After a day of high drama at Highlands Motorsport Park, Dominic Storey and Peter Hackett have come from behind to win the 2017 CAMS Australian Endurance Championship title.
While the duo spent most of the race in first place, looking like the car to beat for the race win, they didn't appear likely to take the title. Instead series leaders Jaxon Evans and Tim Miles looked to have that sewed up, having worked their way into second place as the race decended on its final laps.
However, both cars would come across dramatic issues in the run to the flag. And while Evans and Miles wouldn't be able to rejoin the race and claim a result, Storey and Hackett were able to salvage sixth place; enough to nab the championship.
The race win went to Tony D'Alberto and Max Twigg, after the pair hung with the title contenders for most of the day. Andrew Waite was the first Kiwi across the line in second place with McLaren co-driver Tony Quinn, and Cameron McConville and Adrian Deitz kept their noses clean to finish third.
Early phase drama
Having only qualified fifth in yesterday's top-10 shootout, Shane van Gisbergen appeared delighted to win the running race that began the Highlands 501. His run ensured that co-driver Mad Mike Whiddett would win the race out of pit lane. He led pole sitter Peter Hackett, Roger Lago, Tim Miles, and Max Twigg.
Missing from the melee were the potential contending McLaren 650S of Fraser Ross and Alvaro and Parente, and the Mega Porsche of Liam Talbot. Both lost time in the opening laps with issues (in the case of the McLaren, a broken dial rotor on the front-right corner, the Porsche an on-track clash with Dylan O'Keefe), with the latter retiring prematurely.
And that's how the order remained, until an early safety car on lap eight. It was caused by the stranded IMS Audi R8 of Andrew Bagnall, which had spun. This triggered a range of pit stops among the leading cars, with BNW driver Dylan O'Keefe among the only ones to stay out.
A second yellow in short succession further complicated the order (this one for the stranded AMG of Scott Hookey, which was lucky to escape with only minor damage after losing control into the hairpin, narrowly avoiding a massive accident with the IMAK Lamborghini).
In the shuffle Hackett had taken over the lead from Whiddett. Matt Halliday had taken over the IMS Audi after the car's early spin, and hoped to reclaim a lap back from the leaders. As the race went green he looked likely to do just that, until a dive inside the second-placed Whiddett proved costly.
The contact spun Whiddett; his rear wheels just catching the gravel and rendering the McLaren immobile. Another safety car was called; an irate Whiddett losing laps before ultimately retiring the McLaren from its promising position (van Gisbergen having not even gotten into the car). Halliday's race was further soured by a pit-lane penalty for his role in the accident.
The story of the middle phase of the race was that of Tim Miles. Having been as high as third early in proceedings he had faded down through the order; far enough to hand the provisional championship advantage to race leader Hackett and Dominic Storey.
He fell to the bottom of the top 10, engaging in a battle with the Lamborghinis of Justin McMillan and Lago. But as the laps went on, Miles' pace began to swing back the other way. And with pit-stops looming he passed McMillan and pressured Lago.
As the race hit the 50-lap mark teams started to think about pit stops. Most cars on track had their secondary drivers at the controls, and lap 54 would signify the end of the 'minimum laps' for those drivers.
Sure enough race leader Miles and points leader Hackett were two of the first to stop; trading places with Jaxon Evans and Storey respectively. Miles had been as much as 1min 30sec behind the race-leading Mercedes-AMG, but after the lap that gap had been slashed to less than a minute.
In the battle for third, an impressive drive from Max Twigg had given the WM Waste AMG of a second podium in a row. The same could be said of Tony Quinn and his STIX McLaren 650S. Both drivers soon also pitted, handing race-finishing duties to Andrew Waite and Tony D'Alberto respectively.
With less than 60 laps to go, the leading trio — Storey, D'Alberto, and Evans — all started to exchange fastest laps. Evans was first into the 1:31s with a high nine, before Storey and D'Alberto joined in with 31s of their own (D'Alberto won the battle of the clocks, with a 1:31.469).
The last 45
Evans' push saw him round up D'Alberto, and minimise the lead to just 25 seconds. But on lap 81 the gap was down to nothing following another safety car. This time for the stopped McLaren of Alvaro Parente — Storey and Evans now with D'Alberto, Steve Richards, and Waite on their tail.
The race restarted with 39 laps to go, and straight away Storey and Evans shot clear of the trailing pack. Behind them Waite was the explosive package; rounding up Richards and then D'Alberto in quick succession.
As the two leaders built themselves a 10-second margin, the battle for third became a focus. Soon enough the warring group had to deal with traffic — a particular pair of Lamborghinis proving hard to pass. The equation soon sorted itself out after mechanical problems ended Richards' race, and D'Alberto got back by Waite for third.
It looked like Evans had the title sowed up, sitting in a clear second place some three-seconds off the race leader. But it was clear that he wanted to have a shot at taking the race win. This was made clearest when he claimed the lap record — a 1:31.399 — while trying to chase down Storey.
But, the fight ended a few laps later. While pushing, Evans is reported to have run wide through the long turn-two sweeper. The impact to the front and rear of the Audi was relatively minor, but was enough to rip apart the left-rear wheel. And by the time he arrived at the next corner, the wheel came apart and parted company with the rest of the car.
Evans' stranded car prompted another safety car, and forced his team to fire into action when he returned to the lane on the back of a tow truck. Despite their work fixing the damage, the Jamec Pem team's Audi wouldn't re-fire. And subsequently they had to retire.
With the race restarting at the lap-100 mark, Storey simply had to bring the car home in one piece. But, he too would encounter disaster as the end of the race loomed.
Six laps to go
With only six laps left, Storey slowed with problems of his own. The polesitter filed into pit lane, having already lost plenty of time to his peers, and the Eggleston Motorsport crew worked madly on the car's front-left suspension.
This handed the race lead, and eventually the win, to D'Alberto and co-driver Max Twigg. The pairing took honours six laps later by 13 seconds over the only other car to finish on the lead lap; Andrew Waite and Tony Quinn. The underdog drive of the day was Cameron McConville and Adrian Dietz, who took third in their Lamborghini.
Storey was able to resume the race in sixth, two laps down. Trundling home with a still wounded car, he crossed the line in sixth — still enough to win the title. It's Storey's first ever championship title, on either side of the ditch.