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Serving the Homeland

Upon winning the 2007 “Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year” Award (That’s a mouthful!), I traveled to Sydney, Australia in February 08 to take part in the Friday practice sessions as Rookie Driver for A1 Team Ireland. The team had been out there for a month already when the Australia round came around, as they raced in New Zealand a few weeks prior. I met the team out there, which was my first time meeting most of the guys. I felt right at home from the start, I knew Mark Gallagher and Adam Carroll from before, and I had worked closely with Sophie Ogg, then team Ireland PR representative, when  I was in Formula BMW UK. When Friday came around, I woke to find the heavens had opened, and it soon became evident that I would be sampling 500bhp with no traction control for the first time in wet and slippy conditions! To make matters worse, Adam and Danny Watts (then A1GP test driver) played a prank on me early Friday morning. Danny had been testing that morning in the A1GP test car, and Adam suggested we go and talk to Danny so I could get some pointers. Danny told me it was absolutely lethal out there and it was “scary” driving the A1 car in those conditions. Needless to say I was very nervous getting into the car! Funny looking back now, I was already nervous enough being in control of the teams only chassis for the first time on a race weekend!

Leading Team Malaysia's Fairuz Fauzy in the rain at Eastern Creek, AUS

On each initial run I was required to do a radio check, speaking along each straight and calling out the corner numbers as I pass them, to get a read on where the radio communication to pit is clearest. That first radio check became a point of humour for the team for many months. On leaving the pitlane, I disengaged the pitlane speed limiter while on full power, which unleashed 500 bhp in 1st gear on the cold rear wets, and it was like all hell had broken loose. My heart rate went through the roof, and you could hear it in my voice for the radio checks. My voice suddenly turned high pitched and I was shouting down the radio! Looking back  it is funny, but I can tell you if you ever have to make a jump from a 140bhp BMW to a 500bhp monster, try to do it in the dry! I gained my composure quickly, and put in a solid session, getting to grips with the car to set a solid mid-grid pace. We had problems with the car all weekend, and required a tub change on Friday night due to a crack. Ultimately it was an unsuccessful weekend for Team Ireland, finishing outside the top ten.

The Team Ireland mechanics working hard during the Rookie Session. Durban, South Africa

After that first test with the team I returned home to Ireland and waited to see if I would be called back. I am told there was competition for the seat, but to my delight I was called back for the South Africa round in Durban. This was a street circuit, and I was under strict instructions to keep the car in one piece. I spent the session bedding in brakes and doing evaluations on different setups, but never went close enough to the limit to put the car in danger. It was a good thing too, as my then team-mate, Team Canadas Daniel Morad put the car in the wall, which, as a Rookie you never want to do. (Team Ireland and Team Canada shared engineering teams in season 3). To my delight, the then team owner Mark  Kershaw told me I would be retained as the rookie for the rest of the season. At that point it was based solely on my ability to follow orders and I was very keen to repay their faith by showing them my speed.

Getting air in the chicane at Durban, RSA. It was this chicane that Bruno Junqueira hit the wall in that very session. A daunting street circuit with no room for error.

Next up was Mexico City. Up to this point Ireland had been struggling somewhat. Carroll came into the team at the start of the season, and instantly lifted the team to within a fighting chance of podiums, but for various reasons there was no win yet, and New Zealand to Durban were all disappointing results. In Mexico, I was given a little bit more of a free reign to push the car on, and I felt a lot more comfortable. We hit the ground with a good car that weekend, and to everyones surprise I put the car on pole in rookie session 1, remembering this was my third one hour session in the car. Even I was shocked, but I was comfortable at the limit, and the car felt great. Ultimately I was pipped to overall pole by sometime GP2 driver Davide Rigon in session 2, but a P1 and P2 in the two 30-min sessions left me ecstatic. It boosted morale in the team too, with everyone feeling reservedly confident about the weekend ahead, eager to see if the rookie pace was true to the whole grid. It was. It was an excellent weekend and Carroll went on to win Team Irelands first race, and on St. Patricks Day. I am proud to say I had a part to play in that first win for Team Ireland.

