By Stu Owers
Our Pukekohe round is not always to every driver’s taste. The track is fast and bumpy and has a reputation for turning cherished race cars into crumpled wrecks. But those who do take the plunge and race there always leave exhilarated. The adrenalin rush is huge and addictive. Pukekohe’s facilities are also pretty basic, compared to the newer tracks but the race committee got in early and booked the Porsches into some of the few pit-lane garages available. The sense of history and the feeling of a special occasion is always in the air at Pukekohe and the Porsche drivers were there to soak up every second of it.
We had 13 cars turning out on Saturday for the morning qualifying session. I always love the drama of the qualifying session. It’s never over until the very last lap. Some drivers go out and put in their fastest lap early on, but others tend to build into their best performance. This time was no different with the Cup cars constantly trading times in their quest for the pole position. Kris Bostock set the early benchmark but was quickly undercut by Struan Robertson. Kris replied with a quicker time, but it was Robert Dong who waited until the very last lap to post an unbeatable 1.07 to claim the pole from the 1.08s set by Struan and Kris. This was the fastest Robert has ever been around this historic track.
The contest in the 944 and Boxster packs was even closer. Peter Hardy snatched the top spot for that Class, and like Robert, he also put in his fastest time on the last lap. A fraction behind him were Neil Dewar and Matt Burton. All the cars were only a quarter of a second apart.
The Boxster boys were equally as tight and competitive, proving that this new formula is exactly right. Tony Houston sneaked in a lap only .3 of a second faster than Chris Barendregt. Scott Bradley and Chris Taylor were only just behind the front two with fractions of a second separating them.
When the lights went out, we watched an exciting drag race into the long turn one. Struan got the combination of clutch and accelerator exactly right and launched from the second row to wedge himself between Robert Dong and Kris Bostock. This set up a great three-way battle but it wasn’t to last. We watched Struan slow down dramatically after two laps and he was forced to pull off into the infield with a puncture. That left Robert at the front with Kris hot on his heels.
Robert was looking comfortable until he had to slow for lapped traffic and Kris seized the opportunity to pass him over the famous hill corner and take an unassailable lead. Kris went on to win the race. It was his first ever race at Pukekohe and afterwards he was delighted. Steff Chambers came in third in her 996 Cup car.
Behind the drama at the front of the field the 944s were uncharacteristically strung out. We had been expecting a strong challenge from Matt Burton, but his car was sitting on jack stands in the pit garages. He suffered from a broken clutch plate during qualifying and was forced to watch the race from the side-lines.
Peter Hardy piloted the commentator’s favourite car (the pink pig ) in a dominant fashion and he held a healthy lead over Neil Dewar and Jim McKernan. Jim was also suffering from mechanical issues. He had shock absorbers that were not keen on absorbing any more shock, so Jim was floating and lurching his way over all the bumps.
The Boxster boys were putting in very close lap times to each other. Despite Noel Simpson putting in the fastest Boxster lap, the race was won by the experienced Tony Houston, followed by Scott Bradley, with Noel in third place. Chris Taylor and Chris Barendregt were only a couple of seconds further back.
There were nervous faces in the garages before Sunday morning’s first race. It had been raining overnight and was still drizzling about an hour before the Porsches were due to line up on the starting grid. The Boxsters and 944s run on a treaded Pirelli tyre, so the decisionnot to switch to wets was an easy one. The Cup cars however were definitely forced to make a call between their Pirelli wets or slicks. In the end the two cars on the front row rolled out with different set-ups. Kris Bostock and his crew decided to take the conservative option and run on a wet tyre, but Robert and Struan both decided it was dry enough for slicks.
The start was dramatic. Kris left the line with smoke pouring off his spinning tyres while Robert and Struan took advantage of a dry line for their slicks. Unfortunately for Kris, the track was drying rapidly, and he suffered badly with his wet tyres overheating. This left Robert out in front with a very determined Struan close behind and actively looking for passing opportunities.Despite Struan posting the fastest lap time he was unable to rattle Robert enough to find his way past. On the last lap we held our breath as Struan got a faster run over the hill corner and pulled up on the inside of Robert with the chequered flag waving. It was not quite enough to claim a win and Robert held on for a victory margin of just four hundredths of a second. It was a mere bumper’s length between them with the two Cup cars crossing dramatically side by side.
Behind them, the 944s were locked into a race long duel. Neil Dewar looked as if he had an unassailable lead at the front of this group after Peter Hardy had trouble motivating his car forward at the start. Peter was coping with huge wheel-spin after he was forced to change his gearbox overnight.
The new drivetrain did not include a limited slip differential which was a big handicap in greasy conditions. Despite that, he gradually chipped away at Neil’s lead. With the track drying, the lack of rear grip became less of an issue and he loomed into the draft behind Neil.
Matt Burton also looked threatening early on and it was hard to pick which of these three cars would get the line honours. In the closing stages we saw Peter slip down the inside of Neil under brakes to take the lead and then watched Neil having to defend from a determined Matt Burton. At the last lap Neil was still holding onto a small lead in front of Matt.
The Boxster drivers seemed determined to keep mixing up their results. It was exciting watching these guys going three wide into some of the most daunting corners in NZ. This time the close racing didn’t last with Chris Taylor clearing out and holding a commanding lead over Noel Simpson. Behind them, Scott Bradley, Chris Barendregt and Tony Houston finished in that order. Despite being a little spaced out this time, after Chris B suffered from a backwards moment, the Boxster lap times were, once again, incredibly close, with only a tiny variation between them all.
Between race rounds the Race Committee had varied the regulations regarding reverse grid starts for the Boxsters and 944s. Previously these two groups had two reverse grid starts each race weekend, but it was changed to just being on the last sprint race of the round. So, the starting positions for those classes were reversed for this race and it had the effect of creating some very entertaining battles.
For the 944s, Neil Dewar was determined to hold onto to his race lead this time and probably benefitted from a close duel behind him between Matt Burton and Peter Hardy. Neil crossed under the chequered flag with a healthy lead but Matt and Peter were separated by only a tenth of a second in a very close finish.
Once again the Boxster Class was great to watch. Their lap times were incredibly close with all five cars in a tight 1.21 lap-time range. This time it was Chris Barendregt who took the chequered flag first, followed by Scott Bradley, Tony Houston, then Chris Taylor. Noel decided to retire after a small scrape with the background scenery.
Up at the front of the grid, Kris Bostock was again forced to follow Robert Dong for a number of laps while he studied the Porsche lettering on the rear wing and decided where he could take an advantage. After withstanding the pressure from behind for many laps, Robert made a slight error under brakes which allowed Kris to literally drive around the outside for the lead. Struan Robertson had an ambitious moment going through turn five that resulted in a spin but recovered to finish in third place ahead of Steff Chambers.
After this Pukekohe round, the points situation has had a good shake-up. Matt Burton was previously leading the Pirelli Porsche CClub Championship but took a hit by having to miss a race with his clutch problems, leaving Neil Dewar leading the Pirelli Porsche Club Championship. Robert Dong is still looking secure at the top of the Pirelli Porsche Motorsport Championship but with two rounds to go all the Cups are still up for grabs.
Our lunch time on Sunday was the perfect time to award our Driver of the Round trophy for the previous Manfeild meeting. It was awarded to the very modest Neil Dewar for, amongst other things, his three race victories over that weekend.