BY MARTIN WALSH
THE British Grand Prix, round four of the 2020 Formula 1 season, took place at Silverstone last weekend and it’s a racing track that is familiar to former West Cork racing driver Michael Keohane.
In fact, it’s more than familiar, as for several years – during his British Formula 3 Championship endeavours – the Ballygurteen native lived close to the famous circuit. At the time British F3 was seen as a feeder series to F1.
‘As the crow flies, it was only about two miles away from where we were living,’ Keohane noted.
Another young Cork racer, Matt Griffin, and Wexford’s James Murphy shared the residence.
‘In the days leading up to the GPs we could hear the sound of the cars and even detect the change of gears.’
The British GP is the oldest on the calendar. The track at Silverstone was formerly an RAF base and hosted its first F1 race in 1950. The average lap speed in excess of 150mph (245kph) means, in terms of outright speed, it’s one of the fastest racing circuits worldwide, with only Monza (Italy) and Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium) comparable.
Michael Keohane made his Silverstone debut in 1998 when he contested the EFDA series with Status Motorsport.
‘That’s my first memory of Silverstone. I was doing the Formula Opel Championship in 1998 with Wayne Douglas Motorsport and we received an invitation to race there as it was part of the EFDA series and was a support race to the Grand Prix,’ Keohane explained.
It was a baptism of fire.
‘Without any testing we were straight into qualifying on the Saturday morning, a 20-minute session. I pushed as hard as I could but I went off in the second lap at Priory and ended up in the gravel trap.’
But he was enjoying the experience.
‘The buzz of going there was great, Jordan was at its speak in 1998/99 and obviously many Irish travelled over. I was 18 years old at the time and driving around the circuit you could see all the Irish flags waving. It was my first big race. The crowds in the paddock were huge and there were a good few from West Cork.’
His second lap exit in qualifying meant he had to start the race from the back of the grid, a tough task in normal circumstances. As if that wasn’t enough, Sunday brought an extra challenge.
‘The rain was lashing down, it was daunting. I remember there was water everywhere, there were rivers at the first corner before Copse and another before Becketts and down the back,’ Keohane recalled.
From the rear of the grid, the view was different, to say the least.
‘I had nothing to lose, it was very hard to see in the spray, I started pushing and that’s how I got to know the track in the wet, driving in the blind and ending up in places that I shouldn’t have been – but I found grip around the outside in loads of different places. Going through the rivers, you just kept it (the car) planted and came out the other end like a boat,’ he said.
That experience was of benefit in later years.
‘It helped me big time when I was in F3 and I was able to win in the wet. But that day in the Formula Opel car I found lines and grip and I think I had the fourth fastest lap in the race.’
Three years later (2001) Keohane was back at Silverstone, but this time in an F3 car competing in the scholarship category of the series with Meritus – a team run by Wexford man Sean Thompson and a charismatic Brazilian named Roberta Costa.
‘We started our first test (for the Silverstone race) and it was lashing rain again and I ended up second fastest overall. The lines that I learned in ’98 came into play,’ he said.
For qualifying, it rained once more.
‘From the test I knew I had a good chance and was going to give it a right crack.’
He certainly did and midway through the session he had the fastest lap time, but then…
‘I was going down the Hanger Straight and I used to use the inside of the kerb, going right, put the car across the centre of the kerb to get grip. If you touched the kerb you would go straight off but I put the car up over it and held the front wheel down on the kerb, but this time I hit it so hard I knocked the master switch off (that was on the side pod) and it stalled the engine and that was that,’ he said.
Towards the end of the session the track dried out leaving the Ballygurteen racer qualifying halfway on the grid. Perhaps it was for the best as this time the Sunday was dry and his car was well down on horsepower in comparison to the Class A cars of Takuma Sato, James Courtney, Anthony Davidson and Andre Lotterer. As for the race, ‘The shock in suspension came loose, the car went soft and I didn’t have a good finish, I was disappointed.’
But there were many positives.
‘I learned so much at Meritus from Sean and Roberta. He (Roberta) was straight out, he was good to compliment you but when you didn’t get it right, he would point out where I was wrong. I had great respect for both of them. Roberta was one of the first to tell me that I had to lose weight. While that hurt at the time, I knew he was right. I thanked him afterwards. He was a great motivator,’ Keohane said.
Moving to his new home near Silverstone, Costa’s advice was heeded.
‘I lost two stone, training (with the help of Tipperary native Tom Ryan) was good. I had a plan. I was also eating better. Nutrition was a key element and there were no distractions.’
For the 2002 season and with Meritus not having a team in A Class, Keohane joined Carlin Motorsport and on his Silverstone outing finished one place outside the podium places. Heikki Kovalainen, James Courtney and Robbie Kerr were the pacesetters.
There was another change for the mid-summer 2003 outing in Silverstone when Keohane availed of a late opportunity to drive an Astromega run F3000 car.
‘The difference between it and the F3 car wasn’t massive, they were a bit old fashioned in many ways – F3 were slicker and closer to F1 cars. The F3000 car was very soft and spongy and it rolled around a lot; it had a lot of power in a straight line but was like a boat in some corners.’
After a quick mid-week shakedown in Snetterton, he finished 12th in Silverstone, ahead of two other drivers Mark Heinz and Sam Hancock, who also took late opportunities to drive the F3000 cars.
‘The race was longer than an F3 race and my tyres went off. I probably went too hard on tyres initially and the car was a handful by the end. I was defending my position. It was hairy but good to finish,’ Keohane said.
Due to the sad and untimely death of his father Paddy in 2002, racing is somewhat unfinished business for Michael Keohane. Silverstone village may be a little quieter on Sunday but at home in Ballygurteen Michael Keohane will be watching with more than a passing interest. He may have stopped racing, but he has retained great and very special memories – including Silverstone – especially when it rained or even poured.