Discussing an almost perfect session with team principal Mark Gallagher at Mexico City, Mexico. (Mark Gallagher now heads up Cosworth's F1 operations)

From that point on it was like a transformation for me. I could jump in the car and instantly be at the front, and I was P4 in Shanghai, China and P5 in Brands Hatch, UK. The Brands Hatch session is to this day one of the greatest  experiences I have had in a race car. The GP circuit at Brands Hatch for those of you who don’t know, is awesome. And in a 550bhp A1GP car, which likes to go sideways, a lot, it’s a hair raising experience. Again, I spent a lot of the session bedding in brakes and doing preliminary setup work. With 2 minutes to go I was in the garage and the engineer came on the radio and said, you have time to come around and do one hot lap, were sending you. I got around to start my hot lap with seconds to spare, and posted three green sectors, one of which was purple. (Green is personal best, Purple is overall best). The engineers were impressed with my ability to put together an almost perfect lap on demand, and I think it was a major factor in the teams decision to retain me for the next season, through an ownership change.

All of A1 Team Ireland during a sponsor photo shoot for HINO trucks. L-R Eoin Kelly, Dan Walmsley (Engineer), Stephen Kelly (Fuel &Tyres), Dave O'Neill (Team Manager, currently TM at Virgin F1), me, Adam Carroll, Rob Jones (Front end mech, now at Virgin), Andy Reedie (rear end mech, also now at Virgin), Stewart Cox (Chief mech), Charlie Haggstam (rear end mech, also at Virgin), Simon Dei Rossi (Tyres) and Nathan Colombi (front end mech, also now at Virgin F1)

That first A1GP season was very enjoyable. I learned a lot from the engineering team, and of course from Adam. He is immensely talented and to be able to compare data and get advice from him is probably the most valuable thing to come out of A1GP for me. It was very difficult at that time to directly compare times with Adam, as the track changed a lot from 9am to 3pm, and with new tyres on in the free practice two times plummeted, but the position I ended up on the rookie sessions at events I was allowed to push, was always in the same area of the grid to where he ended up in FP2. That I could take away with me, and I was confident I was getting the most out of the car. The whole experience was something I will never forget, the A1 Team Ireland boys are the greatest bunch of lads you could ever hope to work with, and travelling the world with them as a team was a lot of fun. I wont go into the details here, but lets say they play just as hard as they work when it comes to the race afterparties!

Next up, is season four of A1GP, where we had a new car. The 600bhp Ferrari A1GP car. Until then, again, thanks for reading and I hope you found it interesting.

2008. A little bit of everything

‘08 was a busy year for me, and I jumped in and out of a lot of different cars throughout the year. Im going to break this blog post down. I will cover Formula Three and Formula Palmer Audi here, and I will give my take on my time in A1GP its own post.

’08 started with my Formula Three debut in the Asian Formula Three Pacific series. I flew to the Philippines for a double header race weekend at the Batangas circuit, where I drove an Aran Racing Dallara F304 powered by TOM’S Toyota (Aran racing was owned and run by ex-A1 Team Ireland driver John O’Hara). It was a step up from the Formula BMW I was used to, and I needed to bridge the gap between the 140bhp FBMW car and the 550bhp A1GP car! The Asian F3 weekend went very well, and I got up to speed quickly with no previous testing. I came out of the weekend with two second places and a fastest lap. It was a competitive field, with 2008 German F3 Champion Frederik Vervisch, Rafael Suzuki, Hamad Al Fardan and Matt Howson in the field. I was surprised by my pace out of the box in F3, but the car suited me very well.

Taking lots of kerb in the chicane! Batangas,Philippines. Asian F3 Aran Racing Dallara- TOMS

After the Asian F3 performance, I was approached by Van Amersfoort Racing, the Volkswagen team in German F3. They were looking for a driver to fill their #1 car driven to the championship by Carlo Van Dam in ’07. I completed four tests with the team, culminating in me being P1 in the final series test the week before the first race of the season. I paced the field one week before the opening race, beating Sebastian Saavedra (IndyCar driver), Philipp Eng (Formula Two race winner), Frederik Vervisch (German F3 Champion), Johnny Cecotto (GP2 driver) etc, but unfortunately I did not get the drive for the season for reasons I can only explain as being political, and a female driver was awarded the seat. It was disappointing, but I got my chance later in the year when I replaced her for the Oschersleben season finale.

