I’m going to begin with a disclaimer: here comes yet another retrospective story intro where a disgruntled author laments the current state of affairs, wishing things were as per ‘the good old days’ of an era past.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to take a guess that whatever your age, generation or persuasion, you’ve got more than a passing interest in automotive culture, and that you’ve probably even attended a motorsport event or three in your lifetime.
I’m (unashamedly!) in my early 30s with a background in watching motorsport events that stems back until before I was old enough to attend school. So that’s nearly three decades of sitting trackside watching man and machine dicing with one another, soaking up the sensory experience and revelling in the emotional rollercoaster of mechanical battle.
The ones that enthralled me and dialled my excitement levels to 11 were the ‘Tier 1′ circuit weekends. In a nutshell, this is the pinnacle of New Zealand motor racing, typically featuring a premier tin-top class, open wheelers, often a one-make series as well as all of the promotion, relative glamour and fanfare ready for the young reveller to soak up.
It’s tough to pinpoint an exact moment in time, but for a myriad of reasons the appeal of New Zealand’s top level circuit racing tarnished. Perhaps due to spiralling costs, economic downturn or the inevitable clash of ego; for whatever reason entry lists appeared to drop, classes stagnated and the lifeblood of motorsport atmosphere – the punters – stayed home.
It’s important to stress I’m talking purely about the upper echelons here; grassroots racing, and especially historic motorsport, continued to pique my interest, but in later years I’ve strayed further away from the pointy end track action – until November 2013.
November two years ago marked something of changing of the tides for motorsport in New Zealand with the first competition meeting taking place on the freshest, highest grade – goddamn, it the most downright beautiful – race circuit in the country.
If the prospect of attending (and shooting) at a brand new venue hadn’t caused an honest flutter of elation, the playbill for the weekends racing almost caused heart palpitation. The Australian GT (AGT) series was coming to Kiwi shores for the final round; along with a special 101-lap endurance race, coined the ‘Highlands 101.’
Coincidentally, the owner of the Highlands circuit, astute businessman and himself a capable wheelman Tony Quinn, is also the owner of the AGT series. He pulled together a field of over 20 proper current-model GT3 machines and a sprinkling of Porsche Cup cars to christen the tarmac competitively, and more importantly in my eyes, reignite that spark for top-level motor racing.
And what a location to indulge in reinvigorated passion! For the uninitiated, the Highlands circuit is located near the small South Island town of Cromwell, about an hour north of the tourist mecca of Queenstown. What this equates to is scenery, all of it drop-dead gorgeous with snow-capped alps to the West and barren hill ranges to the East.
With what I personally consider the most relevant discipline of contemporary circuit hardware taking to the 4.5km track, the fizz levels again topped 11. For 2015, I was privileged enough to do it all over again…In The Thick Of It
Arriving at the circuit early on the Friday, Southern dew still hung in the air, permeated by the unmistakable hustle and bustle that comes with the kind of urgency created within the intensity of serious motor racing. Rattle guns, barking exhausts and hollered demands all contributed to an electric pit atmosphere.
Relatively menial tasks like a pit-bay wheel alignment seem amplified in this environment; the intense concentration, the pursuit of exacting tolerances and the drive to eke out the last few milliseconds per lap of performance.
To me, the attraction of the FIA GT3 cars is the simple relevance that these machines still hold relative to their showroom brethren. In fact, they’re essentially a ‘showroom’ car themselves, given a customer can buy and race one of their own. But in a motorsport sphere increasingly dominated by silhouette-style formulas as a means of cost reduction, there’s something special about a bonafide field of production-based cars engaged in door-to-door combat.
They’re all here too – a 30-strong grid of premier GT machinery divided among the AGT’s three classes. From the imposing bulk of Bentley’s Continental GT3 to the lithe lines of a Ginetta G50 and everything in between; there’s an aero-flaunting, flame-spitting monster to suit all tastes.
Running under the moniker ‘Championship’ is the class at the peak of the AGT grid. This class caters to the big money, 2012 to 2015 FIA-spec GT3 thoroughbreds, exemplified by the Quinn team and their pair of McLarens – an updated MP4-12C GT3 and a fresh-for-the-2015-series 650S GT3 piloted by Quinn’s son Klark and Kiwi V8 Supercar ace Shane van Gisbergen.
Engaged in a no less intense battle of their own is the Trophy class, featuring 2011 and older FIA GT3-spec cars, while the comparatively slower Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars and their ilk comprise the third of AGT’s groups, the Challenge class.
