Story by Stuart Owers
I’m lucky enough to live not far away from the Pukekohe racetrack, so I dropped in there a week before the big V8 Supercars meeting just to see how preparations were going. Our Pirelli Porsche series was about to be an integral part of this prestigious event and we’d previously had an onsite meeting with officials plus about a dozen emails detailing how things had to be run.
Even with a week to go there was a buzz of excitement as gangs of workers were well on their way to finishing off dozens of extra grandstands and hospitality marquees. Old Pukekohe was putting on its finest livery and was looking transformed and glamorous in preparation for over 100,000 fans to walk through the gates.
For the drivers, everything was kicking off early, their drivers briefing was being held on the Thursday prior to the event and official practice started in front of a growing crowd early on Friday morning.
With such a big group of Porsche participants we decided to hold our own drivers meeting to discuss how we could avoid holding each other up or tripping over each other on this fast and exciting track. Also, several of the drivers either hadn’t raced at Pukekohe, or in one case, Ted Carner, had never raced anywhere before. We needn’t have worried because the driving standards ended up being highly professional and all cars managed to successfully negotiate around each other’s various speed levels.
For the spectators though there was plenty of excitement and tension during the qualifying. In Class E, Matt Burton set a challenging benchmark early on and held onto that despite the determined efforts of Neil Dewar (second fastest) and Peter Hardy (third fastest).
At the sharp end of the field Michael Neville set an early challenge that was soon surpassed by Conal Dempsey but then everything was reshuffled again when Michael set another fastest time, only to have that also overturned in the final moments by a flying Brian McGovern.
In the end it was Brian McGovern on pole with Michael Neville beside him on the front row, then Conal Dempsey, only fractionally behind them in third place.
There was another closely grouped pack behind them that included Tim James, Sean Kirkpatrick and David Mackrell.
As the cars formed up on the dummy grid the first wave of light rain passed over the track. It was damp, but the teams were unsure if it warranted a fast change to wet tyres.
Following another shower most teams had decided wet tyres were the safest choice and the rapid changes were made. One exception was Michael Neville who chose to gamble on slicks. However, during the warm up lap he and his team decided that wet tyres were definitely the answer so he dived into the pits while the rest of the cars went and formed up on the grid.
This would normally result in Michael having to start from pit lane after the rest of the field got the starters signal. Instead, race officials mistakenly waved his car through so he could take his normal position on the front row of the grid.
The lights eventually went out and the big crowd were treated to the sight of 21 Porsches slithering away with lots of wheel spin. Phil Jones was the only driver who thought he would try something different and dropped his clutch on the start line while in reverse gear. Luckily the cars behind were sharp enough to avoid him and Phil eventually found firstgear and set off in frantic pursuit. I have no doubt his ears would have been pink with embarrassment under his helmet. At the front of the field Michael Neville established a solid lead over Brian McGovern and Conal Dempsey. A lot of viewing interest was focused on the big group of Class E cars who were putting on a real show. To add to that, Struan Robertson and Matt Burton had some wild slides on the wet surface but Neil Dewar managed to hold out a determined Tony Houston to win the Class followed by Struan Robertson in third place.
Despite a threatening dark sky it was dry enough for the drivers and crews not to have to worry about another last minute change to wet tyres and the race started without controversy this time. Michael Neville managed a perfect launch off the front row to lead Brian McGovern through the first few corners, followed by Tim James and Conal Dempsey. David Mackrell was also in hot pursuit of Sean Kirkpatrick.
Class E had a reverse grid start so the cars first through to the long back straight were Tony Houston, Mark Hellier and Jim McKernan.
Robert Dong and Phil Jones put on a great 996 show for us with Phil filling the rear vision mirrors of Robert’s identical looking car.
Steff Chambers unfortunately had to withdraw from the 944 fight when her exhaust system collapsed and dragged on the ground causing her to head prematurely for the pits.
The focus of the race started to shift back to the battle at the front of the race because Brian McGovern was starting to chip away at the lead Michael had built up and was setting new fastest lap times.
That absorbing sight was dramatically diverted as the TV cameras picked up the sickening vision of Matt Burton’s 944 sliding sideways at the top of the front straight and crashing heavily into the right side wall. A minor error of judgement had lead to major repercussions for poor Matt and his car was badly damaged. We were relieved to see Matt get out of the car unscathed but his spectacular crash immediately brought out the safety car.
Because the race had to finish at a prearranged time the safety car lead the field across the start finish line as the chequered flag was waved. Michael had won his second race of the day with Brian in second place once again, followed by Conal Dempsey, Tim James, Sean Fitzpatrick and David Mackrell.
The Class E contest was won this time by Tony Houston, with Neil Dewar in second and Peter Hardy in third place.
The surprising sight of a crime scene at our pit marquees greeted the first of our drivers to arrive back at the track early on Sunday morning. At some stage overnight a group of highly organised criminals had bypassed the security guards and gone through the Porsche tents carefully selecting what items to steal. They managed to take away a lot of valuable equipment and were preparing for another plundering when it seems they were disturbed and fled the scene. By the time some of our other drivers arrived there was already a team of Police and forensic staff going through the evidence and establishing what was missing.
The only positive news to greet the drivers was the sight of blue skies and sunshine but many were unsure if they would even make the grid for our Sunday race. The crisis did have one silver lining; it bought out the true spirit of our Porsche racing family. I watched so many offers of assistance amongst rival teams. Anybody who had lost vital gear soon found opposing crew and team members stepping in with genuine offers to help out or lend them tools and equipment. On track competitiveness and winning edges were put aside to help each other get back out on the track.
Despite all the uncertainty, drama and delays a full field of cars took to the grid exactly on time and the huge crowd sat down to watch the action unaware of all the challenges that had to be dealt with.
An exciting start saw Michael Neville grab a small margin over Brian McGovern into the first corner and Tim James shooting through to third place after Conal got too much wheelspin. The Class E drivers had a reverse grid start and they provided a great spectacle as they constantly jostled and changed positions.
As the race progressed we were absorbed by all the battles in the field until we were diverted by the sickening sight of Neil Dewar’s bright blue 944 making brief contact with another car which resulted in him having heavy impact with the safety wall and then tumbling upside down. This was a serious crash and it seemed everybody stopped breathing until we heard Neil had been pulled out of the wreck and was ok.
Because of the seriousness of the crash our race was red flagged and declared finished after 12 laps. Michael Neville had made a clean sweep of the weekend with three wins and was followed home by Brian McGovern with another close second place. In third overall was Sean Kirkpatrick followed by David Mackrell. The Class E race went to Tony Houston, followed by Peter Hardy and Struan Robertson.
If we had a chivalry award it would most definitely go to Phil Jones who helped Robert Dong sort out a last minute puncture which meant he sacrificed his own position on the grid and missed out on our only practice session. What a gentleman.
However, because of the scale of the event we had several trophies to present, of which the main ones had been beautifully hand crafted by the very generous Brent Greer. The first prize for the Motorsport Championship and the Porsche Club series both went to Michael Neville because of his clean sweep of the weekend. The second and third prize trophies for the Motorsport Championship went to Brian McGovern and David Mackrell.
Our driver of the day trophy, which is always awarded for the previous round, went to Conal Dempsey for his crowd thrilling driving in the rain at the Hampton Downs event.
Congratulations to all those worthy winners.
Despite a weekend of setbacks and dramas our series put on a great show for the crowd. It was also great to see so many Porsche Club members coming over to visit us in the pits and show their support. Roll on the third round at Taupo.