Christie and McDonald star at epic European!
There are not many drivers who have held the World, National and European championship titles all at the same time, but John Christie joined that elite group when he annexed pole for Saturday’s Euro title decider and took the win after a race-long battle with Rob McDonald. On Sunday, McDonald was able to turn the tables and was rewarded with the Scottish Open title as well as the Malcolm Chesher Memorial trophy.
Could this have been the Hot Rod meeting of the decade? I suppose it’s a bit soon to say only four years into it, but you get the general idea!
It certainly started off with the good basis of another excellent and cosmopolitan 30-car (three more than last year) entry having been attracted by HRP for this, the second running of this event at the superbly appointed Lochgelly track, with most points of the National Hot Rod compass represented. In no special order Jason Kew, Chris Haird, Kym Weaver, Danny Fiske, Carl Waller-Barrett, Shaun Taylor, Dick Hillard, Mikey Godfrey (amazingly having his first outing North o’ the border), Billy Wood and Stuart McLaird lined up for the English, while the Ulstermen comprised World and National champion John Christie, Glenn Bell, Mark Heatrick, Adam and Tommy Maxwell, Derek Martin, and Andrew Murray. With no representation at all from ROI last year, it was good to see Tom and David Casey joined by Les Compelli this time, while flying the saltire for the local fans were Rob McDonald, John Sibbald, Billy Bonnar, Ian Donaldson, Paul Yule, Jim Cowie, Graeme McWilliam, Chas Bains and Ian McGuigan. Plus we had one very welcome continental visitor, Winnie Holtmanns having once again made the long haul to represent Germany.
Many of the cars practiced in less than ideal (foggy) conditions on Friday, during which Adam Maxwell unfortunately blew his engine. This saw Tommy sportingly give up his drive on the Saturday in order to make his car available to Adam. Mind you, as Tommy was actually due to be driving brother Terry’s Tigra A, it was in fact Terry’s car which ended up with the #76 on the side of it! Confused yet? Never mind: suffice to say Adam raced it on Saturday and handed it back to Tommy for Sunday.
Three split heats (the cars starting in two groups) were the order of the day for Saturday and one thing which became immediately apparent was that the ‘weeper’ which last year had been continuously leeching water out of the back straight race-view car parking and onto the track at the exit from turn two, was still there! It didn’t seem to be quite as bad however, and had very little effect on the racing so far as I could tell.
Two people who made a less-than-great start to the meeting were Bonnar, who didn’t even get away for the warm up laps when a half shaft broke, and Bell, who pulled after the warm ups with a similar problem which had also seen off his diff. It was to be something of a recurring theme for the night….
With the green flag out, Donaldson (possibly caught out by a misfire) and Bain went synchronised spinning at turn one, lap one. Mark Heatrick (in his Merc) grabbed an immediate lead but already under massive pressure from a very eager looking Kew. He all but got through down the back straight and then dived under Heatrick into turn one, Mark having to give best to Waller-Barrett as well at the other end half a lap later.
Kewy could probably see the 162 car was now up to second and never slackened the pace one iota…until he was forced to by backmarkers, that was. Unsurprisingly, a lap-down Godfrey proved an easy pass but there was more traffic coming and now Waller-Barrett turned up the wick to close in fast. The leader had no choice but to hurl himself into the lapped cars, now with Waller-Barrett right on his bumper. There was one point where Jason had to make three wide to get through, and probably thought it was the winning move (I certainly did) until Carl chased him right through it by going between two cars in another three wide moment at turn three where there simply wasn’t any room. I swear that 162 car actually breathed in! Back on open road for a time, Kew opened up a small lead, but maybe Waller-Barrett was just gathering himself for one final attack.
Meanwhile, if anybody had time to tear their eyes away from that tussle for the lead, they should really have been watching Rob McDonald. Coming from grid 15 (right in the heart of the second group) he had simply annihilated all opposition as he charged towards the front. With three laps to go he was through to fourth behind David Casey and went outside him in confident manner too. But now Waller-Barrett was coming right back at Kew for the lead, the pair virtually glued together as they passed the last lap board and all the way through the final tour. It was still 174 from 162 at the flag, with Heatrick not too far back in third, about half a lap clear of Casey who just and only just held off McDonald at the line. Chris Haird’s sixth spot (also from the back group) was none-too-shabby either.
Heat two also featured a couple of notable non-starters unfortunately, with Bell still unable to get his car repaired from its awkwardly broken half shaft, and Fiske being forced to pull off before the start with a gearbox full of neutrals, having already had to deal with the sheared drive shaft/smashed diff problem earlier!
The race kicked off with Billy Wood dicing with Andy Murray (tipped as the form man in NI just now) for the lead as Graeme McWilliam went spinning at turn one and Bain pulled off. But they weren’t going much further before the first yellow flag of the day flew when Tom Casey and Adam Maxwell collided at the exit from turn two.
Hostilities resumed for around another three laps before a hairy back straight moment brought about another caution. Weaver had clawed his way past Waller-Barrett down the outside and was trying to do the same to Christie when he got a touch from someone that turned him sharp right and onto the apron. Luckily Kym didn’t hit anything but the steward understandably must have thought it a distinct possibility.
