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Euro-Trip Part II: Tarmac Fever in Ypres

Euro-Trip Part II: Tarmac Fever in Ypres

Holiday, a natural time to relax, unwind and recharge the body. Early June, with two full weeks booked off work, would be absolutely ideal for catching up on sleep, chilling out and enjoying a few cold beverages in the sunshine. It’s natural, but our man Cian doesn’t conform to normality. The following is an excerpt from the EuroTrip travel blog of a an absolute automotive nutter, and that’s in his own words!

This is becoming repetitive, almost to the point of feeling utterly futile. Each 30 second blast feels exactly like the last, only this time there is an angry looking man approaching at a rapid pace and I have little time to compose myself. Everything is flung across the passenger seat in flash, and my now free left hand jabs the gearstick into first while my other pulls the wheel violently right as I make way on this narrow stretch of tarmac. I needn’t have worried though, as if not even spotting my presence, a Clio 197 swings hard left straight into the ditch without a lift of throttle. Surprised, I grab my map and pen once again and scribble ‘Big Cut’, but 4km into the first stage, it dawned that I needn’t have bothered. This is Ypres, and every corner is BIG CUT!

Each and every one of us had a list of dream events, and I’m sure plenty of you, just like myself, have been influenced by tales of adventure and PetrolHead nirvana told through Speedhunters down the years. For years, I spent my time day dreaming in school and college about the places I wanted to travel simply to enjoy looking at other people’s cars. Coming from an Irish rallying background, a lot of my dream list consists of a number of the most spectacular examples of the sport, although I have to admit nearly all are of the sealed-surface, tarmac-based side of the discipline. Rally Ypres has, for quite some time, been pretty near the top of my list.

The fascination with this rather unique gem of Belgian rallying stems from a childhood spent watching as much motoring-based shows on TV as possible. As a rally-mad child growing up in Ireland, it was a real treat to be allowed sit up to watch RPM late on a Thursday evening. Showcasing all manner of events from both Rally and Track, the UTV show was a real gem in its day. Not content with just covering the Irish classic’s like Killarney, Donegal and Cork, RPM made the occasional trip further afield. The sight of a young Kris Meeke throwing a Corolla WRC around Barbados was cool, but it was the yearly duel between some of the UK & Irelands best and the likes of Freddy Loix, Patrick Snijers and Armin Schwarz in the Flanders sunshine that seems to set a seed.

Year after year, mid-June would see my attention turning to going’s on in Ypres. Generally clashing with events at home, I’d come home to a VHS recorded chock full of Eurosport recordings. Year after year, no matter the current leading style of vehicle, from Group A to WRC, S2000 to R5, it seemed nobody could topple ‘Fast Freddy’, as Loix racked up 11 wins. He walked past me in the square in Ypres on Saturday afternoon. I said hello, and he replied. Freddy continued upon his way, while I had an internal fan-boy moment.

Now, while I have been doing well of late to tick a few dream events, there was always a sizeable obstacle in the way of me making it to those flat, flowing fields of West Belgium. You see, while going to watch something at a circuit, like at the Nürburgring the previous week, can realistically be done by flying in and living out of luggage for a few days, rallying takes a lot more logistics to follow, thus driving is the only real option when photographing an event.

Wednesday morning, I closed the boot on my car, going through the mental list in my head that I’ve developed over years traipsing around Ireland. Clothes and camera gear were obvious, but the addition of off-road boots and thick socks is a lesson of many sore feet. Getting to the best spots requires often arriving hours before the action, so a camping chair, stove, pots and cutlery are added to the mix. Being that it’s the height of summer right now, a cooler box found its way in too. Driving on the continent requires a breakdown kit, and the prospect of an occasional nap sees a pillow and blanket tossed in for good luck. Now, how much would that be in Baggage?

Car fuelled, cool box/fridge (plug in job to make you feel exactly like a Rolls Royce owner) stocked up and sat-nav set, it was destination Ypres. When I did say a sizeable obstacle earlier, I may slightly have understated. Door to door was a 15 hour, 1100km one-way journey, done through the longest day of the year. I watched the sun set across the bow of an Irish Sea ferry, yet saw it reappear barely a few hours later somewhere along a UK motorway. In a weird status of high energy drinks being cancelled out by easy-listening to late night music, the miles clicked off with ease. Through the Channel tunnel and remembering to drive on the ‘wrong’ side after being awake for 24 hours, it was hammer down for the Belgian Border!

Arriving in Ypres, the first striking thing is how much this event takes over the whole city, with the large central squares becoming the Service Park for the weekend. Large awnings stretch out in front of historic churches and museums, Waffle-Houses reverberating to the sound of lumpy idols and smelling strongly of Race Fuel. Every turn reveals more teams setting up base for the weekend, with each square becoming less and less distinctive leading to quite a bit of head scratching as to where I’d parked the car. Signed on and stage maps in hand, it was time to take a look at these mythical stages.

For all the advances in modern technology, rallying remains decidedly old-school in how it conducts its business. To find the route, spectators have to purchase a printed Rally Programme. In this, the centre page is generally a tear out map detailing the route, and from there is up to you to plot your route. With a few hours to spare until the opening action, I head out onto the stages to find the best vantage points. A few hundred metres into stage 1 I had stopped twice, and scribbled V.Fast and Big Cut onto the map. By the 2 km mark the maps was a mess of dots and handwritten notes, and by Kilometre marker 5 I had given up, as watching a Recce Renault 197 dive nearly sideways into the scenery was a clear reminder that I need not bother with a Recce. I wanted speed and cuts, and Ypres is just that and more.

