It is that time of the year again. We review and rate the top National race drivers of the year. As with last year, I am aided in this task by two seasoned motor racing observers. We agree on the ten drivers, then we rate them from 1 to 10. We add this to a spreadsheet giving one point for first, two for second and so on. We then add them up and that gives us our ranking. This time, we varied a little in our choices, but that is the whole point of such an exercise. The concept, in case you didn’t know, was borne in the sadly missed Irish Motorsport Annual, Michael O’Carroll’s annual recap of all things motorsport, with Robin Rhodes being the longtime custodian of the column, followed, at different stages, by Colm Doherty, Tommy Burke, Declan Quigley and yours truly. Actually, in the heyday of FF1600, those drivers were also rated separately, with Robin awarding them stars, with a maximum of five for a really impressive performance over the season!
10. Stephen Ross.
Stephen Ross has always been a frontrunner but he appeared on everyone’s radar when he destroyed the Stryker opposition at the Leinster Trophy in 2018. A pair of dominant wins in front of the Irish Motorsport TV cameras gave him the impotus to mount a serious title challenge for 2019. After a series of hectic scraps with reigning champion Greg Kelly, Ross was a worthy champion, by the smallest of margins.
9. Philip Sheane.
The latest member of the Sheane dynasty is Philip. A nephew of David Sheane’s, he cut his teeth, as so many Wicklow racers have historically done, in Midget car racing. When he appeared in Formula Vee at the Vee Festival in 2018, he was immediately impressive. In 2019 though, he stepped it up a notch and by the season’s end, was capable of mixing it with the very best, despite the fact that he was a newbie. A deserved Motorsport Ireland Young Driver nomination was his award.
8. Paul O’Connell.
I suppose we all knew Hillclimbers were quick. Paul arrived in BOSS Ireland in 2018 in an F3 car and somehow managed to beat the class regulars to the overall championship. When he upgraded to the beautiful Dallara World Series car for his defence, people started talking. It is a well known fact that the smaller and more nimble F3 cars are acknowledged to be quicker than the larger cars around Mondello Park. Punters were swiftly disabused of that theory as the Limerick man cruised to the title with apparent ease. Even when the big names, with big teams arrived for the Leinster Trophy, he didn’t disgrace himself, leading on both days in horrendous conditions. Paul never stops working and is convinced there is more to come from both man and machine in 2020- we can’t wait! As well as his performance on track, Paul should be commended for his PR and social media efforts during the season. Motor racing needs more Paul O’Connells…..
7. Alex Denning.
The influx of karters into circuit racing has slowed to a trickle in recent times, which is a shame. Alex Denning made the jump in 2019 and was immediately quick and spectacular in the Fiesta ST series. His fast and feisty style saw him called to the headmaster’s office on more than one occasion though, and he even earned himself a trip to Dawson Street to boot. He may have his detractors, but nobody can deny that his single lap pace is absolutely stunning. His onboard coverage is also a joy to watch. He may be raw, he may be impetuous, but this young man has talent….
6. Richard Kearney
Formula Sheane is something of an enigma. It should surely form one of the biggest grids in the sport. Engines are equal, cars are fast, inexpensive and don’t depreciate. Parts, from David Sheane, are easily accessed and cheap. The racing, especially at the front, is some of the best around and the second race at the Leinster Trophy in 2019 definitely ranks as one of the races of the year for me- a cracking three way battle and an absolute joy to watch.
Richard Kearney has a background in tin tops. He competed and won, in many of the Fiat classes before buying the ex-Barry Rabbitt Formula Sheane for his single seater graduation. Last year he battled mightily with series champion David Parks, and with Parks gone from the class this year, Kearney was a shoe in to take the title. This he did with no real issues, his beautifully prepared EPT car never being away from the sharp end and managing to win the titanic battle with Brian Hearty and Sean Hynes to take the Dunlop Cup at the final meeting of the year. A worthy champion.
4= Barry Rabbitt
There is one thing you can always be sure of with Barry Rabbitt. You just know he will wring the maximum from his equipment every time he sits in, and if there is an upset to be caused, he is in like Flynn. His use of sticky qualifying tyres at the start of the season was a master stroke and saw him put away many far more fancied cars in his newly acquired latest gen Formula Renault machine. Similarly, his Leinster Trophy win against a host of F3 cars was little short of inspirational. Sure, the planets aligned and yes, luck may have on his side- but nobody grabs an opportunity like Barry Rabbitt!
4. Matthew Nicholl
Ginetta Junior Ireland has been great for Irish Motorsport since its inception here over ten years ago. It has literally produced drivers capable of winning on any stage. Andrew Watson, Sean Doyle, Niall Murray, Jordan Dempsey and James Roe all cut their teeth in the G20s and all have gone on to success in various other classes since. Matthew Nicholl’s dominance in the class is something we have not seen since Niall Murray crushed all the opposition in the first ever season, winning himself the use of a G40 Junior for the UK series in the process.
3. Anthony Cross
An Irish Formula Vee title is never easily won and 2019 was no different. Vee numbers may have been slightly down, especially at the start of the year, but if anything, the on track competition was closer than ever, especially at the front. Cross and his father Fred produced an immaculate car at each round and he was always up for a scrap, which was just as well, as very few Vee races are won by a significant margin!
2. William Kellett.
It was always going to be Kellett vs Purcell for the Keelan Zetec title and that is how it started, the pair battling door to door in the early races. Unfortunately In Bishopscourt though, Purcell’s succession of mechanical woes began, when a loose engine mount caused a missed gear and damaged the engine. Kellett kept the head down and with an impressive nine wins, the title was his. The resultant Motorsport Ireland Young Driver nomination was as well deserved as his Zetec Championship win. In a stellar year, he also won the Hawthorn Trophy, which is competed for by all classes- becoming the youngest ever winner of the award
1. Erik Holstein
Once Erik threw his hat into the Fiesta ST ring, the bar was always going to be raised. The former international showjumper has an impressive motor racing CV, which includes Punto Abarth, ITCC and SEAT Supercup titles, as well as a TCR win at the Dubai 24H race in 2018. His maximum attack style seemed to work well in the 150bhp STs and two wins at the opening meeting, the second from sixth on the grid, set him on the road to yet another title. He immediately gelled with his Philip Wright Motors team and the Naas Court Hotel car was always immaculately turned out and never missed a beat. Word on the street is that the crew intend to defend the title in 2020.
Erik will be presented with the Vivian Candy Memorial Trophy at the Night of Champions in late January.
“Vivian Candy was one of Ireland’s first racing driver legends. He drove in the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, had Nina Simone perform an impromptu concert for him in Nice, started the Marlboro Team Ireland racing team that brought Eddie Jordan the success he craved. He set up the most famous and enduring disco in Ireland, dated the most beautiful girls and sipped champagne in the top European nightclubs. He became Ireland’s fastest man, drove a Formula One car in a competitive race and nearly killed himself twice in separate racing accidents. Vivian Candy lived life.” From the Independant May 31st 2009. Full article HERE
Philip Jones did a great job to take his first Irish Supercar title, in his nicely presented ASK Racing machine. Aimee Woods progressed well in Zetecs, starting a reverse top six race from pole and leading confidently before being bundled aside. Ross Barnes’ immaculate Fiesta ST mixed it with the big boys on occasion and was unlucky to lose a win to a missed gear on the anti clockwise July meeting, having held off the might of Michael Cullen for the duration. Ciaran Denvir drove well all year to clinch the ITCC title, as did fellow Ulsterman Stephen Potter. Paul O’Brien continued his domination of Irish Legends, while Aidan Byrne blended pace with guile to take the Future Classic title in his Celica.