O’NEILL KEEPS GOING HIGHER AND HIGHER
Touring car ace and presenter tackles Gurston Down.
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