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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!