John McIntyre and Simon Gilbertson win bizarre endurance opener
Low-hanging fog hampered yesterday's opening round of the Mahindra North Island Endurance Championship, with the three-hour race suspended what could be the longest safety-car period in New Zealand motorsport history — at two hours and 28 minutes.
By the time green-flag racing did get under way, two clear challengers for the race had been established in the Tulloch Motorsport SaReNi Camaro GT3 with John McIntyre behind the wheel, and the Smeg Racing Holden Commodore NZ Touring Car driven by Simon Evans.
With the field touring the circuit behind the safety car for such a long period, strategy took on a different complexion, with teams now having to consider the different conditions and the pace of the safety car.
Evans and teammate Gene Rollinson had leapfrogged the Camaro during their stop. Their main rivals on the other hand — International Motorsport's Audi R8 LMS Ultra driven by Jonny Reid and Neil Foster, and Trass Family Motorsport's Ferrari 458 driven by Sam Fillmore and Danny Stutterd — had both fallen back during their pit stops.
Evans (pictured above) led the field as the green flag flew. He and McIntyre engaged in a tight, but shortly lived dice as they threaded traffic. The pair swapped the lead back and forth, until McIntyre made the ultimate race-winning pass on the run to turn one with 23 minutes left in the race.
“Simon [Evans] drove the car really well, he put it in all the right spots and he took all of the advantages away from our car. That's what you've got to do in motor racing,” McIntyre told Driven.
“It's one thing to have a fast car, but it's another to be able to pass people. It got a bit hairy there with traffic, so we needed to be pretty conservative with all of that stuff.”
Eight minutes later, and the fog rolled back in, prompting officials to place the race under caution once again — handing the win to McIntyre and co-driver Simon Gilbertson.
“Really, we played the best possible strategy we could've. But I guess we were more conservative than the Evans car. We put more fuel in, so they jumped us in that pit stop. But we thought, if we had an hour of running, we're going to need fuel and we're going to need pace,” McIntyresaid.
“In the end we needed a green-flag window to get by them. [But] up until that point, we're just sitting there thinking; well if it's second place, we haven't used up much of the car, and Inky's going to be pretty happy with that, and the boys haven't got a lot of work to do before Hampton Downs.”
With his regular co-driver Inky Tulloch still recovering from a significant crash at Teretonga earlier in the year, experienced driver and former teammate to McIntyre Simon Gilbertson was recruited to fill the void. Despite his lack of competitive miles in green conditions, Gilbertson felt his confidence in the car grow during the race.
“As strange as this is going to sound, when you're new to a car, any seat time is good seat time. That was 30 laps of; working the pedals hard, feeling the tyres coming up to temp, losing temp, coming back to temp,” said Gilbertson.
“So now I'm 30 laps more comfortable — way more comfortable. [...] Motor racing is a confidence thing, so every time you're in the car, you take another step forward. [Taupo] is the home track for me, but Hampton I've done a lot of laps at too.
“This car will be particularly strong at Hampton, so we're all looking forward to that.”
For Evans in second, the close pace between his SuperTourer-chassis Commodore and McIntyre's GT3-spec Camaro showed that advances the team have made with the car are bridging the gap between their pace and the leaders.
“We're really proud of it actually. It held up really well. It's easy to drive. So I think if we potentially look at doing some other things to it, it may be as quick as the [Camaro],” he said.
“It was nice to have a really good battle with Johnny [McIntyre]. His car is still quicker than ours, so I had to really had to drive mine to try and get the most out of it. But I think we weren't too far off him.”
“When the race got going it was actually really good. Visibility was OK. I thought that a car had stop, which was why that safety car came out, but the fog rolled in quite fast obviously.”
A big push through the field saw Jonny Reid and Neil Foster round out the podium, while Trass Family Motorsport and SBT Motorsport finished fourth and fifth.
In the one-hour race that took place earlier in the day, International Motorsport's Mat Whittaker took a clear win in his Porsche 991 Carrera Cup car by over a minute, ahead of Tim O'Connor and Kevin Etches.
The series will now travel north to Hampton Downs for round two on June 25.
1. Mat Whittaker (Porsche 991 Carrera Cup 2. Tim O'Connor (Ferrari 458 Challenge) 3. Kevin Etches (Porsche 997 Carrera Cup) 4. Elliot Andrew (Ferrari F430 Challenge) 5. Glen Chappel (Ferrari F430 GT3) 6. David O'Leary (Corvette C6R) 7. Paul Verryt (Holden NZ SuperTourer) 8. Rick Cooper (Ford Mustang) 9. Oliver Heycoop (Honda Civic) 10. Barry Kirk-Burnnand (BMW 135i)