October 28th brought with it the return of the Mondello Park 6 hour Fiesta Endurance Race, arguably (and I’m biased here) one of the greatest annual events in Irish Motorsport.
What makes this event special? Let’s take a look.
The cars, budget tin tops, Fords humble offering of the fourth generation Fiesta 1.25 Zetec, trading for as little as €2,000 in race ready spec, a bargain and bulletproof relatively speaking, even in tired condition. The ideal weapon of choice.
The driver line up: Now this is where it gets interesting! If you were to sit down casually over a few beers with some friends, pick out an all star line up spanning the last two decades of Irish circuit racing, that’s how the entry list looked for this event. All the top teams were present, paired with driver line ups that would have you struggling to pick a top ten, let alone a winner.
Friday the 27th. The pre event test/shakedown day. I get there just before lunch time, track still live to the sound of 1.25’s being pushed to the limit as everyone dials in their setups, tyre pressures and fuel number checks for the all important race strategy. New drivers will cut laps to get up to speed and returning drivers reacquaint themselves with their machines alongside series regulars. The cars- thanks to sticky Yokohama A048 semi slick tyres- have far too much grip, with a pace that allows you to figure out where it all went wrong before you even complete the corner. They do not require a lot of seat time to get up to speed in, which is the beauty when dropping in drivers from different categories, even total newcomers can be right in the mix with relative ease.
I’m once again running with team Blackchurch Ford, mirroring the winning driver and team line up from the 2016 event along side Shane McFadden and Sean Lillis on driving duties, with Keith Rabbitt on race strategy and the ever fast Blackchurch pit crew on hand led by Jonathan Woods, it’s not a line up I would change in a hurry. One thing we did have to change in the run up to the event was the motor in our Fiesta, finding it down on compression on two cylinders. A number of low mileage doner cars were sourced, the chosen engine solid on compression on all four cylinders, a mere 40,000 miles on the clock and one lady owner, ideal. As the Blackchurch team set about installing the motor, the decision was made to keep it totally untouched. The regulations allow a substantial compression increase over factory, but in the interest of reliability we choose not to go this route, it would leave us down on outright horsepower in comparison to others and certainly out of the shootout for the front in qualifying given how little margin the grid typically has year on year between cars, but it was a decision we were happy to make to run a safe, reliable race on our own strategy with the benefit of a more fuel efficient stock motor to boot.
Testing, new motor just fitted, my first flying laps in this configuration since the previous year. With an eye on the solo and caution to the motor I run three flying laps, the third throws up a 1.11 before hitting traffic the proceeding lap and Keith signals me in. That’s enough, the car is fine and I’ve remembered how to turn a lap, that’ll do. I head off for Blackchurch to stock up on spares as the guys work on confirming fuel numbers and tyre pressures for morning. The trap is staying out, chasing tenths putting hours on the car, adding to the risk when the reality is you can’t ‘win’ testing. One look at the timing screen come the end of day and the pace is alarming, we go into qualifying knowingly down on outright car speed, but happy enough with whatever the day throws, we’ll play the long game.
Saturday Oct 28th, race day. It’s an early start, 9am quali. We run all three drivers, we’re down on one lap pace. We qualify P16 on the 32 car grid. Eyes forward, prepping the car for the race. 12pm, lights out and we’re racing! Shane McFadden starts for us, doing a solid job through the 40 minute stint to move us up to 12th, but more importantly holding the gap to the leaders steady at 12 seconds out. We run a short first stint, undercut and aim for clear track and fast out laps looking for a jump, I’m in for the second stint and it’s a strange one. The tactics play us right into a bunch of lead cars still within a 5 minute pit window running, “what move is for position and what cars have yet to pit”?! Either way we don’t have the speed to challenge, our play is a numbers game, until such time as it’s time to fight. William Kellett the first to appear, I give the wave through, nothing to be gained fighting now, I know it’s not the race lead and he’ll have the speed to get to the leader, if he does it’ll bring the lead fight closer to us by battle. The outright race pace is astonishing, 1.11’s at will on any given lap! Not something that’s been seen before for this event, the race pace has always been in the 1.12’s, with an occasional mid to high 1.11 only by a few.
