Right on the back of the All Blacks’ resounding victory over the Wallabies, the Australasian sporting focus now lands very much on Franklin. This years ITM 500 at Pukekohe Park Raceway will feature four Kiwi drivers taking the battle to the Aussies for supremacy on the tarmac.
The New Zealander currently in the richest vein of form is Manukau’s Shane Van Gisbergen. The 26 year old, who is affectionately known as ‘The Giz’, is now into his eighth full time season.
He arrives at his home track with a win at the series’ previous event on the Gold Coast, in the Tekno Autosports Commodore. Fellow Holden driver, Fabian Coulthard, is also considered a podium threat. Still in this year’s title chase and heading into the final three events, consistency has been a hallmark of Fabian’s driving this season. He will be watched nervously from the rear mirrors throughout the weekend.
One driver who has starred at the previous two corresponding meetings at Pukekohe is Scott McLaughlin. A fan favourite on both sides of the Tasman, McLaughlin is fiercely patriotic and would love nothing more than to stand on the top of the podium on home soil after what has been a largely disappointing season to date. His Volvo S40 has been plagued with various mechanical gremlins and this weekend could add to that challenge with the Pukekohe track renowned as being hard on tyres and cars.
The fourth of the local quartet is made up by Super Black Racing’s Andre Heimgartner. The youngest driver in the field at just 20, both he and his team are in their first full time campaign and are not expected to win any of their three races. However he has cut plenty of laps at the circuit, having competed in the almost identical NZ Supertourer class in recent years. He could be capable of springing a surprise result.
Of the 21 Australian drivers that make up the balance of the entries, Mark Winterbottom heads the list. The Pepsi Max Ford driver has a commanding championship lead and has the pace runs on the board to justify favouritism. And while ‘Frosty’ is searching for the final nails to drive into the coffin, the man standing in his way is Craig Lowndes. A popular and gregarious figure, the Red Bull racer has outshone his more fancied team mate Jamie Whincup so far this season.
Oddly, despite a record 101 career race wins, he is yet to break his 14 year hoodoo with the Pukekohe track. But with recent wins under his belt, including a famous effort at Bathurst, this could well be the year the duck is broken.
Others of interest to watch out for are the resurgent Holden Racing Team duo of Garth Tander and James Courtney, plus Cameron Waters, who makes his solo debut this weekend subbing into the second Pepsi Max car for the injured Chaz Mostert.
So will we see just the second Kiwi driver after Greg Murphy to win the Pukekohe leg of the Championship? It is very possible. It is time to get your backside to the trackside and cheer them on to that chequered flag.