The late withdrawal of Anthony Soole left 21 cars on the grid for the opening one-hour race on Saturday afternoon, in this two-race, double points weekend.
Daniel Oosthuizen only needs to finish the two races to ensure he wraps up the 2016 Club Championship, but in the MoComm Cup, the fight will go down to the wire between young gun Jimmy Vernon, and State Champion Matthew Holt.
Friday practice was also a learning experience for the team of Matthew Holt and Mark Caine, with Holt debuting a new race car fresh off winning the State Championship 10 weeks ago.
Most drivers were happy after Friday practice, although a few drivers were complaining about grip and handling issues, including the outgoing champion, Chris Reeves, who’s teaming up with Chris Sutton this weekend.
Sutton is a new face to the grid, as is Bruce Forsyth, who’s running a BMW out of the GWS Motorsport stable. Bruce, along with Gerry Murphy, made the long trek down from the Sunshine Coast for this round of the series.
The on-track action on Saturday commenced with a 20-minute practice session, which was topped by Dylan Thomas, and that was followed by a 30-minute qualifying session, and one that was long enough to give both drivers a chance to set a time, if they so desired.
The Saturday afternoon sprint races were among the best we’ve seen this season, and two races that saw Holden break the dominance of Mitsubishi, who had won all nineteen races so far in 2016, coming into the final round.
Oosthuizen led the field away at the start, before Steve Hodges made his move on the second lap. From there, Hodges would hold off challenges from Oosthuizen, and later Holt, who passed Oosthuizen on lap 4, to win his first race of the season, in a Holden 1-2.
Oosthuizen was third, and later said ongoing overheating issues were part to blame for the lack of pace from the Mitsubishi Evo in that race, as they tried to nurse the car through the sprint races, in order to make the grid for the feature race later in the afternoon.
Adam Gosling claimed Class B2 honours in the BMW E46 M3, while Jimmy Vernon picked up Class D and Peter O’Donnell was the best of Class B1, and James Herrington was the winner of Class S.
Bruce Forsyth – the sole Class C entrant – failed to start.
The second sprint race was for the designated co-drivers, and again it was a battle between Holden and Mitsubishi, as Mark Caine and Jacques Oosthuizen exchanged blows right throughout the 6-lap affair, and in the end, it was Mark Caine getting his first win of the season, and the first win for Matthew Holt’s brand new Holden Commodore.
At roughly 5:20pm local time, the second last enduro of the season commenced, minus Trevor Symonds and Scott Bargwanna, after the left rear hub broke during qualifying earlier in the day.
Off the line, Michael Caine got the jump, and shot straight to the lead ahead of Jacques Oosthuizen. Dylan Thomas jumped well from the third row, but spun at turn one. Speaking afterwards, Thomas admitted that he was on the outside, three wide, and just “found the grey stuff, with no grip, and went merry-go-rounding”.
Thomas rejoined near the back of the field, as Caine pulled away from the front, ahead of Oosthuizen, Hodges and Holt, and it was evident from that moment, that we’d have one eye on Thomas, who would be tearing his way back through the field.
Michael Caine pulled away at the front of the motor race, from Oosthuizen and also Matthew Holt. By Lap 5, Thomas had charged back through the field to be running in fifth position.
Steve Hodges started well, but an off-track excursion saw him lose positions to Holt, Heeley and Thomas on Lap 5. That left the sprint race winner in fifth position. He would return to fourth on lap 7, as he capitalised on a small mistake from Thomas, who would retake fourth from Hodges on the following lap.
The top end of the order would remain the same until the pit-window opened.
Caine spoke to 2MCE Sport after the race, saying the team had asked him to taper off a bit, and while he thought the lap speed was slower, the clock certainly suggested otherwise. Regardless, Caine was chuffed with the lap record, furthering his love-affair with the Pollicina Motorsport Mitsubishi Evo X.
Caine continued to extend his lead at the front, before we reached the end of lap 15, when both Jacques Oosthuizen and Matthew Holt pitted from the lead group – Dylan Thomas would follow at the end of Lap 17, with Hodges handing over to Robert Coulthard at the end of the following lap.
It wasn’t until the end of Lap 21 that we saw Michael Caine come in to hand the lead car over to Jim Pollicina. At that time, Brett Heeley inherited the lead of the race – only to pit on the following lap, to hand over to Gerry Murphy, who would drive the #47 to the chequered flag.
Jim Pollicina inherited the lead at that point, and looked destined for victory.
Soon after, Dylan Thomas finally made his way past Daniel Oosthuizen, who was relegated to third.
The running order remained relatively unchanged until lap 28, when Mark Caine suffered a flat tyre, and was forced to make an unscheduled pit-stop.
There was one final twist in this plot, or so we thought, and that came on the last lap, when the Pollicina Motorsport Evo ran into trouble, and was forced to limp to the chequered flag on three wheels, as one had started to part company with the vehicle.
This was great news for Dylan Thomas, who was able to close in, eventually pass Pollicina, and cross the finish line in first position – HOWEVER, Thomas being first past the post was missed by both officials and commentators following such great dominance from the Pollicina Motorsport entry over the preceding 36 laps.
Missing Thomas resulted in mass confusion, as cars continued to circulate after hour was up.
At first, what we knew was that Dylan Thomas claimed victory by 14 seconds over Pollicina and Caine, and they were lucky to get second, with the fast-finishing Oosthuizen Motorsport entry finishing just four seconds behind them.
Steve Hodges and Rob Coulthard were fourth, and the winners of Class A1, with Adam Gosling, the first B2 class car home, rounding out the top five.
BUT, there was one last sting in the tail – timing indicated that Dylan Thomas’ time from the entry to the exit of the pit-lane was faster than the minimum transition time of 73 seconds. Therefore, stewards awarded the CXC Global Racing driver a 120-second post-race penalty, which relegated him from first to fifth position, and awarded the victory to Jim Pollicina and Michael Caine – their second enduro win of 2016.
To say Thomas was disgruntled with his penalty would be a complete and utter understatement, and despite his best attempts to display evidence that he wasn’t in breach of the minimum pit-lane transition time, the penalty stood, and the win stayed with Pollicina and Caine.
As for class winners, Jimmy Vernon was terrific in his drive to 6th outright, and victory in Class D. Class B1 honours went to Peter and Simon O’Donnell in 13th position, with James Herrington winning Class S in 15th, and Bruce Forsyth rounding out the field in 16th, as the winner of Class C.
A few drivers noted that, because the race ran without a Safety Car interruption, that they were running close to empty upon taking the chequered flag.
In the end, 37 laps were completed – 111km – and after a very long day at the office, the teams and drivers were left to reflect, and then prepare to do it all again on Sunday morning – some with more work to do than others, and that was reflected by how quickly some people left the circuit on Saturday night.
What a race in the end – one that Michael Caine and Jim Pollicina were on-track to win, then lost, only to be reinstated as race winners minutes later… a bizarre and controversial finish to what was otherwise a compelling and captivating affair, in which we saw the lap record broken, in the first race for the category on Victorian soil since 2014, and what’s more, we’ve still got another one-hour race to come.
From Winton, it’s goodbye.