Defending New Zealand Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champion Craig Baird will be in fight back mode at Christchurch's Powerbuilt Tools Raceway at Ruapuna Park this weekend after Daniel Gaunt stole a march on him at the opening round of this season's series at Pukekohe Park Raceway earlier this month
Baird qualified quickest at Pukekohe but blew a tyre in the first race and had to serve a drive-through penalty in the third, meaning that though he won the second race he left the circuit in an uncharacteristic fifth place in the series points standings, 48 points behind surprise round winner, Triple X Motorsport teammate Daniel Gaunt.
Gaunt's weekend did not get off to the best of starts - after a car-crunching accident early in the first practice session - but the 25-year-old's luck seemed to change the minute sponsor and mentor Michael Morton offered him his car to use.
Gaunt was in the right place at the right time - second behind Baird - when Baird was forced to pit to replace the blown rear tyre in the first race, then muscled his way to the front early in the reverse top six grid final to lead that race from start to finish.
With a fourth place in the second race - won by Baird from International Motorsport teammates Jonny Reid and Mitch Cunningham - it was more than enough for Gaunt to claim his maiden round victory and head south with a 28 point lead over Reid and a further four point buffer over Cunningham.
After finishing second and taking the Rookie of The Year award in his first season in the New Zealand Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship, then third respectively for the past two years, Aucklander Gaunt is understandably happy about his win at the first 2010/11 series round.
However he is not counting his chickens just yet.
"No," he says, " it's way too early to be be think ing about the championship just yet. There are still 15 races to go."
Gaunt, who will be back in his repaired car this weekend, heads a 14-strong Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge field heading into the second series round, that number bolstered by the addition of last season's Mothers 996 Cup Trophy winner Hugh Gardiner, whose new 997 is now repaired after a pre-season testing crash, and the return of series stalwarts Andrew Bagnall and Michael Morton.
Craig Baird will not be the only driver gunning for Gaunt after the opening series round, either, with Jonny Reid just as keen to claw back points after being slowed in the first Pukekohe race by a handling problem.
Reid came on strongly at the end of his rookie year in the category last season and with Baird and series young guns Mitch Cunningham, Scott Harrison and Ant Pedersen he will have Daniel Gaunt in his sights this weekend.
Local interest, meanwhile, will be focused on Christchurch car dealer Paul Kelly who is tied on points in seventh place overall with regular sparring partner, Triple X Motorsport team boss Shane McKillen.
McKillen pipped Kelly in qualifying at Pukekohe but Kelly turned the tables in the first race - finishing fifth to McKillen's eighth - before McKillen edged ahead in the second and third races.
In the championship-within-a-championship 996 Cup category for drivers of older model 996 Cup Cars, young third-generation Auckland driver Simon Evans heads to Powerbuilt Tools Raceway with a handy lead over series newcomer Mark Whyman (a Kiwi commuting to and from rounds of the series from his home in Hong Kong), and last season's category runner-up Simon McLennan from Wellington.
Evans, 20, grandson of rally ace the late Laurie Evans, and son of New Zealand Land Speed Record Holder and former Wellington Street race winner Owen Evans, was the quickest category qualifier at Pukekohe and though McLennan beat him to the line in two of the three races, Evans won the second after McLennan was stopped in his tracks when a bolt in his car's driveline broke.
Having spent a year learning the ropes last season Evans says he is now more than ready to take the battle to McLennan and can't wait to get to Christchurch to get back in his car.
"Ruapuna's a circuit where you need a good balanced car, so the plan this weekend is to work hard on getting a good base set-up in pactice on Friday and hit the ground running for qualifying and the first race on Saturday," he said.
Because this weekend's meeting is also hosting a round of the South Island Endurance Series on Saturday afternoon (the round was originally scheduled for September 4, the day of the big Christchurch Earthquake), the first Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge race of the weekend will be a sprint over 12 laps rather than the 29-lap mini-enduro originally envisaged for the round.
This will be followed by two more sprint races on Sunday, the first over 10 laps in the morning, and the second, utilizing a reverse top six grid format over 14 laps, in the afternoon. 2010/11 New Zealand Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge championship
Points after Rnd 1 of 6
1. Daniel Gaunt 204 points
2. Jonny Reid 176
3. Mitchell Cunningham 172
4. Scott Harrison 169
5. Craig Baird 156
6. Ant Pedersen 147
7. Paul Kelly 133
8. Shane McKillen 133
9. Simon Evans 102
10. Mark Whyman 93
11. Mark Maddren 86
12. Simon McLennan 75