On a weekend that included almost everything, Chris Perini claimed a dramatic victory in the final race of the season to take out the 2019 Radical Australia Cup title after failing to concede at any stage across the event, even with title rival Peter Paddon closing the gap to just three points in the penultimate race after inheriting victory from top qualifier Mitch Neilson, Perini stood strong and never gave up - the mark of a true champion!
From snowfall on the surrounding mountains which turned the picturesque Highlands venue into a thing of beauty despite single-figure ambient temperatures, to a string of Safety Car interventions and some dramatic incidents that claimed some of the leading contenders, the final event of the Cup’s eleventh season contained just about everything, including a first-time champion.
Qualifying (5 October)
After three 30-minute practice sessions on Friday in dry conditions, Saturday morning dawned wet for the 8:55am qualifying session, a session which would see the end of the rain, but a wet track and freezing temperatures - overnight snow had created an incredible vista right around the Highlands circuit, making it almost impossible not to forget the job at hand, regardless of which direction you looked.
Despite the distraction the drivers knew they had an important session ahead of them, and the title contenders knew that qualifying also presented a vital opportunity to gain valuable championship points, so the session was spellbinding as all three took their share at the top of the timesheets.
Points-leader Chris Perini set the early pace off the back of an impressive practice performance on Friday which saw the GWR Australia driver set the mark for much of the day, even matching at times the performance of pro drivers Josh Hunt and Garth Walden who turned laps to provide a benchmark time for their respective teams.
In the end though it was Mitch Neilson who took the fight to his rivals - an impressive performance considering both he and Perini were Highlands rookies and had never driven the popular New Zealand venue in the wet.. The Volante Rosso driver went toe-to-toe with undefeated Highlands champion Peter Paddon to claim the top spot during his final lap on a drying track.
Paddon admitted afterwards there was little he could do to upstage the Highlands rookie, after struggling to complete a perfect lap in traffic as the clock wound down, falling three tenths shy of the top spot, but comfortably clear of points leader Perini, Paddon’s only disappointment - losing the two valuable points for pole position to close down Perini’s championship lead.
Behind the title contenders, there was a big void back to fourth placed Kosta Pohorukov, the former Highlands podium finisher 5.5-seconds back from pole sitter Mitch Neilson, but comfortably clear of Peter Clare who was next best, the bulk of the field taking the safer option in the testing conditions which fortunately, didn’t claim a single victim.
“I’m absolutely rapt with that, I didn’t really know where we were,” Neilson admitted afterwards. “I was just trying to push and push - I think Pete [Paddon] got me by two tenths on the second last lap and the boys said we’re going to have to go again and try and find something, so I was fully committed and managed to put it together. I think that was the most fun qualifying session I’ve ever done and to snag pole by a few tenths is mega.”
With qualifying the only session on a damp Saturday, that meant both final races would be set for Sunday, which dawned cold and clear with almost perfect conditions for the teams to contest the final races of what had been an epic season, a season which saw no one driver hold a commanding points lead, in fact points leader Perini (still by eight points), Paddon and Mitch Neilson had all snagged three wins apiece and were all still right in the title fight.
Officials allowed two laps behind the Safety Car for teams to be able to warm tyres and engines in the near freezing conditions, but once underway with a yellow flag deployed at the first chicane to restrict overtaking into the tough opening corner, Neilson held the lead from Paddon, Perini and Pohurukov with the leading trio already starting to gap the field.
Sadly the Safety Car was back on track pretty quickly for Kynan Yu who had come to a stop on the exit of the Parabolica on the opening lap, forcing the field to bank back up as the recovery crew came to his aid and helped him restart the #52 Bill Medland machine to be able to return to pit lane.
On the restart the action continued, although this time it was at the first chicane, Stephen Champion losing the rear of the car after a technical failure as he braked for the tight first right-left sequence, collecting a tyre bundle at speed in the Phil Anseline RSX, before being narrowly avoided by Chris Medland and the closely following pack.
