The mercury had risen by the time the 944 Challenge field lined up for Race 1 of the 2018 season, and 13 cars lined up for the first 8 lap race. The front row starters of Cameron Beller and Jamie Westaway were even as they raced down to the first corner, with Dick Howe moving into third position ahead of Lyndon Watson and Mark Taubitz. Beller took the inside line to move into the lead through turn 1 ahead of Westaway, with Howe, Watson and Taubitz close behind.
In sixth position was Rob Holding, with Marius Catrina geting a great start to move up to eighth ahead of Andrew Jackman, Jim Gallagher and Jim Mitchell rounding out the top ten. Keith Marriner was next ahead of John Vainoras and Pedr James – who dropped to the back of the pack immediately off the start of the race, and struggled with the car after repairs from his qualifying incident.
Onto the back straight for the first time, and Dick Howe missed a gear change, allowing Watson to move comfortably past. Taubitz also had the momentum but was forced to take the inside line to the back esses with Howe holding his line but ultimately having to concede the position, though this allowed the front three to create a gap back to the next three with Holding on the back of Howe on the brakes for Dandenong Road corner.
So it was Beller, from Westaway, Watson, Taubitz, Howe, Holding, Catrina, Jackman, Gallagher and Mitchell the top ten across the line the first time, with Marriner just behind with a gap to Vainoras, with James struggling with his car at the back of the field.
Under brakes for Turn 1 at the start of Lap 2 and Howe had a look underneath Taubitz under brakes, but was unable to get through, and had to be careful not to lose the fifth position to Holding who was also right in the mix. Howe was able to get the run on Taubitz down the back straight, and reversed the move pulled on him the previous lap, and retook the fourth position. Gallagher meanwhile also moved up a position down the back straight, taking eighth from Jackman.
Taubitz wasn’t keen to let the fourth position go without a challenge, and looked to get a run on Howe onto the main straight, though a mistake throught the corner saw the black 944 loop around, with the rest of the field doing a great job to go either side of the #74 that was now facing the wrong way. This gave Howe some clear space behind him with Hoding and Catrina in fifth and sixth position, with Jackman up to seventh with Mitchell hot on his heels. Marriner moved up to ninth at the expense of Gallagher who lost all momentum swerving around Taubitz, who dropped to twelfth position behind Vainoras as he flicked the car around and resumed his race.
Mitchell was able to move his way into the seventh position ahead of Jackman on lap 3, while Gallagher moved back ahead of Marriner also, and then up to eighth position ahead of Jackman as the pack started lap 4. Taubitz was beginning his recovery as he passed Vainoras for eleventh position at the end of the back straight on Lap 4 and started chasing the 4 car battle in front of him.
Up front meanwhile, Beller was eking out his gap over Westaway, with Watson dropping off the tail of the two in front of him. Howe was in a similar position, though Holding in fifth began closing the gap up on him before a cruel blow for Holding, the exhaust detaching itself from the car and Rob having to retire at the end of lap 5.
His bad luck benefitted those behind, especially Marius Catrina who found himself in fifth position! This put Mitchell into sixth, ahead of Gallagher, Jackman, Marriner, Taubitz, with Vainoras eleventh and James in twelfth.
Gallagher made a mistake on lap 5 leading onto the back straight, mounting the exit kerb, which allowed Jackman, Marriner and Taubitz to all get past him, dropping him back to tenth position again!
With Beller now enjoying a 3 second lead to Westaway, and about 5 further seconds to Watson, the top three positions looked like they were set, as were fourth and fifth positions with Howe and Catrina both about six seconds behind the car in front, and Catrina seven seconds clear of the battle for sixth and pulling away.
This meant all the attention was on the battle for sixth, with Mitchell holding off Jackman, and Marriner, with Taubitz and Gallagher trying to find their way back through. Taubitz made his way past Marriner, and then Jackman to move onto the tail of Mitchell, though Jackman wasn’t conceding easily, and made a decisive move under Taubitz under brakes for Turn 2 while Taubitz was busy lining up Mitchell to retake the position. Unfortunately for Jackman he wasn’t able to hold on as Taubitz made his way back past Jackman down the back straight.
Mitchell was benefitting from some excellent straight line handling down the long Sandown straights, and the pack of five were separated by just over a second as they commenced the last lap.
Up front it was all Beller, who took out the first race win of the year, ahead of Westaway and Watson, with Howe and Catrina rounding out the top 5.
Behind them, Taubitz was doing his best to move ahead of Mitchell, and after a great job all race defending, Mitchell made it easy for him on the last corner when he ran wide, allowing Taubitz through for sixth, a good recovery drive. Mitchell recovered for seventh, just holding out Jackman, Marriner and Gallagher – these five crossing the line 1.5 seconds apart! Vainoras held on for eleventh position ahead of James in twelfth, and with some work to do on car #98 to get it back onto its regular pace, but he importantly collected some points for finishing the race…
The only DNF of the race was Rob Holding – after being on track to equal his best race finish to date of fifth position as he sat unchallenged between Howe and Catrina – a cruel blow, but he would fix it and return to the track for Race 2.
Some cooler conditions tomorrow would mean some quicker lap times, would we see a shake up of the results from Race 1?