As always, the bumpy, narrow confines of Pukekohe delivered a bruising environment for the opening round of the Toyota 86 Championship.
Five of the 17 cars that fronted to the opening round came away with significant damage, falling victim to the massive kerbs at the ‘ esses’, the absence of run-off at Railway Corner and the unforgiving high-speed run up to the Pukekohe ‘mountain’ — or simply tangling in a synchronised back-straight crash.
At a fast and bumpy circuit where the cars reach speeds in excess of 200kph and rail through corners at an easy 145kph and more, hard on the anti-lock brakes and slamming the ripple strips lap after lap, drivers have to trust the safety and strength of their cars implicitly. The TR 86 cars built for the series have massive brakes, a multi-point full roll cage, a race seat, and six-point safety harness, and all drivers must use a HANS device neck brace to limit neck injuries in serious crashes.
When the racing is this close and this intense, it is inevitable that metal will make contact with metal. Crashes were a feature of all three races at Pukekohe, with Auckland racer Jacob Smith and Te Puke’s Michael Scott coming off worst. First Smith spun off the track in qualifying, damaging his car and bringing the session to an end. He later commented, “I could see it coming so I got my hands away from the steering wheel, and just made sure my head was between the seat restraints. The seat and my harness and neck restraint kept me safe.”
Then, in the first race, Aussie Drew Ridge spun his Albany Toyota TR 86 through the esses and clouted an innocent Smith, who was turning into Railway. The impact put Ridge straight, but nudged Smith into the tyres. This time Smith’s Tony Richards Toyota TR 86 was too badly damaged to continue. Tom Stokes and Mike Lightfoot got together on the back straight too, and both spun across the track. Stokes’ car limped away with bent chassis rails from the tangle, Lightfoot’s wore panel damage, but the core strength of the car and its FIA-spec roll cage enabled him to rejoin the fray the following day.
Young racer Miles Cockram, stepping up from karting, was finding the limits of grip — first at Railway, where he backed his car into the tyre wall, then in the final race going for an unintentional 180kph slide down the grass at the ‘mountain’.
There was worse to come for front-runner Michael Scott, who came through the first and second races unscathed and in the top five overall. Heading through the fast left-hand corner going up onto Pukekohe‘s ‘mountain’ in race three, he clipped the rear of Matt Lockwood’s car at 143kph and was launched into a spin that became a barrel-roll in the safety gravel trap. His Northland Toyota car flipped up and over the safety catch fencing, coming to rest alongside pit lane. Scott walked from the inverted car, shaken but unhurt.
“The safety gear was awesome, the roll cage preserved the integrity of the driver space and my seat and harness did their job really well,” he said afterward.
Well protected through the massive rotations forces of the rollover, he was shaken but not stirred, and the following morning was on a plane back to Christchurch to study for his end-of-year engineering degree exams.