Motorsport: Craig Baird hero of the day

By Eric Thompson

Experienced Kiwi helps Lee Holdsworth and Erebus Motorsport to their best series result

Craig Baird racing his Mercedes at the Sandown track.
Craig Baird racing his Mercedes at the Sandown track.

Red Bull Racing Australia double-teamed the rest of the field to finish one-two at the Sandown 500 last weekend for the opening event of the three-race Pirtek Enduro Cup, a championship within a championship.

For the first time in the series' history, Sandown, Bathurst and the Gold Coast long distance races are a series of their own and Jamie Whincup and co-driver Paul Dumbrell are the first pair to get maximum points on the board.

Whincup's team-mate Craig Lowndes, partnered with Warren Luff, crossed the line second with the Ford Performance Racing pairing of Will Davison and Steve Owen making the most of a bad day strategically, and an ailing car, to salvage third.

Hero of the day, from a New Zealand perspective, was Kiwi driver Craig Baird, who helped Lee Holdsworth and Erebus Motorsport to their best yet series result by finishing fourth.

The AMG Mercedes-powered outfit have struggled in their inaugural year car-wise and were hit last weekend with the news that rising V8 Supercars' star Tim Slade was leaving at the end of the year.

Just missing out on the podium brought a very large smile to team principle Betty Klimenko's face and she reckons it bodes well for Bathurst. "At the beginning of the weekend we had a lot of doubters from all over the world and everyone was a little disheartened," said Klimenko.

"We proved, however, this is what Erebus does - when we're as far down as you can get us, we just push our way back up. I was just so proud of Craig Baird, Lee Holdsworth, Tim Slade and all our other drivers."

Although he's reluctant to say too much about it, Baird has brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to the team.

The Australian-based Kiwi has won in everything he's raced and proved to be a great asset to the team in getting the car sorted for the first of the endurance races.

"The car's been solid all weekend. They've been close before and shown signs of having good speed," said Baird. "This series is just so close, where a few tenths of a second can move you right up the grid.

"The thing is trying to get everything to work at once and today for the first time all year Lee had a little bit of luck. I had some luck where a car just missed cleaning me out at turn six and a few other little things went our way.

"At the end of the day it's still a very fresh team, car and engine and there's still some work to be done but a good platform is starting to be built. They've been working away and now if we can qualify in the top third it makes things easier.

"I don't think my involvement has anything to do with directly changing things with the car, it's probably more about how I can back up what the engineers and drivers are saying. I have a really good relationship with the management side of the team and let them know that what the drivers are saying is 100 per cent right.

"It just cements a few things that are already there. Lee has the pedigree and all the runs on the board to know what he's about, but after a few runs of bad luck it can start to do your head in.

"It's just nice to be able to back these guys up and get a bit of a result and I'm just pleased it was me."

Another long-serving Kiwi stalwart of motor racing was also in action over the weekend. Greg Murphy's long and illustrious full-time career in V8 Supercar racing has been put on hold this year. All is not lost, though, as he has been signed for the three endurance rounds with HRT and was James Courtney's co-driver at Sandown.

Murphy looked good in practice and it was a hard day's work in the office come race day, but the pair did manage to come home in fifth place as the chequered flag came out.

"For us the dramas started during the first safety car pit stops. We just couldn't get out of our pit bay and had contact with another car," said Murphy.

"That damaged the rear bumper so we got called back in to repair that but it wasn't good enough and so we had to come back in again.

"We were then a long way back but a few safety cars helped us and James [Courtney] drove really well. On the other hand there was some pretty crazy driving out there.

"We were just 10 or 15 laps into 161-lap race and some of the guys out there were driving like they were trying to prove to the world how good they are.

"A couple of them were outrageous and need to settle down and stop tearing up their tyres early on in a long race. It's called an endurance race for a reason.

"Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting to Bathurst."

Of the Kiwi regular main-game drivers, Fabian Coulthard (with Luke Youlden) was the best at seventh followed by Scott McLaughlin (with Jack Perkins) in eighth and Shane van Gisbergen (with Jeroen Bleekemolen) 12th.

- NZ Herald

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