Wood and Murray got back to their hard fight for the lead as soon as the green was shown again, the pair steadily pulling clear of another enthralling battle for third between Stu McLaird, Hillard and Christie. McLaird vanished from the places leaving Hillard and Christie to square up to Waller-Barrett instead, while Murray hauled himself alongside the leader after several ‘looks’ out there previously. The Ulsterman was right alongside in turn one and finally went ahead as they left turn four. Christie was also working the outside line though and managed to put Hillard behind him at turn three, giving Dick the task of trying to stave off a combined assault from Waller-Barrett and Kew, the latter having come through from the very back row.
With the laps dwindling now, Christie swooped in on Wood and drove underneath him exiting turn four, John setting off after Murray next. But, although he was slowly closing the gap, he was definitely running out of time with less than four to go now. Murray was therefore the winner with still quite a healthy gap back to Christie (his second spot to prove crucial though, when it came to determining pole for the final), Wood, Hillard, Waller-Barrett, Kew, and the impressive Derek Martin.
Fellow NI racers Maxwell and Martin headed heat three away, with McDonald, John Sibbald and Christie right behind and teeing up what was already looking like another classic race. But before they could really get down to brass tacks Bonnar and Haird got together along the home straight, Bonnar ending up in the wall with Haird stopped on the infield, but yellow flags were definitely necessary for where Bonnar was parked. Crucially though, McDonald had just managed to seize the lead from Maxwell seconds before the caution came down.
At the restart, McDonald headed an all-Ulster scrap between Maxwell, Martin and Christie with Martin slipping into second down the inside into turn one. Christie also quickly relegated Maxwell and then blitzed past Martin (who wasn’t exactly hanging about anyway) to begin working on the big gap between himself and the leader. The only problem was, the gap wasn’t coming down, underlining just how quick McDonald was going. If that visit to a domestic Scots qualifier at Lochgelly last month was in the nature of a test for Rob, it was certainly paying dividends.
Back in the pack the man to watch here was Fiske, who was up to fourth behind Martin when the first of the lap boards appeared at the start/finish. But up front, McDonald actually began to put more daylight between himself and the World champion, Rob accepting the flag some quarter of a lap to the good, while Christie had the same sort of advantage over Martin, Fiske and Sibbald.
Christie’s second spot had definitely set the seal on pole, although when Carole Longhurst had finished her grid computations (and I found myself wondering quite when was the last time she personally actually had to use a Longhurst points chart!) it was no surprise to find McDonald would start right alongside.
Given the pace of the front runners throughout the heats, there was no doubting that front row had set up what was likely to be a good race. What nobody could have predicted was an amazing dice for the lead almost from green flag to chequers.
One prediction which did seem fairly safe, was that we were going to get a new champion, with Haird looking to have just too much to do from back there, and not showing the sort of speed he’d demonstrated last year.
It was McDonald who got the jump at the green flag and, despite Christie immediately fighting back, you could almost see the determination oozing out of the 117 car as Rob refused to back down and found himself able to run outside and neck and neck with the world champion for three laps in a row. Christie finally edged ahead going down the back stretch but from that point on there was never more than a few feet between them at most. And it isn’t like they were dicing in a vacuum either, as Kew was stuck to them like a leech.
The trio gradually eked out the smallest of gaps over the Martin-Murray duel for fourth until the backmarking Paul Yule unwittingly briefly obstructed McDonald going down the home straight and they touched. It was nothing more than a bit of a rub really, but it was enough to let Christie finally gain a bit of breathing space. McDonald still had his hands more than full with Kew’s pressure, at least until Jason also clipped a backmarker (McWilliam) and gave Rob a breathing space of his own.
And what McDonald did with that space, was to get his head down and start catching Christie again! With Kewy eventually well and truly dropped, McDonald closed back in on the leader just when Christie could have done without it, with traffic looming up ahead. They went through it together and were still hard at it when they hit open road again, so evenly matched it was obvious the slightest mistake by either man was probably going to win it for the other.
Theirs was not the only race going on, mark you. Kew was still running in a now fairly lonely third about a quarter of a lap back, himself well clear of Martin, who’d resolved the fourth place battle in his favour. That had left David Casey to dice with Murray, Waller-Barrett and Fiske, a race entirely worth watching in its own right – if anyone had time…
Up front, the lead pair were still only separated by the proverbial fag paper when they took the five lap board. Then Fiske was out, having smacked the wall and wrecked his axle. McDonald piled the pressure on harder and harder, four to go, three, two…Rob had in fact nearly managed a pass earlier in the race by dint of sweeping out to the barriers and then cutting back down to the inside, and obviously decided it was now time for another such s*** or bust move. But the Scot tried just too hard to gain that edge and slapped the pit gate coming to start the last lap. The impact (even on video) looked like the merest touch, but Rob told me later he’d caught the left rear wheel so hard it had actually stopped the motor for a moment or two. It did a load of other damage too, including a flat which put him out almost literally in sight of the flag, a sad end to truly great drive.
