In a season packed with drama, the first overall V8 SuperTourer title will go down to the wire and the spoils of championship glory look to be heading to either points leader Scott McLaughlin or sprint series champion John McIntyre.
With one round to go - the Mike Pero Real Estate 350 at the Powerbuilt Tools Raceway, Ruapuna over the weekend of November 23, 24 and 25 - young Gold Coast based ace McLaughlin heads the table with 2,995 points ahead of McIntyre's 2840. Each get to drop their lowest scoring round, but after a zero pointer at Manfeild, McLaughlin is in the stronger position heading to the South Island finale with his points tally intact no matter what.
It is a remarkable turnaround for the 19 year old, who has not just hit the sweet spot in his SuperTourer, but who has also excelled across the Tasman with wins in the Dunlop development series and a superlative sixth place with Jono Webb at Bathurst. He is not only in pole position for the overall SuperTourer title at Ruapuna, but could snatch the endurance series title from his hero Greg Murphy there too.
"The key was that we never put our heads down," said McLaughlin. "For sure, Manfeild brought us incredibly bad luck but to come back shows just what sort of team I have around me. I never gave up and I knew if I could just have few good runs we would get back in the title race. Luckily for me, we did exactly that and here I am."
McIntyre meanwhile, came off the back of narrowly winning the sprint element of the first season of V8 SuperTourers and had every expectation that this run of form would continue with Jono Lester on board with McIntyre for the enduro races - but it's not been as simple as that as he explained.
"We can definitely bounce back from Pukekohe. It was the first time we have not been on a V8ST podium, so we know we are capable of better. We just produced a very poor performance couple with a few issues out of our control and this gave the end result. The championship title will be very difficult due to us having to drop a score but you never say 'never' until the last lap of the last race."
Both of the leading contenders are looking forward to returning to Ruapuna. In the first V8 SuperTourer event there earlier this year, McLaughlin was fast but fragile and McIntyre turned in what he believes was one of his best ever races. Both are adamant they will be at the sharp end of the action when they take to the track.
"Beating Coulthard in the feature race at Ruapuna was a season highlight for me," said McIntyre.
"He clearly had better speed. I had nothing left and thought I drove a very good race. We certainly did have a good car at Ruapuna but the bar has been lifted since then. We need the preparation to be spot on and from there we can work on performance. We will probably start one car with the set-up from last time and build from there and the other car with something completely different. I don't think the team has ever been more focussed on the task in hand."
McLaughlin meanwhile, hopes reliability will be the key to a much improved performance in Christchurch. "We were hampered by engine troubles at Ruapuna and that is what masked our speed," he said. "We were lightning fast through the infield but as soon as I had to go down the straight I needed clean air to keep everything cool. That is now sorted and I am very confident we will be on the money straight away."
Both drivers though, have excelled in their first season of V8 SuperTourer racing and both believe the racing has sharpened their skills hugely, whoever ends up taking the title.
"I think the racing has helped with endurance driving due to the longer nature of the races," said McIntyre. "I have done more passing and been passed by more people in one season of SuperTourer racing than I was in nine seasons of racing in NZV8s. It has sharpened me up in regards to passing and conversely I have improved in terms of minimising lost time when I have been passed."
McLaughlin too, has seen the benefits. "It's really taught me how to lead and control the race and this was something I never learned to do before this year. It's also been great preparation for the Aussie enduros and taught me a huge amount about driver change overs. Honestly though, the coolest thing has been racing Murph. No kidding, my whole life I have wanted to race Greg and I got to do it this year. I cannot emphasise how big a deal that was for me and SuperTourers made it happen."
The huge weekend of motor racing kicks off with Friday testing at the track on November 23rd, with racing on Saturday and Sunday over three races forming the Mike Pero Real Estate 350.