The Donegal Motor Club visited their famous Knockalla venue once again as the 4th weekend of the Alekto Irish Hillclimb and Sprint Championship took place on their traditional date in early September. This is often the end of year pilgrimage for many competitors travelling the furthest distance in the season, however with 2 more weekends to take place it’s not time to end as normal. The historic venue saw a significant change this year with the addition of a virtual chicane as a safety measure to combat a deteriorating road surface. The first time this system has been used on a championship event proved pivotal in the results order at the end of both days. As the northern most Hillclimb setting on the island, it proved fitting that the top 3 Overall on both days were also from the Northern part of the country with several local rally entries and regular hillclimbers from both Irish and Northern Irish championships gunning for glory. A feature not often used but proved to create an exciting atmosphere was the commentary of Chris Fair keeping a close eye on runs and times painting even more of a picture for the spectators in his eloquent way of doing so.
The Saturday sunshine was a starking and welcome contrast to the weather that greeted the paddock last year with temperatures reaching the early 20’s before midday. David Kane on his first visit to Knockalla made his mark early topping the opening runs in his screaming Silver-Car S3, with run 3 his quickest to take Fastest Time of the Day, an impressive initiation on David’s first Irish Hillclimb event. He led 2022 series winner Chris Houston in the OMS CF08 turbo by just over half a second with Chris’ times tumbling in each run. A pattern seems to be emerging here of the sportscars/prototype cars beating the single seaters on day one as Kevin Gallagher did so too in his Darrian in the wet last year. Will we see this trend continue? Brendan Flynn in his Megapin single seater took the final step on the podium building on his runs for the following day and was one of few drivers to record times on all runs throughout the weekend. Comfortably taking tin top honours and 4th Overall was Westmeath’s Shane Bell in the Subaru Impreza under 2 tenths behind Brendan, with Gerard O’Connell in the stunning RSR Escort taking 5th getting within a quarter of a second of Bell’s time. Frank Byrnes returned to the hills in his trusty Pilbeam MP45, however patterie surface proved too much for the drivetrain on the Pilbeam with Frank using up his entire supply of spare drive shafts and CV’s across the 2 days. Byrnes was lucky enough to get to the top on run 2 which would be his only time to see the finish line, but his time was still good enough for 6th Overall. Fastest Lady throughout the weekend and scoring another top 10 Overall finish was Catherine Donnelly in her father’s Pilbeam MP62, the car that took FTD last year here. Catherine clearly enjoyed the move up in power and performance from her usual Delta scoring 7th Overall half a second ahead of Chris Nelson in another prototype Speedcar. The First local and rally car honours fell to Gary McEvoy in the Fiesta R5 keeping current Overall Championship leader Russell Stanworth in the Opel Lotus at bay by just 2 tenths of a second for the final spot in the Top 10.
Sunday’s action proved even more exciting, with slightly chillier conditions brought by a strong breeze, the pace warmed up once again with David Kane picking up from where he left off setting times within 1 tenth of a second of his Saturday performance. All was looking safe until Brendan Flynn put his weekends experience all together and setting Fastest time of the day just 9 hundreths ahead of the Silver-Car on the final run of the day. a perfect ond to the weekend for the flying Flynn! John Donnelly re-acquainted himself with his trusty Pilbeam after his daughter had such a fantastic run on Saturday, John decided it was his turn and pressed on to 3rd overall just eeking out Chris Houston’s OMS for 3rd Overall. The pair were only separated by under 2 tenths however Chris had an unfortunate day with a mechanical issue on run 3 and a minor adventure to the first hairpin on Run 4 saw his Run 2 time to be his best of the weekend. Gerard O’Connell found more pace on Sunday rushing ahead of Shane Bell this time by nearly 2 seconds. Chris Nelson and Aaron Beattie looked to have the most fun on the hill at the weekend, double driving the Speedcar GTR with no mercy. The pairing swapped positions several times and at one stage Chris had the car swap ends on the entry to the first hairpin, he was lucky enough to get away unscathe and more importantly remain ahead of his rival with 6th and 7th Overall going to them. Shane Bell once again setting the tin top pace made 8th his own ahead of another local rally driver Mac Walsh in an Escort Mk2. Damien Gallagher was another Donegal driver to make the final entry to the Top 10 in a similar Mk2 Escort.
Dara Fay reigned supreme in usual fashion behind the wheel of his Suzuki Swift breaking into the 49’s on the final runs of the weekend. He maintained his place ahead of Ray Cunningham’s Historic Mini Cooper with Ray setting his fastest times on run 1 both days. 3rd in class went to Wexford’s Elaine Kirwan who in the absence of her usual sparring partner, Patrick Spain was consistently 2 seconds quicker than her Saturday pace and maintained a 4 second back to Jack Mannion in the Toyota Starlet on his first visit to Knockalla.
The White Seicento could not be caught this weekend with Billy and Caoimhe taking 1st in class throughout. Caoimhe’s pace continues to build as she is now claiming 2nd place more frequently and with her progress its only a matter of time before she is challenging her husband for the class lead! Jonny Murray took 3rd on both days putting over half a second between himself and Francis Dempsey’s Cinquecento on Sunday.
