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Pirelli Porsche Race Series – Round One

By Stuart Owers

The first round of a brand-new season is always preceded by a big build up and lots of preparation. This winter’s groundwork and planning was even more complex than usual. Our race committee chairman, Chris Barendregt, spent months trying to make sense of what the new Motorsport NZ promoters were going to do while still having to negotiate with the previous promoter and numerous others who were all trying to get a slice of the 2022/23 motorsport season. After many frustrating months and hundreds of phone calls he somehow managed to skillfully pull together an exciting schedule for our series that will take us through the North Island circuits and on to a couple of big events at Highlands and Ruapuna.

While Chris was doing his diplomatic negotiating duties our drivers were involved in the most intensive pre-season preparations that I’ve ever seen. You would be forgiven for thinking they were training for a Formula One Grand Prix. Driver coaches were engaged, data engineers were consulted, engines were tuned and countless practice kilometres were driven at various different tracks.

This buildup came to a peak at Manfeild. I had the privilege of watching 33 Porsches rolling into garages and waiting for the first of our new season’s qualifying sessions to begin. This was the biggest field of racing Porsches assembled in New Zealand for at least 20 years. Remarkably, there were two drivers with us who were actively competing back in those halcyon days and are still racing with us today, Robert Dong and David Mackrell. Robert hasn’t missed one of our races in 25 years and has won the Championship twice. For all our drivers, Manfeild was doubly exciting because it would be the literal “rubber meets the road” gauge as to how everyone compared after all that pre-season preparation and training.

Manfeild is my favourite track to race on and has become my favourite as our racing coordinator. The people running the event are so helpful and great to deal with, right from the Clerk of the Course, Malcolm Glenn, to the grid marshals and flaggies. We were also fortunate at Manfeild to have Naomi Bray looking after us as our CRO. Naomi has been a long-term member of the Porsche Club and is a very experienced motorsport official.

One of the reasons for the large Porsche turnout at Manfeild was the popularity of the Boxster class. The Boxsters are very close in specification to standard road cars, which keeps the costs down, and being mid-engined they are vice-free and the perfect car to learn race craft in. We had 18 Boxsters lining up for the qualifying session and all the drivers were looking to grab the honour of the fastest lap for their class.

We also had a nice array of 996 Cup cars and a few of the later 997 variants. And, of course, we had the perennial 944s.

It was great to be joined by a number of new drivers. Three of these drivers were going to be experiencing the very first race of their lives. Neville Chandler, Iain Hill, and Grant Tregurtha had the nerve-wracking thrill of having their first race meeting ever. Spoiler alert, - they all did really well. We also had some experienced drivers who were new to our series. Mark and Ethan Hourigan from Wellington were sharing a Cayman GT4 and Tony Austin was there in a recently purchased 997 Cup Car. Adrian Redding had realised the error of his ways and rejoined us after a few seasons racing a Mazda RX8. We also welcomed back Scott Huppert who last raced with us many years ago in a 944. Scott was making his first appearance in the Boxster class. Andrew Whittaker also joined us for his annual Porsche series race. One stand-out car on our grid was also the only air-cooled representative, Chris Fleury. Chris had made the trip up from Christchurch and was intending to leave the car at Manfeild after our racing so he could do a classic event the following weekend.

Wandering around all the cars and taking a close interest in our activities was Nathan Pilcher. Nathan is the newly appointed Motorsport Coordinator from Porsche New Zealand and has years of successful motorsport involvement in his past. Thanks for joining us Nathan, it was great to have you with us.

Qualifying
With such a large number of cars on the track at once and only a 15-minute time frame our qualifying session was going to be tricky, however everybody seemed to eventually find enough space to put in a good lap time. Regan Scoullar emerged as the fastest car on the crowded track and grabbed the outright pole position. Regan spent a season with us last year racing a Boxster and made the challenging step up to a 997 Cup car for this year’s championship.

