The Porsche path

I can remember the day as if it was yesterday. Car and racing mate Stich (as in the late, great Ashley Stichbury) phoned just before lunch with the news he, wife Anna, I and everyone else in what I suppose you could call his ‘inner circle’ had been waiting for; ‘his’ Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car had finally arrived and, and, and……would I like to wander over and have a look at it.


“Hell yeah!” (or whatever the late 1990s equivalent was) I said, grabbing my wallet and trick Philips flip-up mobile phone, “be there in a second.”


The office I rented some desk space in is still there on the corner of Ponsonby and Great North Rds. Then, though, the chic white tile ‘n glass home of the Giltrap Group was still a gleam in architect Stuart McCondach’s eye, so the first two factory-built GT3 Cup cars to arrive here were being PDed in an otherwise ordinary workshop a couple of streets back from ‘the main drag.’


“Take a left up the one-way street by McDonalds, then a right and it’s down an alley on your left,’ Stich had said, and sure enough there he and another couple of blokes I recognised but whose names I didn’t know, were. Just standing there. Looking at one of the cars.  Stich’s car. In awe.


Sadly, there’s no happy ending to this particular story. Stich did get to drive ‘his’ car, the following weekend at Manfeild, as I remember. But not long after, as he dropped by to check on the sponsorship proposal I was preparing for him for the coming season he complained of having a really bad headache……and died the next day of a massive brain haemorrhage.


What he might have achieved had be lived to contest the inaugural Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge not to mention all those subsequent Battery Town Porsche GT3 Cup Championships, is indeed a moot point. After-all, the series was dominated by the likes of Craig Baird and Matt Halliday, professional wheelman with the same Karts-Formula Ford-Touring Car pedigree as two-time NZ Formula Ford and NZV8 Touring Car champ Ashley.


If I am to take any positives out of his untimely death, however, it has to be the role Stich played, albeit briefly, in getting the local series off the ground.


One-make series have always proved popular here, but a Porsche one – based round a car which cost just over $100K at the time – was a bit of a step into the unknown, so the Giltrap Group decided to ‘own’ one of the cars and put Stich (who by this stage was selling Audis and Porsches for the company) into it to show ‘what it could do.’


As it turned out the car – and subsequent series – proved a hit with drivers and fans alike, attracting a true Pro-Am mix and providing young guns and crusty veterans alike with a fantastic ‘place to race’ for over a decade.


The usual ‘combination of factors’ conspired, eventually, to kill the local championship series. Amazingly, however, that didn’t stop the impact of the Porsche factory’s race programme on Kiwi drivers.


Now a two-time Le Mans 24 race winner with Porsche, Earl Bamber effectively breathed new life into his career by heading back to Asia after the A1GP Series foundered then twice winning the Carrera Cup Asia championship.


That caught the eye of the powers that be in Porsche’s competition department, and  – with a factory scholarship in hand –  Earl commuted back and forth to Europe in 2014 and – incredibly – added the F1-supporting Porsche Mobil1 SuperCup series’ title to his CV in his first year in what is arguably the toughest one-make series (though ‘cauldron’ and/or ‘crucible’ are probably better words to describe the intensity of the thing) in the world.


That win in turn, earned him his LMP1 drive – and with it – those two wins at Le Mans.


With Earl’s career keeping him in the Northern Hemisphere the Carrera Cup Asia series then became a happy hunting ground for another talented Kiwi, Chris  van der Drift, who just weeks ago, claimed his third series title (2015, 2017 and now 2018).


It has also provided an opportunity for Earl and his father Paul to set up their own team – Earl Bamber Motorsport – to run Earl’s younger ‘bro Willie this year.


Australia’s Carrera Cup series has also provided rich pickings for Kiwis from the early 2000s to now.


“Gentleman’ Jim Richards was an early series winner, while keen Kiwi racers like young guns, Fabian Coulthard and James Cressey (both former NZ Kart and Formula Ford champions) and established NZV8 and/or NZ GT3 Cup front-runners like Paul Pedersen and Ross Rutherford were also regular contestants through the early 2000s.


While Coultard used his series’ win in 2005 to give him a leg up to the then V8 Supercars championship, compatriot Craig Baird used it to re-establish his reputation after never quite gelling with a V8 Supercar, or team, going on to win the Aussie series’ title a record five times and in doing so earn recognition from the factory as the world’s winningest GT3 Cup Series driver.


It’s not just Kiwi drivers who have benefitted from an association with Porsche and – in this case – the now Wilson Security-backed Porsche Carrera Cup Australia series, either.


Another former New Zealand Formula Ford champion, Andy McElrea (not to mention compatriot and good mate of Stich’s) has forged a reputation as a talent spotter and driver developer extraordinaire. First fruit of that was when – as part of a three-car McElrea Racing squad –  he guided young Queenslander Matt Campbell to the Australian title in 2016.


That performance in turn earned Campbell a spot on Porsche’s Junior Motorsport Development programme and after winning it against a bevy of other promising young GT3 Cup drivers from other series around the world at the end of 2016, the young Aussie won a funded drive in the Porsche Mobil1 SuperCup series in 2017.


Finishing third in that series in turn earned him a spot on the Porsche payroll fulltime and this year he has been driving for the factory-backed Dempsey-Proton team in the FIA World Endurance Championship. Not bad for a 23-year-old from Toowoomba!


And not a bad precedent to set because just two years later McElrea has done it again – this time with a young Kiwi, Jaxon Evans.


Three years ago Evans, the son of motorsport mechanic John Evans and former top New Zealand female racer Debbie (nee Lester) Evans. was racing KZ2 karts under the watchful eye of Auckland-based international Daniel Bray in the local ProKart Series.


Three years on, however, the Levin-born but now Gold Coast-based 22-year-old not only won this year’s Carrera Cup Australia title on just his second attempt, he also qualified for and won the same Junior Programme Shootout as Campbell did, meaning a move to Europe and place as only the second Kiwi to earn a full-time drive in the Porsche Mobil1 SuperCup.


Sure he, his Mum and Dad, and Andy worked hard to come up with a decent budget – which I’m guessing would have been somewhere in the region of $AUS200K. But because the cars are effectively the same wherever they are raced, team managers, talent spotters and the like can make their own informed judgement of whether a young fellow like Matt or now Jaxon has what it takes to take the next step.


And once you are on the Porsche payroll the money starts flowing back the other way anyway.


Earlier on in his comment piece I said that if I were to take any positives from my mate Stich’s death it would be the role he played – albeit so briefly – in the founding of New Zealand’s first ‘Porsche path.’


Over the past two years, however, I’ve watched with interest how Ashley and Anna’s son Zac has matured into one of New Zealand’s top kart racers. And now seeing him show a combination of instant speed and a maturity beyond his 16-years in his first season in a Formula Ford, perhaps – just perhaps – and not right now but in a couple of years, he might, just might, be able to take up where his Dad left off………and forge a Porsche path of his own!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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