Thursday night is practice and qualifying, with the top crews getting a chance to take on a short stretch of stage to sort any last-minute niggles and set a time that would decide road position for the following day. Stood in a dusty field surrounded by waist high crops, the first crackle of an exhaust notes at full chat echo’s in the distance. The sizeable crowd, three and four deep in places, becomes tense. Casual chit-chat stops in anticipation. I’m like a child. A Fiesta R5 roars into sight on my left, the audible scream of a limiter being bashed accompanying it along its path. As it approaches a tight right, it’s an assault on the senses. The car makes a sudden dive for the ditch, inside wheels dipping feet off the tarmac. The scrape of a sump guard against the black-top is audible above the engines roar, as is the visible sparks through the kicked-up dust. In a matter of moments, the car is gone again, leaving only a large plume of dust to waft over the masses. 9.5 seconds the car is in the line of sight, and that’s it. Rallying, speed and excitement all in one. And then the next car follows.

By the end of qualifying, the clock is well beyond 9pm. I’ve been awake for 36 hours at this stage, and am beginning to watch a second straight sunset without sleep. Getting rather delusional, its back to the Air BnB, a real sign that this is a holiday as an Irish event would usually be done by sleeping in the car, yet by the time I get pictures downloaded, edited and sorted, its nearly 12. A thirty-nine-hour day before the event even begins, that’s rallying!

Friday is an odd day in Ypres, as it feels like there is a lot to time to sit and wait around before the action begins. The first stage of the rally doesn’t kick off until 16.30, giving the fans plenty of time to get up close with the stars. One man seems to move amongst a scrum of eager supporters everywhere he moves. They love their rallying in Belgium, and the current superstar is Thierry Neuville. The Hyundai driver currently leads the World Rally Championship, so its understandable that his decision to spend the mid-season break putting on a show for the home droves is a popular decision. Come the evening though, it was go time.

Ypres, as a rally, has always held a unique place in the rally world. Bar a few spells in the European Championship, the event has never been a round of any major championship, thus it has developed organically into the beast that it now is. The prospect of this being a round of the British Rally Championship has enticed a large entry of UK and Irish crews yet again, but the real cutting edge of the entry is loaded with the cream of European talent, be it both the cohort of quick locals used to the challenge or the influx of WRC2 drivers using this as a test for WRC Germany. The R5 class is the pinnacle here, and a mind blowing Thirty-One take to the start.

During the 1980’s and 90’s, Ypres was a 24-Hour rally, and although financial restraints have pretty much ended the endurance rallies of old, the event still manages to cram 23 special stages into 27 hours. Its well into the night when I get off the Saturday stages, nearly 23.30, but its worth it for the sight of rally cars racing through the sunset.

While the R5’s were leading the way, the crowd was divided on what was the real highlight. To many, the battle for RGT glory was an absolute feast for the senses. Developed as a class to encourage the return of sports cars to the stages, RGT has seen everything from Aston’s to Abarth’s, but the Belgian’s are all for Porsche. Full blown, un-silenced, howling, flame spitting GT3 911’s, snaking through the Belgian scenery, the large rear tyres fighting for grip on a constant basis. The spectacle was both incredible and deafening in equal measure. Patrick Snijers, yes THE Patrick Snijers of that infamous Manx rally 1988 video, led the way, but seven other GT3’s followed.

To me though, the additional ‘Historic Rally’ was just a sweet addition. Not did the entry boast all manner of hero cars, the driver entry included names like Latvala and Toivinen. The sight of a sideways MK2 Escort is something that we are spoiled with in Ireland, but to see the admiration held across the continent for what was Ford’s mid-70’s family car is just staggering.

After three long days and absolutely caked in dust, I had become completely drained. In the setting sun over Flanders Fields, it would be that man Neuville who would take the victory, but in as commanding a manner as expected. For me, Ypres was every bit as special as expected, and I may never look at a grass ditch the same again as that’s where the time lies. The long road home passed close to Goodwood and there was some Stance show on, so it would have been rude to not add a few days and call in for a look!

Euro -Trip Part I: A Date With The ‘Ring!

Euro -Trip Part I: A Date With The ‘Ring!

Holiday, a natural time to relax, unwind and recharge the body. Early June, with two full weeks booked off work, would be absolutely ideal for catching up on sleep, chilling out and enjoying a few cold beverages in the sunshine. It’s natural, but our man Cian doesn’t conform to normality. The following is an excerpt from the EuroTrip travel blog of a an absolute automotive nutter, and that’s in his own words!

It’s the usual scenario in the modern world. Minding your own business of a Friday night, when the phone buzzes with yet another Social Media notification. Ughhhh. Rationale says to ignore it, as it’s not going to be any more than a thirty second attention grabber, but the urge remains to click in for a look regardless, god forbid you miss something that will be all the chat later. What I didn’t expect though was that a simple Facebook tag would lead directly to me standing on the infield of an iconic Grand Prix circuit watching a stream of Classic Race cars charging towards me through the viewfinder of my camera.

To have such an impact, it would be fair to expect the FB video in question to be truly seismic. Well, it wasn’t, in any way. An in-conspicuous, poorly shot mobile phone clip of a string of cars passing through a tunnel on a support road somewhere on the Hockenheim complex, it wasn’t anything special.

My head though, like many fellow petrolheads, works in an odd way in situations like this. When the buddy clicked @Cian beneath the video, he had no idea that a WhatsApp message would land into the chat roughly 10 minutes later informing all that I was booked to go to Germany. It makes sense to me, in a way, that seeing a video was posted by a Tourenwagen Classics would lead me right away into a spiral of googling the series, checking out the 2018 dates, sussing that a round would take place in the Nürburgring and immediately figuring out the bargain flights available from Ryanair!

My fascination with 1990’s, especially early 90’s, DTM and touring cars stems directly from the incredible ‘DTM Golden Years’ video that is floating around the internet. About six minutes long, its just a succession of E30’s, 190E’s and Sierra Cosworth’s flying, sliding and curb hopping around German racetracks, accompanied by the most period correct German Eurobeat. To get a chance to see these machines up close was just irresistible.

Bags packed and away, my destination was an event called the Nürburgring Classic, a rather new occasion with this being only it’s second year. The main focus of the event was on ‘Young timer’ racing, or essentially cars from the 80’s and 90’s which suited me just fine. That’s not to say things were exclusive though, as the event carried one of the most diverse race schedules I’ve ever experienced.