The damage was significant, but the safety features built into the car left Champion unscathed, although the WT Partnership Radical was now a retirement with just three wheels left on the car..
“I came into the corner following Peter Clare and put my foot on the brake and there was just enough to lock the rears which turned me around and I hit the tyre bundle,” Champion explained afterwards. “I’m okay, I was lucky, all the safety gear did what it was supposed to do, I’m a bit gutted for the car, it’s not looking good. I was very comfortable in the car [till then] and looking forward to a good race - I thought I had Peter’s [Clare] measure and I just got Paul [Braico] before the safety car so it was looking pretty good, but it wasn’t to be.”
A lengthy Safety Car intervention to clean up the debris and recover the #16 RSX saw the compulsory pit stop window open almost immediately once the race had resumed with all three leaders down pit lane together.
This was the opportunity that Paddon was looking for with Perini forced to stop for an additional ten seconds by virtue of his success penalty from his round five victory at Tailem Bend. Paddon though conceded that he would be faced with a likely second place finish with Mitch Neilson enjoying his own ten second advantage, the blue, red and yellow #38 RSX leaving pit lane with an extended lead and a fourth victory within sight.
Sadly though for Neilson whilst maintaining his impressive lead, just a handful of laps from home he started to lose pace, and ultimately the lead to Paddon before rolling down pit lane for Chris Papadopolous and the Volante Rosso team to investigate.
With his advantage gone, and with it, his chance to be champion, Neilson rejoined for one final lap with an electrical issue having affected the ability of the fuel pump to pick up fuel and feed the engine - it was a crushing blow to the team’s title aspirations, but they continued on and had the car repaired ahead of the final race.
That left Paddon comfortably clear up front, the three-time champion crossing the line 4.5-seconds clear of a charging Perini with Kosta Pohorukov a distant third leaving the GWR team with a podium lockout.
Paul Braico was an impressive fourth, his pace in the second of the Pohorukov Radical RSXs, the NSW SuperSports regular charging through to the tail of Peter Clare to attack on the final lap and take track position, Clare having fended off a similar move mid-race before conceding the position within sight of the flag.
Brad Neilson was a lonely sixth, whilst Jim Hernandez was again all smiles after a cautious run through his first ever race at Highlands to claim seventh ahead of the recovering Kynan Yu.
Mitch Neilson was fortunately able to rejoin the race on the final lap for valuable championship points, but he and the team conceded that the title race was over, with just Perini and Paddon within reach of championship victory, the two GWR drivers separated now by just three points [advantage Perini] with one race remaining..
Chris Medland rounded out the field after a tough morning that saw him down pit lane with a technical setback, the RA Motorsports team though quickly sorted the issue and sent him back out, but in the process he’d lost a number of laps to the leaders.
“It was a bit lucky in that race,” Paddon admitted afterwards. “Mitch [Neilson] has just had a horror run with electrical gremlins in the car, so I inherited the lead and Chris [Perini] had a longer pit stop than I did - I had a little bit of traffic after the pit stop but I got through okay, and was then just cruising for the last half of the race and watching the gap to Chris behind, I probably had half a second up my sleeve but didn’t want to wear myself, or the car out too much. For the championship though I think Chris is going to come hunting, so I don’t think there’s going to be any cruising in the next race.”
With 41-points on offer (40 for the win and one for fastest lap) and just three points separating Perini from Paddon, it was clear that the winner of the 2019 championship was going to be the first of those two drivers across the line, and with a ten second advantage to Paddon during the compulsory pit stop (the timed penalties for each driver carries over from the previous round, not the previous race), the three-time champion was in the box seat..
Off the rolling start Mitch Neilson charged from pole to lead into the first chicane with Perini in tow after the points-leader locked in under Neilson’s rear wing to keep Paddon to the outside, the two making light contact as Paddon fought to find a way into second before the chicane.
