This post is a long one so I hope you’re comfortable!
After back-to-back weekends of debuting both the Tom Pitcher 1275GT and Richie Redmond’s Cooper S at the Mondello Historic Festival and Oulton Park Gold Cup in August, it’s about time I look back and reflect on all of the highs and lows that the team has been through in what was a manic few weeks and months.
This post will focus on the Mondello Historic Festival with another post to follow on the Oulton Park Gold Cup.
Before I get into all of the nitty gritty, however, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the unbelievable efforts of Mr Paul Hickey of Hickey Race Engineering. Paul and I have been close friends for over 10 years so I know him pretty well at this stage, but his dedication, skill, good nature and ability to stay calm over the busy few weeks was nothing short of heroic.
Paul owns the Tom Pitcher car which we started working on nearly 3 years ago, but it was really only in the summer months this year that the serious work began. Not only did he prepare the car to an incredibly high standard and build a brand new race engine, but he also helped prepare Richie’s Team Eire Cooper S and his brand new race engine…all in his spare time!
I could (and probably should!) write a whole blog post on all that Paul has done for us, but for now, both Richie and I thank him from the bottom of our hearts for it all.
Earlier this year, Richie, Paul and I set ourselves the target of finishing the 1275GT and Cooper S, and debuting them in the Mini race at the Mondello Historic Festival in August. It was ambitious, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Then, just to compound the pressure, we decided to bring both cars to the Oulton Park Gold Cup in England the following weekend! After all, the intention with both cars is to race them in the UK as often as possible.
We’ve built many race Minis in the past and have had our fair share of challenges but, as we discovered, building two separate cars to FIA Appendix K specification is not as simple as it seems. To our knowledge, there are no other Appendix K race cars in the country, never mind Minis, so we were relying on snippets of info from friends in the UK on the best way to spec and set up the cars.
As the Mondello race meeting loomed closer, the pressure was really on and the three of us pulled out all the stops to get the cars ready by taking days off work, working in to the early hours of many a morning in Paul’s workshop, and sacrificing time with our families.
It was extremely tight, but we managed to roll up to Mondello Park with both cars in tow on the morning of Day 1 of the Historic Festival for practice and qualifying.
Practice and Qualifying
Usually, when you arrive at a race meeting, you’re full of a mixture of excitement and nerves. On Saturday at Mondello, however, fear and stress were the predominant feelings among the team! With the exception of a couple of laps on the International loop at Mondello the previous Tuesday, Richie and I didn’t have a clue how the cars would perform.
We both signed on for open testing in the morning and, after some last minute set up and tweaks, turned some laps and got a feel for how they performed. Pleasantly, we found that both cars were working brilliantly straight out of the box and only needed some minor adjustments for qualifying that afternoon.
Qualifying came and Richie, still learning the limits of the Dunlop CR65 tyres, turned plenty of laps and was making improvements every time he crossed the line. I, on the other hand, felt that the GT was slightly down on power and completed only 3 laps before coming in to see what Paul wanted me to do – which was to park up and give the engine a check over.
Fortunately, we were able to identify that the tappets had closed up slightly so it was an easy adjustment to get them right again. The other good news was that we had qualified 3rd on the grid, two-hundreths of a second behind Michael Cullen in his brand new Owens Fabrication built Cooper S, and 5-tenths behind Mini legend, Jonathan Lewis who runs Snetterton Speed Shop.
Unlike Saturday, with its clear skies, Sunday was a very different affair. The skies were dark and cloudy and we knew some showers were inevitable. Something that brightened up the team spirits, however, was a visit from an extra special VIP – Margaret Pitcher, wife of the late Tom Pitcher.
She recalled wonderful memories of Tom’s time racing the car around the UK and Europe with each turning of a page in a photo album filled with spectacular photos, taken by a friend of Tom’s that documented his exploits.
As we headed out for the first of two races, it was spitting with rain and the track was quite damp. The race, it turned out, would be short-lived for me, however, as the the next 6 or so minutes proved to be eventful, to say the least!
My first blunder was not selecting first gear properly on the starting line so, when the lights went out, everyone went past me while I just sat there revving the engine. Not exactly ideal!
