Tohill- glorious days spent defying all the odds on the European stage

Tohill- glorious days spent defying all the odds on the European stage

By Stephen Leonard

IN WINNING the FIA European Touring Car Rallycross Championship in 2010 and again in 2013, Derek Tohill pulled off a feat of colossal magnitude.

All the odds had been stacked against the Terenure man- from his age to his wherewithal to finance costly championship campaigns as well as the logistical problems he faced in operating out of Ireland in a series run predominantly throughout continental Europe.

Tohill and his team in Germany celebrating their Driver and Team European Championship title success in 2013 1

Still he and his PFCRX team stunned the rallycross world by surmounting the ferocious challenge of Scandinavian giants who dominated the sport, drivers like 2009 European Champion Knut Ove Børseth and Sweden’s two time European winner Robin Larsson.

Finishing 14th in the first ever World Rallycross Series in 2014 and runner-up in the British Championship last year, Tohill is a competitor who has consistently punched far above his weight in a sport in which Irish drivers have struggled to gain any sort of foothold, internationally.

Indeed many regard the 2013 Motorsport Ireland International Driver of the Year winner as the shining light of Irish rallycross which only last week was mourning the sad passing of one of its much-loved competitors Noel Greene.

Tohill’s remarkable journey to European success has not been made overnight as he told The Echo “I’ve been asked before ‘What does this mean to you?’ our ‘How did you get to this?’

“And it’s kind of like you’ve worked your whole life towards that. It’s not something that you can say ‘oh yeah we’ve been working hard over the past 12 months.’ You build up to it throughout your whole life.

A dramatic start to the final event of the 2010 European Touring Car Rallycross Championship in the Czech Republic 1

A dramatic start to the final event of the 2010 European Touring Car Rallycross Championship in the Czech Republic

“I do remember, as a kid, seeing them European Rallycross events in Mondello and saying ‘that’s going to be me someday.’

“The cars were just awesome. They were like nothing anybody in the country had seen and the crowds that packed into Mondello were phenomenal.

“I was never into rugby or football or GAA. I never fitted into that box in school. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Derek Tohill and fellow driver Peter McGarry with their team and supporters in Holjes Sweden in 2018 1

Derek Tohill and fellow driver Peter McGarry with their team and supporters in Holjes, Sweden in 2018

“I think at the age of 12 I drove a kart at a birthday party and I just knew immediately, it was like, this is what I’ve been waiting on all of my life.

“Immediately it just came to me, something natural. I just loved it. I was really fast.

“I took a loan out while I was in school to buy a kart. I went for a loan at 16. I had the kart, but I had no money to run it. I had no way of getting the kart around, of bringing it to race tracks. You were asking favours and begging people to help you get it to the venues.

Derek Tohill back on the podium with the tricolour 1

Derek Tohill back on the podium with the tricolour

“But I had good success in those couple of years in karts. I did win Five Nations Cups and rounds of the Irish Karting Championship, but I was always on the backfoot in terms of money.

“And I said ‘look I’m just going to get my education and I’m going to work hard and come back to this in kind of ten years time and do it as a hobby.’

“I got a house under my belt and I even half reluctantly went [back] into racing. I knew the demands it would make and if I go at something, I go at something.

Derek Tohill celebrating his victory in France 2013 in front of some 80000 spectators 1

Derek Tohill celebrating his victory in France 2013 in front of some 80,000 spectators

“I won my first rallycross title probably at the age of about 27 which is quite old”. It was the Motorsport Ireland National Rallycross Championship. It was a kind of feeder/junior class called Stockhatch. That’s where I met some of my best friends to this day.

“I won six titles in that class and back then it had big numbers in it, competitors from the UK and stuff. That’s where I learnt my craft and I suppose after six titles I needed a new challenge.

“There was an entry level class in Europe at that point and I sold the Stockhatch car and took a little bit of time out.