(#58) British F3 always provided great racing. Oulton Park, 2008. Team Loctite Dallara-Mugen

A week before the start of the British Formula Three season opener at Oulton Park, I got a call from Team Loctite. They were running their Dallara-Mugen Honda in National Class, had some sponsorship and needed a driver. A few days later, I was in the car with no testing in one of the most competitive F3 championships on the world. It was a struggle to begin with, with wet testing leaving us with no dry setup for qualifying. We got on our feet quickly however, and I came out of the weekend with a fourth and a third, and I was delighted to get a podium on my first weekend. In National Class that season were Andrew Meyrick (ALMS and LMS prototype driver), Stefan Wilson (Indy Lights driver), Jay Bridger (2008 British F3 National Class Champion) and it was always a good fight. We had some more good results, but as the season progressed it became evident that the team did not have the necessary budget required to run the car, and I moved on to make way for a driver with budget.

On the British F3 National Podium, Salman Al Khalifa, Andrew Meyrick and myself. Oulton Park

September came, and I got a call from Van Amersfoort racing, informing be that the driver of the #1 car had been under-performing, and they wanted me in the car for the season finale in Oschersleben. I happily travelled to Germany and jumped in the car. Initially it looked like we were going to have a great weekend, and I was P2 and P1 in the two free practice sessions on Friday, outpacing my teammate Laurens Vanthoor, Sebastian Saavedra, Johnny Cecotto, Philipp Eng etc. We had technical issues with the car in qualifying, and the car stopped in both sessions. After a long night, the problem was traced to a fuel pump issue, and I had two long, hard races ahead of me. I finished both races in 7th position, not where I wanted to be, and it was yet another “what could have been”.

In the beautiful #1 van Amersfoort Racing Dallara-VolksWagen. German F3, Oschersleben

So my F3 career was short but sweet. I competed in a handful of races in the most difficult of conditions, and came away with three podiums and a fastest lap, and a lot more confidence. Less than a week after my appearance in German F3, I was back in a wet Brands Hatch starting the Formula Palmer Audi Autumn Trophy. I was placed in the FPA Autumn Trophy by A1 Team Ireland simply as an exercise to gain experience in a car more powerful than Formula Three, and also gain experience racing with the push-to-pass system. The racing was excellent, with three races a weekend and it was action packed. I came out of Brands Hatch having finished third, fourth and sixth in the three races, but I was unhappy with the car which had a twist in the chassis. I was given a replacement car for the following weekend at Snetterton.

(#11) Leading Bradshaw (#43), Palmer (#3) and the rest of the FPA pack into turn one at a wet Snetteron, UK

It showed. I was much happier with the car, and I won two races and finished third in the other. It was a big ask for me to overhaul Tom Bradshaw in the championship after my mediocre first weekend, but with a win from 2nd on the grid in race one, and third in race two, I took it down to the wire. It was wet, and I was starting in sixth. Bradshaw was starting third, and I had to beat him to win the championship. I got a great start, and moved to 5th in turn one, and made my move around the outside of turn two, getting on the power boost early onto the long back straight, and I entered the esses in 2nd position. I passed Jolyon Palmer (2010 Formula 2 Championship runner-up) for the lead at the start of lap two around the outside of turn 1, and I led to the finish. It was the perfect race, and I had just won my first open-wheel championship, jumping into an unfamiliar machine against regulars in their second season in the car. What was also very satisfying though, was that the British driver with the best two race scores from the Snetterton weekend became the sixth driver to be evaluated for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award. Not being British, I was not eligible, but it was satisfying to leave there with a perfect score with two wins, albeit disappointing I would not be driving a DTM car the following week!

Spraying the champagne on the Championship podium. Tom Bradshaw, 2nd (left) and Jolyon Palmer, 3rd (right)

So there is my non-A1GP activities in 2008. Not exactly a stable season, but I did get to sample many different cars, and had some successes. When you consider I was travelling the world driving the Friday practice sessions in A1GP at the same time, it was very busy! I matured a lot as a driver in that season, and showed that I can drive many different types of car, and be at the front immediately. Next, I will blog about my experiences in A1GP.