Cleanly through, the leaders immediately started to gap the field with Pohorukov leading Clare, the trio at the front running nose-to-tail with very little separating them.
Paddon knew he didn’t need to do anything dramatic with the pending advantage he would carry out of the compulsory pit stops, but he still needed to push as both Neilson and Perini drove at the absolute limit, Perini pushing all the while to find a way through.
Behind them the pack had settled into a comfortable rhythm, Pohorukov leading Clare after initially dropping a position to the Volante Rosso driver, Paul Braico, Brad Neilson, Kynan Yu - who was circulating much quicker than the opening race - and Chris Medland.
The leading trio kept on punching out impressive lap times before pitting as soon as the compulsory pit stop window opened, with all three in together.
By the close of the stops Neilson held a comfortable lead from Paddon and Perini, with all three continuing their impressive lap times. Things looked to have settled into a final result until three-quarters race distance, when Chris Medland came off on the penultimate corner, braking too deep before running into the gravel trap to be bogged and unable to continue.
That brought out the Safety Car, setting the scene for a dramatic close to the season with Neilson, Paddon and Perini locked nose-to-tail.
Off the restart with ten minutes remaining, Neilson charged but couldn’t break away from Paddon who fired through at the chicane before the bridge taking the lead and putting him within sight of a fourth Cup title.
Perini though was having none of it, knowing that his only chance of victory was to force his own way past Neilson, so he pushed for a couple of laps before ultimately forcing Neilson into an error into the tight left hander deep in the forest, the #38 SR3RSX running wide on the exit to give Perini an opportunity to effect the pass before the run onto the bridge.
Then it was eyes forward, all three drivers turning epic closing laps, with Perini perhaps pushing beyond both Paddon and Neilson to close onto Paddon’s tail.
Just a couple of laps from the flag, Paddon made a rare error on the run into the same corner that allowed Perini through on Neilson, allowing the menacing black #81 SR3RSX to close under Paddon’s wing then pull out of the slipstream on the run to the bridge chicane where the championship came to it’s dramatic conclusion..
It was a braking duel going into the chicane and with Perini on the inside but just over halfway down the inside of Paddon’s ‘First Focus’ machine, it could go either way.. With just a single line through the corner, Perini pushed, Paddon realising at the last second that there was no way his team-mate would concede, forcing him out of the throttle but so deep into the corner that he had to take avoiding action.
Perini emerged from the bridge as race leader with Neilson second, whilst behind them a cloud of dust suggested that Paddon’s championship may well have come to a premature end.
Paddon though emerged after an epic save that saw him miss the corner, hit the gravel trap on the inside ahead of the bridge at close to 200kmh, then slide back onto the bridge sideways, narrowly avoiding the barriers and straight across the track towards the outside wall, heavy braking fortunately stopping him just a metre away from contact.
Once he’d gathered it all up, he was able to continue in third position, but the championship was over, Perini pressing on to close out the race with his fourth win of the season, and with it, the title of Radical Australia Cup Champion for season 2019.
Mitch Neilson crossed the line second lamenting what might have been with his impressive pace on debut at Highlands, whilst the master of the category, Peter Paddon, completed the season with third in the final race and second outright in championship points.
Kosta Pohorukov claimed fourth ahead of Peter Clare, with Brad Neilson and Kynan Yu nose to tail across the line not too far back. Jim Hernandez was eighth, whilst Paul Braico joined Chris Medland in retirement, the #80 SR3RSX suffering a clutch issue which forced him to retire the car just after the compulsory pit stop.
For the 11th season of Radical Australia Cup it was another fantastic final at Highlands Motorsport Park, an unpredictable event that despite all the challenges saw the full field of drivers primed for what season 2020 has to offer.
That’s it for the Cup though for season 2019, but for the NSW SuperSprt regulars - including points leader Stephen Champion - there is still one race remaining to complete the calendar, with the final round of their season at Sydney Motorsport Park on October 26.