Geoff Emery, team-mate Garth Tander and Audi Sport have prevailed to claim their maiden Australian Endurance Championship title after an epic battle across three one hour legs at Melbourne’s notorious Sandown Raceway. Challenging weather that saw all four seasons within hours of each other, technical failures, pit stop infringements and spins, it had it all, but after the dust had settled no-one could deny the popular local team from claiming their third national title in as many years.
Whilst Emery and Tander wrapped up their maiden endurance crown, it was Peter Hackett who claimed the round win in the Eggleston Motorsport Mercedes-AMG, although not without having to turn in arguably his best drive in many seasons, his leg one and leg two battles with the McLaren 720S of Fraser Ross and Ryan Simpson destined to go down in GT3 folklore..
In the GT4 category, not even the return of the McLaren 570S GT4 and a factory English driver could stall Justin McMillan and Glen Wood as they stormed to their maiden title in Australian GT, with team-mates and title rivals David Crampton and Trent Harrison second, the two mighty KTM X-Bow’s finishing 1-2 in the race and in the championship.
As an endurance event, official practice was limited, with some teams traveling to Phillip Island on the Wednesday to get themselves focussed for the three one hour legs across the two days at Sandown, where caution and a new race format would play into the equation.
Despite the race being broken into three one-hour components, they were in fact ‘legs’ and not races, the importance of which was the fact that cars would effectively remain under ‘parc ferme’ conditions between each leg. That meant that no repairs or technical work could be done on the cars, forcing a more cautious approach, whilst the CTPS (controlled timed pit stop) window would also fall outside of the normal one-hour ‘sprint’ format which would traditionally see all cars pit between the 25 and 25-minute mark.
Typical of Melbourne in the springtime, the weather is traditionally windy and unpredictable, although Friday dawned in the mid 20s with bright sunshine and a warm northerly breeze, providing teams with almost perfect conditions to tackle the new look Sandown circuit which had enjoyed some resurfacing and re-profiling work in the weeks leading up to the event.
That presented what looked to be a prime opportunity for the teams to take a look at New Zealander Jono Lester’s long standing lap record of 1:08.5659 (2015), and whilst conditions were almost perfect, the early start to the day mixed with the immense aero and grip of the Pirelli DHD2 slick tyres saw many of the teams return to pit lane with wheel arches and tyres full of tarmac.
The warm temperatures had softened the sealant that had been used on the resurfacing work and the cars were sucking it up like a vaccum, some finding enough debris inside their wheel arches to fashion a full-sized football..
Sadly for the #50 Vantage Freight KTM X-Bow GT4 that wasn’t their only concern, Trent Harrison forcing a short red flag period mid-session after a king-pin failed in the left rear after just a handful of laps, sideling the bright orange machine at turn three.
Ultimately though the top spot in official practice went to Fraser Ross in the 59Racing McLaren with a 1:10.4448, a second quicker than Peter Hackett, with points leader Geoff Emery third. Dale Paterson was all smiles after setting the fourth fastest time ahead of fellow ‘Invitational’ entry Ben Schoots in the impressive Sin R1 GT.
Sadly whilst almost perfect on Friday, Saturday presented a completely different picture with intermittent rain and cold southerly winds mixed with searing sunshine.
For those teams that ventured out early in the 11:40am opening 20-minute qualifying session, they would experience the best of the track conditions ahead of intense rain that fell halfway through.
By that stage Fraser Ross had lowered the benchmark to a 1:09.4629 ahead of Liam Talbot who was again impressive in the Trofeo Motorsport Lamborghini. Peter Hackett was third quickest, the Melbourne-local using the wet laps to gain some good data ahead of the three one hour races on the off chance that at least one of them would see rain, whilst Garth Tander failed to get the most of his new Pirellis early to be just fourth, 2.4-seconds slower than the McLaren.
Ben Stack turned his first real laps in the Trofeo Motorsport Huracan Super Trofeo EVO to be fifth, whilst Glen Wood stormed around in the points leading X-Bow GT4 to be seventh fastest, just a second and a half slower.
With Q2 coming just half an hour after the opening session, the circuit was still full wet to start, but drying as the clock clicked down, Geoff Emery using his intimate knowledge of the Sandown circuit to punch out the quickest lap on his final rotation, to eclipse Ryan Simpson by a mere five one hundredths of a second, with Peter Hackett very close behind in third.
On aggregate time though the McLaren would start from pole position with the points leader alongside and Hackett immediately behind, the championship contenders all locked together heading for Saturday afternoon’s opening leg, a leg which would put one of them well behind the eight ball before the day was done..
Whilst the McLaren had pole it was the thundering 6.3-litre AMG of Peter Hackett that stormed into turn one as the leader whilst behind them, Joseph Ensabella had out-dragged Geoff Emery to the braking marker, holding outside the #1 Audi all the way through to the exit of the corner.
