|New Zealand V8 racing gained a new hero as Eddie Bell won the first round of the BNT championship at Pukekohe’s Fujitsu 200 meeting. The 35-year-old Christchurch driver had only one season’s experience in the top class but he won the round with finishes of second and first in the scratch races and sixth in the reverse-grid finale, driving the Independent Fisheries Falcon.
In his first V8 season, with Andrew Porter’s team, Bell had finished seventh in the championship – an excellent result, as these are difficult cars to drive and require some different techniques from most other categories. It had taken Bell a long time to get into V8s, as he is one of those drivers who has more talent than money. “In 1999 I gave up karts and I was going to go into touring cars next year, but then I realised it took a lot of money,” he said. “It’s amazing. I came here with a plan just to improve on last year and run in the top six.” While working his way up to the V8s Bell had won titles in Pro 7 (Mazda RX7s) and Mini Challenge, building up a group of sponsors who would help him reach for the top.
The revised format for this season saw two qualifying sessions leading up to a top-10 shootout on the Saturday, with each driver getting just one flying lap to determine the order at the front of the grid. Former champion John McIntyre was fastest in the Castrol Edge Falcon but Bell was a close second and ahead of top drivers Andy Booth (Big Ben Commodore), Craig Baird (United Video Falcon), Tim Edgell (Chesters Falcon), Paul Manuell (Orix Commodore) and defending champion Kayne Scott (Fujitsu Falcon). Perennial contender Angus Fogg missed qualifying because he had put his LG Falcon into the wall after he lost control coming over the hill in the test session, badly bending the front of the car.
McIntyre led all the way to win race one but Bell pressed him hard, finishing less than a second behind. The winner admitted that Bell had forced him to go harder than he really wanted to, as he was trying to conserve his tyres. Bell was comfortably clear of Booth in third, and then came Baird, Edgell and Scott. Edgell, 29, had a lot of bad luck last season but showed great pace when things were going well, and he has now definitely joined the top group of drivers. Scott said his car’s setup was not working.
There was consternation and controversy at the start of race two when officials ruled that McIntyre was too late leaving pit lane and kept him there till the rest of the field had started. So Bell started from pole, fended off early pressure from Booth and scored his first V8 victory. Booth took second followed by Edgell and Scott, while Baird had to stop because of a blown gearbox seal. Fogg, who had come in 10th in race one after starting from the back of the grid, made further progress to finish fifth.
Manuell started from the front of the reverse grid for race three after suffering mysterious fuel-system problems in the first two heats. He led nine laps but then Andrew Anderson passed him in the ITM Commodore – only to lose a golden chance of victory when a tyre delaminated and he had to stop for a new one. Fogg came through for the win, closely followed home by McIntyre and Baird. Bell, driving more cautiously than some of his rivals, took sixth, behind John Penny (Penny Homes Commodore). Booth and Edgell both lost time with spins, Edgell’s caused by contact from another car. Overall for the round Bell won ahead of McIntyre, Booth, Fogg and Edgell.
Baird was competing in both the top classes, also defending his title in the Battery Town Porsche GT3 Challenge Cup (the Toyota Racing Series does not begin till January). Here he faced stiff competition from former A1GP driver Matt Halliday, who also has a lot of Porsche experience and this year finished as the top rookie in the Mobil Supercup series, which is run as support races at several of the Formula One meetings.
Halliday struck first, qualifying on pole and leading the first race, a 36-lap endurance event on the Saturday evening including a compulsory pit stop. But late in the race he made contact with a lapped car, got a puncture and to pit for a new tyre while Baird took the race win. Baird had race two to himself while Halliday suffered more misfortune – he started from the back of the grid, came through to fourth, but was penalised 25 seconds when officials judged that he had done an illegal practice start on the warm-up lap.
The final Porsche race started from a partially reversed grid and Halliday was soon in the lead, which he was able to hold till the finish this time. Former A1GP hero Jonny Reid, running as team-mate to Halliday with International Motorsport in Fisher & Paykel colours, took second despite pressure from Baird. Overall Baird won the round from
Triple X team-mate Daniel Gaunt, who has been racing a V8 Supercar in the Fujitsu (second division) series this year. Courtney Letica put in a fine performance to be third, while Reid’s fourth was a reasonable result considering it was really the first time he had seriously raced anything other than a single-seater. Baird was the busiest driver in the paddock. “It was a hard day,” he said. “I’ll tell you, five races in one day is pretty hard work.”