Discussing our qualifying problems with Rik Vernooij. Rik is an excellent engineer who has engineered that car to many successes. German F3, Oschersleben, DE.

Thanks for reading.

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2007. Europe-bound

For 2007, I re-signed with Holzer Rennsport for Formula BMW, this time to compete in the more competitive Formula BMW ADAC series, which was a pan-European series at that point. It was a tough decision to make, but ultimately I wanted to be in the most competitive environment that I could be. I was beginning to see a lack of interest in the UK series from the point of view of teams up the ladder. Budget was an issue from the beginning, and I went into the season with no testing. I had a good handle on the car though, and I was confident.

At the wheel of the #14 Holzer Rennsport car, Lauzitsring

It started well, and the first round in Oschersleben, Germany was a great race. I qualified 5th, and made a very good start. I managed to dodge some of the mayhem in turn one as two drivers came together. I emerged from turn one in 2nd and set about chasing down Philipp Eng. I closed in, but couldn’t overhaul him, and in the last 5 laps had a very exciting race with 3rd placed Marco Wittmann, eventually beating him to 2nd place. A podium in round one, I couldn’t have asked for more.

On the podium, Oschersleben. Photo by Xpb.cc

I was a consistent frontrunner from that point on, and my only restricting factor was my lack of knowledge of the circuits. This showed in my weekend pace, I would normally struggle a little until qualifying, and would end up on average 6th-8th on the grid. By race two on Sunday I was always in the thick of the lead fight, just a little too late!

My car in the awning after the Norisring podium.

I had another podium on the third weekend at the Norisring street circuit in Nurnberg, finishing third in race one. This was my favourite track of the season in terms of racing, as the layout bred a race with a lot of passing. Race two should have been another podium, but I hit the wall in the chicane while in 2nd, leaving me to limp home in 5th place, after some very strategic defending.

Fighting in the pack

I had great pace in Zandvoort Holland, only to be taken out by another driver while in 4th position. In that race I was making my way up the field and had the pace to win. It was a very wet race, and while alongside Jens Hoing coming up to the second-to-last corner he sideswiped me. This resulted in a DNF, which was not good for my championship. In Barcelona, Spain I had another great run in the rain, finishing 4th and narrowly missing out on the podium. Barcelona was the penultimate round, and I went into the final round in 5th position in the championship, which was good considering I had a few DNF’s.

On the grid, awaiting the start

For the Barcelona round I had a new teammate,  Daniel Juncadella, and for the final round in Hockenheim I had two teammates, Sebastian Saavedra and James Grunwell, both race winners in the USA and Asia Formula BMW Championships. Having been a one-car team all season long, this was the lift we needed, and the engineer could really get the setup right from the beginning. I out-qualified and beat all of my teammates that year in every race, (bar the hockenheim race I didn’t finish, more on that later), which was a boost for me also.

The whole #14 team celebrating a podium.

The Hockenheim finale was an excellent weekend, for the most part! I qualified with Saavedra alongside me for both races, which was good as I knew I had an ally on track for the first time that year. The races were extremely hectic, and very enjoyable. In both races I ran as high as 2nd, and there was a lot of passing going on. Race two was probably the most enjoyable race of the year up until around two laps to go. I had a great early battle with Saavedra and Esteban Gutierrez (2010 GP3 Champion), before pulling away from them and chasing down Philipp Eng and Jens Klingmann, who were battling for 2nd place. I caught them and battled hard until disaster struck coming into the Motodrom corner with 2 laps to go. I had passed Philipp Eng for 3rd in the Mercedes Complex, but was on the wrong side for the Motodrom. We came together at 175kph, resulting in a spectacular accident, which saw me flip multiple times and earned me a trip to hospital in a helicopter! Check out the video below, someone caught it on camera.

Not the way its supposed to be pointing! Perhaps I should have sold the floor as advertising space?

Unfortunately, that incident meant the difference between 5th in the championship, and 7th, where I ended up. I was very disappointed. We went to the world final, however, feeling confident. I was teamed up with Jazeman Jafaar, Thomas Hylkema and Jack Lemvard as teammates. I was a frontrunner from the word go, having track knowledge from 2006. In my first two heats I finished 3rd and 4th, and I was headed for a top-5 starting position for the Final. In my final heat, I was hit from behind in turn one, and it ended my race. The ultra-competitive field, and the 40 car entry meant that one DNF put me 24th on the grid for the final. A win, and the prize of a Formula One test were out the window. I still had a good race, advancing from 24th on the grid to finish in 10th. A top-10 was a good salvage from that grid spot, but I was pretty gutted.

