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Baird dominates to win Highlands 101

13/11/2016 5:19pm

Craig Baird and co-driver Michael Almond dominated the final round of the Australian Endurance Championship to win the Highlands 101 at Highlands Motorsport Park in Central Otago this afternoon. It rounded off a remarkable weekend for the Kiwi racer who also claimed a first and second in yesterday’s Australian GT sprint races.  

“We had a good start, a good strategy and the team worked really well together,” said Baird. “The main thing for me is we picked up a couple of trophies for (team owner) Scott Taylor. It’s just fantastic for him after injuring his leg at the Gold Coast.”

Taylor was involved in a nasty crash at the end of October which ruled him out of the Hampton Downs 101. Michael Almond picked up the drive with Baird in the Mercedes AMG just over a week ago and it was a memorable weekend for the Australian driver.

“Michael drove fantastic all weekend,” said Baird from the podium. “He came into a really high pressure situation driving someone else’s car. Thanks very much to Scott for letting us abuse your Mercedes!”

It was also a sweet victory for Baird who came desperately close to winning the Highlands 101 in 2014 when his co-driver Richard Muscat ran out of fuel 100 metres from the finish line allowing Tony Quinn and Garth Tander to claim the victory.

“Two years ago, we thought we’d won it. We had a slight engine problem near the finish so we ended up using more throttle in the last part of the race and that left us two corners short of the finish line. To win with the same team, with the same brand of car is very special.”

Grant Denyer and Nathan Morcom claimed the 2016 Australian Endurance Championship despite limping home in 9th.

“I haven't won a championship since go-karts,” said Denyer, who is a well known TV personality in Australia as well as an accomplished driver. “We wanted this win so bad. The car was in limp mode all day and we were two seconds a lap off the racing pace. We were a shot duck and all we were doing was try to get it to the finish. We did it and it’s bloody amazing.”

Greg Murphy chased Baird home over the last 30 laps but never got close enough to mount a real challenge in Tony Quinn’s Aston Martin Vantage GT3. It was the first time a Quinn hasn’t finished on the top of the podium after Tony’s back-to-back wins in 2013 (with Fabian Coulthard) and 2014 (Garth Tander) were followed up by Klark Quinn’s win last year with Shane van Gisbergen.

“We kept blazing around and Tony Quinn ended up doing most of the race,” said Murphy. “He did a great job to circulate around at a cracking pace and after all the pitstops and safety cars we popped out behind Bairdo. He knows how to finish out a race but it was fun to chase him for a few laps. He had a little gap but that was enough. He did what he needed to do. I can’t remember the last time I competed against Craig at the head of the field so it was great fun.”

It was a dominant performance from start to finish by Baird and Almond. Nathan Antunes and George Miedecke headed the field in the unique 250m Le Mans sprint to start the race and their co-drivers Greg Taylor and Andrew Miedecke were the early pacesetters. The Baird and Almond pairing lost a few places in the foot race to give up the pole position advantage they’d earned in the morning qualifying session but within four laps Baird had moved from fourth to first.

Baird maintained the blistering pace he showed in the Mercedes AMG in Saturday’s Australian GT sprint races to lap a full second or two quicker than the rest of the field in the early stages. He was churning out lap times in the low 1 minute 32 seconds and by lap 11, he’d opened up a 21-second gap on Taylor in second, with Hackett’s and Storey’s Mercedes AMG in third and Morcom and Denyer in fourth.

Klark Quinn and Mike Whiddett started from the back of the field after a puncture in the warm up lap delayed their start. After winning his third Australian GT title on Saturday, Quinn was sat in the pits for several laps in the early stages of the race with an overheating engine, putting paid to his and Mike Whiddett’s chances of driving themselves back into contention. Their car was back in the pits and their race over by Lap 43.

Greg Murphy and Tony Quinn also struggled for pace early on and were down in 12th place before the first pit stop window, 19 laps into the 101 lap race. By that stage Baird had extended his lead over the field to 40 seconds. After Baird pitted his co-driver Michael Almond rejoined the race in 19th and he had to wait until the halfway mark for the pitstops and safety cars to work themselves out and regain his place at the head of the field.

With 35 laps to go, Almond came in for his second pit stop with a full minute advantage over the field. Craig Baird took over from Almond and rejoined the race in second for the run to the finish line. Peter Edwards held the lead for one lap but Baird took over again at the head of the field with Greg Murphy ten seconds back in second and the father and son pairing of Andrew and George Miedecke in third.

Another safety car with 20 laps to go brought the field together but crucially for Baird there were two back markers between him and Murphy. It only took half a lap for Murphy to get past the traffic but that gave Baird enough empty track ahead of him to open up a three second lead. It was a lead he never looked like relinquishing.

Murphy set a new lap record of 1m 31.69s on lap 98 of the 101 lap race only for fellow Kiwi driver Dominic Storey to better it with 1m 31.674s. Storey and his co-driver Peter Hackett finished the race in fifth and were in with a chance of stealing the championship from Denyer and Morcom if the pair had failed to finish the race but it wasn't to be.

Photos: Euan Cameron