This seasons ANICC Millers Oils Northern Ireland Hillclimb Championship was quite possibly one of the most hotly contested in recent years and it was Dungiven’s Gerard O’Connell who defied all odds to be crowned king!
We caught up with Gerard a few weeks ago, once the tyre smoke had settled and the engine had finally cooled down, to reflect on what was nothing short of a sensational season for the relative new-comer.
O’Connell has been around the speed event scene for a few years now, and is most known for his exuberant, yet successful antics at the helm of ‘STW’ – his trusty Ford Escort Mark Two – however, with the ongoing development of STW, the decision was made that the car wasn’t just quite right for the hills this season.
Gerard looked around his car collection to see what options sat in front of him, the obvious choice being his Radical SR8, a car which on the sprint events, had been hugely successful – it wasn’t to be though, after a few folks had expressed concern that “it’s not the car for our bumpy roads”.
Feeling they may well have had a point, Gerard decided to don the marshal’s vest at Croft, the opening round of the season and, for round two at Drumhorc, brought an Opel Ascona 400 out to play.
It was short lived though as he had the mother of all crashes – rendering the immaculate Opel not fit for purpose and in need of more than cable ties and t-cut. This unusual off was a major blessing in disguise though, as it meant that the Radical was rolled out to see how it would fair.
Perhaps the most race-track-like event of the 9-round championship, Craigantlet saw the SR8 on the start line of our closed public road event and Gerard soon proved a force to be reckoned with not only clinching a class record and top-10 finish, but by taking the win also, from early championship leader Ricky McGimpsey.
Having just thrown a spanner in the works with regards to how a car that is fine tuned to the race track can win on Northern Ireland’s meandering and undulating roads, it was on to Spamount and Round 4 of the series.
Again, the car behaved impeccably to claim another class record, but it was young McGimspey that was to gather maximum championship points ahead of the two-day Cairncastle event, from which Gerard drove to a brace of podium finishes.
Finishing behind Graham Thompson on both days, Cairncastle isn’t just one of the longest hillclimb events in the UK, but one of the fastest too and only the brave stand out. O’Connell was brave and clawed some very important points off McGimspey who, due to injury after a crash at Kirkistown, wasn’t competing – Gerard in the process added yet another hill record to the list.
Next up, Garron Point and round 7 of the series which was almost a carbon copy of the previous podium, only with McGimspey nipping at the heels of O’Connell yet again as he finished third – what is most noticeable at this point in the season is that Gerard has managed to make the Radical SR8 work, consistently being in the middle of a single-seater sandwich and claimed his fourth class record here.
With the mood being so good in the Dungiven camp, it was off to Gerard’s home event at Eagles Rock, just outside Benone, for the penultimate round of the championship which saw O’Connell take his second outright win, fifth class record, and overtake McGimpsey in the championship race for the first time with a mistake from Ricky, who was in a car with a plethora of gremlins.
All was to play for at Knockagh, the ninth and final round of the 2018 ANICC Millers Oils Northern Ireland Hillclimb Championship and it was an event that was to provide unimaginable drama.
Simply put, pending both Gerard and Ricky finished the event, whoever finished ahead of the other, was to be crowned king of the hills and all eyes were focused on cars #47 and #113 with time sheets being watched closer than the score tally of the recent Ireland Vs New Zealand game.
With both men raring to go, it looked as though Gerard had blown everything when in practice, a half-shaft snapped and left his Radical SR8 stranded mid-run – it was no longer all to play for and all Ricky had to do was being it home.
That’s what we all though anyway, until that was, someone in the paddock suggested to O’Connell that they could take his less than functional lump of metal, get it welded and try to get him back on the start line for a timed run.
Now, we all know that this type of repair is very temporary and in general, never works, however Gerard obliged and having missed the first timed run, was back on the start line for run two, expecting in all honesty the half-shaft repair to fail on leaving the start line.
It didn’t, to the surprise of most, yet the biggest surprise was still to come as when Gerard crossed the finish line, he’d not only bettered McGimpsey’s fastest time, but smashed the outright hill record and set his sixth class record of the year.
It wasn’t over yet, with a final run left to decide the winner and with the pressure on, young McGimspey lost his nerve with a slight off-road excursion, which combined with the fact that Gerard’s repair had failed, leaving him no option but to retire, was enough for O’Connell to walk away as champion.
Winning the championship by just a single point, Gerard also took top honors in the Leaders championship as well as the Class 9 win – a season not to forget, that is for sure!
Gerard commented “The Radical came along to the hills by accident [literally] – I thought I’d try it and give it a go, and surprisingly, it worked well and we won the first event in it, I was well happy with that”.
“I talked to Radical about changing the suspension, but after every event they would ring me having seen the results, and tell me I don’t really need to change much, so we just kept going and it got to the stage of me leading the championship, it was down to the wire”.
Gerard continued “At Knockagh I went off the road on my first practice run and broke a half-shaft, that was it, the championship was over, I just seen everything slipping through my fingers, until someone told me they knew a man with a welder down the road”
“They arrived back about half-three, when the event was nearly over and said to give it a go, I wasn’t sure, but I ended up second overall on that run and was beating Ricky at this point and even broke the Knockagh record”
A smiling O’Connell finished by saying “I was ready to take outright win on the next run, but it wasn’t to be as the half-shaft broke again on the start-line, I’d done enough to win the championship though, it’s incredible and I hope to be back on the hills next year in the Radical to defend my title”.
Ricky McGimspey told us at the end of the season “I was a bit gutted to be honest, not so much because Gerard beat me, more to do with the fact my season fell apart due to various reasons – between a bad crash at Kirkistown which sidelined me from Cairncastle’s double header, I struggled with mechanical woes on the car the rest of the season”.
McGimpsey continued “At Knockagh, I had a chest infection which meant I was useless and couldn’t drive a nail with a hammer – Gerard had a great year and hustled his big car very well, he never gave up, this saw him good at the end of the year, a well-deserved champion”.
With a few months of rest and rebuilding ahead, can we see O’Connell and McGimpsey bring the series to the wire again in 2019 – let’s hope so, along with a few others who are never far away on the time-sheets?
Words & Photos: GRAHAM BAALHAM-CURRY
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