The biggest group on track at any time was a swarm of nearly 100 Pre-war cars of all shapes and sizes. While not racing, it was clear to see that some were pushing a lot harder than others. While my knowledge of cars here was criminally terrible, the sight of an iconic blue Bugatti Type 35 complete with driver lean for maximum cornering was very cool to see.

Hot on their heals was a group of Can Am racers, reliving the lunacy that was the Canadian American racing series in the early 1970’s. Booming V8, some tipping close to nine Litres, howled around the GP track. The names like Lola may now seem confined to the past, but the sole McLaren entry acted as a reminder of the depth of history attached to so many automotive brands we still see today.

Being Germany, it was no surprise in the slightest that some of Stuttgart’s finest would be on display, a testament to the rich and storied success Porsche has enjoyed on track over its past 70 years. Walking out of the media centre, still in awe from my first experience of such a facility, the very first car I laid eyes on was the exposed nose of a Porsche 917 in a pit opening. Stunning doesn’t even come close. The fact that that right next door sat a pair of immaculate 356’s and in the awning behind a Kremer 935 K3, it truly was a special place for Porsche fans.

Out on track, the Porsches were putting on a show, although truth be told I neither cared nor have any knowledge of who won, lost, ran great times or hit issue. This isn’t what the event was about. It was an opportunity to act like a complete fanboy watching a BMW M1 chase down a Porsche 935 through the Schumacher S.

And, in reality, I really was there as a fan. I may have had media credentials, but I made all the rookie mistakes typical of someone overly excited to take in a track and an experience so absolutely incredible to me. I clocked over 25km walking in the heat around the infield without knowing there were scooters and shuttles laid on, I walked clean past Klaus Ludwig as I heard an RS2000 Ford Escort being revved in the distance and I pretty much missed all the Saturday evening racing as I took a notion and drove the Nordschleife in the rental, 1L Skoda.

Come Sunday, there was two things I knew I had to see, first off, the actual Tourenwagen Classics race. Standing on the outside of turn one, it was just like a herd thundering down that dipped straight. BMW, Mercedes, Alfa, Renault, Ford, Audi & Opel all fighting for space on the wide track. The noise, all naturally aspirated bar the Sierra, was just seismic. At the front, the mid-90’s V6 cars, mainly the Alfa 155 and a brace of Mercedes, howled off into the distance to do their own dicing.

Behind them though, it was, as a race fan, truly special. Curb hopping E30’s leading 190E Cosworth, the Super touring Vectra dicing with the Laguna of a similar era and a flame spitting, Cigarette sponsored rowdy Ford Sierra just making me howl like a child every time it passed in yet another whoosh of turbo noise.

While this was truly epic, I had one final box to tick on my short trip to Germany. While the GP track is an incredible facility, it will always struggle of being in the shadow of its big, bad Nordschleife brother. Its colossal in the car world, but in the region the track seems to dominate all facets of life such is the way it winds through towns, over roads and seems to provide vast employment to a rather quiet region. Of all the spots on this giant stretch of tarmac, I just had to get to the Outside of Karussell, even if it did involve me getting quite lost in the woods for over an hour.

I’d read, before leaving on the trip, some of the old Speedhunters coverage of the N24 and the experience of being at this spot, but its truly magical and intriguing. You don’t expect the steep run up on approach, although I had an idea from having to downshift the previous day while driving the track! The other thing that grabs you is the sheer noise of cars bouncing across the concrete bowl of this iconic corner.

As a finale to the Nürburgring Classic, the 3-Hour Eifelrennen would see the most diverse list of entries ever experienced take on the complete 24-Hour track layout, combining Nordschleife with the GP track. I presume there were classes, but such was the relentless stream of cars it was difficult to know what was going on. What was obvious though, was at the head of the field sat a quartet of incredibly quick Porsches, the widebody, big power machine cutting through traffic with consummate ease before dropping down into the tumble drier that is the experience of driving Karussell.

So, sunburnt to a crisp, drained and head frazzled, arms in pain from dragging around camera gear and feet worn out, I just perched myself upon a barrier and took in the madness that was the passing mass of cars. Impulsive as it so was, I could think of no better way to pass a weekend. I’m home barely two days and Im packing up again to head to Belgium to a rally. There was no spur of the moment reactions to Social Media posts here, just a guy handed me a leaflet at a car show and I promised him I’d go. I have no option really……..

Happy 50th Mondello!

Happy 50th Mondello!

Mondello Park is, to anyone involved with cars or motorsport, a cherished addition to this country. Our sole proper Race Track, Mondello has evolved to always remain relevant, no matter the ever changing environment that is track-based racing. From humble beginnings to hosting large scale International events, the Kildare venue has delivered time and time again, yet still remained as open as possible to all strains of the motoring world. Manufactures use the venue to entertain guests or launch new vehicles, Drift schools use the large paddock spaces to train the next generation of driving talent while events like TrackDays.ie allow joe soaps like me to be pretend race drivers for a day. With Mondello Park celebrating its 50th Birthday this week, it was only fitting that a celebration was in order.

 

It has been no secret that the cost of all motorsport activity is growing with every year that passes, almost heading unthinkably towards a point of extinction, and as such a large push has been made from within to help protect the sports that we cherish. In the face of higher insurance levies, entry fees and other costs, the Irish Motorsport Support Fund came to be. Steered by a core of enthusiasts with experience of all manner of Motorsport activities, the aim is to provide financial relief to ultimately reduce costs falling on the competitor, as such a case of Motorsport giving back and supporting its own future.

The IMSF knew that to do things correctly, it was going to take a sizeable event to boost their profile and raise money for the fund. With the coincidental anniversary of Mondello Park’s opening, it made sense to create the Mondello50, a true celebration of all things motorsport related in this country. Bringing together strands of the sporting world that are likely to never meet was a novel touch, and a huge boost to the events appeal.

