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Story by Stuart Owers

There’s always a mixture of nerves and excitement at the start of a brand new season of our Club’s racing series. This year it would have been blended with relief for our hardworking race committee members. The committee, led by Brian McGovern, have introduced some fundamental changes to the format we’ve grown familiar with over the past few seasons. The positive reaction to these changes, plus a huge amount of persuasive phone calls from the incredibly hard working Phil Jones, saw a healthy number of cars turning up at Bruce McLaren Park in Taupo to vie for honours in the revamped Pirelli Porsche Championship. The class featuring 944s has been given a boost and the rest of the classes have been restructured to incorporate all varieties of modified 911s, older Cup cars and the newer 991s in order to accommodate as many cars as possible. Rule changes also saw the traditional reverse grid races dropped for the faster classes and the introduction of driver standards observers.

The forecast for the opening weekend was grim with solid rain expected for the Friday practice and Saturday’s races. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Apart from a spectacular thunderstorm on Saturday night we had hot settled weather.

The first driver’s briefing on Saturday morning was a chance for the drivers of 2017/18 to have their group photo taken followed by a quick talk about the new, stricter rules regarding driver conduct out on the track.

The qualifying session was soon underway and a very apprehensive Jim McKernan, (944 Supercharged, Car # 434) tentatively ventured out for his first ever competitive session. The grid was also boosted by the inclusion of series new comer, but highly experienced, Paul Kelly from Christchurch, (car #90) with his 991 Cup Car freshly imported from the Australian series. As it turned out, the qualifying times set on the cooler Saturday morning track were the fastest most drivers could manage all weekend. Later, the hot sun softened the tarmac and race debris accumulated meaning most cars couldn’t get back down to those earlier times.

Both Tim James (Car # 333) and Paul Kelly were slightly disappointed with their qualifying session times and had similar stories about getting to understand the different handling characteristics of the longer wheelbase 991s. Despite that, Paul Kelly managed to secure the pole time but Brian McGovern in his 997 (car #11) was just a quarter of a second behind him. Kevin Etches also did well in his 997, (car #63) especially after he’d had a full season off and was using up old tyres. For Kevin to be only a further tenth of a second back in third place looked promising for the race.

After the starting lights went out for the Saturday afternoon race we saw the top three qualifiers arriving tightly bunched into the first corner and the rest of the field cleanly away.

First races of the season can often be a frantic affair with a mixture of first race nerves and slightly rusty skills, but this opening race was a model of driving skill and awareness of other cars. Brian McGovern was never more than a couple of car lengths off the bumper of Paul Kelly’s car and their intense battle gave the race commentators plenty to get excited about. Brian thrilled everybody by making big gains under brakes and closed in on the slower corners. Further back Kevin Etches and Sean Kirkpatrick (911, Car 78) had a race long battle with Kevin resisting Sean’s relentless pressure for the entire race.

In the mid-field Robert Dong and Phil Jones were putting in great lap times in their near identically painted 996 Cup cars until we saw Robert slowing and pulling into the pits. The oil pressure light was flashing, but his concern turned to relief when it later turned out to be a faulty sensor.

Further back on the track it was good to see Tony Houston (944, Car#356) doing well and leading his class in his first race back with us, after a competing in the Toyota 86 series. The overall race win went to an unflappable Paul Kelly, with class wins to Brian McGovern, (Class B) Sean Kirkpatrick, (Open class) Phil Jones, (Class C) Dave Allison (Class D) and Tony Houston (Class E)

After the race the drivers and crew huddled around a BBQ in one of the marquees as a tropical style thunder and lightning storm opened up above us and dropped torrential rain.

Sunday’s races were the first of the new format for this season. The reverse grid races have been replaced by normal format races, i.e.; fastest times to the front, with the exception of class E (mainly 944s) who will have two reverse grid races on Sundays.

At the start of the second race Brian McGovern, once again, gave the commentators something to get excited about. He and Paul Kelly were lined up on the front row but as Paul rocketed away Brian’s car lurched and stalled. After the entire field streamed past Brian he managed to restart the car with a streak of flame from the exhaust and set off in pursuit of the disappearing pack. This time it was Kevin Etches who took up the chase of Paul Kelly at the front and he initially kept in close contact. Further back Tony Houston had his hands full getting past other well driven cars of Neil Dewar, Adrian Redding and Steff Chambers after starting at the back of class E. It was thrilling to see Steff and Adrian tussling all the way to the flag, with Adrian just winning the final drag race to the line. On the way Steff managed to put in her personal best lap time which was a whopping two seconds faster than last season.

The other great entertainment came from watching Brian McGovern working his way through the field from last to third place overall. Paul Kelly took the line honours again after calmly resisting pressure from Kevin Etches. Class wins went to Sean Kirkpatrick, Robert Dong, Dave Allison and Tony Houston.

The Sunday afternoon race saw our cars gridding up in high temperatures and melting tarmac. This time though there were no dramas with stalled cars and the whole pack got through for another clean start.

Remarkably the finishing order was pretty much the same as the initial starting grid with the exception of class E who had a reverse order start. Once again Tony Houston battled from last to first in class while the battle between Steff Chambers and Adrian Redding continued. This time it was an ecstatic Steff who managed to get the better of it with a tiny. 3 second margin over Adrian at the finish line. The only person who seemed to relish the heat was Brent Greer who steadily improved his lap times on Sunday. Much to the delight of spectators Brent brought along his older air cooled 911, the only one in the field. It was fun watching him battle against the newer generation 911s with his impressive skills.

So, after a weekend of racing its Tony Houston leading the points battle after three straight wins, followed by Brian McGovern with two wins and a second place.

The next round will be in Christchurch at Ruapuna where the Driver of the Day award will be presented for the Taupo races. Contenders are; Paul Kelly for his three outright wins, Brian McGovern for his charge from the back of the field, plus winning the one hour endurance race that was open to all of the meeting’s race categories. Tony Houston for winning all three of his races, including two reverse grid starts. Steff Chambers for her massive personal best improvements and Jim McKernan for his great composure and speed in his first ever races. The worthy winner will be in the next issue of Spiel.

If you are in or near Christchurch on the weekend of Jan 13th, 14th we’d love to see you amongst the cars in the pits. Please drop in and say hello to the drivers and experience some of the great atmosphere generated by this exciting series.