The pressure goes on defending champion Craig Baird this weekend as former sparring partner Matt Halliday and fellow single-seater ace Jonny Reid join him on the grid at Pukekohe Park Raceway for the first round of the 2009/10 Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship

Baird, 39, has dominated the Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship since its inception, the 2008/09 title his fifth in a row.

But former series regular Halliday, now 30, arrives at Pukekohe fresh from finishing seventh overall and claiming the Rookie of The Year trophy at the final round of the F1-supported Porsche Supercup series at Abu Dhabi. And Reid, 26, joins the popular Battery Town series after a stellar career in single-seaters in which he played a key role in A1 Team New Zealand's successful A1GP World Cup of Motorsport campaigns in 2006 and 2007 before heading to the United States to contest the Firestone Indy Lights championship in 2008.

Add in Daniel Gaunt, back for a third season in the Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship after a successful first season in the Fujitsu V8 Supercar championship series in Australia, and reigning Toyota Racing Series champion Mitch Cunningham who has stepped up to the Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup championship for the 2009/10 season and you have arguably the strongest driver lineup ever to face the starter of a Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup race.

This weekend's opening series round is also one of the best supported at the opening round of Motorsport New Zealand's 2009/10 championship series with 15 starters.

The majority (10) of the drivers will be behind the wheel of one of the current 997 models, with the other five - Rob Steele, Simon Evans, Hugh Gardiner, Simon McLennan and Colin Caldwell - contesting the new 996 championship series-within-a-series in earlier 996 model GT3 Cup cars.

Baird heads a five-car lineup from Triple X Motorsport where he will be joined by Daniel Gaunt, Courtney Letica, Shane McKillen and Mike Morton.

Halliday, meanwhile, returns to the International Motorpsort camp where he will be joined by Jonny Reid, Mitch Cunningham, Paul Kelly and Andrew Bagnall.

Format-wise fans will notice a major change at four of this season's six rounds (including this weekend at Pukekohe) with the addition of a 100km endurance race on Saturday afternoon.

Making the most of the expanded coverage promised by MotorSport New Zealand's new Tier 1 TV partner TV3, the Battery Town Porsches will now contest a Mad Butcher-sponsored 100km endurance race each Saturday afternoon before reverting to the usual 2 x 20 minute sprint race format on Sunday.

To keep things simple there will be no driver changes or re-fuelling but a stop to change two wheels is compulsory, the idea, says new series coordinator Douglas Blair, " to mix it up a bit, for the drivers and teams as much as the fans.

"Our cars, obviously, are capable of and regularly used for long-distance events, so we have taken that fact and built on it. There will be a 'pit window' in which the pit stop and wheel change must take place but it won't be like Bathurst where you have a team working on the car. Instead they'll be just the two crew members, one to control the pit and air lance and one to remove and replace the wheels."

Spicing the action up will be prize money -- with a not-to-be-sneezed-at $10,000 to be spread over the field thanks to The Mad Butcher -- plus double points, adding a whole new complexion to a driver's race weekend.

This season also sees a stronger delineation between the 997 and 996 categories with separate points, titles and podiums.

The Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars will be on track from Friday at Pukekohe Park Raceway with two testing sessions before qualifying on Saturday morning and the first - in this case 36 lap - endurance race starting at five and expected to finish at 5.40 pm.

Sunday then brings two sprint races, the first over 12 laps in the morning and the second, with a top six reverse grid - over 16 laps in the afternoon.

-credit: nz gt3