During the opening laps, the rain got heavier, but, I managed to get up to 4th place without any drama behind the trio of Michael Cullen in his Cooper S, the freshly built Wolseley Hornet of David O’Neill, driven by legendary racer Steve Griffin, and the Cooper S of Jonathan (Lord) Lewis. Our 13″ Kumho tyres (a used set from Mini rally man, Simon Evans) seemed to have more grip than the 10″ Dunlop CR65 historic racing tyres on the other cars in the worsening conditions, and I managed to sneak past all three cars on lap 4 to take the lead.
This is when the next blunder happened!
I love driving in wet conditions. The car requires so much extra input to keep it on the straight and narrow. It’s what you might call an ‘involved’ experience! So, as the rain came down even harder, I pushed to try and extend my lead. But, the poor visibility at the time meant I couldn’t see the extent of the lead behind me, and it seems I pushed a little too hard!
By lap 5 I had a lead the length of the start/finish straight and approaching turn 1, I locked up under braking and slid straight into the gravel trap where I got beached. What an idiot!
What could have been a glorious debut for the Tom Pitcher car ended in disaster.
Richie, on the other hand, however, managed to bring his Cooper S home in an incredibly impressive 4th position after some brilliant dices with Andrew Blair from up the road in Northern Ireland and fellow Dubliner, David Maguire. A mighty achievement for the car’s first time out!
Because of my DNF in Race 1, I was to start in last place for the second race later in the afternoon. At this stage of the day, the best way of describing the weather is that it was bucketing down! In fact, the rain was so heavy as we sat in the assembly area that we half expected the race to be called off. Alas, the Marshalls deemed the conditions to be safe and we lined up on the grid.
After the blunders in Race 1, I was just telling myself to make sure the car is in gear on the start line, and to keep the car on the black stuff!
As the lights went out, I made a cautious start and at the end of lap 1 found myself in 4th place back behind Griffin in the Hornet, Lewis in the Cooper S and Mini rallying royalty, Ray Cunningham of the Galway Mini Centre, in his Cooper S.
At the end of lap 2, Griffin and Lewis swapped positions with Cunningham disappearing off in the distance – his Avon CR6-ZZ tyres proving to have been the best choice for the tricky conditions.
Approaching turns 3 and 4, I managed to out-drag Lewis and, in what was actually a comedic incident, Lewis came up the inside with two wheels on the grass and absolutely no grip! After I was punted into a spin, which I just about managed to save, he came sliding across the track in front of me and on to the grass on the outside of the corner! The only thing for it was to give him a big goofy wave as I drove past him and into 3rd place.
The remaining laps gave me probably the best and longest dice I’ve had in a Mini.
After the contact with Lewis, I was quickly on the heels of Griffin in the Hornet and set out to try and pass him. Amidst the huge areas of standing water on the track, the GT seemed to have much more grip under brakes and through the corners (in fact, Griffin was only quicker on 3 of the 12 laps), but the Hornet could put the power down much better out of the corners and was pulling away from me every time out of the last turn.
We were side by side through many corners, but, I was being patient I felt that under braking was going to be where I could get past.
At the beginning of lap 6, we both took our usual line into turn 1 – Griffin taking a wide line and cutting in to the apex, me taking a tight line to keep the pressure on – but, just as I changed down a gear and turned in, my front wheels locked up under braking and the car slid straight into rear quarter panel of the Hornet. B****x!
The impact made Griffin slide but I was able to keep going, albeit with my front left wheel now pointing in a slightly different direction. At the end of that lap, Griffin showed his decades of experience with an amazing dive down the inside on the last corner and got back past me.
And that’s how we finished – nose to tail in second and third positions after an intense game of cat and mouse for the remainder of the race. If you had to lose a battle to anyone, who better than Steve Griffin – a true Mini racing legend and a gentleman.
Again, Richie had another super race with some great battles throughout, namely with Michael Cullen and managed to finish 7th in the hazardous conditions.
It was an eventful ending to a trying few weeks, but the effort paid off and we came home with a huge sense of achievement, a trophy, and an appetite to do it all over again at Oulton Park the following weekend!