BAIRD HELPS RE-DRAW PORSCHE BATTLE LINES AHEAD OF TAUPO FINAL
With another round win - his second this season - at Manfeild over the weekend defending Crown Lift Trucks Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champion Craig Baird has helped re-draw the class battle lines ahead of the final at Taupo in a month's time.
Heading into the weekend's penultimate series round early season pace-setter Daniel Gaunt had a 95 point over second placed Jonny Reid and a 118 point buffer over third placed Baird.
But after a horror weekend in which the only highlight was a welcome win in the reverse top six grid 16 lap final, Gaunt's points lead has shrunk to just 25 over Reid and 38 over Baird.
Though it was Reid who struck the first blow, taking his first pole position of the season with an impressive 1.08.097, it was Baird who won both 12 lap sprint races, the first with a decisive move on early leader Reid, the second with a lights-to-flag victory from pole position.
Baird also looked to be in contention for a third podium visit early in the reverse grid final before flat spotting a tyre and, knowing that all he had to do to win the round was finish the race where he was, chose discretion in the form of valour to eventually cross the finish line in fourth place.
Reid remained at his most competitive since the second series round in Christchruch late last year, following Baird home in both sprint races with Mitch Cunningham third in the first one and fellow young gun Ant Pederson third in the second.
Season-long championship points leader Daniel Gaunt qualified third but after being demoted to eighth place on the grid as punishment for an incident at the previous round in Timaru in January, his race ended in the pits after a four car pile-up involving Triple X Motorsport teammates Ant Pedersen, Scott Harrison and team boss Shane McKillen.
The damage to Gaunt's car was such that it could not be fixed in time for Sunday's two races so McKillen handed over his car for Gaunt to use for the rest of the weekend.
Gaunt repaid the favour with a conservative fifth - from the back row of the grid - in the second race, and a win in the reverse grid 16-lap final, enough to preserve his lead in the championship title chase but without the handy buffer he had before.
Having watched early on in the season as Gaunt built the buffer Craig Baird said that the only way to respond was one race at a time, and after the final race on Sunday he agreed that the strategy had worked better than even he could have hoped.
"With two wins and a fourth I think I definitely got more out of the round than I was expecting, that's for sure, particularly now, with other people having more issues than me, we are well and truly in the fight for the championship at Taupo."
Jonny Reid was another to see the glass half full, particularly after strong, trouble free runs in each race.
"Like this round," he said, "the focus on Taupo is going to be put it on pole then stay out of trouble. Sure it's good to close the gap on Daniel but at the same time Craig is now breathing down my neck. What I can take from this weekend is that pace-wise I am right there so there's no reason why we can't be in the same position we were this weekend. There's also quite a lot going on in the background at the moment - between now and Taupo I'll be working on a deal to do Carrera Cup in Australia."
Daniel Gaunt, meanwhile, was just thankful that his team boss gave him the opportunity to complete the round, and in doing so be in a position to finish the job he started at Pukekohe Park Raceway at the beginning of the 2010/11 season.
"Really, " he said, "I don't think I will ever be able to thank Shane enough. This is his thing, he loves doing it, yet he jumped out of the seat to lend me his car so that I could keep my dream alive."
And of the final series round in Taupo in a month's time?
"Sure it'd be nice to have a bit more of a buffer heading to Taupo, but the pressure's not just on me, it's on Jonny and Craig as well, and to come back from what happened on Saturday to win the final race in a borrowed car we're certainly back heading in the right direction."
That win didn't exactly come easily either, Gaunt following a strong and confident-looking Ant Pedersen for nine of the 16 laps before finally finding a way past then easing away to cross the finish line just under a second ahead.
Early on the order was Pedersen, Gaunt, Reid, a fast-starting Hugh Gardiner then Scott Harrison, Mitch Cunningham, Craig Baird and 996 Cup protagonists Simon McLennan and Simon Evans.
On his way forward Baird flat spotted a tyre, however, effectively stalling any further forward progress in fourth with Cunningham fifth after catching and passing Gardiner, and Harrison sixth.
That's the way the order remained until the two Simons (Evans and McLennan) tangled at the hairpin, Evans getting a drive-through a lap later for his part in the incident, the final shakeout, Gaunt, Pedersen, Reid, Baird, Cunningham, Gardiner, Harrison McLennan and Evans.
Race 2 (12 laps Sunday)
Sunday morning's second weekend race was a more controlled affair, Baird leading from start to finish with Reid second and Ant Pedersen third. Mitch Cunningham crossed the line in fourth place but was relegated to sixth after a five second penalty for starting out of his box was taken into account, leaving Hugh Gardiner fourth and Daniel Gaunt fifth.
After admitting that he got his start wrong in the weekend's first race on Saturday, Baird got it right in the second race, setting the quickest race lap as he put his head down and established an early advantage.
Behind him, Hugh Gardiner was the big mover, jinking around fellow second row starter Cunningham and front row man Reid to follow Baird into the first turn.
Cunningham then ran wheel to wheel with Reid down the infield straight before Reid took over third and soon after second, leaving Gardiner to hold on to third place from Cunningham and Ant Pedersen.
Pedersen was on the charge, catching and passing Cunningham with a robust move through the high speed Dunlop sweeper on the fifth lap then accepting third place with thanks when Gardiner ran wide at the hairpin three laps later.
"That race was all about redemption," said Pedersen, whose spin at the hairpin caused the chain reaction that took he and Triple X Motorsport teammates Daniel Gaunt, Scott Harrison out of the weekend's first race on Saturday afternoon. "The boys spent a long time here last night repairing the cars thanks to the damage that I caused so it was good to get through the field and get a good result for them."
Cunningham was also able to pass Gardiner before the end of the race though an unusually subdued Daniel Gaunt remained behind until the flag, crossing the finish line for his first points scoring finish of the weekend in sixth place, a position which was upgraded to fifth when Cunningham's time penalty was taken into account.
Fellow Triple X Motorsport teamate Scott Harrison was seventh, with Simon Evans finally getting to the finish line in front of 996 Cup series points leader Simon McLennan in eighth.
Race 1 (12 laps Saturday)
In the first race under the series' new title sponsor, Crown Lift Trucks, poleman Jonny Reid got the initial jump on fellow front row starter Baird and led until the end of the second lap when Baird muscled his way past with a decisive move into the high-speed Dunlop sweeper.
Reid remained within striking distance, visibly closing the gap in the later stages of the 12 lap race, but it was not quite enough to deny Baird his sixth win of the season.
Behind Baird and Reid, Reid's International Motorsport teammate Mitch Cunningham drove a lonely race to cross the line third after another trademark lightning start, with Hugh Gardiner fourth and Simon McLennan the first of the 996 Cup entrants home in fifth. Usual protagonist Simon Evans led him for all but the last half of the final lap, only to encounter a fuel starvation problem within sight of the finish line.
Points-wise the race could not have been worse for championship leader Daniel Gaunt who had nowhere to go when Ant Pedersen lightly tagged Craig Baird and spun, the resultant melee seeing he and teammate Scott Harrison end their races in the pits and Pedersen, making his debut for the Triple X Motorsport team in Mike Morton's car, end his at the side of the track.
All eyes are now on the final of this year's Crown Lift Trucks Porsche GT3 Challenge championship at the Taupo Motorsport Park in a month's time.
-source: pcc gt3 nz