This weekend I got behind the wheel of a proper, fully fledged piece of racing machinery for the 1st time in almost 25 years. When I was a kid I used to race Cadet karts back in the UK, I started at 8 and my fledgling motorsport career ended a mere 2 years later at the ripe old age of 10! Since then I've done the occasional sprint and Hillclimb and a race or two, all in modified road cars.
This weekend I wasn't driving a go-kart or a suped up road car, I was driving a Formula Sheane single-seater racing car in their one-make championship, which MicksGarage.com
are sponsoring this year. Formula Sheane's are designed and manufactured in Ireland by Sheane Engineering
and to the unfamiliar, they look a bit like a miniature F1 car.
A combination of nerves and excitement woke me up at 5am on Saturday morning and I arrived at Mondello Park
with plenty of time to kill before qualifying. The cars were in the pit garages with their bodywork off being checked by the scrutineers.
At 11.30am the weather was a clammy 24 degrees and it was about to get a whole lot more clammy as I got kitted out in my fire proof suit, balaclava and helmet and strapped into the claustrophobic cockpit of the car for the first time. I fired up the engine and made my way to the holding area. We were held for what seemed like an eternity as the heat from the engine and the midday sun soaked into me. By this stage I was incredibly nervous and I think if someone had told me the whole thing was cancelled i'd have breathed a happy sigh of relief! But that wasn't to be, the signal was given, engines burst into life again and we trundled down pitlane in single file. As we merged out onto the circuit I was immediately given a wake up call by Jennifer Mullan who was clearly on it from the word go and blasted past me within half a second of leaving the pits!
As soon as I got out on track the nerves were gone, replaced by pure adrenalin! I did a couple of laps and started get a feel for the brakes, the levels of grip available from the sticky Avon tyres and figured out what gear I should be in for each corner. Unfortunately on lap 3 or 4, just as I was getting the confidence to push a bit harder the car completely cut out and wouldn't start again. I pulled off the track and onto the grass and was greeted by a bunch of friendly marshals (thanks for the tow lads)
So that was it, qualifying over! It turns out that the battery isolator switch (essentially the key) which is located behind the drivers right shoulder had fallen out, so all we had to do to get it running again was put the switch back in and turn it on!
The qualifying results came as no surprise but to be 6 seconds off the pace of the leaders was a bit of an eye-opener. However, I reckoned I could make a relatively easy 2-3 seconds up on my qualifying time so I wasn't too disheartened.
I was only competing in Sunday's race, so for me, that was the end of the day's action. For the rest of the field it was a different story, race 1 was later that day.
On Sunday our race wasn't until 2.50pm so a more leisurely start to the day was possible - 6am this time, thanks kids! There was a big change in the weather, it was drizzling rain but still very warm and there wasn't a breath of wind. I was praying for sunshine as a damp, greasy track would be the worst possible conditions for the race.
I arrived at Mondello at 10.30am and the nerves had well and truly started again! Come 2pm I was a nervous wreck, thankfully our race was called a bit early. I quickly got suited up, jumped into the car and headed over to the assembly area. The wait wasn't so long this time and we were released down pitlane and onto the track for the warm-up lap.
I concentrated on trying to get some heat into the brakes and rolled up to my grid slot in 2nd gear on the advice of my team mate Robbie Allen (these cars get off the line quicker in 2nd gear because 1st gear is too short) The 5 second board was held high, the revs rose, the lights on the bridge went out and I dumped the clutch at about 5,000rpm, the start was ok but i grabbed 5th instead of 3rd and the engine bogged down. At the back of the field we all arrived at the first corner quite slowly and with hindsight it would have been the easiest opportunity to make up a place or 2. I played safe and held my position for 4 or 5 laps. Every lap I was gaining confidence in the car and while they don't have a lot of power (140bhp ish) they handle extremely well and are very predictable on the limit. The heat and the effort required to drive the car quickly was intense and my visor was starting to steam up!
After a while I think it dawned on me that this was actually a race and I was supposed to at least make an effort to pass the car in front. The braking zone into the Ford hairpin looked like the best opportunity, the 100 metre board flashed by, I moved to the inside and stood on the brakes, we were side by side into turn 1 but I had the inside line and the move stuck! WooHoo! What a great feeling! A couple of laps later I'd caught the next car and tried a lunge down the inside at Dunlop corner but had the door firmly closed on me, I lost a bit of ground but a lap later was right on his gearbox again. Down the straight we were nose to tail, I was going to try the same move at the hairpin if there was a gap.......there was, but not as much of one as last time! With 2 wheels over the white line, dust flying and heading towards the gravel on the inside of the bend we drew alongside, thankfully I was given just enough room, I had the inside line and got the place.
The next car was miles ahead and out of sight but the action kept coming thick and fast as people spun and crashed in front of me, in-fact my next encounter with Jennifer Mullan was another close one as she had an incident at the chicane and was broad-side across the track. Without a car in front to chase, my concentration was fading fast and needless to say I was re-passed by Jennifer within a couple of corners! Up front the action was clearly getting frantic as broken nose cones and bits of bodywork littered the track.
The 15 minute race seemed to be taking a lifetime and inside the car I was struggling, the heat was unreal and the physical effort to keep going quickly was amazing (hardly surprising from someone whose idea of exercise is a 2 minute stroll to Tesco to pick up chocolate croissants)
But it was the car that eventually gave up before I did and with 2 minutes of the race remaining something electrical failed and the engine died.
I struggled out of the car with all the strength of a new born kitten, shaking, sweating like a lunatic, exhausted but extremely happy!
Would I do it again? hell yeah! Time to get off the croissant diet and into the gym!
Looking at the times above, there's still a massive gulf between myself and the people up at the pointy end but I learned huge amount and now have a good idea where I should be shaving more time off, plus I managed to go a good 3 seconds quicker than my qualifying time so all in all I was pretty happy!
Big thanks go to: Robbie and David Parks, Robbie Allen, Kevin Sheane, Gilbert Clancy, Aidan Byrne, Paddy Cahill, Jennifer Mullan and Barry Rabbit for making me feel welcome and showing me the ropes!