BAIRD & HALLIDAY DRAW THE BATTLELINES AT BATTERY TOWN PORSCHE GT3 CUP CHALLENGE OPENER

Defending champion Craig Baird and series returnee Matt Halliday drew the battlelines at an all-action first round of the 2009/10 Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship at Pukekohe's Pukekohe Park Raceway over the weekend.

Baird could hardly have had a better start to his title defence, claiming the round win from Triple X Motorsport teammates Daniel Gaunt and Courtney Letica.

But it was Halliday who was quickest in qualifying and who came back from a puncture in the first race and a time penalty in the second to dominate the third.

Since its inception five years ago now, the Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship, has always provided close and exciting racing and the opening round of the 2009/10 season was no different, Baird facing competition from old foe Halliday, 2007/08 runner-up and Rookie of The Year Daniel Gaunt, and Halliday's teammate in New Zealand's A1GP World Cup of Motorsport team, Jonny Reid.

Saturday's 36 lap, 100 km endurance race - complete with pit stop and requirement to remove and replace at least one tyre - provided an early indication of both the quality and depth of the competition with Halliday getting the better of fellow front row starter Baird off the line and - despite intense pressure from Baird - holding the advantage through the pit stop window and into the final laps.

It was Baird who ended up winning that race however after Halliday was forced to pit to replace a punctured tyre with just six laps to go. Halliday made it back up to seventh place, meaning he would start the first of Sunday's two sprint races, from seventh spot on the grid, but insult was added to injury when he was handed a 25 second time penalty in that race for what officials deemed was a 'practice start' on the warm up lap.

For the record Halliday was up to fifth by the end of the first lap and fourth by the end of the fourth but the penalty saw him dropped to ninth place when the results were tabulated, meaning he would start the reverse top six grid 16 lap final race on Sunday afternoon from fourth place on the grid.

International MotorSport teammate Jonny Reid, driving the second Fisher & Paykel-backed Giltrap Group team car, started that race from pole position, with Baird back on P6, but this time Halliday was not to be denied, jinking round a slow starting Courtney Letica to tuck into second behind teammate Reid as the field streamed into the left/right Castrol complex after the sweeper then passing Reid for a lead he would never lose as the pair started their second lap.

A Safety Car caution period half way through the 16 lap race gave Reid and a chasing Baird, Letica, Gaunt and Ant Pedersen a chance to catch up but when the track went green again Halliday quickly re-established his earlier buffer.

Halliday's final race win and quickest race lap aside, there was no denying that it was Baird's weekend, the 39-year-old category specialoist taking up where he left off at the end of the 2008/09 season, and heading to the second round of the 2009/10 Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship in Christchurch at the end of the month with a handy 30 point advantage over round runner-up Daniel Gaunt and an 86 point buffer over third placed Courtney Letica.

Halliday ended up sixth overall, satisfied with his performance in performance in qualifying and the final race, but frustrated with the way his cards fell on Saturday and in the first race on Sunday.

"It was just crazy, " he said. "To lead the first race until the last few laps only to tangle with a back marker, that shouldn't have happened, then to get that penalty in the second race.....I think anyone who saw what happened this weekend will think we were hard done by but you know, hopefully we will have no more dramas like that and we will be able to fight back as far as the points are concerned. In terms of what Jonny and I have done this weekend though, for something which came together quite late, I think the team did a great job. Obviously, Jonny and I have worked together before and I can see us working well together both in terms of developing the car off the track and pushing each other on it. "

Reid was similarly upbeat having qualified third quickest and finished fourth in the endurance race on Saturday afternoon, fifth in the 12 lap sprint race on Sunday morning and second to teammate Halliday in the reverse top six grid final.

Perhaps surprisngly it was Reid's first major race in a tin-top, the Auckland-based international having so far concentrated on single-seaters.

As such everything was new and he was taking it one step at a time.

"It's certainly different, on all sorts of levels, to what I am used to, and I definitely didn't expect to be where I was in qualifying (third), so from that point of view I am absolutely stoked. I've got a lot of respect for the guys in this class, Matt obviously particularly coming off a SuperCup season, and Craig, because he has done so much racing in these cars, so I'm not taking the move lightly. It's been a pretty intense weekend and I've certainly got a lot to think about before the next one.

Fellow former single-seater star Daniel Gaunt, the former two-time Toyota Racing Series champion, was another satisifed after a strong weekend.

Gaunt set the fourth quickest lap time in qualifying then backed up his second place finish in Saturday's endurance race with second in Sunday's 12 lap sprint race and fourth in the 16 lap reverse top six grid final.

This year Gaunt has spent the off-season in Australia contesting the Fujitsu V8 Supercar series and he believes the extra time behind the wheel has already started to pay dividends.

"I think it's definitely sharpened me up as far as the racing is concerned, something, perhaps, I was lacking a bit last season and if this weekend is anything to go by I think we are going to be as competitive for the rest of the season."

Meanwhile sharing the round podium with his teammates Baird and Gaunt was young Auckland driver Courtney Letica, his place a reward for a quick, confident performance which , like Gaunt's, bodes well for the rest of the season.

"Fantastic!" is how he described it, two thirds and a fifth in such exalted company impressive in anyone's language.

Letica arrived in the Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge with an impressive CV courtesy the MINI Challenge but before that he was more at home in karts.

Last season was a big step, moving straight to a 997, but that move paid off this weekend.

"I definitely feel more comfortable in the car, " he confirmed. "We didn't do much testing before this round but the plan was always to finish in the top five or six and that's what we've done so I'm very happy."

First of the 996 runners in qualifying, the first two races and the round, was last season's category-within-a-category standout Hugh Gardiner who spent the weekend mixing it up in the mid-field with the 997s of Shane McKillen and Paul Kelly.

With another category alumni Rob Steele, Gardiner was part of a five-strong 996 contingent and only missed out on three category wins from three starts when he went off the track rather than run up the back of one of the 997s early in the final race.

"Three out of three would have been nice, but you know, " he said, " I can't complain. "It's been a good weekend overall, and as far as I am concerned the season can only get better.

"It's good to have guys like Rob in the class to benchmark ourselves against and good to have these young fellows like Simon Evans and Simon McLennan coming into the category so I'm looking forward to more good racing as we head down to the South Island."

In Gardner's absence the first 996 home in the final race was piloted by Rob Steele who finished tenth, the Aucklander a last minute entry as he tries to compelte a budget to do the whole series this season.

"A the moment we are still looking for a bit more support to get to the rest of the rounds, " he confirmed, " so the result here was just what we needed. We're nearly there so hopefully some other people will come on board for Ruapuna and beyond."

Having arrived at Pukekohe facing one of the most competitive Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship fields ever assembled yet leaving with his usual impressive early season points lead the last word must, however, below to five-time series champion Craig Baird.

This season as last, Baird is combining the defense of his Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship with an attack on the BNT NZ V8s one (with the United Video team run by his father-in-law Gary Pedersen) and despite twice as many races as anyone else contesting the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge he was where he wanted to be at the end of play.

"We had to look after our weekend points and series lead, to do anything else was not who we are," he said as be climbed out of his Triple X Motorsport Porsche and headed for the NZV8 pit.

"Really as long as our top three cars came home in the top-six of the race we had the weekend and first round of the championship sewn up. We had a good buffer on anyone, but if we didn't finish the afternoon race we'd be back with everyone else."

-credit: nz gt3