New Zealander Craig Baird has starred on the final day of the 2016 Australian GT Championship. He and co-driver Michael Almond won the final round of the series at Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell after collecting a first-place and second-place finish across the category's last two races in the build-up to tomorrow's 101-lap enduro.
After Baird's regular co-driver Scott Taylor was forced to sit out the final two AGT events due to an injury sustained in a crash while competing in Carrera Cup Australia, Baird missed the Hampton Downs 101 two weeks ago.
However he was enabled to compete at the Highlands event after the Erebus Motorsport crew signed Carrera Cup regular Michael Almond to substitute for Taylor.
The pair won the opening race of the day after a controversial crash between Klark Quinn and Nathan Morcom on the final lap with the finish in sight. The McLaren duo collided at Lakeside corner; the contact sending Quinn into the grass. Morcom took the chequered flag first, but was later excluded for his role in the incident - thus promoting Baird and Almond to first place.
Baird and Almond looked set to make it two wins in two races after Almond appeared to drive away with the second race - generating an impressive lead of more than 10 seconds during his stint. However a longer pit stop dropped them down the order.
"We normally have quite a short pit-stop window and then pray for a safety car on my behalf to try and catch us back up," Baird told herald.co.nz.
"[Michael] has got good speed, and it makes our race totally different because we've got a massive stop and you don't know what to do. I had thought they'd mucked up [the stop], I was sitting there in the car looking at everyone."
But Baird was able to recover in a chaotic final few laps, eventually crossing the line second behind the McLaren combination of Elliot Barbour and Nathan Antunes.
He wasn't the only Kiwi to taste the podium, with Greg Murphy finishing third in the opening heat with co-driver and circuit owner Tony Quinn. Expat New Zealander Jaxon Evans also had a strong showing in his Triffid Lamborghini, claiming a sixth and eighth respectively.
Baird's weekend of positive results threatened to put him in the frame to win the overall 2016 Australian GT title. But a sublime recovery to come from near the tail of the grid to finish third in the final race meant that Klark Quinn would collect the crown - the third AGT title of his career.
Almond's breakthrough AGT race and round win helps boost the racer's profile, after finishing seventh in this year's Carrera Cup Australia standings. But ironically he wasn't Baird's first choice of co-driver.
"I basically spoke to Greg Crick and Jim Richards, because I was looking for somebody older that could hop in, do a job without risking it, and bring it back. That was the main thing," said Baird.
"I spoke to both of those two, and both turned me down. I understand; they felt it was too competitive and too hard and not quite what they're after.
"So then I looked through the list, because I could only have Pro 4 drivers and back. I looked for two things; the Carrera Cup grid, and the list of where they were seeded. Michael drove here last year with Mike Fitzgerald, and he was seeded at that point P5. They did slot him into P4, but it was doable.
"So we got talking, and it all just fit."
The pair will partner each other once more for today's Highlands 101 enduro, comprising 101 laps of the complex Highlands Motorsport Park facility. Qualifying for the race takes place at 10.10am, with the race following at 1.15pm.