Becoming more common to see in class 2 and not just featuring but winning the class is Michael Tumulty in a Peugeot 106 GTI. Michael made a dash on Run 3 to jump ahead of Chris Snow in the Honda Civic who had been leading the class all day but had to settle for second, this however was not the Sunday story with Chris taking the win. Thomas Sheedy took 3rd on both days in his Honda Civic after a battle with Ruth Nugent in her BMW Mini. Ruth, getting more and more comfortable pushing on the hills, found just over 2 seconds on Sunday to place her 2nd in class.
The overall saloon battle is as busy as the battle for Class 3a this weekend with Tommy Gardiner and Brian Kirwan taking a first and second in class each for their efforts equalling their points hall for the class once again. Local rally driver Timothy Duggan in the spritely Seat Ibiza was 3rd on both days ahead of Ger Dwane making a comeback to the hills after a long break from behind the wheel of the famous Falcon Mini.
The unique regs of class 3B prove how so many completely different forms of speed machinery can compete closely against each other. The high powered Subaru Impreza of Shane Bell and RSR space framed Escort of Gerard O’Connell took a win each with Ger finding more and more pace on Sunday familiarising himself with the virtual chicane on his first interaction with it. Ger taking just under 2 seconds out of Shane to end the weekend. The most travelled driver to this event from Clonakilty was Damien Walsh who had a pair of 3rd place trophies to keep smiling about on the journey home after a very close battle with Ulick Burke in a Honda Integra. Willie Barrett made it up to 5th in class both days finding the bumps a bit rough on the radical aero setup of the Civic. Willie kept ahead of the White Escort of Peter McKinley and the White Evo of Ollie Cormican on Sunday.
David Kane in the Savage Silver-Car was taking no prisoners this weekend with his FTD on Saturday, but also the only driver to break a class record which looked extremely unlikely with the addition of the virtual chicane, taking half a second off Ned Doherty’s previous time. Chris Nelson and Aaron Beattie double drove the Speedcar GTR with just under a second separating them in Chris’ favour.
Northern Irish driver Mike Nugent has a tradition of only bringing out concours quality cars to events, this was no exception in Donegal with his Lotus Elan R26. Mike took a win on Saturday ahead of Mick O’Shea in his fresh MG B. Mick really enjoyed his weekend setting one of his fastest times up this hill and progressing in his new build. Mick took the victory on Sunday.
The smaller single seater class saw a welcome shake up in the order for the Donegal event. Keith Scott in an OMS PR took a win and a second place by a quarter of a second both days with Thomas Corey taking the win on Saturday in the Reynard SF80. Johnny Mahon had a troubled weekend with rod ends and drive shafts parting company from his DJ ADS1, however his undeterred perseverance paid off with a 3rd and 2nd respectively. John McNamara was another driver making his return to the Irish Hills this weekend at the wheel of the Kawasaki powered Megapin K improving his times throughout.
Reigning champion Chris Houston made his first appearance this year with the OMS CF08 building his pace with every run took a class win and very nearly an FTD until the final run on Saturday getting too close to the sunset to be completed. Chris’ earlier time was quick enough to win the class ahead of Brendan Flynn’s Megapin. Brendan of course took the class win with his FTD on Sunday finding over 2 seconds. The Pilbeam of Frank Byrnes must have had a chat with Johnny Mahon’s DJ before commencing the weekend with Frank spending a portion of his day too replacing drive shafts. His one and only time on Saturday though was quick enough for 3rd in class. Chris Houston took this position on Sunday only completing one timed run. Catherine Donnelly showed promise and progress in her father’s Pilbeam taking a 4th in class on Saturday over a second ahead of championship leader Russell Stanworth in the Opel Lotus. Russell was promoted to 4th in class on day 2 while the Donnelly Pilbeam got up as far as second in the hands of John. Ben O’Brien roared the Judd powered V8 Gould up through the Knockalla landscape, the perfect soundtrack to any Hillclimb. Ben, like Chris, falling foul of the unfinished run 4 on Saturday which would have seen Ben take 3rd Overall had to settle for one of his earlier times for 6th in class.
Andy Purser was the sole entrant this time with the absence of Seamus Anderson who was away with other racing commitments in the family for the weekend. Andy picked up the pace in his Peugeot 205 on Sunday, finding over 3 seconds on Sunday.
Chris Snow Jnr has a tight dominant hold on his respective class similar to Dara Fay often boasting over a 10% margin back to 2nd place. This was the case for sure in Donegal ahead of Alan Kane’s G4 Escort on his first drive on the Knockalla hillclimb taking 2nd in class both days.
Much like class 3B, the larger Rally car class often tells an unpredictable story with the Mitsubishi Powered Fiesta of Declan Gannon and Porsche 911 of Richard Hall sharing a win and second place for their runs on both days.
A memorable weekend for sure in the sun for the Donegal Motor Club.