While many of the Motorsports present may seem diverse and at times un-connected, the common bond that tied many together was Mondello itself. Thinking through the disciplines on display, it made sense to celebrate the track through displays of all facets of the Irish car-based sporting world. The Hillclimb guys may seem at home racing up and down steep stretches of tarmac, but multiple rounds of the Naylor Engineering Irish Hillclimb & Sprint Championship take place on the hallowed Mondello track. The Navigation and Endurance Trial cars may seem at home on filthy lanes in the middle of the night, but countless events utilise the sprawling grounds of the Caragh venue for tests. The same for Autotesting, with rounds often happening in the large paddock even while other series use the circuit around them. Rallying has a storied history with Mondello, with it often hosting a spectator stage as part of the marathon Circuit of Ireland as well as countless modern Sprint events, while its wilder Rallycross offspring has made Mondello is home. Then there are the Drifters.

When Drifting landed into Ireland in the early 00’s, it found a home in Rosegreen. The Tipperary Stockcar oval was special, but ultimately through a combination of ownership changes and the boom in the sport had to move beyond its roots. Mondello welcomed drifting in with scepticism, yet all these years later the pair are almost inseparable. The Irish Drift Championship now have their offices based on site, while their events draw crowds reminiscent of the popularity of the Circuit of Ireland in the 80’s. As a celebration of Mondello, it was natural that Drifting would be represented, but what I had completely lost sight of was the fact that although the sport has flourished here for 15+ years, many of those in attendance with be witnessing the spectacle live for the very first time.

What caught my eye almost immediately in the paddock was the awning of Stone Motorsport, and the pair of vehicles sitting underneath. I’d seen the ‘Drift Taxi’ before, both at Drift, Hillclimb and on a visit to the incredible Stone facility last year, but it still commands so much attention. The three passenger bucket seats were certainly getting plenty of use over the weekend. What I really wanted to see though was the prosperously low Nissan Silvia S15 sat next to it. A newly completed build for the 2018 season, Stones have thrown every ounce of knowledge and skills into creating what they believe to be the ultimate chassis for both Drifting & Hillclimbing. With the front clip removed, the Honda K24 sits proudly as an act of defiance to the conventional wisdom of RB’s and 2J’s ruling the world. The chassis work, which I find incredibly reminiscent of a Pro Mod drag car, is absolutely impeccable as you would expect from a vehicle designed as the company’s essential demo-car. While the Aristo was getting plenty of regular runs, the Silvia only appeared in fleeting bursts.

As the drifting guys put on a show in front of a new audience, the main track section or Live Arena was split equally time wise between those and the Rally Cars. The nature of the event leant itself to having Rally as the largest spectacle in the eyes of many present, and a constant succession of differing cars and styles of driving rally helped to give a flavour of the world we spend weekends trudging through fields and ditches to watch. Long queues formed all day to take advantage of passenger spins available. There was representation of all facets of style and era on show, from early-60’s BMC Mini Cooper S’s through to often sideways MK2 Escorts and modern Group N machinery.

Sprinkled among the cars present were a number of very rare and valuable machines. The legendary Group B era is often considered as the pinnacle of Rallying due to speed, danger & drama that period evoked in the eyes of the public, and those days was relived with none other than a Lancia 037, an Audi Quattro and a Rover Metro 6R4 screaming around the confines of Mondello’s opening corners, each passing in wails of utterly magnificent and distinctive exhaust notes.

Amongst the machinery being thrown about, I naturally had personal favourites, which is blatantly obvious from the sheer number of photo’s I have of two particular cars. Both are a reflection of the owner’s connection with rallying, owned and built in homage to a certain period that provided the inspiration. Both are also the complete anthesis of each other!! On one side of the preverbal fence, Donagh Kelly (recent winner of the West Cork Rally for a 5th time) was really out to play. He owns the Metro 6R4, which was being driven by somebody else that we’ll get to in a bit, but it was his other ‘toy that just does it for me. An Opel Ascona Coupe is a special car right from the off, and in rallying 400 form, utterly beautiful. In a sea of Escort domination in the early-80’s, the Ascona was a proper fighter.

At the hands of Walter Rohrl is became a World Champion, but in Ireland it gained admiration at the hands of Jimmy Mcrae, Bertie Fisher, Austin McHale and even Henri Toivinen. This particular car has a more local connection for Donagh though, for this is the very car that Donegal hero James Cullen wrestled around some of the country’s most famous stages. The livery is a tribute to Cullen’s 1988 attempt on the Donegal International, an event the car would finish runner up on. Thirty years later though, it felt like a grainy RPM video playing out in front of my eyes. As was plain to see, this car may look like a museum piece, but it sure ain’t treated like one.

While all out, sideways everywhere machinery dominated the domestic scene in the 1980’s, the following decade saw all this change. As technology moved on and cars became more expensive, it was becoming harder for young drivers to make a name in the sport. The days of buying an affordable Ascona or Escort and hoping to win an event were ended by the new breed of Group A cars. These monsters were incredible to watch and spawned countless Homologation special road cars, but they were beyond the reaches of most. There was a need to develop a support category to get youngsters onto a path towards success, and a boom in small front-wheel-drive hot hatches seemed the natural place to begin. Super 1600 was born.

An S1600 car is one serious piece of kit, have no doubt about that. High power, high revving screamers were the default order of business, all designed to be surrounded by all the best of technology available at the time. An arms race soon kicked off with countless manufactures getting involved, but it was the French who were the class leaders. While the Clio was impressive, it was the Citroen Saxo S1600 which proved its dominance from the start. This particular Saxo had a hard life, going from a works car campaigned in 2001/2 to being found badly damaged in a Northern Irish barn, until it fell into the hands of David Hunt. Anyone that has followed the build online over the last 2 years will attest to the sheer level of detail afforded in its restoration. To hear the little Citroen absolutely howling at berserk revs is a wonderful experience, although trackside I probably could have done with ear protection.

