Image credit: John Morris (mpix).

Coming into the Sydney Motorsport Park round of the 2015 Australian GT Championship, expectations in the Audi Sport customer racing Australia camp were high that they would move back into championship contention after a tough run at Phillip Island and Townsville respectively for title rivals Nathan Antunes and Christopher Mies.

In the end, it was smiles all round as Audi claimed both the round win and the lead in the points in both the outright and Trophy classes. Antunes claimed two podium finishes which elevated him back into the outright points lead ahead of team-mate – and race one winner – Christopher Mies, whilst in Trophy Class, Mark Griffith turned in a brilliant weekend to take the round, although title rivals and team-mates Greg Taylor and Barton Mawer retain the Trophy Class points lead.

Antunes was clearly looking to finish his weekend as the points leader, the local driver showed the value of his immense experience on the Sydney Motorsport Park [SMP] circuit to claim the top spot in practice, whilst Mies elected to give new Jamec-Pem Racing recruit Ryan Millier some additional seat time ahead of qualifying.

By the close of the two qualifying sessions though, Mies continued his tradition of qualifying on the front row in every round this season to be classified second fastest behind V8 Supercar part-timer Steve Owen, with Antunes immediately behind.

Barton Mawer – like Antunes – is a regular at SMP, so it was no surprise that the local driver qualified the Adina Apartments Trophy Class Audi R8 LMS inside the top ten, with Mark Griffith not too far back in the Hog’s Breath Café Audi R8 LMS. Jamec-Pem Racing team-boss Steve McLaughlan – again running alone – was a little further down the than he’d have liked, but he’s always admitted to being a better racer than qualifier, whilst Rob Smith, who was making his Australian GT debut, was finding improvement every session in the Southern Star Developments Audi R8 LMS.

Race#1 (60-minutes)

Race one saw Steve Owen controlling the field into turn one, with Mies looking to attack hard into turn two. Owen had the German covered over the early laps, with the two drivers comfortably ahead of Antunes who was coming under fire from New Zealander Jono Lester.

Behind them Greg Taylor made a great start to be up with the leaders, weaving the Adina Apartments Audi all over the back of Townsville winner Grant Denyer’s Ferrari, whilst behind him, Griffith too was enjoying a solid start, but not so new recruit Rob Smith who was sadly out on the opening lap with a gear selection issue, prompting an overnight gearbox change.

As the compulsory pit stop [CPS] window approached, there was drama on track when Andrew Jones in the Ferrari had a big off on the main straight, forcing an immediate Safety Car intervention. That saw all the teams dive into pit-lane to effect their driver changes, and a decision by the Race Director to have the Safety Car pick up the leader, as opposed to the first car in line after the leader made their CPS, as has been the case in the past.

Trophy Class front-runner Mark Griffith was one who felt that he’d suffered a disadvantage as a result, after running strongly prior to his stop.

“I knew we’d be up with the leaders, because we pitted not too far behind them during the Safety Car period, and carried a much shorter minimum CPS time (the time is based on driver classification (PRO/AM) and qualifying position),” he explained. “I also knew that we had a big lead on a number of cars that had been lapped by the leaders, but with the leader (Kevin Weeks in the Ford he shared with Steve Owen) picked up after the CPS, the cars who had been in front were allowed to circle back around and join the tail of the field. It was an unusual move.”

Despite the setback, Griffith did manage to cross the line in 19th position, immediately behind title-rival Barton Mawer, although the Hog’s Breath-supported driver felt that that in any other instance, the advantage during the CPS would have played well into his hands.

Up front though, the race restarted with Weeks in the lead ahead of Audi rookie Ryan Millier and Antunes. The two Audis made short work of Weeks, with Millier defending for all he was worth to keep Antunes at bay all the way to the flag, handing Mies his second win of the year, and Millier a stunning victory on debut with the Jamec-Pem team.

“Crossing the line as the winner was all a bit surreal,” Millier admitted afterwards. “The whole weekend has been an amazing ride, but has required a lot of focus. I was pretty nervous getting into the car as the leader, but Seppi (engineer Paul Ceprnich) kept telling me to focus and keep my eyes forward and if Nathan forced the issue we’d look at a plan then, but I did what the team asked of me and I managed to hold Nathan out.”

For Nathan Antunes second was okay, but he was clearly thinking about the long-game.

“Don’t get me wrong, I thought about making a dive for the lead,” Antunes admitted. “But we’re team-mates, and if anything had gone wrong, it would impact the whole team’s championship aspirations, so I went for the safe option, but am fully expecting to reverse the result in race two tomorrow.”

