Smeg Racing’s Simon Evans and Gene Rollinson won the opening round of the ENEOS North Island Endurance Series Three Hour race in a controversial finish.
The pair were eventually confirmed winners at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo following a post-race investigation due to an incident late in the race during their pit stop.
Evans said he was happy to take first dibs in the 2017 edition of the endurance series.
“We’re happy to get home the win,” Evans said.
“At the New Zealand Endurance Championship, we ran the car with not one safety cars. Today we had a few and there was definitely a lot of strategy involved and a whole team effort.”
The race began damp conditions the majority of the field ran with wet weather tyres, Rollinson behind the wheel of the winning Audi R8 LMS.
Behind him the Trass Family Motorsport Ferrari 458 piloted by Sam Fillmore fended off a hard charging Nissan GT-R driven by Clark Proctor. Meanwhile, the leading Audi stretched its legs to amass a healthy lead.
Scattered showers kept the track damp for the most part, but as the strong winds belted the circuit the blue skies began to open up.
With rain on the radar, the Smeg crew opted to keep Rollinson out on wet tyres despite the drying conditions. Their GT3 rivals behind pitted for slicks, except for the Trass Family Motorsport and International Motorsport outfits.
“The boys could see the rain coming again within the stint, but the whole time I was just searching for water and in the end, it was bone dry everywhere,” Rollinson said.
“I just kept trying to save the tyres and eventually the rain did come, but not quick enough.”
Whilst the teams on slicks were able to make up time, they were still a lap off the leaders. When the second dousing of rain came they had to pit again, which put them further behind.
An ill-timed safety car put the Ferrari 458 on the back foot and down a lap on the leading Audi.
The race settled into a rhythm with Rollinson maintaining a one lap advantage, but he eventually pitted to give Evans the reigns.
Evans maintained his pace, but a hard charging Dan Gaunt – now in the Ferrari 458 – was making his way forward to get his lap back. He eventually got past Evans and continued to narrow the margin to less than a minute.
With Gaunt on slicks and Evans on wets, the Smeg Audi pitted to swap to the better suited tyres. The margin between first and second more than halved, with Gaunt less than 30-second off Evans.
However, there was drama still to come. With a little over 30-minutes remaining, rain began to fall on the circuit. With window wipers on full speed, Gaunt pitted from second.
Evans followed suit a lap later to bolt wet tyres onto his car. Caught behind a slower car, he bumped the rear of the no. 88 Honda Integra DC5 driven by Marty McCullough and Ian Foster.
Unfortunately for Evans, it was one lap too late and the pair lost too much time.
“All of a sudden the heavens opened again. It was really sketchy at the end, you couldn’t even go full throttle down the straight.”
“I nearly came in a lap before we actually did, and that would’ve bene the perfect scenario. The next lap was really bad.”
Then another safety car was called for a stranded BMW.
Proctor and Porter were eliminated from the race after Proctor was found to have gone over his maximum driver time.
The race restarted with seven cars between Evans and Gaunt. As the green flag flew Evans bolted whilst Gaunt scythed through the traffic. However, their pending dice was stalled when the red flag came out with less than four minutes remaining.
The Reiter Engineering Camaro driven by John de Veth and Glenn Smith slammed the wall heading into the sweeper at the far end of the circuit.
The race was finished, the chequered flag was out with Evans and Rollinson winners.
Their celebrations were stalled, albeit, only briefly when an investigation took place following the bumping in the pit lane. That was later quashed, however, and the Smeg Racing team were given their rightful win.
The 2017 ENEOS North Island Endurance Series heads to Hampton Downs Motorsport Park in the North Waikato for round two of the series.