Tough conditions don't deter winning team
After a difficult weekend in often treacherous conditions, reigning Highlands 101 champion Tony Quinn has come through for his second GT endurance victory in 12-months, ably assisted by V8 Supercar regular Garth Tander (in photo) who was making his GT3 debut in the VIP Petfoods Aston Martin.
Set for 101-laps of the Phillip Island circuit, the clock was against the Australian GT Championship presented by Pirelli regulars with a time certain restriction on the Phillip Island venue set at 5:00pm. Unfortunately for the GT teams, an accident in Carrera Cup immediately prior to the 2:05 start forced a length delay, as did an unusual occurrence as a result of the accident.
Saturday morning had dawned wet, almost mirroring Friday’s three practice sessions. In drying conditions it was former V8 Supercar regular Warren Luff who came through on his final flying lap to put the GT Trophy class Audi R8 of Steve McLaughlan onto the pole, displacing AGT points leader Richard Muscat, and Garth Tander in Tony Quinn’s Aston Martin in the process.
Sadly for McLaughlan and Luff though, the Carrera Cup accident in which Luff was involved, gave the Audi part-timer a nasty jolt that medical officials decreed was too much for Luff to join the AGT field. Bathurst 12-Hour Audi recruit Jason Bright was quickly brought in as a replacement, but as he had not been involved in qualifying, officials ruled against the substitution leaving McLaughlan to go it alone.
McLaughlan controlled the start, but Muscat the race, the Erebus Motorsport team leader bolting away to a strong early lead. Behind him Steven Richards (Interlloy Gallardo FL2) took a couple of laps to get the control Pirelli tyres up to temperature before working his way through to second and into pursuit of the Mercedes.
Whilst the two leaders started turning laps in the 29s, behind them Tony Quinn (VIP Petfoods Aston Martin) and Klark Quinn (Darrell Lea McLaren MP4-12C) were holding position, but soon came under fire from former V8 Supercar regular Tony D’Alberto (DeFelice Homes Ferrari 458) and Bathurst 12-Hour winner Peter Edwards (Il Bello Rosso Ferrari 458).
Strategy was always going to play a part in the race, with teams expected to make two compulsory pit stops [CPS] in a window between the 30-minute and 120-minute mark of the race. With fuel consumption a concern, few teams felt they could go with just one stop for fuel, and with the ‘Pro’ drivers restricted to a maximum of 55% of race distance behind the wheel, the calculators were working overtime.
On lap 20, a lot of strategy went out the window with the appearance of the Safety Car for a big crash on the exit of Honda corner (turn four) that involved Dean Koutsoumidis, Roger Lago and Keith Kassulke.
Lago had elected to play the strategy game during qualifying, setting a lap that would start him in P24, effectively negating the additional CPS penalty he would incur as a result of having Pro driver David Russell alongside. What that meant was that during his CPS, their stop would be just 74 seconds, stark contrast to the stop that Muscat and Le Brocq would have in the race leading Mercedes, a hefty 116-seconds.
Starting from the rear, Lago needed to try and keep within 42-seconds of the leader to ensure that once he handed the car over to Russell, they could potentially be in the box seat and emerge as a contender for the race win.
By lap 20 though, Lago had only just made it into the top ten, and was almost a full minute behind the leader. He’d caught Koutsoumidis and then become caught up behind Keith Kassulke in the Ascari, as the trio approached the Rentcorp Porsche on the way into turn four.
Lago seemed reluctant to pass the Ascari into the corner, as Koutsoumidis looked to take back eighth position, diving to the inside. All three made it through the corner, but on the exit, Koutsoumidis stayed to the inside as Lago continued to be delayed by the Ascari. Kassulke held his ground as Lago finally moved to the outside, putting two wheels onto the ripple strip. Sadly that move turned the Lamborghini across the front of the Ascari which in turn spun it into the hapless Koutsoumidis, the Audi receiving the bulk of the damage after being forced to the inside of Siberia (turn six) and hard into the earth embankment.
Koutsoumidis was quickly out of the car, and clearly disappointed with what had happened, but fortunately he was unhurt. “What can you say.. right place at the wrong time..”
Lago and Kassulke were also forced to retire, officials spending a number of laps recovering the cars whilst the field circulated behind the Safety Car.