Derek Tohill gives the thumbs up before a race 1

Derek Tohill gives the thumbs up before a race

“It didn’t take too long being on the sidelines that I said ‘right I’m going to go up to Sweden and buy this car for the entry level class in Europe.’

“I brought it home to Ireland prepared it over that winter and went for my first European event in Portugal the following year in 2008. That was a Honda Civic and it was a good entry level class. It wasn’t crazy money to get into.

“I got a win in Poland that year, but it was like ‘right I need something a lot more structured for this if I’m going to be able to deliver on a championship.’

Derek Tohill on his way to victory in France in 2012 1

Derek Tohill on his way to victory in France in 2012

“If you’re to deliver consistently over ten events in ten different European countries you need a bit more of a team and a bit more of a structure.

“That class then came to an end and a new class came out for rear-wheel drive, more powerful cars.

“It was a big ask to build one of them cars and that’s when I decided ‘right I need to take a year out.’

Taking to the air in a round of the 2013 Championship in Sweden 1

Taking to the air in a round of the 2013 Championship in Sweden

“I commissioned the car to be built in Sweden and I was up and down to Sweden a lot that year. Rear-wheel drives are dominated by Scandinavians. It’s their national sport.

“The guy who I built the car with in Sweden, a guy called Ingvar Gunnarsson. I said to him ‘ok look this is a three to five year plan to maybe try and win the European Championship.’

“And he turned around and he said ‘you’re going to win this championship way before that.’

Terenure man Derek Tohill celebrates winning his first FIA European Touring Car Rallycross Championship title in the Czech Republic in 2010

Terenure man Derek Tohill celebrates winning his first FIA European Touring Car Rallycross Championship title in the Czech Republic in 2010

“That year we won the title. It all went down to the final race, the final final. It was a Norwegian, Knut Ove Børseth, who was the reigning champion at that point. He was the man to beat and it came down to the final race in the Czech Republic. Whoever won between the two of us in that race would take the title.

“I remember the nerves of the rest of the team just before that final. If you had the step-counters on the team that day, they probably would have done 50 thousand steps in just a few square meters, pacing away.

“And I do believe that when the tricolour was raised at every event, it wasn’t just for me. It was for the group of lads I was with. For them seeing that flag raised, it made a huge difference. They wanted it as much as I did.

“The final race started and there were cars up in the air. It was eventful, but I won that final. It was my first European title.

“The sport’s quite big there in the Czech Republic which, back then, wouldn’t have been a terribly wealthy country, so entry fees to the venues for spectators was quite cheap.

“The place was black. I always remember there was a concrete bridge going over the track. The bridge took quite a number of people, but I remember for that final there was probably ten times more people than there should have been on it.

“The bridge was at the last corner and when you passed under it, you crossed the finish line and I do remember seeing the team hanging out of the bridge on that last lap.

“I looked up at them and knew going over the line that it was done. It was my first European title and it was a good place to win it. I would never have expected it in the first year.

“You’re competing against the Scandinavians at what they’re best at and the hardest part of all that is you never had a home event.

“But as the loan ‘Paddy’ up there, I suppose, it allows you to come in under the radar, because nobody knows who you are and you probably don’t have the pressure of it being your home country to win.”

“2011 and 2012 taught us a lot, them years. It was really hard to come back in the second year. I mean I didn’t even get a win that year.

“I think a lot of people went into that workshop that we were in up in Sweden. They were building a lot of cars for a lot of people at that stage.

“People started using my engine builder and my transmission builder, so at the end of that year we decided to pull out of Sweden, re-establish in Ireland and run the car ourselves

“Now it made it harder, because logistically, you’re an island. If you’re living in continental Europe it’s so much easier to travel. You’re bringing a lot with you, but we were used to that. That just became a way of life for you in a way.

“We nearly won it in 2012. I think we had the most wins, but we had three engine failures.

“We probably felt we deserved to win it that year, but look, it just made you dig deeper for 2013 again.