The 996 Cup car class was interesting to watch. Last year’s champion, Robert Dong, decided to compete in his 996 this season, but was struggling with a gearbox problem. Nick Cutfield eventually emerged as the fastest of this six-car group and put himself into a commendable fourth place on the starting grid. Cam McCormack was third in that group.

Behind them the battle of the 944s was won by Marin Vujcich over Matt Burton and Adrian Redding.

The intense struggle in the Boxster class eventually saw last year’s champion Noel Simpson emerging as the pole winner with Chris Taylor only a tenth of a second behind him. An indication of the competitiveness of this class was Kelly McEwan’s qualifying time. He was just one hundredth of a second slower for third place on the grid.

Race One
The start of the first race of our new season was chaotic. As the starting lights went out a car stalled on the front row of the grid which had everyone holding their breath waiting for some serious rear end collisions. Fortunately, the skill of the other drivers saved the day and they managed to avoid each other, but the stalled car then came storming through into turn one and caused a bit of a pinball effect. Once the race settled down we were enjoying some great action from the different classes until near the end when Nick Cutfield lost control of his Cup car and backed it heavily into the safety barrier. Nick emerged from the car feeling bruised but ok. Sadly, his car was left looking pretty damaged.

The winner of the race was pole sitter Regan Scoullar followed by Andrew Whittaker and Struan Robertson. The 996 class was won convincingly by Cam McCormack followed by Robert Dong. Marin Vujcich won the 944 class from Adrian Redding while the hotly contested Boxster class was won by Noel Simpson over Chris Taylor and Mark McCaughan.

Race Two
Another start and another stall on the front row saw more frantic dodging and weaving from the rest of the field. This time without any panel damage. The racing action unfolding was exciting but hard to follow because, with such a large field, spectators needed eyes on every corner. Andrew Whittaker took control at the front of the group and behind him Regan Scoullar finished second but was the first 997 home ahead of Struan Robertson and Tony Austin. Cam McCormack again lead home Robert Dong and Daniel Angus to win the 996 class.

Marin Vujcich claimed another 944 victory but just behind him a delighted Chris Taylor emerged as the winner of the Boxster class over Noel Simpson and Tony Houston.

Race Three
This was scheduled to be a 25-minute race so everyone put in extra fuel and looked forward to a longer run out on the brilliant Manfeild track. This time the field got away to a clean start and we were able to watch the action unfolding more conventionally. The most fascinating racing was between Noel Simpson and Chris Taylor. These two swapped positions at least once per lap and their side by side actions were incredibly entertaining. Despite setting fast lap times and leading the rest of the Boxsters, both drivers gave each other room and showed how spectacular the racing can be in this class. After many laps of this side by side action our entertainment was cut short when the safety car flag was pulled out after the Cup car of Regan Scoullar got lodged in the gravel trap on turn seven.

Regan’s car was recovered and eventually the safety car turned it’s lights out to allow the race to restart. Unfortunately, there was confusion and a misunderstanding about safety re-starts so the race officials made the field follow the safety car around for another lap. That still didn’t fix the problem and after it was clear we wouldn’t get a proper race re-start the drivers were given the chequered flag slowly flowing past under the lead of the safety car. Who knows who would have won the Simpson/Taylor duel if the race had been able to re-start, but it was Noel Simpson who got the win followed, of course, by Chris Taylor, then Tony Houston.

At the front of the field Andrew Whittaker took the overall win followed by Tony Austin who claimed his first win in the 997 class. He was followed home by Struan Robertson. Once again Cam McCormack was first in the 996 class, followed by the ailing car of Robert Dong, with Jim McKernan third. Marin Vujcich won the 944 class again to make a clean sweep of the weekend.

Congratulations to all of our drivers. Obviously there were some unfortunate “first race of the season” style incidents but putting those aside the overall driving standards were excellent. The brand-new drivers went exceptionally well and so did our returning drivers.

Huge thanks must go to our race committee for getting this season off the ground following so many difficulties. In particular Chris Barendregt who invested a massive amount of time, but also Matt Burton for his focus on our documentation and articles, and of course Cam McCormack for all his expertise and time on the technical side.