By Donal O'Neill
Last Saturday, the 7th October, saw the car racing season in Northern Ireland come to a close, with the Martin Donnelly Trophy meeting at Kirkistown. It turned out to be a fitting end to what has been a wonderful season.
First up were Formula Ford 1600s, for the final round of the lucrative Dawson-WAM N.I. FF1600 Championship. Although Portadown’s Noel Robinson had qualified on pole, he elected to save his car for the Martin Donnelly Trophy race. Thus, seventeen cars took to the grid with Kildare’s James Roe now fastest from The Randalstown Rocket, Alan Davidson.
For the whole race no more than half a second separated Roe from Davidson and Ballymena’s David McCullough. This battle raged for thirteen laps and at the end, the positions were the same as they were on lap one. Roe won by 0.454 seconds from Davidson, with McCullough 0.001 seconds behind in third. Ballymena drivers filled the next three slots as well, with Ivor McCullough coming home ahead of Ryan Campbell and Henry Campbell.
Noel Robinson (2nd), Kevin O’Hara (1st) and Jordan Dempsey (3rd) in Martin Donnelly Trophy Race.
The Formula Vees were next for the final round of their Irish Championship. Evergreen Ray Moore, from Dublin, was on pole, from Adam Macauley (Ashford) and Anthony Cross (Bohernabreena). The normal Formula Vee intense battle ensued for the whole eleven laps. At no stage was there much more than half a second between the first four of Macauley, Moore, Cross and Killiney’s Dan Polley. Macauley initially took the lead, shadowed by Moore. Polley also got the drop on Cross. However, on the next tour Moore passed Macauley and he would maintain this advantage to the flag. Cross also managed to repass Polley on lap one but on lap four Polley got the place back. It remained with this order until the final lap, when Polley pulled a move to get ahead of Macauley and bag second. These four were covered by 0.532 seconds crossing the finish line. Fifth was Ken Brown, from Skerries and sixth was Stephen Morrin from Clane.
The always-entertaining Legends were next. These five eighths scale replicas of 1930s American Stock Cars, powered by Yamaha motorcycle engines, are a joy to watch at Kirkistown, mainly due to the great slipstreaming antics that take place on the straights, leading to sudden wide fans of machines tearing into corners. They had three eight lap races during the day. In race one, Paul O’Brien, from Naas, won by 1.2 seconds ahead of the man behind the class in Ireland, Dubliner, Niki Meredith. Third was Jonathan Taylor from Kildangan.
In the second encounter, later in the day, O’Brien prevailed again, this time from Taylor and Richard Kearney. Ian Conroy, from Clifden set a new lap record for this class, on his way to fourth place, lowering the bar to 1:07.297.
Paul O’Brien completed his hat trick in race three, this time from Conroy and Taylor.
The first tin-top race of the day was for the Libre Saloons. Returning Champion, James Turkington, from Portadown, put his Seat on pole ahead of Athlone’s Ulick Burke’s Honda Integra. Newtownards man, Stephen Potter, qualified his Integra third, ahead of Belfast’s Stephen Traub, in a similar car.
The battle for the lead was between Burke and Turkington. At the end Turkington crossed the finish line first, although he doesn’t show in official results because his timing transponder was not working! Behind these two, a great battle was ensuing with the Honda Brigade. On lap one Ciaran Denvir, from Downpatrick, took his Civic from fifth to third, dropping Traub and Potter to fourth and fifth. These latter two swapped places on lap three and on lap eight Potter relieved Denvir of third place. Meanwhile, Nutt’s Corner’s Donal O’Neill had lost two places in his Seat on the opening lap. Randalstown’s Paul Sheridan and Moira’s Francie Allen, both in BMWs had got past but on lap two he regained both places and thenceforth had a lonely race to sixth place.
The fifth race of the day was a race to set the grid positions for the FF1600 Martin Donnelly Trophy Race at the end of the meeting. This provides a bizarre scenario whereby drivers are trying to save their engines and cars for the main event, while staying out of trouble and hoping to secure a good finish to gain a high grid position in the final. It also throws up a situation whereby a top contender can have issues that all but rules him out of any chance in the final. Such was the fate of Alan Davidson who went out on the first lap and thus, would start from the back in the final.
The race was won by Kevin O’Hara (Naas) ahead of James Roe (Kildare), Noel Robinson (Portadown), Jordan Dempsey (Mullingar), David McCullough (Ballymena) and Ivor McCullough (Ballymena).
