Richards back on top at Sandown
Touring Car Masters presented by Autobarn legend Jim Richards reclaimed the championship lead with a timely victory at the penultimate round of the 2010 series at Sandown International Motor Raceway (VIC), this weekend.
After being voted among the country’s top five best touring car drivers of all time, Richards showed off the skills that earned him his well-deserved ranking as one of the sport’s greats.
Quick straight out of the box, Richards’ Shannons Falcon Sprint topped the timesheets in Friday’s opening practice session. As fellow touring car legend, John Bowe returned serve with the fastest time in practice two, it was a second engine failure in as many rounds for series leader Gavin Bullas that proved pivotal as the series nears its conclusion for 2010.
While his crew worked feverishly to change his engine once again, Bullas was forced to spectate through qualifying and then Saturday afternoon’s race one, making it the first race that Bullas had not been on the grid for since the series began in 2007, ending his perfect record as the only driver to have contested every TCM race.
Looking set for a strong weekend after setting the third fastest qualifying time, Leanne Tander was another of the leading pack sidelined after her Falcon’s engine failed in qualifying, which ultimately ended her weekend and dropped her from fourth to fifth in the series standings.
While Bullas and Tander looked on, it was Richards who scored his second pole position of the season, with Bowe second fastest. Enjoying a home-track advantage Group 2 title contender Chris Stillwell and Group 3 series leader Phillip Showers set the qualifying pace for their respective classes before the session was cut short following an oil pump failure on Keith Kassulke’s Monaro that brought out the red flags.
Richards lined up in pole position alongside the WesTrac Cat / Wilson Security Mustang of Bowe for the start of race one, with a vacant grid slot in third place for Tander’s absent Falcon.
As the lights went out, it was Bowe who led the field into turn one with Richards in tow and Brett Youlden in third place after a cracking start from sixth on the grid.
The pace was red hot right from the outset with Bowe briefly setting a new lap record on lap two, only to have Richards eclipse it a mere fraction of a second later with a scorching 1:17.4546m lap.
By lap three the leading duo had scampered away on their own, while former Touring Car star Andrew Miedecke reeled in and passed Youlden for third place, dropping Youlden back into the clutches of inaugural series champion, Steve Mason.
On the following lap, the action got busy at the front of the field as Richards passed Bowe along the main straight to lead the race for the first time. However, Bowe returned serve on the very next lap, passing Richards under brakes at turn one.
Soon after, the leaders came up on lap traffic, scuppering any further attempts at the race lead for Richards. While Bowe took the race win, it was Richards who assumed the series lead.
In a drag race down the front straight, Mason in the www.usgmsp.com Camaro finally shot past Youlden’s Driving Force Monaro into turn one to grab fourth place in the closing stages of the race.
In ninth place, Chris Stillwell was the first of the Group 2 runners, taking a satisfying win on home turf in the Stillwell Motorsport Mustang ahead of series leader Bernie Stack and the Tilleys Automotive Pacer of Cameron Tilley.
Phillip Showers took the Group 3 win in the Northern BM Escort ahead of main rival Tony Karanfilovski in the TIFS Warehousing and Distribution Alfa Romeo GTAM.
Featuring the popular reverse top-eight grid for race two, Tony Hunter in the Sunliner RV Monaro lined up on pole with Steve Makarios’ 351 Motorsport Falcon XY GT for company on the front row, while Bowe and Richards started out of row four.
A rocket start from Mason off the third row saw the ’69 Camaro into the lead going into turn one.
With another engine change completed for the #1 Rain City Mustang, Bullas rejoined the fray starting off the back of the grid. In a blinding performance, the two-time series champion was up from 27th to 11th by the end of the opening lap.
Bowe was also on a charge and was into second place by lap two and in pursuit of Mason. Richards was in fourth behind Hunter.
Richards quickly disposed of Hunter to move into third spot, while Bullas charged all the way to sixth place before an incident between Hunter and Makarios brought out the safety car on lap four. As the field circulated for a lap under safety car conditions, Hunter returned to the pits while the marshals retrieved the stranded Makarios Falcon and Bob Middleton’s stricken Whiteline Camaro which suffered a broken crankshaft.
