The 37th running of the annual end-of-season endurance race for lightweight motorcycles on the one-kilometre ‘K’ circuit at Killarney International Raceway on Saturday 14 December, sponsored this year for the first time by Kaltron Electronics, delivered all the usual drama associated with this iconic event, but with an unexpected twist.

For the first time ever, it rained.

Riders of long standing recalled at least one occasion when qualifying was run on a wet track but it had never before rained during the race. Since not all the teams could stretch to a second set of wheels with wet-weather tyres, many rode through the rainstorm on slicks (racing tyres with no tread) so it’s not surprising that the second half of the eight-hour race produced a number of surprises.

Nevertheless, most of the fireworks happened in the dry during the first half of the race.

British veteran Jonny Towers, head of international bikewear brand RST, having won this event an unequalled 10 times on the famous RST CBR150 four-stroke, set his sights in 2018 on wining the 8 Hour with a two-stroke. His Honda-engined CFR80 failed a little short of half distance that year but he was back in 2019 with an 85cc KTM-engined machine prepared by master tuner Tony Sterianos and a ‘dream team’ of himself, Kewyn Snyman and David McFadden.

Pre-race favourite, however, was the Mad Macs CBR150, crewed by Trevor Westman, Warren Guantario, Brandon Storey and multiple former SA Superbike champion Greg Gildenhuys. Also expected to be fast and frantic was the VanBros CBR150 of the Van der Walt family, comprising father Mark, sons Nicholas van der Walt and Aran van Niekerk, and veteran Superbike racer Mike du Toit – a crew with a reputation for fast laps and big crashes.

Indeed, Nicholas van der Walt was leading the first-lap mayhem, seconds into the race, when Nicholas Hutchings crashed so violently coming out of the Pits Esses that both he and the HSC CBR150 were catapulted over the tyre barrier and across the pit exit lane, bringing out the Safety Bike and the ambulance.

Racing resumed after 16 minutes, with the debris cleared away and Hutchings on his way to hospital. Almost immediately, McFadden on the RST machine moved into the lead. At the end of the first hour RST had reeled off 72 laps, one ahead of VanBros, with the Mad Macs crew just 13 seconds further adrift.

Halfway through the second hour, however, an exhaust retainer spring on the KTM motocross engine let go, forcing them into the pits. Sterianos and Paul Linaker MacGyvered a semi-permanent repair with locking wire and sent the bike out again, after eight frantic minutes, in 10th place.

Meanwhile, the HSC pit crew had gone home and fetched another CBR150. They replaced the entire front end of the crashed bike as a unit, as well as the fairing – which, of course, also changed the bike’s racing number, much to the consternation of Clerk of the Course Neva van der Merwe. However, the team pointed out that the engine and frame numbers of the original bike were unchanged and they were permitted to rejoin the race, a few minutes before the two-hour mark.

That left No.2 rider Abigail Bosson, the only girl in the race and at just 14 the youngest rider, with the unenviable task of test-riding the hybrid machine at race pace – but the pit crew had done their job right and she was soon on the pace. Late in that first stint she posted a new personal best time of 51.866sec.

While they were busy, however, Mad Macs had taken the lead from VanBros. By the end of the second hour, they were holding a two-lap advantage, with the Ellis brothers, David and Michael (the only two-man team in the race) third on the Weskus Verkoelers CBR150, 15 seconds further back and the Powerflow CBR150 of Richard Bate, Paul Medell, Wesley Jones and seven times SA Superbike champion Greg Dreyer another two laps down in fourth.

Nine minutes into the third hour, the Weskus Verkoelers machine collided with the Lidz Endurance Racing CBR150 of Andre Calvert, Sharl Wasserfall, Ronald Slamet and Derek Davids, badly damaging both bikes; Lidz were forced into the pits for a lengthy repair, but the Ellis brother simply ripped the bodywork off the No.19 machine and went back out, having dropped from second to seventh.

The RST crew put in a superb 73 laps – one more than the leaders – during the third hour. That moved them back up to third, three laps behind VanBros and seven behind Mad Macs. With five hours left, they would have to make up a lap every 42 minutes to get back on terms – a big ask, but as long as the bike was running well they refused to give up.

Halfway through the fourth hour they became the only team to break the 48 second barrier, posting the fastest lap of the race at 47.997sec.

Just before half distance, however, fate dealt them another blow; they had underestimated the thirst of the hard-pushed KTM two-stroke single and, just a few laps before a scheduled pit-stop, Towers ran out of fuel at the first 180. Pushing the machine to the pits and refuelling cost RST another seven laps, moving them down into fourth behind Powerflow; barring a disaster for the Mad Macs crew, a win was now out of reach.

By this time, however, the clouds had closed in and halfway through the fifth hour, the rain came down. Those teams who had spare ‘wet’ wheels brought their riders in and changed them, but not before spectators were treated to the sight of Abigail Bosson on the HSC machine, running stone last – 140 laps behind – chasing and passing the two leading bikes!

Average times stretched from around 52-55 seconds to more than 70 as those riders without wets pussyfooted around but, surprisingly, there were no big crashes. Even after changing to wet tyres, however, Mad Macs were only able to complete 70 laps in the fifth hour. VanBros slipped even further, posting 67 laps in the wet while McFadden made a quick change to wets and helped take RST to an impressive total of 72 laps despite the rain.

The rain stopped during the sixth hour and soon dry patches appeared around the circuit. Nevertheless, the teams that had switched to treaded tyres opted to stay on them, rather than waste time in the pits changing back to slicks – although that meant their tyres were shredded by the end and McFadden actually suffered a small spill just three minutes from the flag.

After six hours, however, RST were second, 10 laps down on Mad Macs, with VanBros just one lap further behind. RST made up a lap during the seventh hour, while VanBros lost another three, dropping them to 14 laps off the leaders.

The final hour was a long grind to the finish; the only significant position change was when Powerflow overtook the battered Weskus Verkoelers machine for fourth. The RST crew, however, stayed on pace, putting in 72 laps in the final hour to Mad Macs’ 69 and finishing only six laps adrift after a drama-filled eight hours. Third were VanBros, a further nine laps down, ahead of Powerflow and the Ellis brothers.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic of the 2019 8 Hour, however, was that despite plenty of spectacular tumbles and a distressing number of injuries, 21 out of 21 starters were still running after eight hours. The best news of all, however, was that by Monday Nicholas Hutchings had been discharged from hospital and was up and walking, sore all over but with no lasting injuries.