Like the cars, the drivers of AGT are also ranked into classes of sorts, with a mixture of professional race drivers like Audi factory driver and Nürburgring 24 Hour victor Christopher Haase running alongside amateur ‘gentleman racers’ (often the car owners). Without getting bogged down in detail, the higher the driver is ranked the longer the pit-stop time penalty as a means of equalising performance – in essence, a way to ensure a dramatic spectacle.
So then there’s that track. Designed using some of the ‘best bits’ from circuits around the globe, Quinn has achieved a challenge taking in everything from high-speed, high-commitment chicanes such as the Bus Stop. Approached at 260km/h (162mph) off the main straight, the corner speed is a curb-hopping 180km/h (112mph), making the first lap run particularly impressive.
The apparently endless radius of the Southern Loop streaks through the forest, a corner inspired by New Zealand’s Teretonga circuit. The sound resonating through the foliage is superb – as well as the long constant radius offering great slow shutter opportunities. This 650S GT3 displays clear McLaren F1-LM lineage in profile, don’t you think?
Without room to detail them all, the final of the circuit’s top three corners has to undoubtedly be the Carousel. Self-explanatory in its inspiration, the 14-degree banking makes for high corner speed, although exit is crucial with the following right hander (named Sting) requiring precision car placement for its 2-degree off-camber pitch.One Hundred & One Laps
Not only are the cars relevant, the AGT, and in particular the Highlands 101, makes them accessible. Prior to the unique start of the drawcard event of the weekend, the entire AGT field gridded up on the main straight while each and every ticket holder was able to stroll among the line-up of exotics. No less accessible were the drivers, chatting with fans and even letting the odd child perch in the driver’s bucket seat for a photo opportunity, and a daydream.
With 101 laps, or a shade over 450 kilometres (280 miles) of racing to come, a few warm-up laps commenced with the cars peeling into the pits for a unique take on the traditional Le Mans start. Co-drivers sprinted the 200 metres to their waiting car, removed a flag adhered to the rear wing and the driver dumping the clutch and leaving pit lane; although the resultant traffic jam meant those with slightly less high performance legs meant a slower start to the 101 than perhaps desired.
Fleet of foot, George Miedecke took out the sprint, enabling father Andrew to get their Aston Martin Vantage GT3 out of pit lane first; although this advantage only lasted momentarily as the faster cars caught and overtook the shrieking V12 within a handful of laps.
One of these cars to set the early pace was the sole Kiwi team of the AGT championship. Trass Family Motorsport, new to the sport with a 2014-spec Ferrari 458 GT3, took early control of the 101 with sports car specialist Jono Lester handling the opening stint and at one point holding an advantage of 40 seconds.
Endurance race it may have been, but the pace was no less restrained. Christopher Mies, fresh from taking out the overall AGT championship, displayed why his talents earned him a factory Audi driving gig, lapping quickly, consistently and ensuring the team was a force come the closing laps.
Joining the AGT competitors for the 101 race, a select number of New Zealand-based endurance race cars also had the chance to foot it with the big kids on such an iconic track. Boasting serious levels of build quality, Possum Bourne Motorsport brought out their BRZ for a run, among a swathe of Kiwi-based Porsche 911 Cup cars and a couple of Audi R8 LMS.
I’ve always thought the bellowing Reiter Camaro GT3 was the motorsport equivalent of a surgeon showing up to conduct brain surgery with a club hammer. Regardless, Kiwi duo Inky Tullock and John McIntyre wrestled the monstrous Camaro to first Kiwi home, despite a close escape from an early spin while mid-pack.
Remember that advantage held by the Trass team? In an incident reflective of their up-and-down debut season a calculation error meant second driver Graeme Smyth entered pit lane for the final driver change slightly outside the 2-hour window. A cruel blow, but that’s motor racing. An appeal was to follow, but by this stage a further penalty had been incurred taking the team well out of contention.
This set the stage for a close fought battle to the finish – every endurance race promoter’s dream conclusion. Young Australian Jack Le Brocq held P1 in his AMG SLS GT3 with a handful of laps to go, before being overhauled by the might of van Gisbergen and Mies whose two lap battle to the flag ensured the pit lane atmosphere was palpable; the McLaren pilot prevailing after completing his 101st lap.
And that’s when the deal was sealed. This was motorsport like I remember being attracted to. The fanfare. The glamour. Top-end machinery being given no quarter on the black-top. AGT and Highlands, you’ve reconverted a sceptic.
With a bright future and factory interest being rumoured for the 2016 AGT season, it’s a certainty I’ll be visiting Central Otago again for the 2016 episode of this fabulous weekend. And once again, I’ll be absolutely humming with enthusiasm.