(#5) Entering turn one in the Valencia World Final

Once again, I was up for the Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year Award, and the skills test took place between myself, Peter Dempsey and Niall Breen. We drove a Crossle 9s sportscar on the Mondello Park National circuit. It was a very fun car to drive, and the day was a blast. It was a nerve wracking time between the test and the announcement of the winner, as the winner in 2007 would get the chance to test for A1 Team Ireland. I won the award, which gave me the A1GP test and a €35,000 cash prize. I didn’t know it then, but that is the single most important thing to happen in my career, and it was the trigger to a lot of good things happening.

With the prestugious Sexton Trophy and the A1GP Lola, after winning the Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year Award.

That is all for 2007, all in all it was a good season, with solid results throughout. Obviously the highlight was the Young Driver of the Year Award win, and the lowlight was my airborne trip across the gravel in Hockenheim! 2008 is when things get more exciting in my career, and I make my Formula Three debut along with my A1GP test. Until then, bye folks.

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2006. Red Bull gives my career wings.

So, my single seater career started in 2006, in the Formula BMW UK championship. I drove for Carlin Motorsport, with backing from the Red Bull Juniorteam. It was every 17 year old racing drivers dream, and it was an excellent opportunity. It all started with the test in Estoril, Portugal. I drove a Muecke Motorsport Formula BMW against what Red Bull determined to be the best young karters in the world. There were 20 of us, and it was a two-day intensive test in the FBMW car. I took to the car very well, and I can tell you I was as surprised as anyone when I was the quickest driver at the end of the two days! All of a sudden, I was sitting down with Dr. Helmut Marko, looking at a Red Bull JuniorTeam contract.

With Thomas Ueberall and Dr. Helmut Marko of the Red Bull Juniorteam, Estoril 2005

Red Bull chose to place me with Carlin Motorsport for the FBMW UK championship, which was something that they hadn’t done before. Initially, I was to compete in the Formula Renault Eurocup, but due to my schooling they chose to place me closer to home. The testing program started very well, and I had a very good handle on the car going to the official preseason tests. They were held at Oulton Park, Brands Hatch and at Silverstone, and I was placed in the top 3 in all of these tests, so I was confident going into the season. It started well, and I immediately took up the role of the leading rookie in the championship, leading the Rookie Cup by 35 points with 5 wins after 8 rounds. I was consistently in the top 5 and holding my own against the experienced drivers, and I was usually in the lead battle.

A muddy FBMW, probably after a small excursion into the grass. One of many, it was a learning year after all! :)

My best weekend in my opinion was at Brands Hatch, when we ran the Grand Prix circuit. I was very quick there, and made a rookie mistake in qualifying, and I went off at paddock hill bend while in pole position. I started the races down in 15th position, and in the dry race one I picked cars off one by one to finish 6th, right with the leaders. In race two it began to rain on lap one, and before long it was torrential, and we were on slicks. I fought my way up to 6th by lap 4, and the race was red flagged. I think I was robbed there, and I could have won that race with the pace I had. However, it was my first double win in the Rookie Cup, and I was delighted. Unfortunately, that was also my last win of the year.

On the podium with Dr. Mario Thiessen (BMW Director of Motorsports) after my double win at Brands Hatch GP. Photo - Paul Davies

Around about the Oulton Park round is when my championship became unhinged, and a blown engine coincided with my dropping down the order for the remainder of the season. The engine failure was caused by me, I ran wide at turn one, which broke an oil line, which resulted in a spectacular accident where almost the entire field went off. After the race it was quite funny, as with the red flag situation I was listed as the Rookie winner.I was dragged to the podium when I walked back to the paddock, after seeing to my car which was in flames a few minutes earlier. Needless to say, that was soon rectified, I was disqualified from the results, and I was not the flavour of the month that evening, as a lot of people did damage going off on my oil! I struggled from that point on, and it became a very frustrating year for me. At 17 I am afraid to say I don’t think I was mature enough to handle it. The immense pressure coming from Red Bull to perform, on top of my own frustrations led to a very up and down end to the year.

