Alex Riberas and Darren Kelly have won the New Zealand Endurance Championship on their first attempt, executing a two-stop strategy which had the team surge home to an emphatic victory.
The Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage started on pole, led every lap and ran a flawless race as it secured the national crown by 27s over the International Motorsport-run Audi R8 LMS of Jonny Reid and Neil Foster.
Having been forced to start from the pitlane after colliding heavily with the concrete wall at the Sweeper, Liam Lawson and co-driver Scott O’Donnell managed to claw themselves back to third to round off the overall podium.
“Impossible to explain what we are felling right now,” said Riberas.
“It is an absolute honour to be here and to race with such an unbelievable team of people, and of course to do it for such a great cause.
“I hope this will make the kids at Starship [Children’s Hospital] proud.
“Darren has been unbelievable the whole season, and especially today so I have to tip my hat off to him.”
The Heart of Racing crew led from the get go as a a frantic start saw 30-plus cars charge towards the bus stop chicance.
Craig Innes was the unfortunate victim of the expected opening lap kerfuffles, with the Racer Products TCR shoved off the circuit by Hayden Paddon before the field had even reached Turn One.
Facing backwards, Innes was able to self-recover while Paddon limped back to the pitlane bearing damage from the clash.
The race then ran surprisingly cleanly, with only one safety car interrupting the flow of the race when John McIntyre’s and car-owner Simon Gilbertson’s tumultuous endurance season came to a premature end at the carousel.
An unfortunate Gilbertson was drilled off the road by an unsighted Track Tec Racing Audi TCR.
The Audi was pitched high entering the corner as he diced with two class rivals. But with the Camaro charging through the pack, it found itself on the end of an unfortunate tangle which resulted in Gilbertson collecting the barrier.
A handful of drivers took the opportunity to pit, though there was little movement from the Heart of Racing team. With Kelly behind the wheel and setting competitive lap times, the team left the race leader out until the 90-minute mark before making their sole driver change.
The impressive first stint raised suggestions of a possible one-stop for the team. However, Riberas would make one final stop for a top-up of fuel and a fresh set of boots to take him to the finish.
The closest the Foster/Reid entry got to the Aston Martin duo over the final stint was 25-seconds. Riberas would set his fastest lap on his 95th tour as he continued to push despite holding a comfortable margin to the rest of the field.
It caps off an amazing year for the team which made a surprise entry into the series courtesy of Riberas and Heart of Racing NZ founder Gabe Newell being stuck in New Zealand during the Covid-19 lockdown. The team have since gone on to claim a South Island Endurance Series title before adding to their trophy cabinet once more today.
“It has definitely been a very crazy year,” said Kelly.
“From what we had planned for this year to what we are doing now is just completely different.
“But to be with Alex, the Heart of Racing team and to partner with Starship; what we have done in New Zealand is just amazing.”
Greg Murphy and Dwayne Carter ran a strong race to finish fourth in the sole Mercedes AMG of the field, with Christina Orr-West and Brendon Leitch.
North Island Series champions Glenn Smith and John De Veth withdrew the McLaren 650s GT before the start of the race citing engine issues as the culprit.
Lance Hughes and Simon Evans finished over one-minute ahead of their nearest challenger in Class D.
Barry Moore and Tim Mackersy were victors in the so-called TCR class B. Their Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR ran a clean race as several of their key rivals dropped out with mechanical issues.
Despite a sublime recovery effort to come from dead last to leading their class, Rollinson and Innes were ruled out with a broken half-shaft in the final hour with the scissor kerbs that haunt the edge of the circuit the suspected cause of the failure.
Jaden Ransley and Rhys Gould were also forced to retire with engine dramas of their own.
Other class champions were Cameron Davies and Flyn Mitchell in their Mazda RX8 (Class C) and Mark Taylor and Vaughan Moloney in the Honda Integra (Class A).