Last year’s ANICC Hillclimb Championship was all to play for and the Millers Oils backed series returned in force with just eighteen points splitting the top three overall at the end.
After a shortened season last year due to government restrictions still being imposed, drivers were eager to get stuck into this year’s championship which looked set to be a good one from the onset.
Some fresh faces on the start-line were joined by old faces who, having held onto their machinery, were all welcomed equally to this year’s paddock which made its traditional start in the hills above North Down.
A bright spring morning at the start of April signalled the opening round of this unique championship which is held on closed public roads, as the Thoroughbred Sports Car Club of Northern Ireland’s Croft hillclimb got underway on the outskirts of Holywood, County Down.
With a total of seventy-four starters on the day it was reigning champion, Graham Thompson who got the hole-shot on his first run by setting a blistering time that wouldn’t be matched all day, keeping him as the bookies favourite for yet another title.
Christopher Houston made a return to the series to finish second, ahead of Tim Woodside in third. Ian Lancashire impressed with a top-10 finish in his Subaru Impreza, while Jack Boal was on a mission to bring his GTR Hayabusa into tenth.
A few weeks later, drivers had the chance to climb up the other side of this high ground, but closer to East Belfast, as the Ulster Automobile Club hosted its Craigantlet hillclimb event.
Sharing the paddock with the best cars and drivers that the British Cillclimb Championship offer, it was Tim Woodside to come out top in the local championship with Graham Thompson second and Steven Robb in third.
Ian Lancashire and Paul Montgomery in their Subaru Impreza’s were split by a hard charging Dan Campbell in his Toyota Starlet, despite the challenging conditions. Conor Hamill took maximum points in the road-going category, whilst Jack Boal increased his points haul within the specialist category.
Two weeks later and it was the turn for Newry and District Motor Club to host their Drumhorc hillclimb, held not far from Gilford. Known for attracting a handful of local, fast rally drivers, this hill always proves to be a spectacle.
If there was a Colin McRae type award for the most flamboyant driver in the championship, this is the event to find its winner. With no shortage of rear-wheel-drive tin-tops willing to go up the hill in style, it came as big a surprise to many, to see Tim Woodside in his Pilbeam MP82 enthralling the crowds with his flamboyance.
Finishing the event second overall, Tim tried all he could to catch event winner, Graham Thompson, with John Donnelly rounding off the rostrum. In the road-going saloon category Adrian Mulholland took maximum points from Steven Wishart, with Colin McDowell not far behind in his Morris Mini.
A fortnight later Omagh Motor Club returned to the championship with their Spamount hillclimb, which was won yet again by Graham Thompson. Steven Robb was within touching distance though, having got himself acquainted to his Jedi Mk4, while John Donnelly rounded off the championship contenders with just over half a second between all three.
Oliver Cormican had his strongest finish to date, finishing ahead of all other modified saloon contenders. Pat Roche took top specialist category points and Gerry McGarrity used his local knowledge to claim maximum points in the road-going saloon championship.
The last weekend in June brings Larne Motor Club’s two-day Cairncastle hillclimb which allows not only for two rounds to count towards the championship, but also for drivers to set up camp and enjoy a great social evening between races.
Using the same stretch of picturesque 1.65 mile course on both days, a young Roger Gage appeared in his new Peugeot 205 and set blistering times to mix it up with Davy Francis in his RWD Escort Cosworth as well as Dan and Garry Campbell in there Toyota Starlets.
The King of Cairncastle, Graham Thompson, showed his usual skill and bravery on both days by taking two overall wins. On Friday, John Donnelly got the better of Tim Woodside to round off the rostrum. However, a turn of speed saw this pairing reversed on Saturday’s event.
A little further up the Antrim coast is Garron Point, above which the Mid Antrim Motor Club host they’re annual hillclimb in the middle of August.
Proving why he is nine-time Northern Ireland Hillclimb Champion, Graham Thompson took victory from Ryan McGimpsey by three seconds to claim a record setting TENTH Northern Ireland hillclimb championship.
From his first win in 2009, Graham, from Antrim has won all but three championships since. In 2019 Thompson took his 8th title to match the record of 80’s hillclimb sensation, Richard Parsons, all before setting a new record in 2021 and smashing it again this year.
The humble and quiet engineer, who actually designed and built the GTR Turbo he campaigns from scratch, by himself, has become the G.O.A.T for this sport and I cannot foresee this record ever being beaten.
Back to Garron point though, this commanding win by Thompson does not detract in any way from the drive that Ryan McGimpsey had on the event, as he drove an absolute blinder by keeping John Donnelly at bay.
Young McGimpsey is a future champion and I for sure would love to see him commit to a full season.
Jack Boal increased his lead within the specialist category. Daniel Campbell doing the same in the modified saloon championship, with Conor Hamill adding to his points in the road-going saloon championship.
Next on the calendar was the Maiden City Motor Club’s Eagles Rock hillclimb held on the outskirts of Benone. Scheduled as the penultimate championship event, the cancellation of the final round at Knockagh due to a lack of entries meant that the Maiden City Motor Club had the pleasure of concluding the championship.
John Donnelly took the event win ahead of a brace of tin-tops in the hands of Roger Gage and Daniel Campbell respectively. Steven Robb finished fourth ahead of Paul Montgomery, with Garry Campbell and Ian Lancashire hot on their heels. The top 10 was rounded off Seamus Morris, William Cary and Alan Roddy.
An enormous amount of congratulations must go to Graham Thompson for sealing yet another championship.
Veteran of the sport, John Donnelly finished second overall by keeping himself on the podium most of the year, whilst making sure the young guns were on their toes.
Third overall went to a relative newcomer to open-wheeled racing as Steven Robb, from Nutts Corner scored strong points all season in his single-seater that has been developed by the master that is Thompson. He’s clearly been listening to driving advice, too.
Daniel Campbell took the modified saloon championship in his Toyota Starlet. The Mini man, Colin McDowell took the tightly fought road-going saloon championship, despite a heavy crash mid-season. And in the specialist category it was Jack Boal to come out victorious.
With no shortage of drivers ready and capable of taking the championship in 2023, can Thompson make it legs 11? We’ll have to wait and see.
1 – Graham Thompson
2 – John Donnelly
3 – Steven Robb
Modified Saloon Championship;
1 – Daniel Campbell
2 – Ian Lancashire
3 – Oliver Cormican
Road-going Saloon Championship;
1 – Colin McDowell
2 – Adrian Mulholland
3 – Stephen Wishart
1 – Jack Boal
2 – Pat Roche
3 – Paul Hamill