When it was announced Tom Alexander would be returning for the final South Island Endurance Series three-hour race at Ruapuna, everyone was licking their lips for an Alexander vs Damon Leitch battle.
Considered two of the country’s best and most versatile racing drivers, Alexander and Leitch showed today why that is exactly true.
A near two-hour ding-dong fight between the pair came down to the last five minutes.
And in the end, it was Leitch in the SBT Motorsport McLaren 650S GT3 who claimed top honours.
“Really cool race,” Leitch said.
It was a battle of the co-drivers to kick off the three-hour affair.
Glenn Smith led the field away in the McLaren, but Anthony Leighs put the BlackBull Markets Nissan GT-R to the lead at the 20-minute mark.
Both cars then lapped reasonably close to each other, though Leighs seemed to have a slight edge.
Smith was the first to pit, and he swapped out for a readied Leitch.
“We’re going to leave the rockstar in [for the rest of the race],” Smith said after the stop. “He’s a legend.”
Leighs went to just shy of half race distance before completing his pitstop and making way for Alexander.
“It was a good but tough stint,” Leighs said. “I was a little bit impatient and pushed a bit too hard.”
After the stops unfolded, Alexander had a 6.5s advantage over Leitch.
That margin was then almost instantly wiped clean when the Don McIntyre/Rob Williams Porsche found trouble at turn one, resulting in the safety car.
Alexander pounced on the opportunity to top the GT-R up with fuel. But the team couldn’t get as much fuel into the car as they wanted to, leaving Alexander to conserve in the final few laps.
Leitch reclaimed the provisional lead but would have to make one more stop to top up the tank.
The stop came with a tad under 40 minutes remaining. The team fuelled the McLaren to the finish and took on fresh right-side tyres.
Leitch re-joined the circuit some 31 seconds behind Alexander.
Yet straight away, when Leitch posted a scintillatingly fast lap out of the box, one knew this race was far from over.
And, really, that was the story of the final half-hour.
Leitch lapped consistently quicker than Alexander over the stint to eventually make a pass for the lead around the outside of the main straight with only a few laps in hand.
“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure [I could catch Tom],” Leitch said. “The Nissan was pretty quick…so, I was a little bit worried.
“But as soon as we got into a rhythm and pushed hard, that gap started coming down.
“It was a nice sight when I could finally see the Nissan.”
“He drove amazingly,” Smith added.
Alexander was undoubtedly disappointed to lose in the final few minutes. Still, he conceded Leitch was much faster in the closing stages.
“I burnt the tyres up too fast and had nothing left,” he said.
“I gave it my all but congrats to Damon and Glenn. They were the faster car.
“If I had hung onto the tyres I think we would’ve been in the box seat.”
Though perhaps the biggest celebrations will be coming from the team that finished third today.
Being three laps down on the front two cars won’t matter for Allan Dippie and Scott O’Donnell in the Porsche 991 GT3R. They are crowned this year’s three-hour champions.
“Feels good, yeah,” Dippie said. “There was a bit of pressure on us to finish and to be on the podium.
“We did what we set out to do today.”
The combo didn’t win a race all season. But they did end up on the rostrum in all four rounds.
“It’s an endurance series,” O’Donnell said. “You’ve got to endure and finish things to get results. We have and here we are.”
Steve Brooks and Jack Milligan finished fourth overall, with Martin Dippie and Aaron Slight closing out the first five cars home.
Main Image: Terry Marshall