By Stuart Owers
In December 2019 we were faced with a big problem with our forthcoming January Taupo round. A dispute between the race track owners and the Taupo Car Club was in full flight and we were told our scheduled race meeting was not going to go ahead. As a substitute we were offered a spot at a Pukekohe meeting, but for us, this would have meant it would be our third Pukekohe event in a row. We had a dilemma and initially it looked like we would have been best to cancel the Taupo round all together.
Fortunately, after much hard work and clever negotiating by both Phil Jones and Brian McGovern we were eventually able to book the Taupo circuit, directly with the track owners and run a style of race event we had been talking about since last winter. This was really breaking new ground for race meetings in New Zealand. Our race committee had already been planning to evolve the format of our Pirelli Series into a one-day event with longer races but here was now an opportunity to test the formula much earlier than we thought.
Previously all our races have been short 8 or 10 lap sprint races. Traditionally we had one race on the Saturday and two on Sunday. The race committee were devising how we could go about having all our races on one day and also incorporating some 30-minute races. The condensed format would mean less time away from home, but at the same time, more racing.
The format for this one-day event was initially going to be exclusively for the Formula First series and the Pirelli Porsche Championship, but then we got Nigel Cagiou and his Rennsport track-day group involved. We had plenty of time on the programme to allow for his group of 15 cars to get out for 15-minute segments (regulated by their insurance requirements) and run their road cars in their normal track-day style.
So, Saturday morning on January 11th saw a fine collection of road going Porsches and Pirelli Race Series Porsches assembled for an intriguing and ground-breaking event.
The Rennsport Group were first out on the track but it was soon time to switch on the timing gear for the race-cars to get out and establish their grid positions. Conspicuously absent when the GT3 Cup cars went out was Brian McGovern. Brian had badly hurt himself about a week earlier and he arrived at Taupo with his leg in plaster. Unfortunately for all of us, he was going to be out of racing for at least this and the next event. The lead up to qualifying had been a stressful period for Marin Vujcich because his clutch destroyed itself during the Friday practice. With a lot of urgent work from Cam and Lorne from L M Motors and assisted by Savannah, the gearbox was out, and the clutch replaced…. Just in time to get out for qualifying.
Out on the track, Struan Robertson put his peg in the ground early and set a pole-setting time that Robert Dong tried desperately to better all session, but ultimately, Robert fell slightly short and had to settle for second on the grid. Behind them, Cam McCormack was not only the fastest of the three 996 Cup cars but was only just slightly slower than the 997s.
We were fortunate to have a big group of 944s for this round. We welcomed Daniel Angus for his first ever race with us and were delighted to get back Peter Hardy, Mathew Burton and Paul Miller, who had all missed the past few rounds. Fastest of the Class E group was our relative newbie to the Class: Marin Vujcich. He just managed to squeeze out Peter Hardy by a tenth of a second to claim pole for the 944 group. Also joining the grid in his almost road-spec Cayman was Chris Barendregt and Tony Houston was back with his Boxster.
The first race was a familiar format to everyone because it was the traditional eight lap sprint race. As the red lights went out, we saw the Dong and Robertson Porsches pretty evenly matched as they blasted off from the start line. Behind them, Steff Chambers got a perfect start and managed to beat Cam McCormack into the first corner. This set up a good tussle between her and Cam, with Cam managing to slip past on lap two. While we were watching Struan and Robert swapping positions at the front of the field, we were also being entertained by some close racing amongst the 944s. Mathew Burton was proving competitive in his newly built car and so was Paul Miller in his distinctive orange 944. Out in front of this group was the “The Pink Pig”, Peter Hardy’s 944. He eventually drew away to a healthy margin in front of Marin Vujcich, who in turn, had a good lead over Jim McKernan.
At the chequered flag it was Robert Dong who crossed the line in first place, but only by a tiny half second ahead of Struan Robertson.