Race 6 was for Roadsports and following the August meeting when Mike Johnston gave Multiple Champion, Jim Larkham a tough time, spectators were looking forward to the rematch. They weren’t to be disappointed. Larkham, from Newtownabbey, qualified on pole by 0.047 seconds from Dromara man, Johnston. The big question was whether Larkham would maintain this advantage off the line, as his Radical Pro6 is chain driven and he usually likes to ease it away. Not this time! When the lights changed both drivers were away like dragsters with Larkham having a 0.36 second advantage at the end of lap one. By this stage, Paul Conn, from Lisburn had established his Crosslé 47S in a third place that he would maintain to the end.
Meanwhile, Johnston was bringing his Opel Tigra ever closer to Larkham and on lap four the positions swapped! On lap six Johnston pulled out half a second of an advantage before breaking the minute barrier on the next two laps and increasing his lead to almost 2 seconds. Larkham began to respond on lap nine, also dipping below the minute. Over the next three laps he cut the deficit in half. It was going to be do or die on the last lap and as they hammered into Maguire’s Hairpin for the final time, Johnstone’s brakes failed and he spun. Larkham went on to win and such was the pair’s advantage over the rest of the field, Johnston was able to regain the track and drive carefully to the finish, still in second place! John Benson (Holywood) was fourth in his Crosslé 37S, ahead of Paul Thompson (Banbridge) in his Stryker Honda and John McCandless (Helen’s Bay) in a Crosslé 47S.
Item 8 of the day was the first of two Fiesta Zetec Championship races. The Championship had already been settled in favour of reigning Champion, Jonny Forsythe. Jonny had entered but was involved in a traffic accident during the preceding week and was advised by his doctors not to race. Brothers Brendan Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald from Lucan were making their traditional end-of-season visit to Kirkistown. They normally race in the Fiesta series at Mondello Park, which has slightly different regulations to the Kirkistown series.
Second place in the Kirkistown Fiesta Championship was still up for grabs and was being contested by Daniel Conlon from Dollingstown, and the Stewart brothers, Mark and Paul, from Belfast. Conlon took pole for both races, bagging two valuable extra points.
At the start Paul Stewart took the lead from Conlon, Mark Stewart and Nutt’s Corner’s, Eórann O’Neill. On lap two, O’Neill and Mark Stewart swapped places before repeating the process on lap three. Meanwhile, Brendan Fitzgerald, having dropped two places to seventh on the opening lap, was starting a fight back. By lap three he was up to sixth and a lap later he deposed brother Michael for fifth. On lap 6 he circumnavigated Conlon and the Stewart brothers to take the lead, which he would hold to the finish. Paul Stewart did likewise with second. Conlon passed mark Stewart for third on the last lap and Michael Fitzgerald passed O’Neill for fifth on the last lap as well. Mark Stewart was given a fifteen second penalty for exceeding track limits and this dropped him to tenth place and promoted Newtownards man, Ricky Hull to sixth place.
The second Libre Saloon race was also a cracker! James Turkington started from the pit lane. Ulick Burke grabbed the lead immediately while Ciaran Denvir and Stephen Potter disputed second. Stephen Traub had retired on the warm-up lap. Donal O’Neill had had risen to fourth before a charging Turkington passed him on lap two. Denvir’s Civic was beginning to slow and by lap three, Turkington had passed him as well. Paul Sheridan’s BMW was disputing sixth place with Aidan Byrne (Dublin) in a Toyota Celica. On lap five, Lisburn man, Greer Wray (BMW) passed Byrne for seventh and set off after Sheridan. On lap six, Turkington took second from Potter. At the end of lap eight Denvir retired, promoting O’Neill to fourth, Sheridan to fifth and Wray to sixth. On the final tour Turkington had a nibble at Burke’s rear bumper at the Crosslé Chicane and both cars were unsettled but Burke recovered the better of the two and went on to take the win. Wray’s BMW went sick and he dropped two places, promoting Aidan Byrne back up to sixth place at the finish.
Race eleven was for the Emerson Fittipaldi Trophy for Formula Vees. Double Formula One World Champion, Fittipaldi, was probably the most famous Formula Vee driver ever, as he began his career in this class in his native Brazil. Now it was to be awarded in this winner-take-all event at Kirkistown!
