O’NEILL KEEPS GO­ING HIGHER AND HIGHER

Tour­ing car ace and pre­sen­ter tack­les Gurston Down.

Motor Sport News - - Sporting Scene - By Matt James

Switch­ing from race driv­ing to hold­ing a mi­cro­phone for ITV’S Bri­tish Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship cov­er­age was an up­hill chal­lenge for pre­sen­ter Paul O’neill – but that was noth­ing com­pared to the task awaiting him last week­end.

He de­camped to Devon to take on a to­tally fresh motorsport dis­ci­pline for him: a run in a hill­climb car. The Liver­pudlian was of­fered an out­ing shar­ing car owner Mark Al­ley’s Swift FB91 For­mula Ford 1600 ma­chine on the test­ing Tar­mac of Gurston Down. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that left him buzzing.

“It took me a while to ac­cli­ma­tise,” ad­mits the 36-year-old. “We had three prac­tice runs on Satur­day, and an­other prac­tice run on Sun­day morn­ing. I started to get se­ri­ous on Sun­day morn­ing, look­ing at the split times and go­ing out into the woods to watch the oth­ers and check their lines. I was learn­ing as much as I pos­si­bly could.

“To be­gin with on the Satur­day, I wasn’t com­fort­able in the car. Mark [the car’s owner] is taller than me, and I don’t know how he squeezes him­self into it! I am 6ft 1in but I was strug­gling – maybe that is down to my weightlifter physique…”

After set­ting a time that was good enough for sixth in the open­ing timed run on Sun­day – tak­ing one sec­ond off the bench­mark he had recorded pre­vi­ously, O’neill got out the rac­ing driver ex­cuse book for the all-pres­sure fi­nal run-off. He opened the book at chap­ter one: “I was 0.25s up on my best time at the open­ing split. I went through the Hol­low ab­so­lutely flat out – I was be­ing a hero. Then I got to­wards the Karousel and pow­ered into of it with a lit­tle touch of over­steer. I thought I had it nailed!”

Then the ex­cuse kicks in: “I had to drop the car down from fourth to first gear for the cor­ner and I snagged third in­stead of first. It got bogged down.”

De­spite that slip, O’neill re­cov­ered for a time that meant he fin­ished sev­enth from the 15 class en­trants.

“I learned loads of lessons from do­ing it, and I ab­so­lutely adored it,” said O’neill. “It took me a while to get my head around it, but by the fi­nal run of the day, as I was slow­ing down, I thought ‘yes, I re­ally get this’. It is a re­ally in­tense 30s dash that you have to re­ally screw your­self up for.

“Walk­ing around the pad­dock af­ter­wards was a real eye-opener. Not one of the other driv­ers I spoke to said that they had com­pletely got the most from their runs. There was al­ways some­thing left on the ta­ble for all of them. They were al­ways like ‘I could have got more out of this cor­ner, I could have got a bet­ter start’, that sort of thing. If they were do­ing a hand­book for hill­climb­ing, it will be called ‘Coulda, Woulda, Shouda’…

“It was like go­ing to a rac­ing school where you are given a lit­tle taste of a great car, but you don’t ever feel like you have had enough seat time. But that is part of the chal­lenge – you have an in­tense 30s and you have to be pre­pared for it.”

Now O’neill has had one taste of go­ing up­hill (rel­a­tively) quickly, he wants more. He will be back at the venue for an an­niver­sary event next sea­son, and he is aim­ing to push him­self even fur­ther.

Aside from the com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment, O’neill was im­pressed with the fam­ily feel­ing cre­ated among the com­peti­tors. “Ev­ery­one was push­ing each other on, and there was a great at­mos­phere,” he said. “There was the usual rac­ing ban­ter that you get any­where – and I think I added in a few new jokes, pro­vid­ing they could un­der­stand my ac­cent.

“It was re­ally friendly, and as a com­peti­tor, there is loads of time to spend with fam­ily and pals be­tween the events. It is com­pet­i­tive, wel­com­ing and a very cost ef­fec­tive way of tak­ing part in motorsport. What more can you ask?” ■

“It is a re­ally in­tense sport” Paul O’neill

O’neill shared with Mark Al­ley

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