Leading Oakes and Sato, Donington Park. Photo - Paul Davies

I showed flashes of speed at Donington, driving from 13th on the grid to run 3rd only to tangle with my teammate, and at Knockhill where I was a frontrunner all weekend, but ultimately I lost out in the Rookie Cup to Henry Arundel and Kimiya Sato, which was a major disappointment for me, having been dominant in the early stages. The atmosphere within the team also broke down, and I had an engineer with a bad attitude, who was not proactive in helping me overcome my problems. All in all, it is not a year I look back on fondly, and I am pleased I have come through it and shown my true speed and ability in other series’. I was dropped from the Red Bull Juniorteam following the final round of the series.

Working my way up through the pack, Brands Hatch GP. Leading Henry Arundel and Matt Howson. Photo - Paul Davies

I knew then, deep down, that my true potential was not realised, and I worked out a deal with the German team AM-Holzer Rennsport to compete in the World Final in Valencia, Spain. This event is an end of year world championship, which pits the drivers from the UK championship, the USA championship, the German championship and the Asian championship against each other. It was a good weekend for me, and I was generally in the top-6 throughout the heats, from a 40 car field. In the race, I had an early coming together with my teammate, Tobias Hegewald, who drove over the back of me. I battled from then on with a bent rear suspension and rear wing, but I brought it home in 12th, one place ahead of the UK overall champion. I felt I had proven my point, and I had gained a lot of my confidence back. That weekend I raced with and beat drivers like Sebastian Saavedra, Philipp Eng, Josef Kral, Mika Maki, Daniel Ricciardo and Robert Wickens. Doing the World Final after being dropped from Red Bull is probably the most important move I have made in my career so far, in terms of building confidence. As the old saying goes, if you fall off, just get back up on the horse!

In the Holzer car at Valencia. Leading Jonathan Legris and Niall Breen.

I learned a lot from my time with the Red Bull Juniorteam, but I don’t think it is a good place to learn. If you’re winning, it is a great place to be, as they will place you in good cars in any series you like. But as a place to learn it definitely is counter-productive. I was completely green when I went in there, and I feel I wasn’t given the room to learn, and get better. The pressure was on from the beginning to be winning, and to win in year one in such a competitive series is a big ask from a rookie. Having said that, I came out stronger, and to be a former Red Bull driver isn’t a bad thing to have on the CV. It definitely put me on the map, and I would not be where I am today without their input. At the end of 2006 I was nominated for the Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year Award, which I came in 3rd behind Peter Dempsey and Paddy Hogan. I learned a lot during the course of the skills tests and interviews which led to the selection of the winner, which I put to good use in 2007

Getting a bit sideways in the wet at Brands Hatch. Photo - Paul Davies

I have put together a small highlights reel below. I apologise for the quality, but the best bits of my year are in there! Next up is 2007, where I moved to the Formula BMW ADAC series and won the Motorsport Ireland Young Racing Driver of the Year award, which led to my role as rookie driver for A1GP Team Ireland. Thanks for reading, until then goodbye folks!

My 2006 Highlights

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The Beginnings – Part Two

For 2002, we got our hands on some race winning second hand JICA engines from Gerard Tohill, and used a Kosmic chassis. We started the year off with a trip to Lake Garda, Italy to compete in the Winter Cup, a warm up for the European Karting Championship. I was surprisingly up at the front with the top karters in Europe at the time, which gave me a lot of confidence coming home for my first assault on the JICA national championship – and it showed. I was an instant title contender in my rookie year, and led the championship from early on. Unfortunately, that summer I broke my wrist in a roller-blading accident which ended my title hopes completely. My father was less than pleased, and I was beating myself up over it too. To win the competitive JICA class on year one would have been excellent. On my return I battled back to finish 3rd in the championship in 2002. Luckily, I was still only 14 and I had one more year left at Junior level, and I vowed to come back and win the championship.

