Last Sunday saw a piece of motorsport history made by Limerickman Paul O’Connell at the FIA European Hillclimb Championship in St Ursanne Switzerland.
Having had a very successful result at the World Hillclimb Masters in Italy in 2018 as part of Team Ireland Paul, from Crecora in Limerick, was approached by the organisers at the start of the year asking if he would consider competing at the 76th running of the event. O’Connell is a former Irish National Hillclimb champion and he became the first Irish motorsport competitor to ever compete at the highest level of hillclimb motorsport. The European Hillclimb Championship (EHC) round in St Ursanne is one of the most fearsome events in the 14 race calender. The drivers race on a 5.3km road with a succession of very high speed sweeping corners and three hairpin bends on a 1:8 incline. Over 220 of the best cars and drivers in Europe took the start of this massive event last weekend. The fastest cars are driven by the best drivers in Europe in their dedicated specialist hillclimbing racecars some boasting over 500 horsepower. Paul was driving a Dallara Formula 3 racing car with a 2.0 litre Opel engine and managed to complete the 5.3km course in 2 minutes and 2 seconds to finish third in Europe in the hotly contested up to 2000cc racing car class. After two dry practice runs on Saturday of 2:03 and 2:05 rain moved in and most of the single seater drivers elected not to run in the rain. Paul seized the opportunity to get more experience and elected to run slicks on a damp track. After a brief discussion with the Clerk of the Course at the start line over the interesting choice of tyres, off he went to record a 2:45 and bank more experience on this famous track.
Sunday dawned with high temperatures of up to 30c. A first run time of 2:05 was a slight disappointment as he struggled to get the car off the startline. The Pirelli tyres ironically giving too much grip on the line resulting in the car bogging down. After consultation with long time advisor Brendan Stone they decided it was time to try something different So the front and rear wings settings were reduced for more straight line speed at the expense of a little lateral grip.
A fired up Paul made a better start on the second and final timed run. The stage was then set for a nail biting finish to try to get a podium spot in the 2000cc class. The high temperatures took their toll on the tortured rear tyres on the second last hairpin at the finish resulting in a big slide (and save) but he lost a second or two as a result finishing on a 2:02:50 and 3rd in class. Paul said “the hill is totally different in real life compared to the you tube footage! Taking a 90degree corner flat on the throttle in 6th gear took a few runs to build confidence but it feels absolutely insane! The hill is so steep you would not walk up it for the last 4 Kms and that even turning the steering wheel in 6th slowed the car progress. “I set a very ambitious goal of trying to finish in the top 30 of the EHC and managing to finish in the top 20 of the EHC and also a podium finish in the 1600 to 2000cc FIA single seater class is beyond my wildest expectations”
Paul wishes to thank the Virtual Race Academy for their support and sim training, the sponsors who made the car transport possible and the Irish supporters that made the trip to Switzerland to witness a little bit of History. The Irish supporters were made very welcome and also brought some great energy, friendliness while remaining a level of professionalism to the event. Indeed pictures of the rear of Paul’s car sporting a sticker in French thanking all the marshalls and organisers went viral during the event as was very well received by the thousands of spectators.
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