You might hardly get two extra completely different drivers as the latest conquerors of the Autosport Nationwide Driver Rankings. Again in 2022, it was teenaged historic single-seater sensation Samuel Harrison who led the best way, whereas final season it was veteran Irish racer Michael Cullen who topped the charts having triumphed in a spread of tin-top equipment and likewise in a Seven-style Stryker.
However that’s the fantastic thing about the rankings, which is a simple listing of the drivers who win probably the most races within the UK and Eire throughout a calendar 12 months – it’s open to everybody, whatever the class they compete in or how skilled they’re.
“One in every of my good buddies, Dave Maguire, despatched me a textual content and stated it’s no shock – you’ve performed extra mileage than a London taxi, which is probably correct!” says 60-year-old Cullen of his success.
“However I’m simply having a little bit of enjoyable, appropriately. I’ve been racing for 40 years – I had my first race in a Fiesta at Mondello Park in 1983 in a Manufacturing Saloons race and I got here fourth and my dad [Des] got here third and I used to be in a household buddy’s Fiesta. That was my first race and right here I’m 40 years later racing a Fiesta, so I haven’t actually progressed however have had a little bit of a journey! I’ve had a good time and it’s all the time been for enjoyable.”
That journey initially took Cullen from his native Eire to the UK on the finish of the Eighties to compete within the Metro Problem, earlier than he had one other spell racing on British shores within the British Touring Automotive-supporting Fiesta championship within the late Nineteen Nineties, along with his rivals together with the likes of Colin Turkington. Cullen then moved throughout the continent for a really profitable stint within the Ferrari Problem Europe within the 2000s, profitable the title twice, all of which led to a British GT assault alongside fellow Ferrari racer Paddy Shovlin in 2008.
“We received the primary race and led the sequence and we ended up third within the championship,” remembers Cullen, who says the financial crash then put paid to any ideas of one other title bid. “We solely did one race in 2009, the Spa 24 Hours, after which didn’t race for just a few years.”
He returned to the cockpit for a few Maserati races earlier than changing into an everyday fixture of the Mondello Park scene once more from 2015, reaching loads extra success. All of which led as much as one other twin assault on the Irish Stryker and Fiesta ST sequence for 2023.
Photograph by: Michael Chester
Cullen competed within the Fiesta ST sequence in 2023 as a part of his programme
However Cullen’s newest quest for silverware obtained off to a difficult begin as he missed the opening Mondello occasion in an effort to compete on the Goodwood Members’ Assembly. After sharing his Lotus Cortina with World Rally star Craig Breen the earlier September, the Irish pair have been once more resulting from race with one another final April within the Jim Clark Trophy, earlier than tragedy struck.
“A couple of days earlier than, Craig was referred to as up to try this take a look at [for Hyundai] on the Thursday and needed to pull out of Goodwood and Sam Tordoff took his place,” says Cullen. Sadly, Breen by no means returned from the Croatia take a look at after a devastating crash, and that left Cullen debating what to do for the most effective. Ultimately, he and Tordoff opted to race on in tribute to Breen, however it proved to be a tricky occasion on monitor as nicely. “We blew an engine in qualifying and began on the again,” explains Cullen. “However we had obtained as much as tenth place on the final lap after which the automobile in entrance of Sam spun off on oil and Sam additionally went off afterwards.”
All of this meant it was not till Might that Cullen received his first race of 2023 – however he opened his account in some model, profitable each Stryker races at Bishopscourt earlier than triumphing twice in Strykers and Fiesta STs at Mondello in June to kickstart his championship challenges. He once more accomplished the quadruple in July and by no means regarded again from there within the Stryker sequence, solely being defeated by his son Victor at Anglesey. “It might’ve been ironic if that price me the highest place [in the rankings]!” laughs Cullen, who enjoys racing within the Caterham-style class. “It’s a 1.8-litre Zetec engine they usually’re moderately fast with 160bhp, so it’s similar to the second-quickest Caterham sequence [310R].”
