|Thousands of people turned out to enjoy the spring sunshine and some spectacular racing as Craig Baird and co-driver Michael Almond dominated from start to finish to win the Highlands 101 in style. It rounded off a remarkable weekend for the veteran Kiwi racer who also claimed a first and second in Saturday’s Australian GT sprint races.
It was a sweet victory for Baird who came desperately close to winning the Highlands 101 in 2014, when his co-driver Richard Muscat ran out of fuel 100 metres from the finish line, allowing Tony Quinn and Garth Tander to claim the victory.
“Two years ago, we thought we’d won it,” said Baird. “We had a slight engine problem near the finish so we ended up using more throttle in the last part of the race and that left us two corners short of the finish line. To come back and win with the same team is very special.”
Greg Murphy chased Baird home over the last 30 laps but never got close enough to mount a real challenge in Tony Quinn’s Aston Martin Vantage GT3. It was the first time a Quinn hasn’t finished on the top of the podium after Tony’s back-to-back wins in 2013 (with Fabian Coulthard) and 2014 (Garth Tander) were followed up by Klark Quinn’s win last year with Shane van Gisbergen.
“We kept blazing around and Tony Quinn ended up doing most of the race,” said Murphy. “He did a great job to circulate around at a cracking pace and after all the pitstops and safety cars we popped out behind Bairdo. He knows how to finish out a race but it was fun to chase him for a few laps. He had a little gap but that was enough. He did what he needed to do. I can’t remember the last time I competed against Craig at the head of the field so it was great fun.”
Grant Denyer and Nathan Morcom claimed the 2016 Australian Endurance Championship despite limping home in 9th.
“I haven’t won a championship since go-karts,” said Denyer, who is a well known TV personality in Australia, as well as an accomplished driver. “We wanted this win so bad. The car was in limp mode all day and we were two seconds a lap off the racing pace. We were a shot duck and all we were trying to do, was get it to the finish. We did it and it’s bloody amazing.”
On the Saturday of the Highlands 101 weekend, Klark Quinn’s third place finish in the final race of the Australian GT Championship was good enough to clinch his third title. Elliot Barbour and Nathan Antunes led the field home with Craig Baird and Michael Almond in second.
However, all eyes were on Quinn and his nearest title challenger Nathan Morcom, who started from the back of the field after a dramatic finish to the opening race of the day. Quinn was leading the first race when Morcom made contact with him on the third last corner, forcing him into the gravel trap and ending his race. Morcom took the chequered flag but an hour after the race finished, the stewards excluded Morcom from the race for making ‘avoidable contact’. His penalty was to start from the back of the grid in race two, plus ten seconds was added to his controlled pitstop time.
“I knew Nathan was there but I didn’t think the move was on,” said Quinn. “I was just about to turn into the apex and I started coming off the brake when Nathan tagged me. I was just a passenger after that.”
“In the second race Nathan and I had a big job ahead of us, starting from the back of the pack. Nathan was giving it everything and he did a great job to drive through the field from last to first. I was just trying to keep up with him. I saw he did a bit of damage to his car and that gave us the opportunity to get ahead of him when he came into the pits. I knew I just had to stay ahead of him and do nothing silly to win the championship, but those last ten minutes were intense.”
Quinn led the field in the closing minutes until a safety car condensed the field. When the race resumed a bad restart for Quinn saw him overtaken by Nathan Antunes and Craig Baird, but Quinn managed to hold off a hard charging Greg Murphy and Garth Tander for third. Morcom finished in seventh.
“I’ve done some 24 hour races and that was like a 24 hour race condensed into 60 minutes,” said Quinn. “I got a really bad start after the safety car, but I managed to hang on. It’s been a day of highs and lows. I had a few mountains to climb and a few cliffs to negotiate as well but I’m so happy with how it’s turned out. I said at the start of the year that I’m not here to win the championship. My day job is making confectionary, so to do this is very special.”