Emery gave Ensabella racing room, but as he tried valiantly to hang on to track position and move more to the centre of the circuit to avoid squeezing the Lamborghini, he lost the rear of the car on the cold shoulder of the tyre, spinning to the inside - fortunately without contact with any of those behind him, or the barriers.
His next challenge was having the grip on the damp outfield to rejoin, and after some initial delays he was able to right the car and carry on, although well down on the leaders.
Up front Hackett was doing his best to get away from Ross, but as we’d seen at both Phillip Island and Tailem Bend, the bright orange McLaren is not easily shaken and Ross locked in under Hackett’s rear wing for the start of a battle that would carry on until the middle stages of the third leg.
Ensabella was next under fire, with the two Richard Bendell inspired ‘Invitational’ cars going either side of him down into turn one the following lap, the LS7 powered Daytona Coupe and SIN R1 amongst the fastest on track in a straight line, and making good use of Sandown’s two long ‘drag-strip’ straights..
20-minutes in Fraser Ross finally found the opportunity he was looking for, applying maximum pressure across the crest at turn six before firing down the inside into Dandenong Road corner to take over the lead, the two stunning supercars coming into light contact on the exit as Hackett tried to defend.
By this stage the leaders weren’t just focussed on track position, they were also starting to experience light rain as they hit the mid-point of the first hour.
That brought a number of cars down pit lane, but no sooner had it started than it stopped, although it did claim its first casualty, the #50 Vantage Freight KTM X-Bow GT4 collecting sponsors signage on the run out of turn four, in the process coming to a stop alongside the barriers forcing a Safety Car intervention. Crampton was able to refire the car and return slowly to pit lane, but damaged steering saw the car retired for the day ready to be repaired once the field began leg two on Sunday morning.
With the rain stopped and the sun shining, the field resumed action with 20-minutes remaining on the clock with Ross continuing to lead Hackett. The big news though was that during the brief rain period, Ross had put points leader Geoff Emery a lap down with all three needing to effect a compulsory pit stop ahead of the close of the opening hour.
Hackett was first of the leaders to pit in what would be a decisive moment in the race, the #63 Mercedes blocked in slightly for their restart by the McLaren GT4, the sister car to race leader Fraser Ross.
The Eggleston Motorsport team moved the car back slightly to allow Hackett to safely clear the McLaren after the stop, but the move was made whilst they were still within their timed window, forcing a post-race penalty that would be argued through to the close of the event. Ultimately it didn’t affect the overall result, but it did cause some anxious moments for the team as they continued to attack for their second Endurance Championship title.
Up front Fraser Ross continued to charge, finally hitting pit lane from a comfortable lead of more than a lap with 10-minutes to go, stopping just a couple of laps later than Geoff Emery who by this stage was shown in position six..
Ross rejoined and continued his charge but Hackett had effected the cross-over, having stormed through his first laps out of pit lane to claim the lead as the McLaren rejoined the circuit, whilst behind them Tailem Bend winner Liam Talbot had charged through to third.
Ultimately the race was stopped just moments inside the 60-minute window, the field brought under the control of the Safety Car with the split between cars locked into the official race time, a time that would be added to each teams compulsory timed pit stop for leg two. No work could be effected on any car prior to the race restarting on Sunday morning for leg two, with all cars locked into their garages under ‘parc-ferme’ conditions, with the race restarting with the same tyres and same drivers for the second leg.
Hackett had crossed the line with a nine-second lead over Fraser Ross, with Liam Talbot third a lap down on the leaders. Dale Paterson had stormed through from a rear-of-field start to be fourth after a late charge through on Brendon Woods in the Daytona Coupe, with Geoff Emery the next car in line a lap down on the leaders.
Christian Fitzgerald’s first laps in anger in the 570S McLaren had given the 59Racing team the lead in GT4 ahead of Justin McMillan, with Jim Manolios splitting the two GT4 leaders after a second stop in the Super Trofeo EVO for tyres in the unpredictable conditions.
Sadly for David Crampton, he would join Ben Schoots in the SIN (who had suffered an alternator failure after 17-laps) as a retirement, both teams facing an agonising overnight wait to be able to start work on repairs once the green flag had been shown to start leg two..
Hackett led the field away after a Safety Car start (remember this was an ongoing race) and charged away as Fraser Ross was caught up behind Ben Schoot’s SIN R1. Ross was quickly through though and almost immediately onto the tail of Hackett to begin the second leg of their fight for the lead.
Liam Talbot joined the pair shortly after to make it a three-way battle at the front, but he used too much of the kerb on the run into turn four 15-minutes in, and lost the tail of the car on the exit. Fortunately he was quickly able to gather it up without losing track position despite the fact that Dale Paterson was working his way forward once more.
As the mid-point of the race approached, both Hackett and Ross fired down pit lane, Ryan Simpson taking over the wheel of the McLaren, the 59Racing team sending him out just a couple of car lengths clear of Hackett with the task of closing down Hackett’s opening leg lead.
