Going for gold

by Tim Whittington |

Tohill set to defend his title.

Ireland’s new Rallycross superstar, Derek Tohill, has launched his campaign to retain the TouringCar title in the FIA European Rallycross Championship by unveiling a bold new design for his Fiesta VII rwd.

With the 2010 TouringCar crown in his pocket – a notable success for a driver in only his second full ERC season and his first in a rear-drive racecar – some expected Tohill to move up to the Supercar category. While that move remains on the Irishman’s agenda, he has decided to return to the scene of last year’s glory and try for a second title.

Tohill first raced in the European Rallycross Championship in 2008 but, after the Group N-based front-drive Division Two class in which he had raced was chopped in favour of the new rear-drive ‘TouringCar’ category, spent 2009 on the sidelines, telling everyone he was weighing-up his options before deciding whether to get a Super1600 or TouringCar with which to return to the series. This kind of thing has been seen before in the ERC and you get the distinct impression that many of Tohill’s rivals did not take the Irishman very seriously on the occasions that he showed up in the paddock during that gap year. That was their mistake.

Behind the scenes, Tohill had made up his mind much earlier than anyone knew that the new rear-drive class was where he was going. Reasoning that the Super1600 cars were already very highly developed and that the cost of entering the class with a fully competitive package was too high, he decided that the fledgling class offered the best opportunity: a chance to get in relatively low down on the learning curve and ride the wave as the class grew. Tohill planned to enter the class as well equipped as he possibly could be, but he was also in for the journey. Acknowledging that he would have to learn about running a bespoke racecar – his entire career to this point had been in production-based machinery – and also get to grips with rear-wheel drive in which he had no experience, Tohill established a three-year plan in which he would serve his apprenticeship before going for the title.

This kind of meticulous planning underpins Tohill’s racing and the decisions he took regarding the build of his car, engine and transmission were based not just on getting competitive equipment, but also on taking note of what happens in and around the paddock, on making sure that the ongoing levels of service and backup matched the initial quality and that if it came to the crunch, he wasn’t going to be in the situation of not finishing the event.

Tohill had also been thorough in his preparation for the 2008 ERC season – the year in which he became the first Irishman to win an ERC event – but knew from that experience that while it had been possible to run a Group N car from a van and trailer, the step up required a truck that would afford his team better facilities in the paddock. By the end of 2009 he was well advanced in plans for this but, a year on, we can gain another insight to Tohill’s attention to detail. “We’ve been busy with the truck through the winter. After 2008 I knew what we needed to have but after we’d done a year with the truck there was a list of about 200 things that we wanted to change or improve,” said Tohill, “It’s all fine tuning but it will make life easier at events.” Other than being the kind of person who has that organised kind of a mind, Tohill puts this character trait down to his lifelong exposure to motor sport. “I think it comes from being on the outside looking in for so long,” he says, “I was practically brought up in the paddock, motor sport has always been in my life and I’ve always looked at what other people have done, how teams and drivers organise themselves. When you’re young you dream of being able to compete with the big boys, but I’d always look in the paddock too and think ‘That’s how I’d do it’.”

This lifelong planning and the incredible detail with which he embarked on his successful 2010 ERC campaign has, however, brought Tohill one problem. “The only thing that went wrong was that we won the championship too soon! The plan was to be in TouringCar for three years, win the title and move up. I looked seriously at going to a Supercar for 2011 but in the end I’ve decided to stick with the TouringCar and defend the title – it will be great to race with number one on the car. Anyone, almost anyone, can buy and drive a Supercar but I have no intention of being in the class just to make up numbers. A Supercar is still the plan and I’m watching very carefully and learning as much as I can. I’ll make that move when I’m ready,” said Tohill.

Chance favours the prepared mind, that might better translate out to the racing adage that luck is made in the workshop, but it’s true in most things that what you take out bears a relationship to what you put in. Tohill focused attention on his truck over the winter because the racecar was already prepared and ready to go. Serviced and prepared directly after the final round of the 2010 ERC, the Fiesta was given a winning run in an Irish championship event at Mondello Park at the end of the year, was used in the Top Gear Live event in Dublin in the winter and then another win in the first round of the 2011 British championship at Lydden in March. Another aspect to Tohill’s success is the depth of knowledge he has assembled in his team. He knows the game himself, but also has a team rich on racing experience; double Irish champion Michael Coyne, for example, has more than 20-years in Rallycross behind him and Gordon Lynch is a consistent front runner in the ultra-competitive Stock Hatch class. On the odd days in 2010 that Tohill appeared to be working hard in the car, it was clear to see that the rest of the team had valuable contributions to make and that this was a team that really functioned as a team rather than a group of individuals.

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