Two hundred and one days is a long time to be away from what you truly love. Heck, it’s over 2% of my entire lifetime.
For me, this is the amount of time that passed without seeing a race car – of any type – fly by at full speed, and it forced me think about how easy it had been in pre-COVID times to get my fix of excitement and noise. Within a few hours’ radius from home, nearly any weekend I had rally, drift, track days, road racing, and more to choose from.
Late in February, I sat in a damp mountainside ditch, completely soaked from a ferocious hail shower and buffeted by a howling gale. As a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX popped and crackled as it passed, it felt so normal. Home, shower, images sorted, and prep for the next event.
I just didn’t expect to be waiting 201 days for it.
Getting back Mondello Park recently was a real breath of fresh air. In my mind, track days have always been the lifeblood of the car world, so being perched on a grassy bank, listening to and seeing cars flash by at speed, felt so good.
Instantly, the lethargy induced by a state of constant fear, embracing ever-changing measures and living through periods of lockdown began to wash away for me.
Despite having shot a number of track days, from a driving perspective they are still a bit of an unknown to me, and I am most definitely a novice in this world. I seized the opportunity though, treating my little 106 Rallye to a short 20-minute blast. The fear of breaking parts and the nagging thought of having to get home as well that afternoon possibly reined me in, but for a brief foray, the Peugeot impressed. I’ve recently fitted some new Yokohama rubber on the front, and they latched onto every bit of grip the track offered.
That said, as I spent many terrified moments glued to the rear-view mirror it became blatantly clear that I was being outgunned by many of the cars taking to the track.
TrackDays.ie did well to get so many people together at short notice (due to fast-changing government restrictions), but it’s unsurprising given the quality of the event. Every safety precaution was taken, and it felt reassuring to have a bit of normality back as the paddock and pit lane crackled into life for the day.
Having a fast road car to use on track is one thing, but when you have something purpose-built from factory, things get a bit more serious. Amongst the pops and bangs of everything around them, the demonic howl coming from a pair of Porsche GT3 RSs as they tore down the Mondello straight was incredible.
For all the Stuttgart finery though, a pair of Munich brutes just seemed to have a gravitational pull no matter where I stood around the track. The BMW E46 M3 is rightly held in high regard, but this track-prepped example was easily one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. The stance, the half cage, the brake upgrade and aero add-ons showed this thing meant business, and it definitely did not hang about on track.
Next to it sat something very special. Anyone who’s had the chance to visit the Nürburgring is likely well acquainted already, but Team Schirmer are to BMWs in the area as Manthey Racing are to Porsches. These guys have spent years building and developing race cars to take on the Nordschleife, and the E92 GT package is a rare foray into the world of road-legal track weaponry. This particular car has seen a lot of action at the Nürburgring, and was pounding around Mondello less than a week after returning to Ireland.
Elsewhere, the stream of cars passing was incredibly varied and diverse, such is the open nature of a track day. ‘Run what ya brung!’ never felt so apt. Want to have a boatload of fun in a Peugeot 206 van? Fire away. What about a huge-power Honda Civic race car with full aero? Go right ahead, just be a bit more cautious going for overtakes.
Returning to the paddock after a bit of a trackside walkaround, I came face-to-face with one of the most subtly aggressive looking Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIs that I’d seen in a long time. Chatting to its owner Padraig, it quickly transpired that this was no simple build, but a 15-year-long journey to create a great all-round track machine capable of clocking up huge lap numbers at pace.
Exterior-wise, the car is totally original save for the addition of plexiglass windows and a staunch set of RAYS Volk Racing TE37 wheels shod in ex-BTCC Pirelli race slicks. These tyres helped the Evo to stay glued to the track at Mondello, but Padraig also sung their praise for previous trips to the Nürburgring and Spa-Francorchamps.
Inside is standard track car, but it’s refreshing to not be visually assaulted by modern controls and displays. A sole Recaro Pole Position, a Momo wheel, and the standard dials would be at home on a road car, but the dash-mounted shift light and a dry sump tank in the passenger footwell are real clues amongst a spartan interior that this car’s road days are well behind it.
In the engine bay, the venerable 4G63 is mapped for around 550bhp, thanks to a smattering of Norris Designs forged internals and a large BorgWarner turbo.
This is an incredibly capable machine, but it’s the raw looks and patina of countless hard miles that had this thing exciting me massively. The fact it absolutely blitzed past me on track likely helped my appreciation as well.
Elsewhere, the Honda contingent were out in force. Models like the EP3 Civic Type R and the DC5 Integra Type R are still reasonably affordable ways into the world of K-series NA power, and both are absolute crackers to drive.
The DC2 Integra Type R is an absolute dream car in my book, and values are certainly rising of late, heading towards the realms of the FD2 Civic Type R – a model that 12 years on still looks incredibly fresh, and does not seem to be getting any cheaper.
Pushing even further along the Honda spectrum, you find this – a Lotus Exige. Sat beneath its stunning yellow clamshell is an absolute stonker of a K20 engine, sending its power to the ground through a sequential gearbox that absolutely roared moving up and down the gears. Watching the little Lotus slice through traffic was an experience in itself.
All in all though, the longer I spent trackside, the more fun I was watching people have, regardless of what they were driving.
The idea of having a dedicated track car has always appealed, but the practicalities always nag at me. Thoughts of trailers, storage, repairs and hardship nibble at the ideas of the enjoyment of pounding around a fast lap. It could happen, it may not, but regardless, this event at Mondello Park definitely reignited a spark.