Getting a drift on at Tynagh. I had just about grown into my head by 2003! Photo - Con Connolly

2003 was by far the most hard faught of my three Irish championships, and the battle raged all year long between myself and James McCarthy from Cork. There was nothing between us, and the turning point of the season came on the penultimate race weekend, on a new Mondello Park layout. With no testing, and a double-header race weekend, it would be down to whoever could learn the track and get the gearing right the quickest. I took two poles and two wins that weekend, which gave me a points lead into the final round at Tynagh in Co Galway. All eyes were on the two of us and the championship battle, and I came out on top for my second national championship. This one means a lot to me, as it comes with the “Neil Shanahan Trophy”, remembering Neil, who was an extremely talented formula racer who was tragically killed in a Formula Ford, at Oulton Park in 1999. In ’03 I also won the All Ireland Karting Championship, which is a standalone three day event held in the summer of each year. The winner of this race uses IRL as their race number for the next 12 months, and along with the Irish GP, it was one I always wanted to win.

Running the IRL plate at Watergrasshill. Leading fellow Road to Indy driver Patrick McKenna (48). Photo - Con Connolly

Receiving the Neil Shanahan Memorial Trophy, from his parents Liam and Mary. It is heavy, and very valuable, I was terrified I would drop it! 2003

2004 was the year that I moved into senior karting, to Formula A, for the Irish Senior Karting Championship. These were the “big boys”, I was racing against guys who had been in the class for years. Couple that with the Formula A kart which is a lot faster than the JICA, I knew this was going to be tough! It was ultra competitive, and I won multiple races throughout the year, finishing up the year in 5th position, which felt like little reward for the effort I put in! Like 2002, I vowed to learn from it and come back to win the championship in 2005. I wanted to get it done and get to open wheel racing, and not be in karts for any longer than I needed to be. At 16, I still had time to do it.

A much smaller me struggling to hold up the National Junior Champion trophy, with Frank O'Mahony, 2003

So 2005 came, and I had a new approach. I knew I had to focus on qualifying, as the competitive Formula A field is mayhem at the starts. It worked, I was on pole for 85% of the races that year, and the results showed. I was more consistent, won a lot more races, and along with it the Irish Senior Karting Championship, the King Hussein of Jordan Trophy. In early 2005, Red Bull Ireland ran a competition called the “High King of Karting”, the winner of which would be sent to Estoril, Portugal at the end of the year to try out for the RedBull Juniorteam. It was a fun competition, with three parts. First, we competed in hire karts in mondello, which whittled the 40+ qualifiers down to the top 16. The top 16 then did sessions in the two Mondello Park racing school cars, a Rover 25 Gti saloon, and the Sheane Rover single seaters. I was 2nd in the saloon and quickest in the single seater, and I felt good going to the final round, which was held in minimax karts in Athboy, Co. Meath. I came out on top, and was crowned the “High King of Karting”, and was on my way to Estoril!

With the Red Bull "High King of Karting" trophy, 2005

Nathan Antunes, Me, Brendon Hartley and Jaime Alguersuari, just been signed to the Red Bull Juniorteam, Estoril, 2005

I look back on my karting career fondly, and count those days among my best. Throughout my karting career we competed as privateers. My dad was my mechanic, and we turned up to the races in our home-made race bus with our kart and raced. It made it a whole lot more satisfying to beat the “chequebook racers” who threw money at the large race teams to run their kids. To this day, I am still the only driver to have my name on the Dunlop trophy for national cadet champion, the Neil Shanahan trophy for national junior champion, and the King Hussein of Jordan trophy for national senior champion, something myself and my dad can be very proud of.

My Dad getting ready to send me off before a wet race in Tynagh, Galway. 2003. Photo - Con Connolly

So that is how it all started for me! From 1992 to 2005 I went through a lot, and its true what they say, karting plays a massive role in the development of future racing drivers. The racecraft you learn, and the necessity to think for yourself and plan races from as early as 9 is invaluable when it comes to racing open-wheelers. In my next blog I will cover the beginning of my single seater career. Thank you for reading, I hope you found it interesting.

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Humble Beginnings

Hello! Welcome to my new blog. I am going to start by bringing you up to speed on my career so far, starting from the early days of 1992, when I first sat in a kart! I will be posting general blogs as I progress, and I hope to educate you on my life so far, and provide an insight into the world of motorsports from a struggling drivers prospective. I hope you enjoy. Be sure to check the about tab for an explanation of the name of this blog, if you are unfamiliar with international soccer.

