Kiwi driver Dominic Storey and Peter Hackett have clinched the Australian Endurance Championship in an action-packed Highlands 501. Max Twigg and Tony D'Alberto claimed an unlikely win in Sunday's feature race with Highlands owner Tony Quinn and Andrew Waite, the resident professional at the Cromwell circuit in second. Much of the drama however, revolved around the championship battle between Hackett and Storey and Tim Miles and Jaxon Evans, who've led the title race all season.
It was a heartbreaking race for Miles and Evans, the young Australian-based Kiwi who's tipped for big things. They only needed to finish fourth to wrap up the championship but with Evans lying second behind Storey, he made the mistake of pushing too hard for the win and lost control on turn two, ripping the tyre from the right rear wheel.
"I was feeling comfortable in the car and I don't think I was pushing too hard," says Evans. "I carried a little bit too much speed through the Bus Stop chicane and caught the kerb on the way out. I couldn't hang onto the car and put it into the wall and ended our race. I can't begin to explain how sorry I am for Tim and the team. We've worked so hard all year and unfortunately we didn't come away with the result we wanted today."
Evans' mistake appeared to gift the title to Storey and Hackett but there was more drama to come. With five laps to go, Hackett and Storey appeared to be cruising to the race win and the championship, but a problem with the suspension saw Storey crawl into pit lane for some frantic repairs.
"At that point, I thought I was going to have an easy run home to the race win and the championship," says Storey. "The car was feeling good until about eight laps from the finish. I initially thought it was a problem with the tyres but then I had issues with the steering."
"I was in the garage looking at lap times and we realised Dom had a problem," says Hackett. "There was a bit of panic in the garage but once he got the car back to pit lane, our team got to work and fixed the problem and got Dom back out there."
"Before Jaxon crashed out I thought we were going to win the race but lose the championship and then after Dom came into the pits I realised we were going to lose the race but thankfully he hung on to win the championship. I'm really proud. This win has been a long time coming. I've had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory many times before. I've finished second in the Australian GT Championship six times, so to finally win it is very special."
It was a dramatic end to a race that began with a Le Mans start that is unique to Highlands. The professional drivers lined up on the pit wall and sprinted for 200m to their cars where their co-drivers were waiting. Shane van Gisbergen proved as quick on two feet as he is on four wheels, storming through the field from 5th to 1st to give 'Mad Mike' Whiddett the opportunity to beat Hackett to the exit from pit lane.
"Shane obviously ran a little faster than Dom and I had to give way to Mike on the pitlane exit," said Hackett. "Mike drove really well and it was tough to get past him. I was just sizing him up for the first few laps and then a safety car allowed us to come in for a splash and dash and that gave us clear air."
Whiddett, driving one of Highlands owner, Tony Quinn's two McLarens, stayed in touch with Hackett but his race was ended in cruel fashion on lap 25 when Matt Halliday misjudged his speed into the second last corner and spun Whiddett into the gravel trap.
"I was feeling really good, I set my best lap time of the weekend and I really found my flow," says Whiddett. "Then, unfortunately, a car that was two laps down took us out. It's so disappointing for the whole team and for it to happen so early in the race was gutting, especially with a driver like Shane van Gisbergen waiting in the pits to drive after my stint."
There was some consolation for Quinn, who teamed up with Andrew Waite to finish second.
"A Quinn has finished on the podium every single year at Highlands so to maintain that tradition for Tony is just awesome," says Waite. "To do it in front of all the local supporters and so many members is extra special. Highlands has had so much support from so many people over the years and to reward them with a podium on the final visit of the Australian GTs to this place, is pretty cool."