That left Christie to a magnificent win (never let it be said he can’t stand a bit of pressure!) by about a quarter of a lap over Jason ‘Bridesmaid’ Kew, with Murray well back in third and by flagfall another quarter of a lap up on Casey, Waller-Barrett, Heatrick, Haird and Martin, who would have finished a lot higher but for some argy-bargy heading into turn one on the final lap.
Fortunately, the weather forecasters’ dire predictions for rain all day Sunday, varying only between ‘normal’ and ‘torrential’, turned out to be complete rubbish, and we even had some watery sunshine prior to start-time.
After his miserable evening the night before, Donaldson had switched to his other car (which I have to say is a great deal easier on the eye than the garish green one!) and Tommy Maxwell had re-claimed the family Tigra.
An Incarace draw (never been a fan and never will be – it just looks so unprofessional to casual observers) determined the heat one grid and planted Murray on pole which, given the way he’d been going the night before, looked like that was game over right there as far as the win was concerned. It just wasn’t going to be that easy though!
Murray certainly took off like a shot and quickly built himself a nice healthy lead. But McDonald had started at the rear of the front group and made an electric start, spurring Bell past Wood before taking Bell himself on lap two to set off after the leader. Down and down came the gap and, once again, we had that exciting situation of the pursuer catching the pursued just as he had to deal with some traffic.
Murray couldn’t afford to muck about with the backmarkers and squeezed past Fiske in a dicey manner; McDonald was still there. Then Murray had to put a pass on Jim Cowie, who I’m not convinced even knew he was there. They touched and Andy had to gather up a near spin but still his lead survived with McDonald all over him like the proverbial rash as they charged down the outside of another knot of backmarkers with McDonald still hassling for a gap, any gap.
The pair lapped Godfrey, then Bonnar and then hit clear road again with four to go. Two laps later they encountered more backmarkers but still Murray proved equal to the pressure and zoomed under the chequered flag still only inches ahead of McDonald. Bell got in third over a quarter of a lap back, Glenn in turn having a half lap buffer back to Hillard.
The second heat kicked off with a side by side shoot-out between Christie and David Casey, with Christie emerging as leader a couple of laps before big trouble broke out. McWilliam half spun at turn one and got collected by Kew, the crippled 174 car immediately pouring smoke as it lurched onto the infield instants before Tom Casey, Yule and Compelli all collided in the aftermath. Not surprisingly, this lot got the yellow flags an airing. And, while they were out, Murray was forced to retire with his brakes seized on, a retirement which obviously cost him a much better grid position in the final analysis and, with that, quite possibly the championship too.
The restart saw Christie leading David Casey, Bonnar, Fiske, Taylor and McDonald – and everybody had their eye on McDonald. He immediately passed Taylor to challenge Fiske, who seemed to just let him by, Danny probably well aware that his compromised gear ratios weren’t going to let him do more than delay the inevitable.
Bonnar was McDonald’s next victim after a few more tours, Rob attacking Casey’s second place as they reached the finish, Christie having done just enough to stay clear of them all throughout.
The final looked like it was only ever going to be about McDonald (who unsurprisingly had pole) and Christie, and the rail birds were all licking their lips in anticipation. But in fact, this turned out to be about the one race of the whole weekend that wasn’t a flag-to-flag nail-biter. McDonald left like greased lightning at the green, while Casey dived under Christie from the outside of row two as they exited turn one at the end of the opening lap.
For whatever reason, Christie didn’t seem to have anything much for Casey by this stage and actually fell back to duel with Bell, although both men eventually fell victim to the charging Murray. His fight to then try and pass Casey kept the interest alive right to the death, despite McDonald cruising home to a popular victory, with absolutely nobody denying that Rob totally deserved his Scottish Open title and the Malky Chesher Memorial that went with it.
I feel I should just mention that having the 2.0 Hot Rods there (and there in such numbers) certainly didn’t detract from the meeting either, and the sooner we see Adam Hylands (the new European champ) and Paul Wright (runner up) both in a National, the happier I’ll be! Not that I left for the airport Sunday evening anything less than happy anyway, you understand….
Heat one: 174,162,960,261,117,115,152,31,305,467,629,77,308,10,27,700. NOF
Heat two: 997,962,305,31,162,20,467,344,10. NOF
Heat three: 117,962,20,304,629,261,997,960,27,77,152,308,33. NOF
European Championship Final: 962,174,997,261,162,960,629,115,20,209,152,844,77,27,33. NOF
Heat one: 997,117,9,31,700,(209),115,174,467,629,962,
Heat two: 962,261,117,304,629,115,305,9,700,369,31,467,152,27,33,344,308. NOF
Scottish Open Championship Final & Malcolm Chesher Memorial:
209 disqualified from heat one on Sunday for contact with 700 and 305.
(Please note that there is the odd discrepancy between the results I obtained at the time and those published on MyLaps. There were some transponder issues during the weekend, but none of the major places are affected. And as always…..)
Note that all results & penalties are subject to official confirmation.