The only good thing about the month of February is that its less than 2 months to the start of the Irish Hillclimb Championship sponsored by Naylor Engineering. I don’t know about you but I am literally bursting to get out and compete on some of Irelands most challenging Hillclimb and Sprint venues.
Its been a long off season for most of us and as usual there are many stories about what improvements are being made to Hillclimb weaponry over the winter. Rumors of new drivers, old driver with new cars, bigger tyres, faster engines and aero upgrades are ten a penny.
There are lots of other new things to discuss in Irish Hillclimbing. There are revised rallycar classes to encourage our rallying brothers and sisters to join our circus more regularly. There are also some new classes and slight changes to the wording to other classes to make them clearer as to where each car fits.
The most notable new class is 3(C )a dedicated sportscar class which takes some of the more potent sportscar weaponry out of the more saloon orientated class 3(B).
Full details on the classes are available on and explanation of the updates can be found HERE.
What have you heard about who is going to be fighting for the overall championship in 2017?
What about our 2016 Champion Galway’s Joe Courtney? The weight of expectation is on Joe this year to defend his giant killing exploits last year. How did Joe manage to win last years championship in a 300 Bhp car against two well driven 600bhp fire breathing Goulds? Well, first of all he went as quick as he could in his Reynard while ensuring he got the finishes he needed for the Championship. This was far from the slowest winning time possible mentality we have seen in Formula 1 in recent years. This was experience, speed and excellent engineering to ensure his car was as well prepared as possible for every event. If Joe can keep up this professional mentality and keep his motivation he has to be the man to beat in 2017. Are there going to be many upgrades to his Reynard for 2017? Some of the aero work that he carried out in 2016 really seems to have paid dividends so it would be surprising if there wasn’t one or two small changes to the car in preparation for 2017. Joe popped the question to Katie last year so will he find himself saying “I do” to the Frank Keane trophy again in 2017?
Michael Connolly had an amazing debut full Irish Hillclimb season full of highs and lows. Michael had only ever competed in a Westfield before managing to acquire his beautiful 4.0 litre Judd engine Gould. The transition was an immense one and in many ways he did a stellar job considering the disadvantage of such a bold change and not having driven on most of the venues. This car was definitely more at home on a smooth UK type Hillclimb event and indeed the gearing was far from ideal for our short straights with mix of slow and fast sweeping corners. He was unlucky in a lot of ways that a couple of incidents throughout the year put paid to his Championship contention and he was unlucky that he joined a long list of nearly Champions that were claimed by the Donegal scenery in September. Motorsport is cruel but fair. Still with a full year of experience behind him and his awesome Gould nearly repaired he has to be a candidate for the Overall honour if he returns. The soundtrack of this Formula 1 powered car wailing up the road has to be experienced live and unplugged. You-tube clips and video recordings cannot convey the beauty and ferocity of these type of beasts as they are wrestled up the hill.
Rory “Grandad” Stephens is another competitor who despite the occasional public displays of borderline lunacy around the paddock has a steely resolve. He is a real funny character out of the car but when the visor drops make no mistake Grandad is all business. He gets slightly quicker every year in his gorgeous Radical SR8 and is more and more comfortable with its performance on bumpy events. If he could get his Radical to display more speed on the more suitable smoother racetrack events like Corkscrew and Mondello he could be in the shake up for a win or two. I would not count him out for an overall win or two in 2017 although he can be consistently inconsistent! Has he managed to squeeze more power from the radical this year? Will he actually bring enough fuel? Will his wife the lovely and ever patient Paula still put up with his antics?
Alex Wilsdon Jnr and his dad Alex Snr campaign a slightly smaller more nimble lightweight motorcycle engined Radical one. While senior is no slowcoach its Alex jnr that has the big boys worried. Alex jnr can be breathtakingly quick in this light blue machine and indeed he can be commonly found scaring the life out of faster and more powerful machinery. An excellent engineer with a pretty tidy driving style he can be deceptively quick and when others are looking for time he seems to find it through a combination or setup, bravery and skill. His only shortcoming seems to be not being able to get to all the events. If he can stage a full campaign in 2017 i would bet he would at least be in contention for a top 3 championship finish.
With the Championship starting in Clare this year at the end of May we will surely see Sylvie Mullins make a play to win his home event. Sylvie drives another Formula 1 powered Gould GR37 car that he has very much setup and geared for Irish Hillclimb events over the years. This former Irish Champion is very experienced, breathtakingly committed and fast when he gets going. Its just getting him to compete outside of his home county takes some doing! Does Sylvie have the hunger to try to take another bite at the Irish Championship? Does the Frank Keane trophy want to travel south of Galway bay and is Sylvie the man to do it?
Deirdre McKinley is planning to mix and match her season between her Opel Lotus single seater and her Opel Corsa saloon car. Deirdre has been a regular competitor for many years now and has a good blend of experience and speed. While the Opel Lotus may not be the fastest car on the hills it is driven well and she leaves very little time behind her. Billy White prepares the car while Deirdre splits her time between looking after her son Rory and giving him the best possible example of being a committed competitor while also being a huge part of a friendly family atmosphere where everyone helps each other out.
Two of the legendary band of Cinqucento warriors are also making the leap to double drive a single seat formula car this year. Billy White and Gary Egan have decided they have finished being friends and bought a Formula Renault together! These two have been sparring partners in the Cento class for many years. While Gary has had the slight edge in the Centos, the reset button has definitely been hit with the more potent Formula Renault. They are rumored to be carrying out extensive testing on track and off track so far. Will these two hotshoes put the frighteners on the more established single seat regulars? Will they be able to carry out the same level of commitment bravery and skill in this car that they displayed in the Centos? It will be fascinating to see it play out.
For my own part i am making a full time return to Hillclimbing in 2017. While i have been working on a very complicated project (V10 powered saloon BMW) for the last 3 years I have really missed the Hillclimb family.  So i found myself making a trip overseas to buy/beg/borrow/steal a Norma sportscar. Similar to a Radical only powered by a Honda 2.0 litre engine. More powerful versions of these cars routinely fill many of the top 10 positions of the French and European championship. How a Norma will handle the Irish climate only time will tell. While this does not mean an end to the V10 project it allows another different car attempt to climb our Championship ladder. Can I remember the commitment and skill it takes to be quick again? We will see by September!
Is there any hope of the semi-retired Frank Byrnes making a comeback? Frank and his Rover V8 powered Pilbeam Hillclimb car were once the talk of the town till Frank made a dubious descision that running was a better use of his talents. Former champion Byrnes has not competed in a while but again a little birdy told me they thought they heard a V8 rumble in Oranmore…
I have also heard a rumor about another vintage former champ Pat Roche making a comeback in a new OMS sportscar in 2017. A young family and work commitments have slowed his return since winning the championship in recent years but again rumors are rife that there is smoke rising in Wexford.
All in all there should be a wide variety of machinery and competitors making their case for overall honours and that’s ever before we look into the rest of the classes of drivers and cars with some breathtakingly fast machinery being driven at or beyond their limit! Some would argue it take at least as much skill to win Class 1 as it does to win the overalls and having seen the skill on display over the last few years I certainly will not argue that point.
See you in just 9 weeks for Round 1.
Paul O’Connell