On July 25, the third and final round of the 2015 Mahindra North Island Endurance Series returned to the lovable, bumpy, concrete canyon known as Pukekohe Park Raceway, with the Tulloch Motorsport SaReNi Camaro GT3 driven by Inky Tolluch and John McIntyre taking the race win, and subsequently the championship win. Though it wasn’t quite the smooth sailing that they had hoped for ...
Heading into the event, two cars were staring down the barrel of the championship crown. On one side of the equation was Camaro. After technical gremlins had dulled their shot at victory during round one at Taupo Motorsport Park, they bounced back to take victory at round two at Hampton Downs Raceway. On the other side were the quiet-achieving duo of John De Veth and Glenn Smith, in their Holden VE Commodore NZ SuperTourer prototype. While their entry was down on speed next to their extravagant competition, they had ample reliability, as well as the skills to throw down a challenge toward the better-funded outfits. They also held the series lead approaching the weekend.
There was also the small matter of the rest of the field to consider, with many entries still chasing illusive results. Heading this list was the Trass Family Motorsport (TFM) crew — their newly purchased Ferrari F430 GT3 proving to be brutally unreliable for rounds one and two. Subsequently, their drivers Jono Lester and Graeme Smyth had been unable to translate exceptional pace into any results.
But before anyone could think about turning a wheel in anger, the issue of noise had to be tackled. In recent years, Pukekohe Park Raceway has had to enforce strict noise restrictions for race events due to complaints from residents. As a result, each car at the meeting had to conform to a noise limit of 95 decibels.
The decision had been made leading up to the event to re-homologate and use the original configuration of the Pukekohe Park layout. This was because of the safety concerns regarding the new section’s inconvenient tendency to become a swimming pool any time Pukekohe was out of favour with Mother Nature. With cars destined to hit higher speeds, and louder noises, on the back straight, teams up and down pit lane sought to find their own solutions to the problem. The International Motorsport Audi R8 GT3s tackled the problem with typical Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ logic, tacking on what appeared to be some of Lyall Williamson’s kitchen plumbing to the back of both cars.
But despite the efforts, more than 20 cars exceeded the noise limits during Friday’s testing sessions, leading to organizers deciding to run the risk and compete on the new layout — successfully reducing the noise output in the process. As it so happened, the track was bathed in gorgeous sunlight for race day anyway.
Apart from the looming questions on noise, Friday’s testing was largely uneventful, though it wasn’t entirely without incident. Turbo issues sidelined Possum Bourne Motorsport’s screaming little Subaru BRZ (a car NZ Performance Car magazine will be featuring in Issue No. 225, coming soon), while more problems — this time in the form of a blown engine — ended the weekend early for TFM’s F430 GT3. The failure saw various fluids escape from the Ferrari, with driver Graeme Smyth spinning on the slippery surface as he toured through Castrol corner, lucky to avoid contact from the cars behind him.
It wasn’t all over for TFM though, the team electing to cross enter their drivers in their second car: a Ferrari F430 Challenge (pictured on the left). While visually very similar to the GT3, with its spoilers and wings, the Challenge was half the car — still road legal to the point of having its registration slip stuck to the inside of the windscreen. TFM’s expectations had fallen from a win to a podium at the very best.
Race day commenced with qualifying. McIntyre and the Camaro unsurprisingly took pole position for the three-hour event, while the impressive Smeg Racing Mosler MT900 driven by Gene Rollinson claimed pole position for the one-hour event — having switched from the longer format after their own reliability concerns.
As the one-hour race started, those concerns looked a world away. Rollinson decimated the field, leading by two seconds at the end of lap one, and never looking back. The slippery, svelte race car ended up taking the win by 47 seconds over the former NZ SuperTourer Commodore driven by Simon McLennan. Porsche pilot Ian Hayr finished in third, which was enough to give him the outright one-hour championship win.
After a short lunch break, the three-hour race started — and it would be a race to remember.
After starting from fourth, Andre Heimgartner in the Hamilton Asphalts NZV8 Commodore TLX was a surprise leader in the opening laps. Paired with car owner and regular driver Lance Hughes, the V8 Supercar ace looked good — smashing the Castrol kerbs and launching the Commodore onto two wheels almost every lap. But his pace faded, and after losing the lead to the fellow Commodore of De Veth/Smith, dramas in pit lane destroyed any chance they had of grabbing a win.
Someone almost absent from the opening half of the race was Inky Tulloch in the Camaro. Starting from pole, he had slipped to a spot south of the podium. In what was his first time competing on the new Pukekohe layout, Tulloch appeared to struggle. Apart from keeping the car in one piece, his saving grace was the stellar fuel consumption he was able to achieve.
The International Motorsport Audi R8 LMS Ultra GT3, driven by Andrew Bagnall and Rick Armstrong, was also in trouble. The team was disqualified from the race after ignoring penalties that they had been issued for dangerous re-entry to the circuit. Could we see a new winner for the final after all?
Emerging as the surprise contender for the race was none other than the TFM Ferrari F430 Challenge. After an early pit stop, and a clean opening stint from Smyth, the pair vaulted through the field to lead at the halfway mark. A string of caution periods helped their cause, compressing the traffic for them to catch up to those at the front running a longer first stint. By the time John McIntyre finally got behind the wheel of the Camaro, he was more than a lap behind the Ferrari, which now had Jono Lester in the driver’s seat.
What followed was a nail-biting run finish, McIntyre and Lester weaving through the ever-crucial traffic to try and take the win.
With 20 minutes remaining, McIntyre had bridged the gap to the Ferrari, a pass for the lead just a matter of time. After managing to hold him out for most of the lap, the Camaro darted inside Lester at the hairpin. Lester couldn’t let him go, tailing his former TFM teammate over Ford mountain — the pair violently dived either side of a slower lapped car on the front straight. While Lester tried to hang with him, his little Challenge was no match for the Camaro’s grunt in a straight line.
A collision between McIntyre and the Sam Fillmore / Andrew Porter Porsche 911 GT3 in the dying minutes of the race looked like it might give the result back to TFM. However, a post-race investigation of the incident saw McIntyre and Tulloch retain their result, and subsequently win the overall 2015 North Island Endurance Series. De Veth and Smith finished third in the SuperTourer Commodore, gracious in their ultimate title defeat.
Scattered throughout the final finishing order were a range of impressive performances. The Endless Nissan R35 GT-R finally pulled a good result after a difficult birth, finishing fifth. The bright-blue Doughty / Bonney NZV8 TL Holden Commodore finished seventh, after going off at turn one in spectacular fashion in the first hour, nearly rolling over in the sand trap. Perhaps most impressive was the unique V8-powered Barrett / Frew Mazda RX-7, which snagged its third top ten of the season.
As someone who has followed the series since its first event in 2014, there was some pride in seeing the field turn on an exceptional show for those in attendance. They were able to finally demonstrate that they’re a class capable of generating exciting racing to go alongside their wide variety of fantastic race cars. And with the Asko South Island Endurance Series forming a relationship with the class for 2016, the future looks pretty good!