All around, various disciplines put on a show. Out on the international loop, a pack of Rallycross cars scrabbled for grip thanks to their rather compromised set up on Tarmac, while Auto Cross Semog buggies chased each other around while sounding like a pack of 90’s Formula 1 cars.

In the in-field sections between the National and International loop’s, Off Road Trial were taking place. An obvious stepdown in pace from all the frantic action happening all around, the skill required to get these rather specialised vehicles into some of the spot I saw to some incredible control.

Alas though, all good party’s need a star performer to really put on a show, and the IMSF had a treat lined up for good old Mondello. Craig Breen is at the absolute pinnacle of World Rallying right now, competing in the WRC with the factory Citroen team. The Waterford man has had an incredibly difficult path to the top, but it seems that his pure passion for rallying was the driving force at times. Craig’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, and he is never afraid to profess his Irish motorsports roots. Pushed recently during a WRC interview on a favourite Car and Rally pairing, the answer was pure Craig. “A Metro 6R4, every day of the week. No Question. Where would I bring it? To the Hills. Donegal International Rally”. Well, the weather did feel like mid-June, and there was a Metro sitting in the Mondello paddock……

After soo casually mingling around the paddock all morning, and yes there are photos of him checking out the Saxo, it was time for a warm up for Craig. Strapped into the Ford Escort he went viral with last year (2nd overall on the Ravens Rock Rally with friend Patrick Croke ‘co-driving’ without notes), Craig went out and put some of the drift cars to shames, sliding the Ford around with consummate ease, both back wheels billowing smoke in a fashion definitely not seen on a timed rally stage.

Few runs done, it was time to strap into the fearsome Rover. I stood at the start line less than a few feet from the stack of 6 vertical trumpets atop the engine block. The launch was gingerly made, and I felt somewhat disappointed, but the next sight I had was a 30-year-old monster sliding under braking, right on the limit. Many of the relics of that glorious period are now cherished and very valuable collector vehicles, so to see a Group B monster being driven by the scruff of the neck by one of the Worlds best drivers is a real privilege.

Mondello Park, as well as the motorsports that use the venue, have changed massively over the past 50 years. It’s important to step back at times and celebrate what we have available on our shores, and the IMSF are determined to do their best to ensure we can have plenty more celebrations in the future!

Race Car Nirvana at ASI

Race Car Nirvana at ASI

Do you ever get a sense of being overwhelmed? Everywhere you turn, more and more clambers for your attention. Its an assault on your senses, an invitation to run around wildly and ultimately leave a tinge of reflection and regret seeing all that was missed. I’d felt that way before, namely at Worthersee, but to have all this confined into a roofed space was a step up on the exciting factor. As many may know, I am a racing car geek, almost obsessive, and as such, any event that brands itself as THE racing car show, it was about time I ticked it off the list. Autosport International, it seems, is something I really wonder how it hasn’t been on my calendar before, as it is truly mega!

Starting long before dawn and ending close to the early hours, it was vital to give a day trip to Birmingham the maximum amount of time. To have done things any other way would have been criminal, as ASI is soo packed full of visual goodies and opportunities to get up close and personal with cars and motorsport technology that even spending over 9 hours on site I was left with thoughts of cars that went unseen, and in one case a car I caught a glimpse of in passing but couldn’t find again!

The largest draw personally this year was the opportunity to cover the official 2018 Launch of the World Rally Championship. With the action kicking off in the snowy mountains surrounding Monte Carlo in late January, the NEC brought the vast WRC community together to kickstart proceedings. All the Drivers, Teams and more importantly Cars were presented to the masses, every move surrounded by a media scrum from every corner of the globe.

Once the covers had been pulled off the four be-winged stage rally rockets, the drivers became the attraction, with a litany of cameras and microphones following their every move around the show floor. I have idolised the WRC and its stars my entire life, so to be in the presence of some of history’s greatest drivers was an incredible opportunity, even more so when a chance stroll into the media centre to grab some refreshment coincided with the arrival of the various teams into the most informal setting imaginable. Chats and tea atop a selection of sofa’s, this was the human side that is often un-seen once the helmet goes on at stage start.

While the WRC was the largest draw, elsewhere the success of rallying was to be seen elsewhere dotted around the various halls. Now numbering over 250, it was no surprise to see quite a few M-Sport built Ford Fiesta R5’s in attendance, promoting everything from WRC2 campaigns for the factory built car, through to British Championship backing. Other R5 machines decorated the Rally GB stand, but it was the first public sighting of the VW Polo R5 that certainly drew the most admiration.

No mention of rallying at Autosport International could be made without mentioning the surprise none of us had an idea of expecting. To a certain generation of Irish Rallying fans, Eugene Donnelly is a name synonymous with success. A five-time Tarmac Champion, The Genie was our hero wrestling the glorious Toyota Corolla and later the Skoda Fabia WRC cars around the lanes in a way nobody else seemed able to match. Over the past 10 years, Donnelly has left the sport bar the odd run in a McGeehan MINI, but here, 20 feet from the new 2018 WRC cars, a beaming Eugene stood next to a white Hyundai i20 R5, and proclaimed his return. Nobody, save a very small handful, knew of the plan, but The Genie is on for a return, aiming to contest the ITRC over the next 3 years. Start dusting off the Jackets!!

While the Rally world was represented well from a cutting edge and modern standpoint, the crew from Den Motorsport made sure to remind us all that there is truly no more special a car to attack the stages then a properly built MK2 Ford Escort. The Northern Ireland based preparation company has become a go-to spot for anyone serious about building the Ultimate Escort, and the pair on display offered two differing ideas of Ultimate. Both red, making it harder to distinguish, the first car is the epitome of a Class 14 car that is the highest level available in Irish Rallying. Powered by a 2.5L Millington Engine, pushing out roughly about 350 BHP, these cars are built solely to deal with the unique demands of bumpy Irish Tar. The be-winged Escort is on another plain though. Designed to be used for Hillclimbing where the rules are a little more relaxed, the powerplant pumps 650 BHP to the rear wheels, while an abundance of aero add-ons aim to keep the car as planted as a wild beast may be!

