Monday
Mar142011

The Mondello Park Collection

Born in Co. Mayo, Ireland in 1935, Martin Birrane is a self-made man of the traditional kind. He left home at the age of 17 and worked in the hospitality industry in several countries, before settling in Canada and becoming involved in real estate. He later moved to London, where he began developing his own property as well as buying and selling it, thus amassing a considerable personal fortune to spend on his childhood passion – racing cars. Saloon car racing in the UK soon gave way to international sportscar racing, with early outings in the 1970s, mainly in Porsches. Birrane’s first high-profile appearance was behind the wheel of a Lola T294 at the 1974 World Championship sportscar race at Brands Hatch, and he made several more appearances in similar models, including a 22nd-place finish at Le Mans in 1980 sharing a T297 with Peter Clark and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. The highlight of Birrane’s driving career came in 1985, when he piloted a BMW M1 to first in class at La Sarthe, sharing with co-drivers Edgar Doren and Jean-Paul Libert. Shortly after this success, Birrane purchased Ireland’s Mondello Park circuit (he remains the owner to this day), but he is probably best known internationally as the owner of Lola Cars, having bought the company in the aftermath of its disastrous foray into Formula 1 in 1997 and pulling it back from the brink. Since calling time on his driving career, Birrane has been buying up some of the more significant cars that he raced, and these now form the bulk of the collection at Mondello Park’s circuit museum.

The red-and-black Yokohama-liveried Porsche 962 is what will catch most sportscar enthusiast’s eyes on first entering the museum. This ‘long-tail’ car, chassis number CK6/03, is one of several assembled from a Porsche kit by the German Kremer team, and it was raced only once, at Le Mans in 1989, by Kunimitsu Takahashi (until 2007 chairman of the Japanese Super GT series), Bruno Giacomelli and Giovanni Lavaggi. The car retired due to a dramatic fire a few hours short of the finish, but is now kept in racing condition and occasionally makes appearances in historic Group C races.

While the 962 may be the most iconic model represented here, the most interesting has to be the Ford’s C100, a car with a troubled gestation whose designers mantain never fulfilled its true potential. Due to the confusion arising from several C100s being passed from Ford of Europe to the German team Zakspeed, which developed them as C1/4s and C1/8s, it is not always possible to determine the exact provenance of any single C100 with absolute certainty. However, all indications are that of the two cars present in Mondello, the first, unmodified example was the one bought by Birrane at the end of the 1982 season and then campaigned by him and fellow Irishman David Kennedy in the 1983 Thundersports series, a domestic British championship open to a wide variety of sportscar classes. The second car, a Zakspeed-modified C1/8, bears markings and scrutineering stickers that indicate it is chassis ‘CT 99620’, raced in the European ‘Interserie’ championship by Jochen Dauer in 1986 and Mike Baretta in 1987.

Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm’s Spice racers may not match the charisma of the works cars of the Group C era, but they were built in large numbers and put in sterling service in the hands of numerous privateer teams. Birrane drove Spice SE86C chassis 002 in two races of the 1988 season - Le Mans, where the car retired with gearbox failure, and the Brands Hatch 1000km, which also ended in retirement. The Chamberlain Engineering-run car had previously won the 1987 Group C2-only race at Kyalami in South Africa, and would continue being run by Chamberlain for the 1989 season.

The Mondello collection also stretches back to the 1970s, in the shape of a De Cadenet Lola T380. Englishman Alain de Cadenet was one of a cadre of owner/designer/drivers, along with the late Jean Rondeau, whose time at Le Mans has now sadly passed. His eponymous car was based on the T380 chassis, but with bodywork of his own design, optimised for the long straights of La Sarthe. Birrane drove just such a car at Le Mans 1981, sharing with compatriot Vivian Candy and Nick Faure, but although the example in the museum bears the chassis number associated with this entry, it is finished in the livery of a sister car, driven in ‘81 by De Cadenet himself and Belgian brothers Jean-Michel Martin and Philippe Martin, making definitive identification difficult. What is certain is that Birrane wrote the most recent chapter in this car’s history in 1990, when he took to a recently completed but unopened stretch of motorway on the outskirts of Dublin to set an Irish land speed record of 176mp/h (since eclipsed by an Irish competition license holder driving in America), although this was a long way off the 226mp/h that the car was capable of in its prime on a chicane-free Mulsanne straight.

Unsurprisingly, the Mondello collection also includes the car with which Birrane achieved his aforementioned best-ever racing result, Class B victory at Le Mans in 1985. Chassis WBS59910004301062, as Munich would rather inelegantly refer to it, was one of clutch of BMW M1s built in 1979 for the innovative Procar series, which supported Formula 1 Grands Prix and put (or at least tried to put) the five quickest drivers from the F1 qualifying session into five ‘guest’ cars, alongside a crack lineup of sportscar talent. German legends Hans-Joachim Stuck and Manfred Winkelhock both drove this car in Procar events, before it was reconfigured for use in endurance racing in the 1980s, including its ‘85 Le Mans victory. By the time Birrane acquired the car in 1993, it had been restored to its original Procar configuration, and it now sits resplendent in the beautifully simple BMW works motorsport colours.

Although dominated by cars from the 1970s and ’80s, the Mondello collection does include one 21st-century sportscar – MG-Lola EX257 number 001, which actually only appeared in MG colours once, at the 2001 Le Mans test day. The bulk of this car’s racing career was in the ALMS for Intersport, driven by Jon Field, Duncan Dayton and others during the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons. It has since been returned to its original works livery. The EX257 sits alongside a slighty older Huntingdon stablemate, a B98/10, decked out in Lola corporate blue and yellow for the marque’s 2008 50th anniversary celebrations. This is also an ex-Intersport car, which ran for most of the 1999 and 2000 seasons, with a best result of fifth at the Daytona 250-mile race in June 2000.

Other exhibits housed in the Mondello museum include a 1994 Lola Indycar driven by Nigel Mansell, a selection of recent Formula 1 machinery (including the infamous 1997 Lolas) and two Richard Childress Racing-built NASCAR chassis that were run by Birrane’s ‘Team Ireland’ outfit in the 1991 and 1992 seasons, with Dale Earnhardt being among the drivers.

Thanks to Fergus Brennan of Mondello Park for his assistance with this feature.

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