With points-leader Tony Quinn finishing outside the top ten, the result returned Antunes to the top of the championship points table, with title-rival Mies close behind. Jamec-Pem team-boss Steve McLaughlan crossed the line just outside the top ten, whilst Greg Taylor and Barton Mawer claimed yet another podium result in Trophy Class with third, just ahead of Griffith.

Race#2 (60-minutes)

Overnight rain saw a change in conditions for the second race, with a wet circuit and light rain falling as the cars set off on their 60-minute journey.

Millier led the field into turn one, but with no experience in the wet conditions in a GT3 car he took the wise decision and let Antunes through to the lead, electing to follow the Skwirk/Beechwood Audi pilot around for a master-class in circulating SMP in the wet.

Behind them the wet conditions caught out a number of drivers, including the two Darrell Lea McLarens, the second spin forcing a Safety Car intervention after Tony Quinn went backwards into the retaining wall on the exit of turn three.

On the restart the two Audis resumed in the lead, whilst behind them Barton Mawer was forging forward in the Adina Apartments Trophy Class LMS to be fifth on the opening lap, having passed a dozen cars in the process to lock back in under the tail of the Grant Denyer Ferrari.

A second Safety Car intervention to remove the third of the McLarens from the turn three wall saw the CPS window open and the bulk of the field dive down pit lane. The two leading Audis though elected to stay out, the #6 Skwirk/Beechwood team looking to play the strategy game, whilst the #74 car was forced to wait two more agonising laps behind the Safety Car to ensure that Mies didn’t jump back behind the wheel and complete more than 55% of race distance (Pro drivers are limited to 55% of total race distance).

Sadly for the Antunes team, the strategy of pitting late in the window to change to slick tyres on the drying circuit never eventuated, the team coming in for their CPS right at the end of the Safety Car window, to rejoin just as the field reached the top of the main straight, the two Audis now 90% of a lap behind the leaders.

Despite that both Antunes and Mies charged across the closing laps, the two Audi drivers often 3-4 seconds a lap faster than the pack as they worked their way forward, but with just 20-minutes remaining, they were well down the order.

Further forward, Mark Griffith’s outstanding weekend saw him emerge inside the top three, the dual Australian GT Sports champion hanging in with the lead pack, and in a battle with the Ginetta of Hayden Cooper for second place before an intermittent ASR (traction-control) issue dropped him back to tenth, the gritty Queenslander though recovering for seventh at the flag having lost places to his two charging Audi team-mates across the closing laps.

Ultimately Antunes crossed the line in third place, 24-seconds down on the race leader, lamenting what might have been had they stopped with the pack early in the CPS, whilst behind him, Mies charged through to fourth having set the fastest lap of the race on the final lap.

Steve McLaughlan’s consistency helped him to another top ten result with ninth, whilst Greg Taylor’s eighth place finish gave him and co-driver Barton Mawer second in Trophy Class, and second for the weekend behind an ecstatic Griffith, whilst AGT debutante Rob Smith crossed the line in 17th place outright and fifth in class in the difficult conditions.

“I’m loving this Audi,” Griffith admitted with a wide smile after his maiden victory in Trophy Class. “It’s a fantastic car to drive and very forgiving, but I’ve never had to work so hard in my life because I really wanted that win. Yesterday things didn’t go quite our way with the way they set the field behind the Safety Car, but today was all good, I’m very happy.”

“I’m pretty happy with the result, but the racer in me is disappointed we didn’t come away with two wins,” Antunes admitted after the second race. “To be back on top in the points, and to have been so quick in the wet and recover for a podium is good, but in the end, we went for the wrong strategy during the pit stop, because we had the pace to win comfortably.

“Sandown is next, and that’s a circuit that may not suit the Audi as well as Sydney, but that said, the Audi wasn’t supposed to have been the best car on street circuits, and we’ve taken three wins on street circuits this year, so we’ll just wait and see what comes!”

For Greg Taylor and Barton Mawer, their Trophy Class championship points lead was kept alive after a strong run by Taylor in the damp conditions in race two.

“Greg did a great job in the closing stages of race two to catch Griffo [Griffith],” Mawer explained. “We couldn’t be happier. It would have been nice to take the round win, but equal points and no change at the top of the leaderboard heading to Sandown is good for us.”

There is now a short three week break until the penultimate round of the season at Sandown Raceway in south-eastern Melbourne on 11-13 September, where the Audi Sport customer racing Team will be looking to cement their position in the championship and go after their second Australian GT crown, and back-to-back Trophy Class victories.