With time for a restart looking unlikely, the red flag was brought out to end the race. With only five of 10 laps completed, it was declared a non-race and no points were awarded, which was especially disappointing for Mason who looked set to take his first race victory of the season.
Using the results from race one to form the grid for race three – minus the reverse top eight – Bowe took pole with Richards beside him.
In a win for the spectators, the luckless Bullas was forced to start from the rear of the grid and carve his way through the pack all over again.
A clean start was quickly followed by an incident at turn one. While Stack was caught out and sent to the rear of the field after a spin, his main challenger Stillwell was left nowhere to go and unable to avoid contact with the errant V8 Charger of Michael Acheson. Both cars retired from the race.
Starting around on their second lap, a lock up for Bowe at turn one allowed Richards to close up on the back on the Mustang. Heading down the back straight, the Shannons Falcon shot past Bowe to assume the race lead.
Meanwhile, by lap two Bullas had climbed to seventh place from the rear of the grid.
As the race wore on, Richards led Bowe, Mason, Miedecke to Bullas until disaster struck Bowe on the last lap of the race. Dropping rapidly down the order, Bowe was slowing along the straight before crawling to a complete stop.
Richards took the win, with Mason in second and Miedecke racking up another third place race finish for the weekend, just ahead of the hard-charging Bullas in fourth.
Impressive in eighth place in the SportsMed Porsche 911 RS, Greg Keene crossed the line as the leading Group 2 runner, scoring his first race win of the season, ahead of Tilley’s Valiant Pacer and Ian McAlister’s Ford Mustang.
Group 3 finished in a carbon copy of race one with Showers winning ahead of Karanfilovski and Cameron Mason.
Richards took his third round win of the season and assumed his position at the top of the championship standings. Mason and Miedecke rounded out the outright podium for the weekend with second and third respectively.
Bowe’s race three failure hit hard, dropping him to third place in the championship battle behind Bullas.
Tilley scored his second Group 2 round win for the season ahead of Keene and Stack, with Stack still securely in the championship lead.
Showers’ clean sweep over Karanfilovski and Cameron Mason further extended his current series lead over Karanfilovski, however with the entire field required to drop their worst round, Showers is still four points behind his Alfa-driving rival on adjusted points.
The Touring Car Masters presented by Autobarn now heads to Sydney’s Olympic Park on 3-5 December for the all-important championship decider with all three title battles set to go down to the very last lap.
“Obviously it’s good to get the win. It was unfortunate that we had one race cut short, but everyone’s in the same boat and you take the good with the bad.
“Our car always goes well these days, it has been fantastic all year – it’s a credit to the guys – although we didn’t expect it to be as fast as Gavin and JB this weekend. But we got the pole and set a new lap record; we were a little surprised just how good our pace was this weekend.
“It’s good to get the series lead back. It was really unfortunate for Bowey, he was looking good there this weekend, but that’s racing; you have to get it to the finish line.
“It’s unfortunate for Gavin, too. He was going so well and to have two engine failures in a week, I really feel for him; he doesn’t deserve that.
“It looks like the championship will go down to the wire at Homebush. For us, it’s good to be in the position that we don’t have to go out and win all the races, but as we’ve just seen with Gavin and Bowey anything can happen, so we’re not getting carried away with ourselves yet.
“If we can have three good races in the best series in the country, that’ll be great.”
“I think consistency is what won me the weekend. I wasn’t very happy with the speed of the car, but first in Group 2, I’m happy with it.
“In two weeks at Homebush we’ll be ready to go. I’m looking forward to it. I think that will be more of a Valiant track than this was.”
“We had a great weekend, but disappointed that race two wasn’t declared a race because those four points we would have earned over Tony would have sent us into the final round tied on adjusted points. Now we’ve got our work cut out for us at Homebush. I think Tony will be the one to beat, there.”
CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS (after round 7):
Images via Touring Car Masters