Queensland based Kiwi Craig Baird clean swept the GT1 support race category at this weekend’s Pukekohe round of the V8 Supercars, with the three wins in the Alan Ferguson owned Hydr8 Corvette C5 TraNZam dedicated to his late protégé Jason Richards.
The 25 time New Zealand champion put himself clear of the 37 car field by setting a qualifying time significantly quicker than other contenders – a margin he says took the pressure off having to take risks at the recently redeveloped facility. Thirteen years since his last foray behind the wheel of a V8 powered TraNZam, Baird said the weekend’s success evoked memories of his late colleague. Baird mentored Richards as he transitioned from karting to touring cars – at a time when Baird stepped in to the exotic TraNZam category.
“It brought back a few fond memories and to the early years I spent with Jason [Richards],” said Baird, who was also joined by engineers Todd Bickerton and Ian McNabb.
“The only one missing from our reunion was Jason.”
Richards succumbed to cancer in December 2011 aged 35. He regularly raced against his mentor in the V8 Supercar series that previously included an annual visit to Pukekohe. Its return after a five year move to Hamilton has brought an upgrade Baird applauds.
“All that’s changed is the addition of a couple of corners on the back straight and some new kerbs. Whoever’s done the design work needs a pat on the back. Not only is it visually pleasing it’s really good to drive,” added Baird.
Proclaiming the Corvette C5 was perfectly suited for the task, Baird said it went from strength to strength:
“We knew after the first practise we had a bit of a margin so our chances were good for a clean run. Even in the final race, which was a handicapped start reverse grid, was one of the more enjoyable in my career. Having to work your way through a field of 36 other cars made for some challenges and exciting moments but it’s certainly easier when you’ve got a good car beneath you. That’s something I have to thank Ferg [Alan Ferguson] for – it was an honour to drive his car and spend a weekend with good mates.”
Baird saved his final comment for the additional overtaking opportunities created by the redevelopment: “It just makes the whole track that much more enjoyable. Before you could pass up over the hill on the run to the first turn and again on to the back straight – now there are opportunities everywhere.”
Baird returns to the V8 Supercar series for the two endurance rounds: Sandown 500 (13-15 September) and the Bathurst 1000 (10-13 October), with driver line-up pairings to be announced closer to the time.