The fact that 1.4 seconds covered the first seven finishers and 0.6 seconds, the first five, tells you that this was the most spectacular race of the day! Almost every current driver of any standing in Formula Vee in Ireland was involved. From the start, polesitter Ray Moore, took the lead with Adam Macauley and Anthony Cross snapping at his exhaust pipe. Dan Polley lost a place to Kevin Grogan on lap one but regained it on lap two. Such was the frantic battle that by lap four Polley was second, Macauley was third, Grogan was fourth, Cross was fifth and Jack Byrne had risen from tenth to sixth. Gavin Buckley had dropped from fifth to seventh. On lap six, Macauley and Polley swapped again and Byrne got up to fourth. Just two laps later Byrne was down to seventh! From lap nine to twelve Macauley and Polley changed places three times, Cross got back to fourth, Buckley climbed back to fifth and Byrne and Grogan were disputing sixth. It was all going to come down to Maguires Hairpin on the final lap. Unfortunately, a backmarker broke down on the back straight and having pulled off out of harm’s way into the kart chicane, returned to the circuit and parked it on the left approaching the Hairpin, necessitating a yellow flag and thus effectively neutralising the race. The final result was Moore, Macauley, Polley, Cross, Buckley, Byrne and Grogan. Ray Moore was a very worthy winner but it would have been great to see who would have emerged from Maguire’s Hairpin and in what order had there not been that yellow flag.
If spectators were expecting to let blood pressures settle again before the Martin Donnelly Trophy, the second Fiesta Zetec race put paid to that idea. It was another humdinger. Paul Stewart took the lead at the start from Daniel Conlon and Mark Stewart. The fast starting Brendan Fitzgerald passed Eórann O’Neill for fourth. With the front three squabbling and holding each other up, Fitzgerald passed them all over the next three laps and pulled a gap of over a second that he would never relinquish. Meanwhile Paul Stewart dropped to seventh after an off. Brother Mark took second on lap four, ahead of Conlon. O’Neill was back up to fourth. A lap later, she was up to third. The action now centered on second place. On lap seven and eight it was O’Neill leading over the line but on lap nine, ten and most importantly, eleven it was Stewart, with a gap of 0.175 seconds. Conlon was a safe fourth, having set the fastest lap on the final tour, possibly just making a point of what he could have done if he hadn’t been driving for second place in the Championship. Paul Stewart got back up to fifth ahead of Michael Fitzgerald in sixth.
The Second Roadsports race was like one of those movie franchise sequels. Larkham Vs Johnston IV! And just like the movie trailer hype often says, “This time it will be different!” So it was! Jim Larkham went off at Fisherman’s on lap two and was out of the race. However, as if he knew it was his chance to shine, Paul Conn was a man possessed in his Crosslé 47S. He took the lead on lap two from Johnston before losing it all and dropping to fifth on lap three. Game over? Not a bit of it. Conn began a recovery drive that took him to third, passing Maurice McClay (Greenisland) and Wesley McCreary (Markethill) on lap four. On lap six he passed Paul Thompson’s Stryker for second and set off again after Johnston. It could be that Johnston thought he was safe, since Larkham was gone and Conn had apparently disappeared. Perhaps that was why he was doing 63 second laps while Conn was banging in 60s. Suddenly Conn was in his mirrors and on lap ten he had to react. He went down into the 61s but Conn was still doing 60s. It was lap twelve before Johnston regained a slight advantage by doing 60.79 as opposed to Conn’s 60.86. He was 0.2 seconds faster on the final lap to win by one second. Thompson was third from McClay, McCandless and McCreary. To add further credibility to Paul Conn’s great recovery drive, he set the fastest lap at 60.675 on lap seven.
Finally we came to the Martin Donnelly Trophy Race. Kevin O’Hara was on pole from James Roe. Noel Robinson, a man who values this trophy highly, was third beside Jordan Dempsey. Brothers, David and Ivor McCullough filled the next row. Ashley McCulla and Alan Davidson were down in thirteenth and fourteenth places respectively as a result of misfortune in the qualifying race, effectively taking them out of the reckoning for the trophy.
At the start, O’Hara grabbed the lead from Dempsey. Robinson was third and Roe dropped to fourth. A lap later saw Robinson drop to fifth behind David McCullough. These two fought for the next six laps and it was obvious from Robinson’s hand signals that he was getting frustrated watching the three leaders pull away. On lap nine he got past McCullough and set off after the leading trio, pulling McCullough behind him for a while. On lap twelve he deposed Roe for third and a lap later he took second from Dempsey. However, Dempsey was having none of this and retook the place back on the next lap. It remained that way for another three before Robinson got ahead again and moved right onto O’Hara’s gearbox. The final laps were nail biting as Robinson tried to force O’Hara into making a mistake. However, O’Hara held his nerve and the racing was squeaky clean. There was nothing more that Robinson could do and he crossed the finish line 0.38 seconds behind O’Hara. Dempsey was an even smaller 0.1 second behind. Roe was fourth from Ivor McCullough.
What happened to the Randalstown Rocket? Well, Alan Davidson rose from fourteenth to sixth to finish a very successful year in Hugh Reid’s 1989 Mondiale.
This entire meeting was a fitting end to what has been a fantastic season of motor racing at Kirkistown. It’s just under four months to the opening meeting of 2018 on Saturday 24th March.