This was our first 30-minute race for the day. Our plan for this race was to have each car pulling into the pits for a compulsory stop. The front running cars were going to have to be stationary for two minutes, but the Class D & E cars only had to come to a complete stop and then go straight out again. We did this at one of our earlier rounds and it worked very well.
Despite this format being part of our series rules and regulations there was some confusion at race control, and we were told at the last minute we couldn’t do the planned stops. Despite that, the race was exciting to watch, although it lacked the extra excitement of the cars coming into the pits.
The start had its usual dramas. Rob Dong’s car edged slightly forward before the lights went out and after a lap he was shown the time penalty board. He was given a ten second time penalty for a “jumped start”. This would have normally been good news for his main rival, Struan Robertson, but Struan had his own problems. As he was heading into one of the slower corners, he got hard onto the brakes only to find the throttle was stuck wide open. The car overshot the corner and, fortunately, stopped safely in the sand-trap. He restarted the car and managed to extract himself from the sand only to have the throttle jam open again.
Unfortunately, his race was over. This left Cam McCormack to take up the chase to Robert. For much of the 30 minutes Cam was closer than ten seconds behind the Dong machine, which meant he was effectively leading the race. It was only in the last few laps of the race that Rob managed to pick up the pace sufficiently to get enough margin over Cam and he eventually took the chequered flag for the win. Cam finished in a well-deserved 2nd place with Steff Chambers 3rd and Mike Wilkin 4th.
Chris Barendregt was also having problems, so he came into the pits early because of over-heated brakes.
Behind them the pack of 944s were entertaining us once again. Peter Hardy and Marin Vujcich were locked in battle for most of the 30 minutes. Peter was the eventual winner of that duel by a very small margin followed by Matthew Burton, Jim McKernan, Paul Miller and a rapidly improving Daniel Angus.
With the cars still cooling down from the earlier race we gridded up for the next 30-minute race. There was still confusion about the compulsory pit stops and they were on for a while but a last-minute decision from race control saw us scrambling to tell the drivers it was off again. In the rush to get to everyone before they went out to start the race, poor Marin Vujcich was overlooked. He was the only driver going out to the race thinking he had to come in for a compulsory stop. More of that later.
The race was off to an exciting start with Rob Dong and Struan side by side and swapping positions for the first few corners.
The battle only lasted until the approach to turn five. Rob slid slightly wide and touched the grass sending his car sideways across the front of a fast-approaching Cam McCormack. The two cars touched and there was enough damage for them both to be forced to retire. This left Struan Robertson relatively unchallenged for a race win with Steff Chambers in 2nd place and a very excited Chris Barendregt in 3rd overall. A remarkable achievement for Chris in a Cayman that’s very close to factory stock specification.
The 944s were, once again, providing all the entertainment with Marin doing a great job battling against Peter Hardy. Tony Houston lead the pack initially but was slowly overcome by the 944s. To everybody’s surprise, Marin came zooming into the pits for his compulsory stop. Despite being the only car to stop we were then treated to great spectacle of Marin clawing his way back into contention. On the very last lap he passed his way back into 3rd place in the E Class. Second place could have been possible and was looking likely if the race had gone on for one more lap. It was very exciting. Needless to say, the points situation will be adjusted to take into account the error.
Shortly after the last race finished, we all moved upstairs to one of the hospitality suites for another unique situation. We had pre-dinner drinks and a very pleasant sit-down dinner with over 50 people, something we’ve never done at a race track previously. A number of the Rennsport group joined us and there was a great buzz of chat as we all relaxed and talked about the days driving.
We also took the opportunity to award Jim McKernan the Driver of the Day trophy for his excellent efforts at the previous round at Pukekohe.
While we were there we acknowledged and thanked the Taupo track CEO and his Director, Chris Abbott, for all their assistance and hospitality. They were a pleasure to work with and bent over backwards to make our day a success.
Our next event at Hampton Downs will be back to the traditional format of sprint races spread over two days.