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SERIES PROMISES TO BE THE MOST COMPETITIVE SEASON YET
The third year of the Mahindra North Island Endurance Series looks likely to be the most crowded and competitive season yet, as round one of three at Taupo's Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park approaches this weekend.
While the full entry list for the one-hour and three-hour races had yet to be fully confirmed at the time of writing, early indications are pointing to packed-out grids — 26 cars confirmed for the one-hour, and 36 confirmed for the three-hour.
International Motorsport (IMS) will be one of the race favourites across both formats, with a refreshed three-hour line-up in their stunning, newly liveried Audi R8 LMS Ultra GT3. Neil Foster, who gathered some healthy competitive miles through his one-hour campaign last season, makes the jump to the three-hour series in the IMS R8.
Matt Whittaker, meanwhile, will aim to defend the team's record at Taupo in the one-hour, while behind the wheel of their Porsche 911 991 Carrera Cup car.
Former A1GP “Black Beauty” pilot Jonny Reid will join Foster in the Audi R8. Reid's return to the track comes after a number of familial celebrations for the former Supercars Championship driver, including marriage to his partner, Monique, earlier this year.
The return continues on a long-term relationship with IMS that's seen Reid race for the team in multiple categories, including the Porsche Carrera Cup and the V8 SuperTourer series.
The IMS Audi is one of three GT3-spec cars entered for the three-hour. North Island enduro regulars and reigning Taupo champions Glenn Smith and John De Veth are back with their Chevrolet Camaro GT3, after debuting it at last year's Highlands 101.
And Trass Family Motorsport (TFM) will also be one to watch with their Ferrari 458 GT3, piloted once again with endurance stalwarts Sam Fillmore and Australian Danny Stutterd. TFM will also field a second GT3 in the one-hour event in the shape of their F430 GT3. It will be driven by Glen Chappel, while Elliot Andrew will drive the team's long-serving F430 Challenge — backed by The Hodge Group. The Ferrari squad's operations for the weekend are bolstered by the services of Formula Pacific and F5000 legend David Oxton, who will be the race manager for the team's three entries.
“Oxton is an extremely talented man, whom we greatly respect,” said TFM team owner Gerald Trass.
“Hailing from the glory days of New Zealand and international motor racing, David brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the team that money simply can't buy.”
Sadly, missing from the GT3 field will be the SaReNi Camaro GT3 driven by John McIntyre and Inky Tulloch. After winning the Mahindra New Zealand Endurance Championship, Tulloch was admitted to hospital following a well-publicised crash at Teretonga. Tulloch's daughter Rebecca spoke about her father's condition at last weekend's MotorSport New Zealand Awards Dinner, saying he has now been discharged from hospital and is talking and eating.*
Hot on the heels of the GT3 crop is a growing group of former SuperTourer and TLX V8 chassis. Past NZV8 champion Paul Manuell and V8 Ute Series veteran James Urquhart line up in the Commodore Manuell used to campaign in the NZ SuperTourer Series. Toyota Finance TR86 pilot Callum Quin will also run a SuperTourer-chassis Commodore. He will be joined by John Penny.
But the most competitive SuperTourer entry will be the Smeg Racing Commodore of Simon Evans and Gene Rollinson. With just some mild modifications to their championship-winning NZ Touring Car, the pair were able to claim second at the New Zealand Endurance Championship at Hampton Downs in March.
With even more performance expected from the car this weekend, the team will expect to match the race pace of the GT3 cars.
As is almost traditional with any endurance championship, the selection of top-flight entries are supported by a colourful group of interesting race cars with their own histories.
They range from cars that have graduated from classes such as BMW's E30 Series and the Motul Honda Cup, to cars that have been flown to New Zealand from overseas championships — such as Stefan Calcott's Spoon Honda Integra Type R from Japan and the pair of reliable Seat Leon Supercopas from Europe.
Testing for the event takes place on Friday, with the race on Saturday. The series then makes the trek back to Hampton Downs in Waikato for round two on June 25, before coming to a close at Manfeild Autocourse, on July 23.
* The Tulloch Motorsport team have since confirmed that they will in fact be on the grid for this weekend's event. Click here to read more about their return.