It all started  at Christmas when I was 4 years old. My Dad, Martin, and my brother Graham built me a home-made go-kart to drive around the yard. It was a box-metal frame with competition kart running gear and a Honda 70 motorcycle engine – which now that I look back is pretty powerful to hand to a 4-and-a-half year old! Any evening you may have come by the Quinn household in those days you would be met by me speeding up and down the driveway wearing an  Ayrton Senna replica open-face helmet, as my dad worked on rally cars in the garage. One of the most vivid memories I have of my time with that kart is from the very first day I sat in it, which nearly had disastrous consequences. It was Christmas Day, 1992, and I was sitting in the kart ready to go, waiting for my dad to start it up. He kicked the kick-starter and the kart took off across the yard towards my aunt Fran, who jumped out of the way just in time, leaving me to drive into the wall. Not the best start to my driving career, but I soon got the hang of it! Little did I know then, that trip into the wall was my first preparation for my future career on IndyCar Series ovals! On more than one occasion you would have found my Dad yelling at me for spraying the cars parked at the bottom of the drive with gravel as I performed my mini Scandinavian flick. One thing is for sure it was fun, and I’m pretty sure I can put some of my driving talent down to what I learned driving that kart day after day.

When I finally grew out of the little home-made kart, it was time to go racing. It was 1998, and I was 9 years old when my Dad arrived home with my first race kart –A JCB Yellow Cadet. It was not my first choice in colour, but I was itching to get racing. Our first outing in the kart was at Mondello Park on a wet Saturday, and we had no wet tyres. Not wanting to let me down, my brother Graham let me go out in the rain on slick tyres. I must have been lapped every two laps by the experienced drivers, but I had caught the bug. I started out racing a month later as a novice, which comes with the burden of starting at the back of your first three races, in order to not get in the way of the experienced kids. I advanced from the back of the 25-30 kart field to finish my first three races in the top 10 – it was then that I knew racing was something I wanted to do regularly.

For 1999 we upgraded to a more modern Zip Kart, (bought from Cliff Dempsey of CDR, driven by fellow Irish racer Peter Dempsey before me) which was still one year behind in development. This kart gave me a much better platform to learn on, and I had a few podiums and otherwise consistent top 5 results to finish the championship in 3rd place that year.  That winter, I entered the Northern Ireland Winter Championship, at Kirkistown in Co. Down. It was a four race series, and I won three of the four rounds, taking my first ever championship. It was this that really set me up for 2000 and I was eager to win a national championship.

(no. 44) Me racing Cadets in 1999. Photo - Con Connolly

2000 was the year I “matured” as a Cadet karter. It was the first year that I was considered the title favourite, and the pressure was on to deliver.  I won a lot of races on the way to the national championship, and taking the Irish Grand Prix (GP Plate) on the way. The win at the Irish Grand Prix is one of my favourite race wins in my karting career. It came at the end of a nightmare weekend, in which I had failures and other karts taking me out all weekend, and I lined up on the grid in 24th. I knew it was a long race, and that if I was clever I could get to the front, and I just  picked karts off one by one, and to my own shock took the lead with 1.5 laps to go, and held on to the flag.

A dodgy looking bunch! 2000 - Photo - Con Connolly

(No. 3) Leading the abnormally large headed child race :) 2000. Photo - Con Connolly

In 2001 it was time to make the step up to the Junior Rookie category, which then bridged the gap between Cadet and JICA, which was a bit of a jump. It was a difficult year for me, and we struggled with engine reliability all season. On more than one weekend I seized all of my engines, and often seized the engines that were generously loaned to me by fellow racers. I soon developed the nickname “Julius Seizer”, on account of the incredible number of engines I destroyed! We finally got to the bottom of the problem in time to post one race win that year, and I was ready to move on to the more stable JICA class.

(No. 44) In the thick of it during my Junior Rookie season in 2001. Mondello Park

(No. 44) In the thick of it during my Junior Rookie season in 2001. Mondello Park. Photo - Con Connolly

My next blog post will be the other half of my karting career, bringing you up to the point just before I began my single seater career. Until  then, bye!

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