Moving from my little rally world, the BTCC stand celebrated 60 years of men in Touring Cars crashing into each other at a variety of British Circuits. In terms of Circuit Racing, it is nigh-on impossible to beat decent Tin-Top racing thanks to the close action and sheer variety of cars involved in the action. To celebrate the anniversary, Touring Cars of yesteryear such as the Rover SD1 and Alfa Romeo 155 sat side-by-side with the 2018 crop such as Rob Austin Racing’s all new Alfa Romeo Mito.

As if having an official stand wasn’t enough for Touring Car junkies, dotted around the show were some other notable vehicles. Many may have missed it, but down in a rather cold corner, pretty much as far away from the main action and amongst an owner’s club gathering sat a proper legend, a BMW E36 SuperTourer. Complete in a beautiful Bastos livery from its attack on the 1995 Spa 24 Hours, this car is from an era of Touring Car racing unlike any we may ever see again. Production looking vehicles were turned into track weapons, costs were extortionate (think about £1m per car per year) and the action was incredible. The modern-day equivalent of this philosophy of Extreme Touring Cars is the DTM series in Germany. Rather typically for a show like ASI, a brace of cars sat in the middle of the floor, as if just left for us to stare at. No stand, no advertising and no ropes, just 2 stunning race cars sitting for us to come and look in awe at.

Drifting is the largest growing Motorsport in the last 10 years, and its only natural that the sport would find a home at a show like ASI. What may seem surprising to those looking in from the outside, is that much of Europe’s drift scene is spearheaded by a crew of Irish, led by Dave Egan. Starting with the IDC, and following on with the BDC and Drift Masters, the Zeigen crew have brought drifting to a level of professionalism it always strived for, and the plans in place for 2018 are testament to the bravery of Egan and others to push the envelope continually. We’ll discuss the 2018 season at another time, but if you want to draw attention to your stand, few cars sucked in the masses like Aidan Walsh’s V8 AE86 Corolla. This thing is barbaric on full throttle aimed at concrete walls, so to see it gleaming under show lighting is a testament to the build. Next to it, Baggsy’s air-ride S14 was there to represent the BDC, although it was Baggsy’s other toy than was catching more eyes. Built by Abbey Motorsport for a Monster Energy video, the Skyline GTR has a presence already, but the addition of large fenders, a V8 and a turbo the size of a small child is sure to draw attention.

In the live action arena, it fell on local drifting talent to truly put on a show for the masses. Coming off without the year of his life, James Deane was using ASI to debut the latest incarnation of his Falken Nissan Silvia S14, and he had company from one of his many Protégé’s, 14-year-old IDC Semi-Pro champion Conor Shanahan, debuting his all new Link Energy livery for 2018. Rubbing walls, spitting flames and hitting limiters, this was a chance for many new faces to experience exactly what many of us know is the spectacle of drifting!

To go into detail of everything on display at ASI would take too long, so I’ll leave with a collection of images. Anyone with even the slightest interest in race cars seriously needs to make the trip at least once, and with the NEC within a 5-minute walk from the Arrivals area at Birmingham airport, there’s no excuse not to make the hop across in 2019! There was another side to the show though, and don’t worry, I’ll be looking at the Performance Car Show in time. Expect wild paint, over fenders for days and strong opinion in that post!

Farewell Ultimate Drift

Farewell Ultimate Drift

My outlook, in an automotive sense, was to always push the envelope in terms of the events I get to, the experiences I encounter, the people I meet, the craftsmanship I witness and the enjoyment I get at the end. My calendar is like a military operation at times, planned to the nth degree so I can get the most out of whatever event I have pencilled in. Wherever I end up, I know it is by choice that Ive made the sometimes long or expensive journey to get there. Over the past year, thanks to this site, I’ve been able to chronicle my adventures, often accompanied by a rambling, deluded opinion piece, and bring to life the variety of events I get to. I always want to see more, have new experiences and gain more knowledge, but then some events, I just enjoy for just being themselves and not being unfamiliar to me. Ultimate Drift was definitely one of those!

I’ve talked at length before about my history with drifting, with my opinions gaining a rather split reception. Looking back, I saw drifting evolve from a grass roots sport to a global cultural icon, yet I couldn’t let go of the small-time nature that got me hooked. Over time, I fell out of love with the sport on a number of levels. I still maintained interest in the competition side of things, but I stopped attending events in the flesh.

That being said, we never had a steady stream of events to attend anyway. In the early days, D-Rift and Prodrift held proper competitive events in Watergrasshill and later in Fermoy, but then word spread that the noisy, sliding cars were no longer welcome in WGH. This wasn’t long after the closure of Rosegreen, so us down South were really left abandoned. Mondello naturally filled the void, and still does to a large extent, but it is still the bones of a three hour journey each way for me at least, meaning there wasn’t the same buzz to get to events.

Over the years, many attempts were made to get regular drifting back to Cork. Superdrift and Driftfest both tried, but in the midst of the Recession, the appetite and desire to make a success of either format just wasn’t there really, and so they slid into the history books in time. This was where Ultimate Drift fits into the picture, as finally we got a proper push to bring regular Drifting back down South.

Spearheaded by Darren Hickey, the series had a smart, passionate and determined person there to properly steer the ship forward. Co-Owner of the very successful D&D Detailing, Darren brought professional idea’s which have become a hallmark of modern drifting, and perhaps explain the shortcomings of so many other Drift ventures before. Suddenly, what was an open track day had sponsorship, branded vehicles, professional signage, a large online presence, live music and a big-event atmosphere. People turned up to enjoy themselves watching as much as drivers enjoyed testing themselves around what I still believe to be Irelands best Drift venue.

