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F5000 Racers save their best for last

Early season standout Ken Smith (Lola T332) and fellow SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival category front runners Greg Thornton (Chevron B24), Brett Willis (Lola T330) and Michael Collins (McRae GM1) kept their best until last at the second round of the 2018/19 series’ at Taupo Historic Grand Prix meeting at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park today.

Though Smith managed to retain his 100% winning rate from the opening round of this season’s series at the ITM SuperSprint Supercars round at Pukekohe in November last year, Thornton managed to find a way past – albeit briefly – in what turned out to be one of the best races not just of the meeting but also the season so far, the 10-lap Taupo Historic GP feature.

Having already done two meetings on their tyres both Smith and Collins found themselves struggling in the hot, blustery conditions in the afternoon races on both days.

That allowed Thornton, in his first appearance in the SAS Autoparts MSC series this season, and therefore on a fresh set of tyres, to convert impressive qualifying pace into third place in the two eight lap preliminary races (including setting the quickest race lap in the second) and an event-best second in the 2019 Taupo Historic Grand Prix race this afternoon.

“Definitely happy with that,” Thornton, a pilot who now spends most of the year contesting classic car race meetings around the world said. ‘I managed to get alongside Michael (Collins) in the second race but couldn’t find a way past. This time I was able to get in front of him off the start meaning I could then concentrate on catching Kenny.”

For Smith the win in the 10-lap feature race was the icing on the cake, the four-time SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series title holder having come close for the past wo years only to be pipped at the post.

Two years ago, when the field was bolstered by several period Formula 1 cars it was young second-generation driver Michael Lyons from the UK who beat Smith to the line in a McLaren M26 F1 car. Last year it was Auckland’s Andy Higgins (Lola T332) who was able to take advantage when Smith was slowed by a gear selection issue.

“It was the race I wanted to win,” Smith admitted as he was surrounded by well-wishers afterwards. “I made it hard for myself by not putting on a new set of tyres, so I just had to come up with a strategy to manage the grip as it went away.”

As impressive as that performance, not to mention Thornton’s swash-buckling pace across the weekend, was it was Brett Willis who made the biggest impression, taking his lead from Thornton and attacking aggressively while his tyres could handle it.

After quickly finding a way past a struggling Collins, who like Smith was rueing a decision to run tyres two meetings old, Willis, from nearby Rotorua, took off after Thornton and though he slipped back a little towards the end of the race, was still only seven seconds adrift at the flag, and almost nine ahead of Collins in fourth.

Fifth, in his best performance of the weekend, was former NZ Formula Ford champion Kevin Ingram in his ex Ian Clements Lola T332, sixth Tony Galbraith and seventh David Banks.

Banks as high as fifth in his Lola T332 before spinning twice in the races closing stages thanks to his own issues with a lack of grip while category and series stalwart Tony Roberts completed the finishers list in eighth in his Class A McLaren M10B) after the late race retirement of Glenn Richards whose Lola T400 finally succumbed to an on-again/off-again engine misfire which had plagued the Auckland drivers efforts all weekend.

Ken Smith, Michael Collins and Greg Thornton also proved the drivers to beat in the other two SAS Autoparts MSC races at the meeting.

Greg Thornton put on a charge to claim the quickest race lap- a 1.26.819 - in the second 8-lap race of the weekend on Sunday morning. However the globetrotting Englishman couldn’t quite find a way past second placed Michael Collins despite getting alongside on the start/finish straight.

With usual sparring partner Aaron Burson (McRae GM1) a late scratching on Sunday morning thanks to a debilitating tummy bug, Brett Willis ran a lonely race in fourth position crossing the finish line just over seven seconds behind Thornton but with a sizable (23.431 sec) gap back to David Banks with Tony Galbraith a couple of seconds further back in sixth and category and series newcomer Kevin Ingram seventh.

That left Tony Roberts to cross the finish line in eighth place in his Class A McLaren M10B, with Glenn Richards snapping at his heels after slipping down through the field with a gear selection issue compounding his engine misfire woes.

After claiming pole position with a 1.26.896 second lap in qualifying Ken Smith led the first SAS Autoparts MSC F5000 series race of the weekend on Saturday afternoon from start to finish despite a strong early attack from young gun and fellow front row starter Michael Collins.

Back in his now family-owned ex Evan Noyes McRae GM1 after driving the newly finished ex Graham McRae/Dexter Dunlop Leda LT27 owned by Queenstown-based F5000 aficionado Alistair Hey, at the opening series round at Pukekohe in November last year, Collins, 22, quickly pulled away from Greg Thornton, who qualified and ran third, while Brett Willis settled into fourth place ahead of Glenn Richards, David Banks and Tony Galbraith.

As in both Sunday races Smith and Collins started to struggle with tyre grip in the hot mid-afternoon conditions, however, allowing Thornton to catch the pair and make it an impressive three-car battle-pack on the run to the flag, with Brett Willis fourth and Glenn Richards fifth.

David Banks had actually passed Richards for fifth with two laps to go only to overcook it into the sweeper at the top end of the course and spun.

He was able to get going again but on the last corner on the last lap was dispatched to seventh place by fellow Lola T332 driver Tony Galbraith.

That left Aaron Burson and Kevin Ingram to cross the line in eighth and ninth place respectively with Tony Roberts in the Class A McLaren M10B completing the field after losing half a lap to a spin on the first lap. With their appearance at the annual Taupo Historic GP meeting now over for another year the SAS Autoparts MSC NZ Tasman Cup Revival Series heads to Hampton Downs next weekend to support the Toyota Racing Series at the big Speedworks NZ Championship/HRC Events meeting then to the Christchurch’s Mike Pero Motorsport Park for the annual Skope Classic meeting the weekend after.

© Scoop Media

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