So the racing season came to a close last weekend with the famous Leinster Trophy meeting held on the International Track at Mondello. Having only done about seven laps of the track in a Zetec, I decided some pre event testing would be worthwhile just to get the eye in before the weekend. The day didn’t start off too well as I struggled to get the balance of the car right and the lap times were telling this. Due to the number of classes competing and the extended length of the lap on the International layout, you don’t really have much time to make changes and see if they make a difference. With one last session available, we stuck the car back onto the same tyres I had raced on the last day. Despite only managing to get one clean flying lap, I knew instantly that the car was back to where I wanted it and I knew I should be right at the sharp end come qualifying on Saturday
Qualifying rolled around on Saturday morning and I went into it with a slight advantage over the pack. Due to me joining the class mid season I had a lot more tyres available to me compared to the rest of the grid so two new ones were bolted on to give me the best possible shot at pole. Again the lap is so long on the International layout and the little Zetec is not the fastest thing in the world you realistically only got four or five flying laps in fifteen minutes so every lap had to count. I managed to set two decent flying laps and when the pitboard showed I was on pole by seven tenths of a second I began to relax and on the last lap cruised around to save the tyres. However Owen Purcell pulled a lap out of nowhere on the last lap and pushed me back to P2 by 0.042 of a second on a 3.5km lap! I had managed to secure pole for race two so that was a small consolation at the end of the session.
Coming up to race one the sky suddenly got a lot darker and a wet race seemed like a real possibility. While I do quite like the wet, I had never driven a Zetec in the wet so was apprehensive to say the least. As we left the pitlane for the warm up lap, the rain began to come down heavier and it was clear it was going to be a full wet race. Lining up on the front row I knew that my Achilles heel in the Zetec, the launch, was now pot luck as I could only guess as to how to launch it off the line. When the lights went out it seemed I’d made the best job of it as I pulled clear ahead of Owen but as I looked left Brendan Fitzgerald was suddenly flying past on the left hand side. I tucked in behind him into turn one as this year’s champion Mark O Donoghue was the first of us to visit the turn one gravel trap as he tried to outbrake me around the outside. By the time we got onto the international loop it was clear to me I needed to find a way past Fitzgerald quickly as he was holding me up massively in the bends but could manage to stay ahead in a straight line. I had been told before the race that these Zetecs are quite tail happy in the wet. Now coming from a rallycross background I wasn’t too bothered by this but I didn’t actually realise how tail happy they were as when I turned into the final corner at what felt like a snails pace, the back end suddenly came round and by the time I caught it Phil Lawless had taken 2nd place off me. Lawless then managed to get past Fitzgerald, whose Fiesta was looking increasingly more like a MK2 Escort as the rain came down! What was more frustrating to me was that I was probably the quickest of the leading pack but was having severe oversteer issues into the last three corners of the lap and was dropping places as a result. By half distance Lawless had pulled a small gap and I was still stuck behind Fitzgerald in third place. I was then bundled back to fourth by Darren Lawlor and as he collected the back of Fitzgerald into turn one I finally got my chance to clear him and set off after the two leaders. I managed to get a great run through Lola corner and made a dive from a long way back into Tarzan 1 on Lawlor and made it stick. However coming into my bogey section of the track the back end let go for about the fifteenth time in the race and Lawlor took the place back. Heading into turn one, I then braked too late and heard the fatal sound of locked brakes and I was heading straight for the gravel trap. My only hope was to get it turned before going in and keep the throttle planted and hope I could drag myself out. I just about managed it but had dropped to 6th behind Mark Johnston and Fitzgerald. Heading onto the last lap I was wondering how to even go about passing Fitzgerald but there was no need to worry as he locked up and sailed into the gravel trap exactly like me a lap ago. I then got past Mark as he had a major oversteer moment at turn three so I was up to 4th but ran out to time to catch the leaders so I finished in 4th but counted myself lucky I didn’t finish buried up to my axles in gravel!
Race two on Sunday luckily was dry and I was hoping for a good result in the last race of the year. For the first time this year in the dry I nailed the start off the line but Fitzgerald still managed to pull clear heading into turn one. It soon became clear that a combination of it being the last race of the year and the presence of TV cameras meant everyone decided it was time to go crazy! I thought I was far enough ahead of Owen heading into the final corner but he made a late lunge and made it stick so I was back to P3 but still in contention for a victory along with about six other cars. I then got stuck behind Fitzgerald heading into Birranes Bends and Mark managed to get around the outside of me so I was back to P4. At this point it seemed Fitzgerald was on full defensive mode and was backing the whole pack up so overtakes were happening thick and fast. Tarzan 2 seemed to be my favourite overtaking place during the race as I got past both Mark and then Owen in the next two laps who both failed to overtake race leader Fitzgerald. As we were just about to head onto the last lap I locked up heading into the long left hander after Birranes Bends and suddenly found myself on the outside of three cars heading into the flatout Paddock corner. I decided to back out of that one but that put me back into a group of cars and I was punted almost into the gravel at the final corner and was dumped out of the lead pack. I had just a lap left to make any inroads and I was helped by the lead pack trying to run two by two into turn three! At this stage there were more overtakes in this race than an entire year of Formula 1 and it wasn’t over yet and as Lawless and O Donoghue went side by side through Birranes Bends, I spotted my opportunity and about 95% of a Fiesta gap on the inside and made up two places into the next corner. This time heading for Paddock corner not content with three wide the last lap around, we decide to make it four wide at one point and I came out ahead of the group to eventually finish 3rd after a crazy race to round off a crazy season!
So with the racing done and dusted for another year it’s fair to say this season has ended completely different to where I started back in March. I may have been forced to swap classes after what was undoubtedly the heaviest shunt of my career but these six Zetec races have been nothing but a ball of fun and with the dreaded Leaving Cert headed my way next June I think a full crack at the Zetec championship is what’s on the cards for 2018.
As always thanks to my supporters and family for getting me through the season and back onto the grid when the going got really tough mid season and I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me in March when the 2018 season kicks off
Till next time
Header Image from Michael Chester