Ralph David Firman Jr. was born in Norwich, Norfolk. He races under Irish citizenship, his mother Angela is Irish, and an Irish-issued racing licence. His father, Ralph Firman Sr., founded the Van Diemen racecar constructor.
Educated at Gresham's School between 1988 and 1993. He started karting at the age of eleven and, despite growing taller than is ideal, he won the British junior title in 1990 and senior crown in 1992.
He moved into cars opting for Formula Vauxhall Junior. He took nine wins and ten poles during the year, winning the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Award.
For 1994 he moved up to Formula Vauxhall finishing fourth overall in the British series with Paul Stewart Racing.
He graduated to Formula Three for 1995 still with Paul Stewart Racing, and surprised many by finishing second overall to Oliver Gavin. He also won the prestigious Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort.
Another year in F3 saw him win the title beating the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya. He also won the Macau F3 Grand Prix. With results like that the move to F3000 or F1 shold have been assured but he found himself having to find the budget to continue racing.
Firman opted to go to Japan to race in Formula Nippon, the Japanese equivalant of F3000, and the national GT championship. He raced there for six years, winning the Formula Nippon title with ex-F1 driver Satoru Nakajima's team in 2002 after taking four wins. He also finished runner-up in the GT championship.
Having already had tests with McLaren and BAR, Firman finally returned to Europe, joining Jordan in 2003. It is rumoured that the drive came about after a chance meeting with Eddie Jordan in a sunglasses shop in the West Indies.
However the Jordan-Ford EJ13 proved to be less than competitive and a solitary eighth place finish gave him his only point. He then had a huge accident in practice at the Hungaroring which meant that he had to sit out the next two races with concussion and inner ear problems. He returned for the US Grand Prix. He was dropped for 2004 and ended up racing sportscars and testing for the new A1 Grand Prix series being put together by Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai.
In 2005 he returned to race in Japan in the renamed Super GT series for Honda. In August 2005, it was announced that he would be the driver for A1 Team Ireland. He had previously been seen to be in competition for the Great Britain seat.
Ralph's sister Natasha is also a racing driver.