“And in 2013, we were pretty much unbeatable. We were almost in a league of our own and we wrapped up the championship early and against the young hotshot Robin Larsson, whom the whole of Scandinavia was behind.

“I won the two big events in Sweden and France. They were events that would have had 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. They’re the holy grail events and we won both of them and we won them well.

“My family travelled to very few events, but they were in France for that and I’ll always remember that.

“When you take on that life everything goes out the window. It’s hard on your family, the sacrifices they have to make and the hardship it puts on them, so I do remember them being there for that French event and there were 80,000 there.

“When I won and I was on the roof of the car in front of 80,000, that’s probably when they realised ‘Wow this was huge’

“The championship itself was won in Austria that year which was the second last event.

“Larsson was my main competitor and if I bet him, I could take the championship with one event to go.

“We went into the final and I took the lead and Larsson regained it halfway through the first lap. He kind of shovelled me out wide as I would expect him to do.

“And I do remember at that point when he did that I said ‘right, I’m going to catch him, I’m going to beat him and I’m going to win this championship today.’

“He angered me. He really flicked that switch that the team can sometimes find hard to flick in me.

“I caught him and we both had to do our joker lap which is an alternative longer lap and I needed to make sure that I did it at the opposite time he did it to give myself a clear track for one lap.

“So yeah, there was a bit of strategy involved. I could see that he was watching his mirror and watching to see when I was going to joker and if I was going to joker he was going to do it at the same time.

“I kind of sent him a dummy and he thought I was jokering and he jokered and it gave me one lap and that one lap gave me the second I needed. I beat him by hardly nothing.

“That was it. The job was done in Austria and I could just enjoy [the last round in] Germany.

“It was just celebration. We won both the team and the drivers championship and now no one could say it [the first European title win] was a fluke, that you got lucky.

”Winning that 2013 campaign gave us a free entry into the World Championship and that was worth something like €50,000.

“2014 was the first year of the World Rallycross Championship. It moved from European to World level then.

“You could win at European level at kind of a pro-am basis. It was tough, but you could do it.

“You go World Championship, it’s professional and that’s it. I couldn’t do that. I was working, I’d a family.

“I had to find a team that could run me and bring the car around the world. I had a deal with Petter Solberg to be his team mate. He was a World Rally champion.

“But the deal fell through very late in the day. A young Norwegian came in and just put dollars on the table and the deal fell through at the last minute.

“I had a short amount of time to find a team, but I found a British professional team, LD Motorsport and signed with them for the year, but there was no testing and the World Championship wasn’t the place to be learning this new car.

“But I had this free entry and we just had to run with it. You were competing against the likes of Solberg and Jacques Villeneuve.

“The guy that came in with the big bucks, the Norwegian, I spent the first part of that World Championship year concentrating on him, trying to beat him and prove a point. I beat him and that kind of kept me happy.

“I finished 14th that year. In hindsight it was probably quite good. I always felt that my seat was in danger throughout the year. New team mates would come in and your job was to beat them. I beat them every time they were drafted in.

“It was a tough environment not being with your own team anymore. I wasn’t used to that.

“I wasn’t a professional racer. I was running out to events at the last minute and I was running home to get back to family, to work, pay the bills and keep this show on the road.

“In hindsight, I would have loved to have been in the World Championship in my early 20s.

“I won my first European title at 35 and I’m highly grateful to have got two European Championships at that age, in your mid to late thirties.

“I took a year out after the World Championships and I went back and did some European [Supercar] and won a lot of national titles.

“We finished runner-up in the British Rallycross Championship last year. It was our first attempt at that and we lost it by a point to Julian Godfrey, who’s broken all records in the British Championship.

“This year I’ve done little or nothing because of the Coronavirus, but I think I needed a year to rebuild.

“It allows your hunger and motivational levels to come back to where they need to be.

“So I look forward to going back into the British Championship and having a go at that again. I feel more ready than ever.”

By subscribing to The Echo you are supporting your local newspaper Click Here: Echo Online.

Share This