However, whereas Cullen stunned his Stryker opposition comparatively simply, he had way more of a combat on his arms within the Fiesta ST class. Darragh McMullen had capitalised on his early-season absence and, though Cullen had moved into the factors lead heading into the October finale, it was removed from a performed deal. “I used to be actually fortunate to win the title,” admits Cullen. “I had ABS failure within the final race, which places the automobile into limp-home mode, so I limped dwelling in eleventh place and I feel it gave me 5 factors and I received the championship by 4 factors.”
But it was Cullen’s historic racing that was to show essential to him topping Autosport’s winners’ desk. After first becoming a member of the UK historics scene in 2019, he has since competed in a pre-1966 Mini and Jordan Racing Group Lotus Cortina. And he received within the Mini on the Historic Racing Drivers Membership’s Lydden Hill assembly in June, a victory Cullen says was certainly one of his favourites of the season. “I had a reasonably savage battle with Pete Chambers and Nathan Heathcote,” remembers Cullen. “I really like the monitor – it’s a pity it’s not used extra typically and it’s not on the HRDC calendar this 12 months. The monitor fits the Mini and it was simply full on.”
Whereas Cullen plans to proceed his rallying exploits this season, he’s additionally relishing the possibility to joke about his driver rankings success along with his motorsport mates, together with Alliance Racing group supervisor Malcolm Swetnam
Nevertheless, Cullen didn’t climb to the summit of the rankings till late October, when he loved class success within the HRDC’s Allstars class at Silverstone within the Cortina, having narrowly defeated Victor for an additional “actually hard-fought” win. That took Cullen’s victory tally to 17, however it was nonetheless a way in need of the 21 Harrison achieved the earlier 12 months and he due to this fact didn’t assume he would retain prime spot. “I assumed one of many guys within the prime 5 was going to do the race assembly at Mallory Park [on Boxing Day] and, if they’d received a type of races, they’d’ve received it,” he says. “I used to be relieved to see they didn’t! I used to be amused as a result of I actually didn’t anticipate to win.”
A part of Cullen’s shock at ending the 12 months on prime may be defined by the very fact he truly contested fewer historic races in 2023 than he has performed in different latest seasons as a result of he has added yet one more string to his bow. “I’ve began to do some rallying right here in Eire,” he explains. “I obtained an historic BMW M3 from 1987 constructed by a man in Holland. [Thierry] Neuville’s obtained two of them, [Dani] Sordo has one and Breen had one in construct. I did three rallies final 12 months and that’s been an eye-opener – after racing for 40 years, I’m not used to somebody calling the notes. It’s like taking part in soccer and now taking on cricket. Each are on a pitch and have a ball, in any other case they’re nothing actually like one another in any respect!”
Photograph by: Gary Hawkins
Lydden Hill battle was certainly one of Cullen’s favorite moments from 2023
Whereas Cullen plans to proceed his rallying exploits this season, he’s additionally relishing the possibility to joke about his driver rankings success along with his motorsport mates, together with Alliance Racing group supervisor Malcolm Swetnam. “Malcolm was the Metro Problem coordinator in 1986 after I began racing within the UK and he and I’ve been buddies ever since,” says Cullen. “I stated to him, ‘You ought to be giving me a take a look at in a touring automobile!’ It’s been an enormous lot of enjoyable over the past couple of weeks taking the piss out of Andrew Jordan and my racing buddies.”
And Cullen want to add additional wins and defend his place in 2024, though he acknowledges will probably be a tricky ask. He intends to once more compete within the Irish Stryker and Fiesta ST classes and enter a number of UK historic occasions, together with the Basic Touring Automotive Racing Membership’s Pre-’66 races in assist of the BTCC at Croft in his Mini. In the end, 4 a long time on from his debut, he’s grateful to nonetheless be aggressive and enjoys racing at weekends to beat the stresses of his busy day job as CEO of a hospital in Dublin.
Nevertheless, he does word a looming menace on the horizon. “I began racing towards my dad and it’s gone full circle now,” Cullen explains. “Again within the Eighties, I used to be a bit slower than my dad and, after a 12 months or two, I obtained progressively faster and I can see historical past repeating itself. Victor is eighteen and had his third part-season. He’s just about capable of do the identical occasions as me now.” So, maybe there might quickly be one other Cullen to be careful for within the driver rankings through the years to come back.
Photograph by: Michael Chester
Cullen raced along with his son within the Irish Strykers final season