Story by Stuart Owers
There was a buzz of excitement and anticipation when we arrived at Manfeild for their prestigious Grand Prix weekend. This was one of New Zealand’s premier meetings and we were invited to their glamorous party to race in front of big crowds. The battle in the Toyota Racing Series between two Kiwis, Marcus Armstrong and Liam Lawson had been fascinating throughout the summer and this was the finale. The fans were rolling in early. For the Pirelli Porsche series this was our fifth round after a long summer break.
The battle between our class leaders was also about to begin. At the top of the field in the 997 class Brian McGovern and Michael Neville traded lower and lower times. With only seconds left in the session Brian almost equalled Michael’s time but was just .174 seconds shy of the pole position at the chequered flag.
The 996 cars were also close with the experienced Robert Dong eking out a small margin over Cam McCormack. The rest of the 996’s were a tightly bunched group led by Phil Jones, followed by Anthony Lyons and Mike Wilkin.
Brent Greer did his usual giant killing act in his air-cooled Carrera by qualifying ninth overall. Jim McKernan led the class E 944’s and was obviously relishing being on his home track posting an excellent class pole position time.
The cars rolled out to sit on the grid under bright blue skies and 28-degree heat. Even though it was only a sprint race some of the drivers had plugged in their cool suits in an attempt to make themselves more comfortable.
As the lights went out we watched Michael Neville smoke his big rear slicks a fraction too much allowing Sean Kirkpatrick to almost overtake him before the first corner. We held our breath as Sean, Brian and Michael appeared to go three wide around the first turn but they eventually untangled themselves and emerged in their initial starting order with Michael leading the charge. Brian McGovern pursued him but Michael held that lead throughout the race.
Behind them the 996’s were in a tight bunch with Robert Dong leading for the first few laps until he missed a gear coming through the sweeper onto the front straight which allowed Cam McCormack to slip past. At the chequered flag Robert had held onto second place by just a tiny margin over Anthony Lyons, Phil Jones and Mike Wilkin.
After three laps it was sad to see Brent Greer slowly easing off the track onto the grass. Later we found out he had broken some rocker arms and wouldn’t be able to continue for the rest of the weekend.
In an unusually small Class E field, Tony Houston showed his previous championship winning form by leading home Struan Robertson and Jim McKernan. Struan was battling braking issues and we could track his progress around Manfeild by the tell-tale puffs of blue tyre smoke.
Another scorching Manawatu day with temperatures rising near 30 degrees meant the drivers were already steaming by the time they rolled out onto the starting grid. When the lights went out this time there was an angry pack of four 911’s all jostling for the first corner. Michael Neville narrowly squeezed through and led Brian McGovern, Sean Kirkpatrick and David Mackrell in a tight formation through the next few corners.
Brian kept us entertained by repeatedly closing up on Michael under brakes but the red car of Michael managed to keep just out of reach for the whole race. At the chequered flag there was just a one second gap between them. Just a little further back were Sean Kirkpatrick, David Mackrell and Keith Miller.
It was the turn of the 996 brigade to keep us entertained next. Cam McCormack and Robert Dong had a race long contest and swapped positions back and forwards many times. Phil Jones was hanging on to their tussle almost as if he was waiting to pounce but in the end Cam crossed the line less than one hundredth of a second in front of Robert with Phil just another second behind. Anthony Lyons and Mike Wilkin also crossed the line in tight formation just a few more seconds behind the front pack. Anthony was doing well in the early stages of the race until he was caught out by a smoking spin.
The 944’s were also great to watch. Dave Allison started with them and led them home in his 968 but Tony Houston won the E class battle with Jim McKernan second and Struan Robertson third.
In every previous race this season Michael Neville has managed to launch his car off the start line just slightly better than Brian McGovern which means he can lead into the first corner. This time though Brian had the clutch and throttle timing perfect and he pulled a narrow overlap on Michael which forced Michael into an unfamiliar chasing role. This set up an exciting contest with both cars doing lap times within a tenth of a second of each other. The gap between them kept opening and closing and kept us glued to the action. On the last lap it looked like Brian was going to take the win until he went slightly wide through the esses and Michael slipped through. In yet another close finish Brian crossed the line only a half second behind Michael.
Following them the 996’s were putting on a great show. Once again Cam McCormack and Robert Dong were frantically trading positions at the front of their group.
This time Robert managed to hang on in front of Cam and win with a tiny margin of less than a quarter of a second. A few seconds behind, Phil Jones led home Anthony Lyons and Mike Wilkin in their 996’s.
To finish one of their best races of the season the 944’s had their own dramatically close finish with Tony Houston beating home a fast closing Jim McKernan by a tiny tenth of a second. Struan Robertson struggled home last with a misfiring engine and unfortunately Dave Allison dropped out of the race early with engine troubles.
Despite the fact we were the very last race of the weekend the crowd that remained to watch the Porsches were treated to probably the most exciting race we’ve had all season. What a great way to end our Manfeild weekend.
We were delighted to be joined at our Sunday lunch and prize giving by a large contingent of Porsche Club members from the lower North Island. What a pleasure to have them there giving support to our drivers. With two more rounds to go we can only hope the frantic racing action we put on for them will be repeated at Hampton Downs and Taupo.