By this stage Liam Talbot was leading the race, the Lamborghini driver holding station until the closing stages, whilst once Geoff Emery had completed his minimum laps (45%) in the #1 Audi, he too was in to hand over to Garth Tander to close out the championship.
The battle for the front of the race saw some of the best GT3 laps ever on the three-kilometre Sandown circuit, Hackett and Ryan Simpson sharing fastest laps and fastest sectors it was mesmerising to watch, but ultimately both would fall just shy of the stunning 1:07.9639 set by Fraser Ross during the opening leg of the race as he fought to catch title rival Peter Hackett.
Ultimately Simpson would continue to extend his lead in the McLaren, breaking it out to just over 11-seconds seconds as the Safety Car reappeared to bring the cars back into pit lane and lockdown ahead of the final leg. Liam Talbot and Garth Tander were next in line a lap down on the leaders with Dale Paterson comfortably leading the ‘Invitational’ class of the new Dutton Garage Sandown GT Cup.
Ben Stack was sixth and second in ‘Invitational’ with Michael O’Brien classified as the GT4 race leader, although not all was well with the 59Racing entry, nor the young British driver who had concluded the British GT Championship final at Donington a week prior on the podium in an identical 570S. O’Brien had put the car hard into the barriers at Dandenong Road corner after setting a string of fastest laps, a driver error just moments before the Safety Car seeing the team forced into retirement as a result of the damage to the front and right side of the car.
That handed the GT4 race lead back to Glen Wood in the points leading KTM, whilst Nick Karnaros recovered from a mid-race spin at turn four to claim third in the ‘Invitational’ category.
With the title on the line and a race finish vital, all eyes were on Garth Tander in the #1 Audi off the start of the final leg. Frustratingly for the Audi’s rivals, the final leg of the race had been cut to just 45-minutes after an earlier incident had shortened all following races, leaving the McLaren and Hackett teams just one short final sprint towards the title.
Both teams did just that, Ryan Simpson very quickly back into the form that saw him charge away from Hackett in the second leg, although an early stop for the leaders and a subsequent tyre pressure change to the #63 Mercedes saw Hackett storming across the final leg of the race turning in a string of laps inside the old lap record to start to close on the race leader.
After electing for a late stop, Liam Talbot too was storming around the circuit to hold a comfortable early lead, with Hackett out ahead of the McLaren again to be a strong second, and in the box seat to inherit the lead once Talbot effected his stop.
Out by almost 15 seconds by the time Talbot came down pit lane, the pressure on Hackett was released just 20-minutes from home with the McLaren back down pit lane with a cooling issue, the team revealing soon after that debris had damaged a radiator in the front of the car, forcing it to lose water and with it, track speed - they had no other option other than to retire the car after turning in what had been yet another stunning performance.
Sadly they weren’t the only ones back down pit lane, Dale Paterson making it two cars in retirement soon after, the local aftermarket engine specialist explaining that data had shown a spike that forced some concern, and with no championship points on the line, the team elected to park the car to inspect the issue and ensure no long term damage.
With the clock winding down to zero, Garth Tander continued his charge around the circuit, ultimately moving through on Joseph Ensabella for second after the Lamborghini completed a drive-through penalty for a pit stop infringement, the Supercars star getting to within half a lap of the leader as the chequered flag was shown.
For Peter Hackett and the Eggleston Motorsport team, the victory was just reward for a solid season to date, with his second Australian GT win of the year (alongside his race three win at the Australian Grand Prix earlier in the year), whilst for the Audi Sport customer racing Australia team, second place was enough to comfortably ensure their maiden win in the CAMS Australian Endurance Championship, a first enduro title for Geoff Emery, and a first Australian GT crown for Garth Tander.
Liam Talbot was a happy third alongside Joseph Ensabella in the Trofeo Motorsport Lamborghini, a win and a third moving the Queenslander to third in the overall points standings.
Jim Manolios and Ben Stack gave Trofeo Motorsport a second reason to smile with victory in the ‘Invitational’ category ahead of Nick Karnaros who was classified fifth.
Justin McMillan and Glen Wood claimed their second endurance win of the season to be crowned champions in GT4, their second big win of the year after victory at the season opening Bathurst 12 Hour, with David Crampton and Trent Harrison recovering from practice and their leg one misfortune to be a gallant second in class, and with it, second in the championship.
Sadly the three-hour race saw a relatively high level of attrition, with both of the Richard Bendell cars out with technical issues, joining Dale Paterson and the two McLarens as retirements.
Australian GT now returns to ‘Sprint’ mode with the penultimate round of the year set for the streets of Surfers Paradise alongside Supercars for two one-hour races along the Gold Coast beach front between October 25-27, before returning to Sandown in early November (8-10) for the final round of the season and the conclusion to the Dutton Garage Sandown GT Cup.
Keep up to date with Australian GT via the various social media platforms, and keep an eye on the TV Guides on both Fox Sports Australia (Channel 506) and SBS in coming weeks as a highlights package for the event is replayed.
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