A return to the home of Radical Australia Cup was always going to present an interesting spectacle at a venue where the full spectrum of drivers had enjoyed considerable laps over recent seasons, but when it all came down to it, the event was dominated once more by the most successful SR3 driver in Cup history - Sydney’s Peter Paddon.
Paddon set the pole time for all three races across the weekend - although he was pushed to find his best by Chris Perini - before taking the win in the two 50-minute races and top points across all three, to lead the championship points by the close of the round.
Perini ultimately emerged third for the weekend, whilst Bathurst’s opening race winners Brad and Mitchell Neilson used their race two victory and their consistency to retain second in the championship points after two events.
Heading into the 30-minute session, all eyes were glued on the timing monitors as Garth Walden Racing team-mates Paddon and Perini hit the circuit. Perini held the upper hand heading into the session having claimed pole for both races in Sydney to close out the 2018 season (both laps in the 1:29.6s), which provided Paddon just the incentive he needed, the three time champion setting the pole time for all three races with a best of 1:29.4347!
Perini showed he’d lost none of his 2018 pace by setting - again - a sequence of 1:29.6s, the off-season change from Dunlop to Hankook tyres proving to have had little effect on the pace of the cars.
Brad and Mitchell Nielson proved once more that they are always a threat on their home circuit after setting the third fastest time - just three tenths of a second slower than Perini - whilst Simon Haggarty battled hard to retain a second row start after returning star Kostinken Pohorukov pushed him all the way through the session, with 2018’s ‘most-improved’ Peter Clare hot on their heels.
Qualifying again proved vital, with the race one grid set by the fastest time, the race three grid set by the sessions second fastest lap, and the race two grid also set by the fastest individual time of each team.
Paddon held the lead off the rolling start but beside him Perini didn’t concede until turn two, the pair running side-by-side down to the braking zone with Pohorukov tucked in behind, whilst for Brad Neilson, he was swamped by both Simon Haggarty and Peter Clare off the line.
Pohorukov was charging off the start, the returning star taking Paddon on the exit of turn two to be second, whilst behind the leading trio, Simon Haggarty weathered an early attack from Peter Clare before the latter fell victim to a gear-selection issue at Corporate Hill, bringing his opening race to a premature end.
With Paddon getting away at the front, Perini knew he needed to find a way past Pohorukov and he threw everything at his new team-mate, Kosta falling victim to the younger driver at turn two allowing Perini back into second, but with a big job ahead.
Brad Neilson was doing a brilliant job of hanging onto Simon Haggarty in the battle for third, whilst behind them Rowan Ross was putting his extensive Sydney Motorsport Park [SMP] to great experience, in the fight for fifth with Phil Anseline. Sadly though for Ross a move up the inside at turn two on lap five saw a spin after Anseline initially left the door open on the run into the corner, but started to close it on the exit leaving Ross nowhere to go.
Up front Perini was pushing hard to close down Paddon’s seven second lead, but a spin at the turn eight hairpin saw him lose a mountain of time in the lead up to the pit stops allowing Paddon to maintain his advantage into the second leg of the race.
Having used his pit stop during the opening race at Bathurst to develop an insurmountable lead ahead of a late-race technical failure, it was no surprise that the bulk of the field hit pit lane on lap 11 behind Paddon for their compulsory stops, only the Haggartys, Bill Medland and Pohorukov electing to go further, Kosta because his two team-mates had filled the slots outside the GWR garage forcing him to run two laps longer.
With a five-second slower compulsory stop, Perini closed down Paddon’s lead, but he was clearly frustrated not to have been able to lead after his earlier spin, so he used that extra motivation to close down the leader with a sequence of some of the fastest laps of the race.
After another strong run at Bathurst, Michael Whiting was again in the mix, but overheating saw him make a second run down pit lane before ultimately stopping the car on lap 19 to ensure the team could sort the issue ahead of Sunday’s two races.
Unfortunately for Kosta Pohorukov, despite setting some stunning lap times towards the close of the race, he came unstuck at turn five with just five minutes remaining when something let go and left him with no power forcing him hard into the tyre barrier on the outside of the circuit. Fortunately he was able to walk away unscathed, but the subsequent damage gave the GWR team a long night ahead, the team though doing everything they could to ensure he was back on the grid for race two.
At the front of the field Paddon held his ground as Perini closed in, the pair crossing the line separated by just half a second, with Simon Haggarty weathering the Mitch Neilson storm to claim his first podium finish of the year.
Tony Haggarty was a gallant fifth on his return to the Cup, and like son Simon, was faced with a late race assault from another son - this time, Cup rookie Max Medland, who put in an impressive drive on his debut to cross the line tucked under the rear win of the #6 HRT SR3.
Bill Medland was next up after getting the better of Phil Anseline during the pit stops, with Radical Australia Cup rookie Jim Hernandez the last classified finisher, although post race his smile was so wide that you could have been forgiven for thinking he’d claimed the top step of the podium.
Sadly for Rowan Ross, an ECU warning forced him into retirement late in the race, joining Peter Clare, Kosta and Michael Whiting as non-finishers.
The start of race two was very much a mirror of the opening race down to turn two, with Paddon and Perini again side-by-side, whilst behind them Peter Clare made a blistering start to be up behind Mitch Neilson and fourth into turn one.