Darren will happily telly you that it was a team effort, and it most definitely was, but everyone involved was there for the love of the sport, not to win FB likes or make a fortune. The events were fun, small games were added long before anyone had heard of Drift Games and drivers continued to rather visibly improve, with definitely a few I can think of who started as UD Novices that now hold IADC or IDC competition licenses. Competition elements were tried, with a mini-series taking place last year, as well as novel approaches to drift events sampled with the floodlit Drift Nights becoming a regular fixture.

On a personal level, Ultimate Drift helped me fall back in love with Drifting. Grass roots, beat up cars is what got me into the sport, and in the world of sideways Drag-Cars, this felt old-school. The visuals may not be appealing to everyone, but each ripple and dent was a sign of someone pushing limits, learning the skills and trying out things in an environment that encouraged those very things. I was still very new to taking photos of cars when I took a mad notion to apply for media access to an event, but getting up close and personal was on a level I had never imagined all those years standing on the bank. I was able to try out techniques that I couldn’t possibly practice elsewhere and learn new skills. I met soo many people, enjoyed great laughs and had some heart in the mouth moments on track yet was able to witness so many personal high’s, from the wry smile of nailing a corner, through to some finally hitting the track in their dream build. I had the honour of providing the poster imagery to a number of events and this was something I never thought possible.

After 3 years of not only running but driving in Ultimate Drift, last weekends event is to be the last. A rumour had been in the air that the news was imminent, and a post on Darren’s Facebook spelled the end. Of all the ways to go, having a full entry of car’s, a beautiful Winter’s day and the surprise appearance of none other than James Deane is not too shabby at all, and entirely fitting of a series that was so well run from the start. A void has now emerged in Irish drifting again, that leaves many question of what happens now. Grass roots drifting will continue at tracks like Tynagh, but down South we are left with nothing. A new track is in development in Cobh that has the potential to be a strong asset to the area, but it’s going to need strong support to get off the ground. From a driver stand point, the demise of Ultimate Drift also spells the end of potential entry-level competitive drifting, with the only series now offering this are IADC and IDC, which many may believe is too high of a step up to be of interest. Whatever comes along in 2018 though, we have to be thankful for what we had and the memories made. From ourselves here in Freshfix, and I’m sure countless others, we’d like to say a massive thanks to the whole Ultimate Drift crew for the work done over the last few years. Thank you for the wonderful events, the wonderful atmosphere and the craic. Thank You.

Darren Hickey’s post on the end of Ultimate Drift:

“If you’re going to finish something, finish it on a high” And what a high Drift Nights was. Going in to this event, I knew it was going to be the last event I would be being running this year. We gave it our all (even managed to get the two S14’s ready) and the results were unreal. A full grid of drivers all looking to enjoy an evening season in the dark, highlighted by the man himself James Deane putting on a master class and smoking the place out. Everyone had the same goal, finish off the year in style and have fun with our friends. After three years of running the Ultimate Drift Series, Drift Nights was the last event as we know it. Due to other business and family commitments I have made the decision to step back from running drift event’s full time. Next year my aim is to enjoy the sport for what it is from the driver’s seat. I ran the Ultimate Drift Series as a driver and always kept that in mind when making decisions on how we ran each event, always keeping in mind would I enjoy driving that track, is it a new challenge.

From my past experience of running drift events I know that what can go wrong, will go wrong. All you can do is make sure you have the equipment to sort any issues that might arise. True luck comes in to place with the one variable that every event organizer has no control over, the WEATHER. Out of 30 events we only had one washout, seems the weather man was looking out for us.

To the UD Team: The Ultimate Drift Series was never a one man show, it was a team of great people, and for that I count myself lucky enough to have been able to call on my friends & family to make sure each event was the best it could be. I would like to give the biggest thanks to the whole UD team both past and present and to all those that helped UD grow over the years.

 

Signing off Darren H (see ye in the pit lane next year lads)

Diaries of a Trackday Novice

Diaries of a Trackday Novice

Mondello Park will always maintain an incredibly special place in the car scene on the Island of Ireland. Being our sole dedicated racing circuit capable of holding international level events, it truly is a mecca for all manner of truly exciting and different motorsports pursuits. To each of us that have either entered through the gates or wanted to at some point, the legend of Mondello holds various states. Some reminisce of the day a young Ayrton Senna battled for Leinster Trophy victory, others remember the iconic roar of the Jordan F1 car as it wowed the crowds in the 90’s. The sideways escapades of James Deane have left visual clues on the tarmac, while the grass and ditches are littered with remnants of long forgotten duels and close battles. I’ve stood on the grassy bank around Turn One before taking in the action, and had my first major Photoshoot, that of Ronan’s MK1 Golf, in the pitlane, yet in all that time, I’d never got around to getting on track myself.

We’ve covered virtual reality Sim racing here on the site before, and we concluded that as a platform, the advances in technology allow us to experience driving circuits all over the world at a degree of realism never before imaginable. During the year I spent living in Austria, while not at Worthersee car show or studying, I passed hours dialling in lap after lap of Mondello on RFactor, picking up the racing line, braking points and road camber as much as possible in a virtual way. When Rob King at Trackdays.ie got in contact and offered the opportunity to experience it for real though, it definitely didn’t take long for me to send back an enthusiastic YES!

Launched at the start of this year, Trackdays.ie is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, in so much as it allows anyone at all the opportunity to come out and have a blast on the only International Circuit that we have. It truly is a case of ‘Run what ya brung’, but the emphasis is placed firmly on enjoyment rather than allowing competitiveness to take hold. I’ve long thought about doing a Track Day, but I just never felt comfortable in the idea of spending a day pounding around a track, while always thinking about the prospect of having a 3 hour drive home afterwards.