For us, our plan mirrored that of the previous year, consistent solid pace, ultra fast pit stops and good strategy, hoping it’ll be enough to put us right up there. Staying out of trouble is a major factor in this event, the time lost in the pits to repairs can far outweigh the slight temporary on track gain. It’s now just inside the first hour, 19 seconds from the race lead, up to P6 and the view through the windscreen shows the different mindset of some, that of paintwork and headlamp glass flying from the cars ahead. The ego’s run high at the start of this race, when the battle is still quite clear on the road. You can’t ‘win’ the first hour of the six hour, but you can certainly loose it.
I round out my stint P5, we fuel and strap Sean in. Sean is an absolute professional in this race, with a string of podium finishes in all his previous 6hr events he knows what to do. What we lack in ultimate pace we make back in other areas as the consistency across all three drivers is very strong. Again staying out of trouble moving through traffic, we continue going through the motions. At the 3 hour mark we hold P3, the fight clear now LOH Motorsport the team to beat, blistering pace and quick stops. Kellett Motorsport as to be expected right up there, #32 Murray Motorsport and #7 Pallet Storage.ie right in contention. Disaster strikes Kellett Motorsport as they fall foul to an unexpected mechanical failure, this race can throw a curve at anyone, at any time!
The single most difficult aspect of the 6 hour at this point is not the battle on the road with the cars you’re racing on the leader board, it’s the battle with everyone! Someone once asked me to describe the 6hr, to which I replied “it’s a 15 minute sprint race, that lasts for 6 hours!”. You are at all times battling with every single car you meet on track for the position whether it be for the race lead, or someone 15 laps down, you will earn that place the hard way. This must surely be a unique feature to the Irish race. It adds a certain fun element to this race however, for the small price of a Zetec Fiesta race car, you can, even if only for a few corners, turn up and go head to head with the some of the best drivers this Island has to offer.
Novelties aside, it would mean car 88 would have it’s work cut out for it. Qualifying 16th meant over an ultimate flying lap we had the pace of 16th fastest, so we faced fifteen faster cars on track, for the entire lap, every lap. Running an untouched stock motor meant straight line speed wasn’t a strong point, it would have to be done under braking, which brings with it another challenge, the move had to be late but early enough to command position and rule out contact, and then break the run of the faster car on corner exit to try pull a gap. Suit up, strap in and bring your A game 45 minutes at a time.
Into the final series of stops, the Blackchurch pit team working to perfection, Keith as ever steady on strategy calls. 30 minutes to go and we’re P2, the only other team still on the lead lap. LOH lead following a very steady campaign, 15 minutes to go, we simply don’t have the pace to close the gap to the leader by any more than we already have, all the cards are played and it’s the run to the line. Questionable on stint length for the final stop we make a tactical call to drop a lap, sit right behind the leader and mirror them home, reducing the time of our final lap effectively. Unknown to us the leaders had received a 1 lap penalty over a pit stop dispute, as the cars crossed the line the gap on the screen a mere three seconds after 6 hours of racing. But alas we would not be immune to the penalty stick, also receiving a one lap penalty, our final stint length 11 seconds over. The podium remained unchanged as the top three would all receive a one lap deduction for different reasons, so as you were as such. Our hats off to all at LOH Motorsport (K.O’Hara/D.Polley/R.McHale) and team on a stellar campaign and a very deserving win, with Murray Motorsport #32 of (M.Devaney/J.Denning/M.Cullen/D.Maguire) certainly winning hard chargers of the event with a very strong comeback to claim the final podium spot.
That said my admiration goes out to everyone that completes this event, every team member be it on track or off plays such a strong roll in making this event as special as it is. As I walked through the pits after the event stopping to chat with people, every one I met gave me their finishing result with a huge smile and sense of pride, regardless of where that position was on the board they earned it and had every right to be proud, that in my opinion is what makes this event one of our absolute best!
Images from Michael Chester