So last weekend the annual Fiesta Six Hour Endurance Race took place in Mondello Park. This is the once race a year where all of Ireland’s top drivers come out to play in Fiestas, and the competition is incredible. Having led the race the first year we competed and having lost out on victory due to an errant back marker taking a wing mirror off- and suffering engine issues during last year’s race, we hoped that this year it would be third time lucky. Having got a last minute drive in another team for last year’s race I was now back into the family team along with Global GT Lights and Stryker champion Keith Dawson and my dad (and team boss) Alastair Kellett. Finally we decided to bring over U.K. Fiesta championship runner up John Cooper as our fourth driver. Alastair and John had spent the year competing in the MSV Trackday Trophy together so it seemed like the perfect choice to slot him in as our final driver.
We headed down for some pre event testing so John could learn the track and the car but as we arrived at the track it was an instant reminder of the 2016 event as the track was covered in a blanket of fog and visibility was next to nothing! Despite this we got some decent running during the day despite our testing car which we had borrowed off Alan Dawson deciding it didn’t want to know about second gear about mid way through the day! The pace was on another level and sub 1.11s were popping up on the timing screen which indicated that qualifying on Saturday morning was going to be fiercely competitive.
Qualifying rolled around and thankfully there was no fog to be seen as the cars lined up in pitlane. The track was damp in places and the first half an hour was affected by a constant stream of yellow flags so lap times and positions were irrelevant at this point. By the time I got out and set my lap time I felt I’d missed out on at least half a second on my best lap but when I came in I found I’d put us P2 at the time behind former British F3 race winner Michael Devaney in the #32 Murray Motorsport entry. We had a plan for the final 10 minutes when the track was dry as since Keith was the lightest of us all we would bolt new tyres on and see what he could do. The plan did work but we were bumped back down to P4 by the end but that wasn’t anything to complain about as we were still right at the sharp end of the grid.
As the race began, the usual carnage that seems to kick off at every Six Hour seemed to have disappeared as Devaney managed to gap the rest of the pack and the fight for second became a battle between us, former triple Abarth champion Liam Denning in the #50 Team G-Sport car, FF1600 ace Kevin O’Hara in the #5 LOH Motorsport car, Fiesta Zetec Champion Mark O Donoghue in the #17 Mulready Racing car and former WRC 2 and FF1600 driver Rob Barrable in the #98 Barrable Racing Fiesta. Devaney was escaping out the front but he soon tangled with one of his teammates while lapping them which dumped him down the order and left Denning leading from Keith, Kevin and then Mark. After 26 minutes the gap at the front was an incredible 0.001 of a second with the top seven covered by less than a second! At the first round of pitstops we came in in third place and as the different fuel strategies began to take place, LOH took the lead followed by Murray’s and then Kevin Doran in the #88 Blackchurch car. I jumped in and came out in P4 and set after Kevin who was in no mood to fight and let me go so he could run his own race. I set off after the Murray Motorsport car and was catching it at a rate of knots until it collected the #16 MTR car into the Esses and I was faced with the horrible split second decision of to go left or right. I chose left and instantly knew I’d made the wrong choice as the car rolled back into me and I collected it with the drivers side with what felt like a horrendous bang. Amazingly the only damage that would affect me after the collision was a dislodged door mirror! I was soon onto the back of the #32 Murray Motorsport machine and when I seen the helmet of Michael Cullen behind the wheel I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy car to pass! I’d hoped to use the traffic to maybe catch him off guard but it wasn’t till we caught up to the #10 Naas Court Hotel car that I was able to effect a switchback move at the final corner and got up the inside of Cullen. I was then greeted with the traditional squeeze towards the pit wall but I held my ground and was soon into P2. The cost of this battle was that Ronan McHale in the LOH car had pulled an enormous lead while we were battling. ITCC ace Ulick Burke in the Mulready car soon joined the battle as Cullen had reovertaken me while I got tripped up passing the NCH team. Both Ulick and I took turns at trying to get past Cullen, but it wasn’t until a safety car came out that the race changed. LOH dived into the pits and I made a late call to follow them in. Ulick made an even later call and there was an F1 style side by side moment into pit entry! I handed over to John but was concerned about a noise coming from the rear of the car (that will be relevant later on!) but pace-wise the car seemed good as we sent John out while in a decent P3 position with an hour and half gone.
As John drove his stint, I was really impressed with his lap times and consistency for someone who had never seen the track or the car until the day before the race! He brought the car back in P4 as Alastair jumped in to try to and catch Blackchurch and #7 Pallet Storage who had worked their way into P3. We soon moved back into second place but were now a lap behind the flying Kevin O’Hara in the LOH car who was a second a lap quicker than the rest of the pack. We pitted still in P2 for my second stint and was still in touching distance of LOH should a problem hit them.
However as I drove out of pitlane it soon became clear that we were the team facing serious problems. That noise I had heard in the first stint was the left rear wheel bearing beginning to let go and now an hour and a half later it really wasn’t happy. The noise was so loud I couldn’t even hear the engine over it and was now faced with an ill handling Fiesta with a wheel that was wobbling into all the right handers which is pretty much what makes up most of Mondello National! With a clear track in front of me I was faced with trying to drive this car as hard as possible to keep ahead of Doran in the Blackchurch car, Devaney in the Murray Motorsport car and Richie Kearney in the Pallet Storage car. I was quite amused to find that I was the fastest car on track at one stage during my stint as the car really was becoming a bit evil to drive. I managed to pull a small gap on Blackchurch in P3 but a safety car was soon called out which ruined all my hard work. After it came in it soon became apparent the pace had gone from the car and there was now a burning smell which wasn’t coming from the engine! A check of the mirrors heading out of turn three showed a cloud of smoke coming from the rear of the car and I knew it was time to bail into the pits. Heading through the second part of the Esses the car snapped sideways and I knew the bearing had finally failed. When I jumped out and ran around to the back of the car I was shocked to see that the wheel hub was actually on fire and that the problem was far more severe than I had realised! We lost 20 minutes changing the hub and dropped like a stone from P2 to P21 by the time Keith rejoined the race.
With our chances of victory literally gone up in smoke, we just decided to go flat out and see how far we could climb back. Keith went out and set the 3rd fastest lap of the race which showed all was once again well with the car. He came in to hand over to John in P16 with an hour an a half left to run. John drove a brilliant stint and was lapping less than two tenths a lap slower than Keith and brought the car back in P12 for Alastair to try and bring to the end. At this point we were out of sequence to the pack and had one less stop to make before the end. We also were encountering gearbox trouble as third gear was becoming increasingly fragile and that had to be managed. We crossed the line in P10 but was promoted to P9 after teams were penalised for exceeding the driver stint time.
So it was a third year of so near but yet so far. This time around it was probably our most spectacular failure as we literally went out of the lead battle in a blaze of glory! We will definitely be back next year for another attempt at victory as we definitely have the pace just not the luck at all. Massive thanks have to go to the team which wasn’t just us drivers but Samantha, Stephen, Ben and Chloe Kellett and also Sean and Siobhan Woods. That brings an end to my racing season this year but I’ve one last thing to do this year as on the 7th November I’ll be heading off to Dawson Street for the Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year interviews. I’ll have my fingers crossed that all goes well and I’ll be back on the track in 2018 with some more behind the scenes stories of what goes on