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Pirelli Porsche Race Series Round 1

 by Stuart Owers

Arriving at the track for the start of a brand-new Pirelli Porsche Racing Series is always exciting, but there were lots of other things that were also new. We were kicking off the season at the recently revamped Pukekohe Circuit where there is now a freshly resurfaced front straight in addition to some widening of the track and moving out sections of notorious walls in a couple of hot spots. 

Many of last season’s cars were returning looking refreshed and restored and they were joined by some interesting new classmates. Previous champion Tony Houston was continuing with the series but this season he’ll be in a Class E Boxster, recently imported from the USA. A great deal of time and effort had been put into bringing the Boxster up to Tony’s high level of presentation standards and it attracted a lot of attention sitting in the pit garage. 

Also returning was Struan Robertson. He’d made a big jump up from last season’s E Class 944 into a B Class 997 Cup car. Struan took delivery of the car in its standard white paint but had plans to give it some eye-catching livery. After being unable to decide between several options he eventually commissioned students at a design school to compete amongst themselves to come up with some fresh new ideas. The result was brilliant. It’s so unique and distinctive. I can see this becoming the new favourite car of both spectators and commentators. 

Another experienced Pirelli Porsche driver returning with a faster weapon was Steph Chambers. A 996 Cup car now had her name on the side windows. This car was making a return to our series after an absence of about 20 years and is one of the first 996 Cup cars to be imported by Porsche New Zealand having had its original debut in Taupo in the 1999 series. Steph has retained the original graphic design that was on the car nearly 20 years ago.

Another driver, who has the distinction of competing with us longer than any body else, had made a move up into the fastest Porsche he’s ever owned. Robert Dong was getting to grips with Michael Neville’s 997 championship winning car from last season. The only downside to this shift is that we won’t see any more of the epic battles between Robert and Phil Jones in their identically painted 996 Cup cars. 

We were also joined by a driver new to our championship, Marin Vujcich. Marin is leasing Steff’s well known 944 and even though he has several NZ endurance races on his CV he’d never raced at Pukekohe before. 

Qualifying
With a number of cars being delayed with either mechanical work being finalised, or drivers missing this round because of other commitments, we saw only 10 cars turning out to compete for pole and Class positions. The drivers who did roll out were being treated to the now unfamiliar layout of the historic long back-straight configuration. 

Right from the first lap Sean Kirkpatrick blazed out some very fast times and put himself on pole with an excellent 58 second lap. Also putting himself on the front row and leading Class B was Brian McGovern. He was just .33 of a second behind Sean’s Open Class car. The fastest Class C Porsche was Cam McCormack. Then, Class D was claimed by Chris Barendgredt in his distinctive Cayman and the Class E pole time was won by newcomer Marin Vujcich.

Race 1
Our first race of the season was going to be a new format, that was history making for this long-established Series. This was a 30-minute race which some drivers were unfamiliar with and a little apprehensive about. There would be normal championship points awarded plus points towards a new endurance trophy. 

As the cars assembled out onto the dummy grid we noticed Sean Kirkpatrick’s car suddenly start to smoke. It was immediately shut off and pushed back into the garage. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an oil seal issue which meant it didn’t compete in any of the weekend’s races. 

The race start saw Brian McGovern streaking out into the first corner with Struan Robertson in pursuit. Cam McCormack’s 996 was clinging onto the 997 group and doing similar lap times to Struan and Robert Dong. 

Tony Houston’s new Boxster initially led the Class E battle as we all settled in to see what developed over 30 minutes. 

Each car had to make a compulsory pit stop that varied in time depending on the Class. The faster cars had to stop for several minutes whereas the Class E runners just had a stop-and-go. With different strategies around the pit stops it kept the action exciting right until the last lap. Cam McCormack eventually crossed under the chequered flag first, followed by Brian McGovern and Chris Barengredt. The Class E battle was the closest and most intense with victory going to Marin Vujcich.  

Race 2
Our first race on Sunday morning was the more familiar format of a 12-lap sprint. 

As the lights went out Brian McGovern gapped the field off the start line leaving Struan and Robert to duel closely over the next 12 laps.  Once again, the Class E battle was the most exciting to watch with Tony Houston leading early on, with Jim McKernan and Marin Vujcich keeping him busy. After five laps Marin managed to slip past Tony and ultimately lead the other two to the chequered flag. 

Up at the front, Brian McGovern came home nearly half a lap ahead of the rapidly improving Struan and Robert. Cam McCormack was 4th overall and won the 996 class. 

Race 3 
It’s traditional that the worst weather of any race weekend seems to be kept in reserve until our Porsches come out to play. This race was no exception. Heavy rain swept over the area but, fortunately, it was early enough to give all the crews time to change to wet tyres. 

This was to be another 30-minute format but now both drivers and crews had a better idea about what to expect and how to strategise their pit stops. 

The start was spectacular with the pack heading into the first corner in a thick cloud of spray. Brian McGovern lead off the line, but Struan found better traction at turn four and overtook both Robert and Brian going down the long back straight. 

Visibility was appalling and it led to a couple of drivers being unable to accurately judge the brake markers. 

We all realised something was wrong when the only 997 to emerge onto the front part of the track was Robert Dong’s red 997. Struan Robertson had been nudged off the track and both Brian McGovern and Cam McCormack were also extracting themselves from the grass or sand.

Both the 997’s of Brian and Struan sadly limped back to the pits to retire. The race continued however, and many drivers took advantage of the yellow flags and safety car to get their compulsory pit stop done. 

The Class E guys provided more great entertainment with all cars closely matching each other on times. 

Cam McCormack had been delayed while he extracted himself out of the sand, but after his pit stop he was on a charge to try and make up lost ground in the still treacherous conditions. 

On the last lap Cam only just had the momentum to get past Marin Vujcich at the finish line to win in a thrilling finish by the tiny margin of .045 seconds. Jim McKernan finished a very creditable 3rd outright. 

Despite the incidents on lap one the 30-minute format was judged to be a great success. The drivers really enjoyed the extra track time, but the added benefit is the races now involve all the crews and supporters as they stood in pit lane to help with strategies and timing. 

The rest of our season is going to be a mixture of traditional sprint races and enduros, depending on what the individual promoters will allow. However, it seems we have struck an exciting new note and a fresh direction for this historic series. 

Congratulations to all our winners and competitors from round one of the new 2019/20 series. 

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