Exciting racing in tough conditions for FONZ penultimate round

The penultimate round of GVI Formula Open New Zealand’s 2024 season was run at Hampton Downs over the weekend of 22-24 March. What started out to be a stellar grid of the Formula Atlantics and ex-Toyota Racing Series cars was somewhat dogged by either mechanical gremlins on the Friday and Saturday or poor weather on the Saturday.

After the much anticipated return of Kenny Smith in the 1990 NZIGP winning Swift DB4 Formula Atlantic it all turned to custard on the start of his second lap in the first practice session on Friday as the potent Ford BDA dropped a valve. A very disappointed Smith coasted into the pits shaking his head in disbelief. First car out for the weekend.

However, we still had the freshly restored Ex Graeme Lawrence Racing 1989 NZIGP winning Swift DB4 looking resplendent in its fresh Phillips Car Stereo, Canadian Airlines livery as raced by Dean Hall. Kaleb Ngatoa was down to race it over the weekend but was waiting for a clearance from the doctors on his broken hand so the car was given a shake down by Shane Drake. Shane certainly enjoyed the experience and was well into it time wise. However, Kaleb did not get the medical clearance he needed to race the car, so second car out.

The rest of Friday practice carried on with a couple more casualties with Shane Windleburn running the bearings in his Ford BDA engine and James Harriman having gear selection issues in the two time championship winning FT40. What did look promising was the fight for fastest time of the day which see-sawed backwards and forwards between Zac Christensen Tatuus FT50, Adrian Rivers Swift DB4 and Toby Mac Donald Tatuus FT40 with only a 10th of a second separating them. Hayden Bakkerus Tatuus FT50 did not practice on the Friday but was expected to be in this bunch the following day. Also missing from Friday practice was Gary Rush Swift DB4.

Adrian Rivers with Lawrence Family Trophy present by Graeme Lawrence (L) & Brian Lawrence (R)

Qualifying Saturday
It was wet, very wet and only eight cars ventured out onto the track and splashed around for the fifteen-minute session. The resulting grid looked very interesting and promised an intense battle at the front with Toby McCormack Tatuus FT40 securing pole position with a 1:12:833 lap followed by Zac Christensen FT50 only three tenths of a second slower with series newcomer Adrian Rivers driving his Dads Swift DB4 in third place with time one tenth of a second slower and rounding out the top four was Hayden Bakkerus who was less than a tenth slower than Rivers. So, the top four cars from three different categories were covered by less than half a second in qualifying. This series keeps delivering good tight competition in spades.

Race One
So they lined up in that order with the remaining grid, minus Windleburn who was at home rebuilding his engine for Sunday’s feature race and Gary Rush who was still putting his car back together after an all-nighter and of course also missing Smith and Ngatoa.

If they thought qualifying was wet then Race One turned out to be a monsoon. At lights out sixteen-year-old Toby Mc Cormack used his pole position and the better straight-line speed of the FT40 and led the FT50’s of Christensen, Bakkerus and the Swift DB4 of Rivers into turn one.

What followed from there was more a case of survival of the fittest as they all battled with the conditions. Christensen hounded McCormack all the way but the youngster is a tough nut to crack and controlled the race beautifully from the front. Meanwhile Adrian Rivers was giving us a glimpse of his talent monstering Bakkerus. Then it all turned on its head when Toby over cooked it into turn one and spinning on the wet grass, only to recover albeit down in fifth place but fought his way back up to fourth. Both Bakkerus and Rivers were soon past Christensen and it was race one win to Bakkerus with Rivers earning his second podium in only his second ever single seater race.

Race Two
Thankfully race two was held in dry conditions and allowed everybody the opportunity to stretch the legs of these former NZGP cars from different generations. The front row from this one had Hayden Bakkerus on pole with Toby Mc Cormack on the outside of the front row. The second row was made up of Zac Christensen on grid three with Rivers on the outside.

At lights out Hayden Bakkerus beat Toby McCormack to turn one to lead the race and held it for three laps until Hayden got caught out on a particularly damp patch going into turn one and hit the wall bringing out the safety car, Hayden was OK but the car will need some major work before the final at Taupo next month.

When the safety car pulled in the fight at the front resumed with Toby controlling the race beautifully for the next three laps until Zac wrong footed him and was passed in a flash leaving Toby to defend from a hard charging Adrian Rivers who set the fastest time of the race with a 1:02:887. Leo Francis brought his Tatuus FT50 home in fourth with Bryan Hartley in a Swift DB4 Atlantic in fifth and Paul Couper FT40 in a fine sixth place.

Sunday Race Three Feature

Sunday the weather was fine and the grid had grown over night with the addition of Gary Rush in his Toyota 4AGE powered Swift DB4 and Fraser Windelburn returning with a rebuilt Ford BDA in the back of his Swift DB4. Pole position this time was Adrian Rivers with Zac Christensen alongside him and Toby Mc Cormack out of grid three and Leo Francis completing the outside of row two. Gary Rush and Fraser Windleburn started off the back row.

Being the feature race it was eighteen laps and it was one of the best FONZ races we have had all season. Adrian Rivers got the jump on Zac at the start and led into turn one and led comfortably for three laps until the Hankook tyres on Zac’s car came up to speed and he closed in on the back of Adrian. Meanwhile Gary Rush came from the back and through the pack like Moses Parting of the Red Sea and was up into fourth within two laps and chasing Toby hard. Toby Mc Cormack was fast and Gary could not get any closer than three seconds adrift of the young Aucklander.

Further down the field Bryan Hartley, Rhys Humphries and Fraser Windleburn engaged in an enthralling battle swapping places and having the time of their lives until Frasers ignition system gave up the ghost and left him stranded at the side of the track.

The battle at the front was absolutely raging with Zac and Adrian going wheel to wheel for the whole eighteen laps with Zac grabbing the lead at one point but Adrian snatching it back two corners later. At the finish Adrian Rivers Formula Atlantic beat Zac Christensen’s Ex-TRS car by .2 of a second to win the Lawrence Family Trophy presented by Tasman Cup Champion and multiple Asian Grand Prix’s winner Graeme Lawrence and his brother Brian Lawrence.

The raw emotion from both Adrian and his father Grant at the conclusion of the race was quite touching to watch and when you consider Adrian Rivers had never sat in a single seater race car until the final race at Manfield last month and brings it home with one Pole, one third, one second, and a win to beat the reigning GVI FONZ Champion the emotion was quite understandable and this could be a star in the making.

He has one more meeting this season to have another crack and this will be the Single Seater Festival in memory of Martin Lucas at Taupo International Motorsport Park.

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