cars. In 1995, he started his career in British F3. He was 2nd overall that season, then in his 2nd season, he won the championship. He went on to win the title in Macau after that–one of the steps that is thought to be needed to go on to race in F1. He changed his focus after that from Europe to the East.
Ralph came to Japan in 1997 and began racing with a team called TMS led by Taku Akaike in Formula Nippon and Super GT. Team factory chief Normitsu Yoshida stated that “Ralph’s father and Mr. Akaike were good friends, so that is what brought Ralph to race in Japan.” Even in his early 20’s, Ralph was very mature. But at the same time, it was a big step from F3 to top class formula racing. He needed to learn how to race on the high-grip Japanese tracks and how to manage his tires properly. “His father built an aluminum frame from a Formula Ford monocoque, and added steering and springs to it. That is how Ralph practiced” Yoshida recalls. When he would cut the steering, a bar on the side by his head would push his helmet, which would also help with the training of his neck muscles. This was of course not the only way he trained. His efforts helped him to navigate Japanese courses even better, which led to him earning his first trip to the podium partway through the season at Sugo.
The following season, Ralph made the switch to champion team Nova Engineering. Motoyasu Moriwaki, the president of the team said “Ralph’s father and I were friends. He told me if I wanted to, give his son a shot. We let him test and he produced decent results.” The first season, the team used a Lola T96/51. The car had been set-up by Pedro de la Rosa, and Norberto Fontana had made further changes. Unfortunately, that set-up didn’t work for Ralph. “The movement of the car was centered around his knees, which led to oversteer. Changing the direction of movement, led to wider driving. The lines and power that Pedro used and the ones Ralph used were totally different” says Moriwaki. Even if with that difference, Ralph was able to pick up 2 podium finishes in the latter part of the season.
In Ralph’s 2nd year with Nova in 1999, the entire championship took on a huge change. Three chassis constructors: Reynard, Lola and G-Force were used. Most of the teams either chose the Reynard or Lola. The G-Force produced much less downforce than the Reynard. “The grass is always greener on the other side. Drivers want what others don’t have.” The G-Force was the only one the other teams weren’t using and Ralph said “I want to make this car better. Which showed his versatility.” Ralph had been brought up driving from a young age and understood the mechanics of cars. His work ethic helped him to go on to pick up his first victory. It was also a big victory for the G-Force car. The next year, in 2000, the direction of the gearbox, the floor on down, and the wings were updated on the G-Force. All the other teams went with the Reynard. It was a tough season for the G-Force, because it just couldn’t keep up with the Reynard. Ralph only made it to the podium once, which was at Sugo, where he was good at to begin with.
“He was fast, but frustrated, so we offered for him to race with us.” Ralph was having a hard time with the G-Force, so Satoru Nakajima reached out to him. Toranosuke Takagi had dominated the series the previous season, but left to race in the U.S. So the team was looking for someone to take over that seat. It had been 3 years since Ralph raced in a Reynard. He was now with a champion team. Ralph just wasn’t able to bring it all together until the last part of the season though. “The set-up just wasn’t working or we just couldn’t get things to work in sync” is how Ralph’s engineer at the time Kotaro Tanaka remembers the situation. “If he didn’t have a good run, Ralph would sit in front of a computer checking the Pi (logger) data. When we got to the last part of the season, Ralph said, ‘I think I’m on to something’.” He must have been, because Ralph won two races in a row after that. In Ralph’s 2nd season with Nakajima Racing, Tanaka ordered special made anti-roll bars from Ralph’s father’s garage. With that back-up from his family, Ralph pulled off quite a feat. Of the 10 races that season, Ralph won 4, and came in 2nd three times–holding off rival Satoshi Motoyama. After becoming the season champion, Ralph went on to race in Formula One.