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MEDIA RELEASE/Australian GT – Photos: Velocity Magazine
A last minute decision to employ the services of a former Australian GT race winner and mid race misfortune for points leader Matt Stoupas, has handed KFC Audi R8 campaigner Gary Higgon the round win of the second event on the 2020 Australian GT Trophy Series calendar at Sydney Motorsport Park after two spirited 60-minute races across the weekend.
Having claimed pole for the opening race alongside 2018 title rival Nick Kelly, Stoupas claimed the race one win despite a late race charge from Higgons’ new recruit Nathan Antunes, the trio claiming a podium lockout for Audi, before overnight rain and showers across Sunday’s second race made it a challenging journey for the combined AGT Trophy Series and NSW Prod Sports field, leaving Higgon and Antunes on top.
Setbacks for their rivals and a well placed Safety Car intervention made their progress to the front easier, moving Higgon to within striking distance of his KFC team-mate heading to Bathurst at Easter, whilst the mixed conditions provided Geoff Taunton the top honours in Trofeo Challenge after claiming second outright in the MARC Cars Mustang ahead of Vince Muriti, the recovering Richard Gartner and points leader Stoupas.
Three relatively tight 20-minute sessions provided the teams some valuable testing mileage on Friday before the two qualifiers on Saturday morning, although they also claimed a victim, with Queenslander Peter Corbett coming unstuck at turn four, hurting the rear suspension on the gorgeous black Lamborghini Gallardo R-EX – damage was not too severe, but a lack of parts sidelined the car for the two races.
Qualifying saw a great battle between 2018 title rivals Stoupas and Kelly, although this time around Kelly employed the services of his newer second-generation R8, making the battle a particularly interesting one as the two models worked to maximise their various strengths and overcome their rivals weaknesses.
Sandown winner Stoupas grabbed top honours in Q1 after outpacing Kelly and fellow local Audi pilot Vince Muriti, whilst Nathan Antunes blitzed the field during the second qualifier to take top honours, Stoupas though answering the call to find an extra six tenths of a second to come to within half a second of Antunes’ time despite losing under brakes and through the slow to mid-speed corners.
Also impressive was Geoff Taunton in the thunderous MARC II Mustang, as was Richard Gartner who was making his AGT return in the Safe-T-Stop Lamborghini Gallardo R-EX GT3, Sandown Trofeo Challenge race winner Arthur Abrahams and the Stillwells in the S197 Mustang, the eight registered AGT Trophy Series entrants right in the mix amongst the NSW Prod Sports entries.
Race#1 (60-minutes) Stoupas made a storming start from pole position to hold a strong lead by the time the field hit turn two with Nick Kelly forced straight into defensive mode after Vince Muriti began monstering the tail of the Industrie car as they negotiated the fast turn one left hander.
Behind the leading trio the field got away comfortably, Gary Higgon initially jumped by a couple of local Porsches before working his way forward.
Kelly and Muriti started to breach the gap to the leader, with Muriti the fastest car on track ahead of a spin on the exit of turn two on lap 16, by which stage a number of the leading cars had been down pit lane to effect their compulsory pit stops, amongst them Gary Higgon to hand over to Nathan Antunes who rejoined 15th, and more than 45-seconds back from the race lead.
By lap 17 Stoupas was down pit lane for his stop, about the same time Geoff Taunton was forced down the grass negotiating Corporate Hill whilst trying to avoid slower traffic, the mighty green Mustang though was undamaged although the Queenslander had lost contact with the lead pack.
Once all the stops were completed the focal point became Antunes who was doing his level best to breach the gap to the leaders, the former AGT outright race winner at times two to three seconds a lap faster than his rivals, but all of them stepped up the game in an effort to combat his pace.
With the Audis battling amongst themselves, Geoff Taunton was mounting a recovery after his off, the Mustang embroiled in a fantastic fight for position between Richard Gartner and Porsche regular Geoff Morgan, the trio taking the fight all the way down to the closing laps, the Mustang unable to effect the pass forcing Taunton to settle for seventh, just ahead of new Trofeo Challenge points leader Arthur Abrahams.
Sadly for Gartner, his impressive pace came to a sudden stop within a lap of the flag, a fuel pressure issue forcing him to crawl down pit lane to retire the immaculate Safe-T-Stop Gallardo, although overnight work saw him ready for action again on Sunday.
After more than half an hour charging through the field, Antunes managed to recover more than 30 seconds to race leader Stoupas in the sister KFC entry, although he ran out of laps to complete the job, although the effort earned great praise from team-boss Gary Higgon.
Nick Kelly held on for second despite some very sideways moments across the closing laps, with Vince Muriti fourth to make it a top four lockout for the German marque. Taunton was seventh, Abrahams 13th, whilst the father-and-son Stillwell Family S197 Mustang was classified 18th.
Race#2 (60-minutes) Overnight rain and intermittent downpours through the morning (including warmup – which none of the AGT cars contested) had made the circuit damp ahead of the start of the second 60-minute race, the outfield particularly treacherous catching many an unfortunate driver.
Stoupas again charged off the line, but this time without the advantage he held down to turn two during the opening race, forcing him to drive in the mirrors as he braked for the tight 180-degree left-hander, closing the door on Kelly under brakes in the process.
Behind them Vince Muriti was on a charge after a pin on the out lap saw him drop to rear of field for the start, but he was quickly back through the traffic to latch onto the tail of the pack as the field came under the control of the Safety Car thanks to a turn 10 off by Geoff Morgan, the Porsche bogged in the outfield.
With the pit window open immediately after the Safety Car returned to pit lane, Gary Higgon took the opportunity to pit and hand over to new recruit Antunes, the experienced GT campaigner charging to latch onto the tail of the lead pack, a situation made a whole lot easier thanks to a high-speed spin at turn one for Nick Kelly who lost the rear of the car after the restart having lost working temperature in his control Pirelli tyres.
That saw a lengthy Safety Car intervention to recover the #99 Audi, allowing the field to effect their pit stops ahead of the restart with 25 minutes to go.
The fans were anticipating a great battle between Stoupas and Antunes, but no sooner had the race restarted, than Stoupas began to crawl around the circuit having suffered a puncture to the right rear, dropping him back down the order.
A rapid change by the Audi Sport customer racing Australia team saw him rejoin just ahead of new race leader Antunes, but with plenty of work to do over the closing 20-minutes, Stoupas ultimately recovering half a dozen positions to be fifth at the flag, and fourth in Trophy Series points.
Antunes performance handed he and team-leader Gary Higgon the round win, with Stoupas second to retain the series lead, whilst Vince Muriti recoverd strongly from his opening lap setback to be third, and ultimately third for the round by a solitary point over Nick Kelly.
Second across the line was an ecstatic Geoff Taunton, the MARC II Mustang weathering a late assault from Muriti, whilst Richard Gartner’s trademark smile returned after a fourth placed finish and third in Trophy Series points.
Former national Formula 2 champion Arthur Abrahams continued his steep learning curve in the Huracan Super Trofeo EVO, the Victorian grabbing second for the race, and the round, to take over the Trofeo Challenge points lead ahead of his return to Mount Panorama at Easter, whilst Michael and David Stillwell amassed more silverware on their way to a 15th placed finish, three spots clear of the recovering Nick Kelly.
After two ‘warm-up’ events to kick off the 2020 season, the Australian GT Trophy Series entrants are now set for the first round of the Australian GT Championship where they will join the GT3 and GT4 teams at Bathurst’s famed Mount Panorama circuit for their third event of the year, as part of the two 60-minute races scheduled for the Easter weekend (April 10-12).
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