Into turn two second time around, Perini locked his control Hankook tyres as he tipped into the apex, running wide on the exit to open the door for Mitch Neilson to take second place away and close in onto the tail of race leader Peter Paddon.
Within a handful of corners Neilson was glued to Paddon’s tail, feinting a move heading into turn six then locking in behind down the long main straight. Paddon was forced into defensive mode, a mode he’s not often had to employ, but try as he might he couldn’t shake the reigning NSW SuperSport champion, Neilson ultimately through after bluffing Paddon on the run into turn two third time around.
With Neilson clear in front and extending his lead every lap, the focus turned to the battle for third with Peter Clare closing in on Perini and pushing the young driver hard, using to great effect the experience he gained driving alongside Joey Mawson at Bathurst during the season opener, Clare ultimately forcing Perini into a spin just a handful of laps from home to take third.
Then it was Clare’s turn to be under fire with Simon Haggarty forcing the #47 into an error, Clare running wide to allow the #5 HRT entry to close in and ultimately make a move into turn one with two laps to go.
Ultimately Mitch Neilson would cross the line seven seconds clear of Paddon for what was arguably his best ever race in the Cup, with Simon Haggarty home third. Peter Clare held on for fourth admitting it was perhaps his best ever drive in the Cup, whilst Chris Perini made a recovery from his earlier spin to place fifth.
Chris Medland was next up, leading home Phil Anseline and Tony Haggarty, with Bill Medland ninth ahead of Michael Whiting and Jim Hernandez.
Sadly for Kosta Pohorukov, he continued to suffer dramas as a result of his race one incident, as did Rowan Ross whose opening race technical gremlins returned forcing an engine change ahead of race three.
After two attempts, Chris Perini finally got ahead of Peter Paddon off the start of race three, but the three-time champion held the inside line for turn two forcing Perini out wide and back to second, whilst behind them the recovering Kosta Pohorukov was a comfortable third from Peter Clare, Simon Haggarty and race two winner Mitchell Neilson.
As he did in race two, Neilson was on a charge, through to fifth by Corporate Hill, the former Cup ‘rookie-of-the-year’ up to fourth by lap three and into pursuit of the race leaders.
Up front Peter Paddon was employing his usual strategy of breaking the back of his rivals early to be out to a five second lead by lap four, with Perini holding a similar lead over Pohorukov and Neilson. Sadly for Kosta, warning lights on his dashboard prompted a visit to pit lane and ultimately an early retirement allowing Neilson into a comfortable third place.
Again Paddon was into pit lane early for his compulsory pit stop along with title rival Chris Perini, the latter using his shorter stop to advantage to emerge the effective leader behind Perini, but ultimately he wasn’t able to keep Paddon at bay after a spin at turn two opened the door for the new points leader. Fortunately Perini was able to gather it up quickly and work his back onto Paddon’s tail over the closing laps, but the damage had been done.
Last to make their stop was Mitch Neilson who handed over to father Brad with an extensive lead, although Brad returned the #38 SR3 back into line in fourth place once the team had served their minimum allocated stop time, splitting Peter Clare and Rowan Ross who was then swamped across the closing laps by the two HRT entries, first by Tony and then Simon Haggarty, the pair through with six minutes to go.
Ultimately it was Paddon who would prevail to make it seven wins from 11 starts across the last five years at Sydney Motorsport Park, whilst Perini was left to ponder what might have been after again showing incredible pace across the closing laps, his post pit-stop spin costing him his first win of the season.
Brad Neilson finished strongly to claim third and a strong haul of points for he and son Mitch, with Peter Clare adding to his race two result a second fourth-placed finish in what was arguably one of the drives of the weekend. Tony Haggarty was able to hold out son Simon for fifth place, with Rowan Ross the last of the drivers on the lead lap.
Bill Medland was next across the line ahead of a beaming Jim Hernandez who across the weekend had found an impressive seven seconds, to say he was ecstatic post race would be an understatement.
Unfortunately for Max Medland he was unable to complete his debut, an overheating issue forcing the #9 team down pit lane late in the race whilst Phil Anseline had contact in the battle off the start which damaged his steering. He pressed on but ultimately found the car difficult to drive so retired mid-race joining Kosta in pit lane.
For the Radical Australia Cup teams, they will be back at Sydney Motorsport Park in mid-May (17-19) for the third event of the season as part of the CAMS Nationals, looking to build on what they’d learnt across the weekend.
“I really wanted to thank the guys from GWR that have set up a great car. It has been awesome racing. I’ve been helped out by a few spins, it wasn’t all luck, but there’s certainly been some luck in it. Overall it has been an awesome weekend.”
2. 38. Brad/Mitch Neilson
“We had a mistake free weekend and Mitch was very quick in the sprint race which helped, the temperature played a part and that had an affect on the tyres towards the end but it was great racing.” [Brad] “Obviously we had a great weekend with second overall. Dad drove really solidly in the last race so that helped, but it was hot out there and I think everyone’s feeling it.” [Mitch]
3. 81. Chris Perini
“It was a tough weekend, physically and mentally. When Pete’s in front of me he pushes me to a whole new level, but obviously he’s too quick. Mitch showed outstanding form in the sprint race and killed us all, so well done to him, and well done to everyone else, they’re all going faster and that’s great to see.”