Now that the Championship for the 2016 944 Challenge had been decided, we moved onto the final race of the year, a Final 10 Lap, Reverse Grid Handicap race for the inaugural running of the Dennis O’Keefe Cup. There was action throughout the field as the fast cars moved their way through top 4 cars crossing the finish line separated by only 8 tenths of a second!
Due to the completion of the HQ 4 Hour event being run prior to the Dennis O Keefe cup a couple of drivers were unable to stay for the final afternoon race with Peter Doherty, Michael Westaway and Brad Winter all needing to make the trip back home, while the issues that stopped Greg Wood from finishing the final race prevented him from taking part also.
Nevertheless, 11 cars lined up on the Main front straight for a quick 10 lap blast around the tight short circuit layout.
John Vainoras was on Pole position alongside Ben Raphael with Marius Catrina right behind them, then a gap back to Jim Gallagher, Pedr James Tony Westaway, Mark Taubitz and Ken Rowland, with another gap to the three podium finishers in both the weekend and the season, Vince Misuraca, Chris Lewis-Williams and Cameron Beller.
As the lights went out the first three took off, with Catrina moving his way past the front row starters to lead into the first corner, with Raphael making his way into second ahead of Vainoras.
The sight of the front three racing off was too much for Jim Gallagher who took off just after the first group, while the rest of the second group waited until the lights went out and they gave chase, followed a short time later by the final trio as they set off from the startline.
Taubitz got the best start of the second group of runners to lead the second group into the first corner, though James got a better exit out and pulled to the inside to take 5th position going into the third corner, with Tony Westaway ahead of Rowland in 8th.
In the final group, Lewis-Williams were even in the drag race to the first corner, through Lewis-Williams prevailed in 9th position with the inside line to the corner, with Beller following him through and Misuraca giving chase to both. Misuraca then made a move past Beller into the following corner to move into 10th position.
Gallagher moved up to 3rd passing Vainoras into Kitome corner, then gave chase on Raphael & Catrina, as Catrina worked on building as big a gap as possible while he had clear track and a clear mirror.
Exiting Kitome corner, Taubitz pulled to the middle of the track but instead was swallowed up by Westaway and Rowland as they split the Zantek Porsche down the straight, dropping him back to 8th place.
The following lap, Gallagher moved up to 2nd position with a pass on Raphael for second position into the last corner complex, and then gave chase to Catrina.
The second group now caught Vainoras, and Westaway pounced on James under brakes for Turn 8 at the end of the back straight, as the quartet of Westaway, James Rowland and Taubitz all moved past Vainoras down the start/finish straight and into Turn 1.
Coming to complete lap 4 and Raphael had now been caught by the second group, as Tony Westaway pulled out to pass Raphael for third place as they crossed the line to complete the fourth lap. Rowland meanwhile moved up to 5th with a big move under brakes for Turn 8 at the end of the back straight to pass James, which also helped allow Taubitz capitalise and take 6th position from James under brakes for turn 1.
Behind them, the final group had caught Vainoras, as Lewis-Williams made the pass entering Kitome corner, and Misuraca and Beller also completed the passes before the end of the lap.
Rowland and Taubitz both moved underneath Raphael into Penrite corner, with James following them through into the next left hander back to 6th position. The following lap, Rownald made a mistake exiting Kitome corner understeering off into the Winton dust, allowing Taubitz and James to both move past him on the run down the back straight.
At the end of lap 6 there were fairly even gaps from leader Catrina to 2nd place Gallagher who was catching him by about half a second a lap, with Tony Westaway third who was closing by an additional second a lap, with Taubitz, James & Rowland a small gap behind, and all running similar times. Raphael was 7th, with Lewis-Williams and Misuraca running in close succession chasing him down, with Beller just behind them, and Vainoras at the back of the pack.
Lewis Williams made his way up to 7th with a pass on Raphael into the sweeper on Lap 7, then Misuraca was through into Penrite, with Beller making his move in the final corner complex
Up front Catrina ran lap 7 in 1:09.5, and Gallagher behind him caught 1.5 seconds, while Westaway ran his fastest lap of the race and gained 1.5 seconds on Gallagher and 3 seconds on Catrina. This was shaping up to be coming down to the wire! Taubitz ran a lap 1 tenth of a second slower than Westaway, and had now eked out a small gap to James & Rowland. The final group led by Lewis-Williams was closing on this duo with Misuraca and Beller in tow.
Gallagher ran his fastest lap of the race on lap 8 and closed the gap to Catrina by another 1.8 seconds, but now had Westaway on his bumper by the end of the lap, as Taubitz ran his fastest race lap of 1:06.5 to close the gap to Gallagher by 1.5 seconds.
The top 3 were nose to tail by the time they reached the left hand sweeper on the penultimate lap as Gallagher had a look inside under brakes into Penrite corner but was unable to move past. Behind them, Rowland moved back into 5th with a pass on James under brakes at the end of the back straight, which helped Lewis-Williams get onto the bumper of James.
As the cars jockeyed for track position to cross the line to start the last lap Catrina moved to the inside line to defend the lead into turn 1. Gallagher then moved to the inside to try an under and over move, but was then vulnerable to Westaway who lunged down the inside and completed the pass on a surprised Gallagher. This leading trio then became a quartet as Taubitz was now on the bumper of Gallagher as the top 4 ran down to the sweeper for the final time.
Lewis-Williams made his pass on James under brakes into turn 1 for the final time, elevating him to 6th position, which then became 5th when Rowland made a mistake into Penrite corner which also allowed James back up to 6th position. Rowland then dropped off the pace, which allowed Misuraca and Beller to both be able to move past also, dropping Rowland back to 9th position.
For the lead, all four cars were trying various lines to find a way past to get an advantage on the car in front, while defending from the car behind. Ultimately, Catrina was able to protect the position and crossed the line to take the victory by just over a tenth of a second from Westaway in a thrilling finish. Gallagher was only 4 tenths behind Westaway, with Taubitz only another 3 tenths of a second behind him in 4th place.
Lewis-Williams was 5th, only 1.5 seconds off the race win, with James crossing the line 6th a couple of seconds ahead of Misuraca in 7th, and Beller in 8th. Rowland limped across to finish in 9th, ahead of Raphael & Vainoras. With the top 4 crossing the line in 8 tenths of a second, and only 8 seconds covering the top 8 cars, the reverse grid was deemed a great spectacle and a huge success – a very entertaining way to round out the racing for 2016, well done to all drivers and teams for the 2016 season.
Congratulations go to Cameron Beller for taking out the 944 Challenge for 2016, to Vince Misuraca for winning the 2016 State Series Title for the 944 Challenge, as well as the Winton weekend outright and runner-up position in the 944 Challenge Series, and to Chris Lewis-Williams for his third place finish in the 944 Challenge Series.
Also, to Marius Catrina on his first race win, and earning the inaugural Dennis O’Keefe Cup!
Now the countdown begins to the first round for 2017! Look forward to getting back on track at Sandown!