Many of the teams used the lengthy Safety Car period to pit and absorb some of the slow laps with their ‘Amateur’ drivers behind the wheel, whilst others elected to stick with their original strategy. One of them - John Magro in the Ockert Fourie Audi - did just that, inheriting the lead in the process after the Safety Car picked up the Audi, with effective race leader Tony D’Alberto further back in the pack.
Sitting in the prime position on his (and Fourie’s) AGT debut, Magro stayed out and on the restart remained the leader for 15 laps before Muscat worked his way through the pack to take the lead back on lap 38. Whilst many expected to see Muscat again drive away from the field, Magro regained the lead six laps later after Muscat suddenly slowed, the Erebus driver revealing afterwards that he’d discovered rubber buildup which had unsettled the rear and he wanted to check there was nothing more sinister wrong with the car.
Taking the lead back again two laps later, Muscat again extended his lead ahead of his mid-race stop to hand over to co-driver - and Phillip Island lap record holder - Jack Le Brocq.
By mid-race all the leading teams made their stops, Le Brocq initially extending the Erebus team’s advantage, although not as dramatically as Muscat had done during his opening stint, something appearing to impact the Mercedes’ pace.
Behind him John Bowe was now second, with a hard-charging Garth Tander in pursuit, Tander admitting post-race that his main motivation for the day was to beat Bowe..
With the 100-minute mark approaching, Nathan Antunes was holding the GT Trophy class lead but was coming under fire from Tony D’Alberto once more in the Ferrari, whilst Craig Baird in the #1 McLaren was through to sixth, displacing the second Melbourne Performance Centre Audi of pole-sitter Steve McLaughlan.
Steven Richards was now back in the Interlloy Lamborghini and looking to move forward, but just as it appeared he would work his way back towards the podium, he began a string of visits to the pits to resolve a right front tyre issue, in the end the Interlloy team suffering three failures.
“Something’s clearly not right in that corner of the car because it’s promoting increased tyre wear, so it’s something we need to address before the next round,” a clearly frustrated Justin McMillan explained.
By lap 70 Tander had made up a 20-second deficit to Bowe to close onto the Ferrari’s tail. The following lap he was through, but admitted he was given another push by the team. “I’d charged to catch JB and though ah well, the Mercedes is too far up the road to catch, second is pretty good, then the boys told me he was just 15-seconds away and a lot slower than we were so I thought I’d give it a go,” Tander explained post-race.
The three-time Bathurst 1000 winner put his head down and charged, pulling Le Brocq in by two to three seconds a lap before moving past the Erebus Benz on the start finish line just as the 4:55pm limit for displaying the white flag came into effect.
In the end officials allowed the race to run right up to the 5:00pm deadline, allowing Tander to be comfortably clear by the time the chequered flag was waved.
Le Brocq came across the line a solid second, but clearly disappointed not to have continued his SLS winning streak which had been four wins from four starts.
“We actually had a couple of issues,” Muscat explained afterwards. “For some reason after Jack left the pits, the dash display went dead and it wasn’t 100% happy so he was pushing as hard as he could with what he had. There was no need to try and hold Garth up, he had the pace, so we held on for second and importantly, extended our points lead in the process.”
Bowe was third across the line, not too far in arrears of Le Brocq, with D’Alberto making it two Ferraris in the top four. Craig Baird came home fifth, a little further back than many expected the reigning champion’s car to finish, but still on the lead lap.
Theo Koundouris and former Formula Ford star Sam Power claimed sixth outright and the GT Trophy class win, leading home Trophy class rivals Rod Salmon/Nathan Antunes (seventh) and Jan Jinadasa/Dan Gaunt (eighth).
Andrew MacPherson and Ben Porter finished an impressive ninth in their ex-SuperGT Porsche GT3-R on the new cars debut with the second Porsche GT3-R of James Koundouris and Steve Owen rounding out the top ten.
Arguably the biggest drive of the day went to reigning Trophy class champion Steve McLaughlan in the pole-sitting JAMEC-PEM Audi R8, the Victorian completing the two hour 15-minute journey in ninth place overall, however because of the event rules, no one driver was allowed to complete the whole race, so he was ultimately excluded from the result, sadly as a result of the pre-race accident by co-driver Warren Luff.
Australian GT Championship