Leo’s Top Ten Race Drivers of 2016
I used to pen this piece for the sorely missed Irish Motorsport Annual- following on from Robin Rhodes, Tommy Burke and Declan Quigley- from memory. It has always triggered debate and sometimes controversy- and has never been an easy one to compile. This time, for some reason, the drivers on the list came together fairly quickly- bar the final pair, who I couldn’t separate. Ranking them though, was really tough….
10 = Kevin Doran: One of the most spectacular drivers about, Doran entered the Fiesta ST series in 2016 and was always going to be one to watch. Any race with “Kevtec” in it is bound to be action packed and his “win it or bin it” style earned him a strong fanbase. That is not how championships are won though. If he cranks it back a notch, he will be a serious title contender- but that would be boring! Keep entertaining us Kev!
10= William Kellett: The latest generation of the Kellett motorsport dynasty, William made his motor racing debut in Future Classics in 2016. Upgrading his winning Junior Rallycross car from 1.0 to 1.3, he was always going to be outgunned by the Celicas etc in the class, but he drove well all year- and some of his onboard “saves” were a joy to watch. With backing from Dublin bodyshop JH Autobody, he moves to Fiesta STs for 2017 and should definitely be worth keeping an eye on!
9. Shane Rabbitt: Traditionally in ITCC, the easy way to go quick, if there is one, is to go down the Honda route. A few have shunned this, and Shane is one of these. Having built and developed the incredible rotary engine Mazda RX-7 himself, he gradually moved towards the front of the ITCC grid. The lurid coloured flame spitting machine is a great favourite with the crowds and makes incredible starts- often snatching the lead on the run to turn one from the third row of the grid. Despite catching fire on occasion (!) gradual development saw the car close the gap to the Sportchip Golf by the end of the year- one to watch for the ITCC title in 2017?
8. Paul O’Brien: After a couple of failed attempts, the Irish Legends took off in 2016. We had great racing all year with James Holman, Nikki Meredith and Paul O’Brien doing most of the winning. O’Brien though, did a professional job to clinch the title, appropriately enough with a win, in his immaculate #9 machine.
7. Dave Maguire: Dave Maguire has been on the circuit racing scene for many years- graduating from karts into Fiat Unos, when the manufacturer supported Uno Cup was launched in 1992. (Did you know there was £100 start money per competitor at the time?!) In recent years his appearances have been more sporadic but for 2016 he teamed up with Murray Motorsport and Alasta Autos for a full campaign in the new Fiesta ST series. Having taken the lead of the series early on, he calmly missed the next two rounds as he was on holidays, but still managed to clinch the title at the final round!
6. Phil Lawless: Phil had messed around in uncompetitive race and rallycross cars for a few years when the Fiesta Zetec class was introduced in 2013. Suddenly, with the playing field levelled, he became noticed. The Birrane Cup and wins at Mondello & Brands Hatch soon came and in 2016, he was a shoe in for the title. He dominated proceedings early on, despite huge competition, most races being decided by less than a second- but then it began to fall apart. A bad wet weather run and subsequent mechanical issues meant it took him almost until the seasons’ end to take his popular title win.
5. Grzegorz Kalinecki: His fellow ITCC competitors may have moaned about the speed of the Sportchip.ie Golf- but Grzegorz didn’t write the rules, he simply went and got the best car he could to suit them. Immaculately presented, and superbly driven, the car dominated proceedings, wet or dry. Others, notably Shane Rabbitt’s Mazda, often got the drop on him off the line, but Kalinecki took his time and took the lead back before easing away for yet another win. This made it back to back titles for the Sportchip.ie team, having taken the ITCC Production title in 2016.
4. Dan Polley: “DP” came to notice in his early days in Formula Vee. When it rained, he always went well. In the dry, not so much. It is widely acknowledged in motor racing circles that when a driver is quick in the wet- he can drive. A move to LOH Motorsport promoted him to the front of the grid and he even managed to beat arch rival Ray Moore to the Leinster Trophy win with a cracking last lap move a few years back. Still though, he had his off days- until this year. Dan was a force to be reckoned with at every meeting and had some cracking scraps with Kevin Grogan and Colin Blackburn. There is no doubt that LOH run superb cars, but Dan used his to the full- a worthy champion.
3. Erik Holstein. a last minute deal with Murray Motorsport saw the former Punto Abarth and ITCC Champion join the SEAT Ireland Supercup. Few have more commitment than Erik and he has always worked well with Murray Motorsport, so he was always going to be a title challenger. Despite small grids, the competition at the sharp end was fierce and Erik didn’t make it easy for himself, all but destroying the car at Bishopscourt and then suffering fuel pressure issues while leading in Kirkistown. As ever, he was great to watch and even though luck was on his side when he took the title on countback after a red flag at Mondello- he was a worthy champion.
2. Cian Carey: The Meathman did a professional job wrapping up the BOSS title in 2017. He didn’t have it all his own way as Jonathan Fildes beat him to pole in Kirkistown, before spinning as Carey shadowed him, and Barry Rabbitt made him work extremely hard as they shared the wins at Mondello mid season- in what was one of the races of the year! He had a starring role at the Leinster Trophy, where he charged to third, matching the times of the F3 cars ahead in his diminutive Formula Renault machine. Once the title was sealed, he sold the Renault and purchased a late model F3 machine to compete in the UK F3 Cup. He was first F3 car home at the Walter Hayes, open race and would have won were it not for an Arrows F1 machine, with which he enjoyed a healthy dice! Having won young Driver of the Year, Cian was able to use the prize money to sign with Chris Dittmann Racing for his 2017 programme- we will monitor his progress closely.
1. Brian Hearty: What can we say about this man. Title number 11. Yes, you read that right- eleven championships for the Dundalk haulier. Have a think about that for a moment…… Brian is great for a pint and a chat or a bit of paddock banter but, as Barry Rabbitt will tell you, few are more tenacious on track. I have said it before, but Brian is a bit like Vivion Daly back in the day, or perhaps Noel Dunne in more recent times. If a young driver can beat them, they must be pretty good! As a result he is a great guy to have in any class and provides an excellent benchmark with which to judge the Formula Sheane grid.
Honourable Mentions: Ulick Burke was superb in Fiesta STs, and moves to ITCC for 2017 with a supercharged Integra! William Harron did a great job wrapping up the Ginetta Junior title, his only regular opposition being brother Samuel for most of the year.
Alan Watkins won his umpteenth Stryker/Irish Sportscar title, but unfortunately grids were small. Rumours suggest he is thinking of ASK Supercars for 2017- that would be worth watching. Peter Barrable, Andy O’Brien and Sam Moffett were superb in Supercars, and probably would have been included were it not so hard to separate them! Conor Farrell came of age with an Anglesey win in Global GT Lights and thereafter battled with perennial class pacesetter Max Drennan all season long.