It’s an obvious issue, as not all of us have either the facilities or the resources to own a dedicated track car, nor transport it long distances to Mondello. However, Trackdays have this box ticked off in the shape of their fleet of EK Honda Civics’ and the well thought out Arrive and Drive package’s available. These track prepped cars are built for this environment, come kitted out with all manner of safety equipment and the packages can be tailored to include everything from Helmet hire through to professional driver tuition. If you have ever wanted to test the water when it comes to circuit driving, I’d struggle to think of a better way to do it. Before I was to take to the track though, I thought it wise to check out those that I’d be sharing the circuit with (or those that I was about to hold up!!)

Variety plays a massive role here, with people coming to Mondello with different purposes for their day. To some, the day allowed the opportunity to try out new components or setup’s, such as the wild 400BHP Turbo’d Honda Integra using the time to try out a new sequential gearbox, whereas some like like Paddy was simply out getting to grips with his newly purchased Beams-engined AE86 Corolla which is an RYO demo car from Japan.

As the rain begin to drizzle, still grand weather for a track debut, I took refuge in another pit garage, this housing Ken’s rather mental MK race car. Built originally to compete in the Irish Hillclimb championship, every inch of the vehicle screamed cool! Under the Lotus 7-esque bonnet lay the roaring heart from a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle, sending power through a sequential box to the rear wheels. What little bodywork on show was mainly carbon fibre, while an adornment of wings front and back were surely there to stop it taking flight once on full throttle.

A few of my Rally brethren came out to play, but it soon became apparent that a single hot-hatch is the current budget King of the track scene. The RenaultSport Clio, in either 172 or later 182 form, is a formidable package, considering it rev happy engine up-front mated to one of the best handling chassis of all time. It was an enthusiasts dream, but surprisingly the values have dwindled. A decent example is now in the €2-3k range, meaning that these cars are incredibly attainable and as such they are a perfect affordable track toy. I am incredibly fond of these little cars, and I would very happily provide a home to a French Racing Blue 182 should I get the chance, as I still believe it to be one of the greatest OEM colours of all time. (Alongside Polestar Blue and VW’s Cornflour Blue, I may have a certain love for one particular vehicle colour!)

After a detailed briefing though, things got real. And I mean very real, and very very wet. As the track details were read out, that light drizzle had turned into a monsoon. The power flickered on and off, track hoardings creaked, and my stomach grew un-easy. Un-perturbed, I put on my helmet and strapped in alongside Rob for my first spin around Mondello. It only struck me once seated that I had never sat in a Civic before, but that thought quickly vanished as we left pit lane and opened the throttle for the first time. I couldn’t see the apex of Turn One, nor Two, Three or Four. Listening to Rob’s detailed instruction over the roar of a screaming Honda, I had to visualise the corner’s that definitely didn’t all look like pools of water on RFactor.

After a few sighting laps, I finally got behind the wheel. To say I was excited would be putting things mildly, but the apprehension of the lack of visibility and my knowledge of how valuable some other car’s on track were definitely reared its head. The wipers flapped around at full whack, the heater howled as it fought to keep the screen clear and a mist whistled in through a gap in the window, but I didn’t give a damn. Strapped into that little Honda, I felt like Tom Chilton wheeling his own BTCC Civic down the same pitlane with eyes fixed firmly on the run down to Mobil 1.

The following 15 minutes felt like a blur, and had I taken any onboard footage it too possibly would have simply been a blur, as the rain fell at a rate I had never experienced. Visibility, especially in traffic, was almost null, with braking points now being remembered by visual clues off track that were slightly easier to spot. Set the world alight I most certainly did not, constantly shifting down to early while sparing the car of its high red-line abuse when on power. Coming out of the slow bends, the front wheels squabbled for grip that often wasn’t there leaving to plenty of throttle coaxing to maintain the desired line. All around, others slid in all manner of directions as they battled the conditions, and then my wiper fell off. With visibility now truly gone, it was a slow limp back to the pits. A sorry end, yet I felt elated. I had a blast, no matter the time scale, and certainly felt an urge to get out again in a car of my own at some stage!

With that high came the crushing realisation that I had to get out and shoot in that monsoon that I’d just battled through. Wet Gear on, I took to the various expanses of the Mondello complex to take in the sights and sounds of a track day, yet sensibly enough I took shelter in the grandstand to begin with, even if it evidently has a roof like a sieve! From here, you got a sense of speed and commitment on track as well as the variety. Where else would you find a 1.25 MK4 Fiesta going door to door with a purpose built Ginetta race car?

Heading back in the downpour, the slow Turn Four, at the back of the paddock, was a magnet for opportunities to see those coping best with the conditions. I had seen another Civic almost fire off backwards while I was on track, so I understood just how treacherous the conditions were, as the BMW driver soon found out.

Heading back down towards the pitlane, it was eye-opening just how and open and approachable everyone you met was. Each person had a passion for their car, and would happily stand around and talk shite about all manner of car-related things. In an age when online hatred is rampant in the car scene, this was refreshing. Talking about doing a Diesel swap into an RX-7 while an R33 Skyline pop’s and bangs past the damp wall your leaning against is a strange and surreal experience, and one that I utterly adore.

 

As the poor camera began to take a beating from the weather, I sneaked into a garage to do a dry lens swap. Alas, I hadn’t even that done when Darren O’Hara had me coaxed into the passenger seat of his Toyota MR-2. Cue 10 minutes of utter hooliganism as the somewhat under-powered sportscar danced around Mondello, perfectly controlled on the edge of grip and wanting to kill us all.

Thoroughly soaked through, and with the morning session done, I packed up and headed home, although I did manage to stop at Stone Motorsport on the way home. Trackdays.ie offer, I believe, some of the best value fun you can have in a car on this Island, where you can truly push the limits without fear of ending up in a cell. At €100 for a half day or €165 for a full day, it’s value that few if any can match. So, if you’re at nothing on November 17th, take the plunge and sign up now. I guarantee you’ll come away with a huge grin on your face. Massive thanks again to Rob and all the crew at Trackdays.ie, a sister site of us here on Freshfix. The run several track day events throughout the year, and all info can be found on their site www.trackdays.ie.