Star-studded line-up for Hampton Downs 101
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GT racing continues to carry a surge of momentum via an upswing in interest from fans and sponsors, with events such as this weekend's inaugural Hampton Downs 101 event in Waikato exemplary of the formula's growing stature.
The meeting is the penultimate round of the Australian GT Endurance Championship, and the first of two events in New Zealand.
It has attracted a long 34-car list of competitors with A-class machinery. Many are regular fixtures in the AGT, but in the heat of the category's climax, several additional cars and drivers have entered the fray — making it one of the most competitive motorsport meetings taking place on our shores this year.
How does it work?
The regulations of the AGT are moulded around the notion that anyone on the grid can win — a challenging prospect given the depth of the field.
Each driver in the series is given a ranking, which directly impacts the length of time they have to spend in pit lane during mandatory pit-stop windows.
In short, cars with two professional drivers at the helm will be hobbled by longer pitstops, while teams with two amateurs will have shorter pit stops.
This makes for unpredictable results and close-quarters racing.
Who are the big hitters?
While the field is studded with stars, it's important to consider the caveat of the variable pit-stop lengths when thinking about who's most likely to greet the chequered flag first come Sunday's 101-lap epic.
Series leaders Grant Denyer and Nathan Morcom and their Tekno Autosports McLaren 650S illustrate this perfectly.
Though they’re not necessarily household names (well, Denyer is — he hosts Family Feud in Australia and is a former newscaster), the pair played themselves into contention after winning round one through consistent speed, clinical driving, and strategy.
Also, consider the father-son combination of Andrew and George Miedecke. Driving for Matt Stone — nephew of famed former V8 team owner and New Zealander Ross Stone — the pairing and their Aston Martin Vantage GT3 took victory at round two of the series at Sydney Motorsport Park after a race-long battle with the Walkinshaw Racing Porsche pair of John Martin and Duvashen Padayachee
Beyond them there are a number of incredibly rapid drivers in the mix; factory Audi pilot Christopher Mies, recent Sandown 500 winner Garth Tander, and Nissan Motorsport’s Michael Caruso among them.
But the question is whether their raw speed and longer pit-stops can match the consistent combinations that have swept the season so far.
Kiwi Dominic Storey and his Eggleston Motorsport co-driver Peter Hackett, and their Mercedes-AMG GT3.
How many Kiwis are on the grid?
Plenty, 14 New Zealanders will take part in the Hampton Downs 101.
Three are full-time competitors in the class — Craig Baird, Dominic Storey, and Simon Ellingham, with AMG pilots Baird and Storey sure to be eying up the podium.
Baird has been one of the strongest drivers all season, but luck hasn't always been on the former Carrera Cup champ's side.
Storey meanwhile, along with co-driver Peter Hackett, has already claimed a podium in the endurance championship — finishing third at the opening round at Phillip Island.
Four drivers; Bathurst 1000 winner Greg Murphy, drift superstar “Mad Mike” Whiddett, former NZ SuperTourer driver Richard Moore, and Ferrari ace Graeme Smyth all take on co-driver roles for the race.
While Murphy, Smyth, and Moore [see sidebar] will likely push to challenge the top five, Whiddett is making his top-level racing debut having recently returned to Aotearoa following a season in America’s Formula Drift series.
Leading New Zealand enduro squad Trass Family Motorsport headlines the domestic contingent.
The remaining seven Kiwis will be entered in locally based race cars; Clark Proctor and Andrew Porter in a newly acquired Nissan Nismo GT-R GT3, Scott O’Donnell and Allan Dippie in their Allied 24/7 Porsche Carrera Cup, and Tim O’Connor and Malcolm Niall have entered their Ferrari 458 Challenge.
Lastly there’s the Trass Family Motorsport Ferrari 458; piloted by New Zealander Sam Fillmore and Australian Danny Stutterd.
Almost 12 months on from the team narrowly losing a potential maiden win at the Highlands 101, they are now dual champions — having claimed the North and South Island Endurance Series titles respectively.
They’re yet another car to consider — and one more dark horse in the mix.