Craigantlet 2017: Gearing up for a steep challenge
THINGS may have ground to a halt at Stormont, but a little way above Parliament Buildings, where the Belmont Road starts its climb towards Craigantlet, things will be moving at 100mph later this month.
The annual Craigantlet Hill Climb returns to the 1,460 yards of twisting tarmac on the outskirts of Belfast on Saturday April 29, marking the latest chapter in a motorsport story which dates back to 1913 and Harry Ferguson's triumph in a Vauxhall…
The route is a little different than it was in the day of the great Ulster engineer and inventor, and even he would be impressed in the advances in engines, suspension, tyres and aerodynamics that mean the fastest cars up the hill these days reach in excess of 100mph on parts of the track.
The current record holder is Scott Moran, with a time of 39.12 seconds set in his specialist single-seater Gould.
Moran cannot make it to Craigantlet this year, giving his rivals in the British Hill Climb Championship - the event is the competition's second round - a chance to beat his time.
The event is organised by the Ulster Automobile Club and is this year supported by Ballyrobert, who sell Vauxhall, Mazda and Lotus cars.
Ballyrobert marketing director Jayne Mills said: "We are looking forward to another exciting day's motorsport, and are delighted to once again be sponsoring this event."
Not all the cars are miniature Formula One-style racers like the Gould or Chris Houston's OMS CF-08.
Showroom specification cars take part, too.
Scottish motoring journalist and racer David Finlay has been competing in 'out of the box' showroom cars from different manufacturers in hill climb events for several years.
Last year, he used a Honda Civic Type R to devastating effect, setting a class record time of 54.69 seconds.
That sprint was fast enough to earn him a British Hill Climb Championship points, the first time a production car had achieved that distinction in the championship's 69 year history.
For 2017, David will be at the wheel of an even more potent car than the Honda - a Lexus RC F.
"The Lexus has the same 470bhp, five-litre V8 engine as the GS F we ran at Prescott a year ago but is two-and-a-half inches lower and 100kg lighter," said David.
"It will look and sound fabulous on the Irish lanes, and we hope it will go fabulously too.
"I'm not expecting the RC F to be as nimble through the corners as the Honda Civic Type R I brought along last year, but with more than an extra 160bhp it should be pretty good along the straights.
"It will also change gear much more quickly since it has an automatic gearbox rather than the manual of the Civic.
"I am hoping to beat my class record of 54.69 seconds, but I am sure the local drivers are planning to go faster still - they are very quick and will be hard to beat."
The Lexus has good figures - a 0-60mph time of 4.4 seconds and quoted top speed of 170mph - but its size and weight may count against it.
Competitors are split into different classes - much like a handicap system in golf or horse racing - to ensure cars are evenly matched - David Finlay's Lexus will be in Class 2, for road-going series production cars over 1,700cc.
Drivers don't race against each other wheel-to-wheel, but aim to set the fastest time on a solo run up the hill.
On April 29, the Belmont Road will be closed above its junction with Massey Avenue from about 7.30am to facilitate the final preparations of the route, with the first practice runs due to start from around 9.30am.
Competitors then get the opportunity to record their fastest time of the day across three timed runs in the afternoon.
As well as being the second round of the Avon Tyres/TTC Group MSA British Hill Climb Championship, Craigantlet is also the second round of its Irish counterpart, the 2017 Millers Oils ANICC Hill Climb Championship.
The first event of the Irish season was held at Croft, just outside Holywood, Co Down, on Saturday April 1.
As ever, racers have spent the winter fettling their cars.
Last year's champion, Chris Houston, has upgraded his specialist OMS CF-08 to good effect, winning at Croft.
"I am looking forward to this season," he said.
"This car has many improvements over last year's with its 1,600cc engine. It won’t take long to get settled in."
We'll be able to find out how Chris and his car fare at Craigantlet soon…
- The Ballyrobert Craigantlet Hill Climb, organised by the Ulster Automobile Club and sponsored by Ballyrobert Vauxhall, Mazda and Lotus, takes place on Saturday April 29. Cars will be on the track from around 9.30am, and it is free to spectate. Access to the event is via the Belmont Road or, from the top end, via the Craigantlet hills.