Good progress for the women on the Toyota 86 Championship grid at Ruapuna
The Toyota 86 Championship completed its second round at Ruapuna, where "The Heart of Racing" teammates Chelsea Herbert and Rianna O´Meara-Hunt made important progress to close in on a Top-10.
The Toyota 86 Championship completed its second round of the season at Mike Pero Motorsport Park, Ruanpua, where the second triple-header went underway for 21 drivers - including Chelsea Herbert, Rianna O´Meara and Christina Orr-West, the three female entries of the championship. After a first Top-10 result for Orr-West at the season opener, the experienced racer and the two rookies and teammates from The Heart of Racing targeted more progress in the series – and more points. The weekend started off in the best way for Herbert and O'Meara-Hunt, who ran in the higher end of the timing sheets throughout practice sessions. Chelsea Herbert was sixth in FP1, 10th in FP2 and sixth again in FP3 – showing extremely promising pace ahead of qualifying. Similarly, Rianna O'Meara-Hunt was seventh in the final practice, and could fight her way in the top-10 in Qualifying with an impressive ninth place. Herbert could not replicate the same speed in qualifying and was 14th, while Christina Orr-West – who had shown the strongest pace at Cromwell, struggled a bit more and could not do better than 19th on the starting grid of Race 1. "We started today off on a high, qualifying P9 only 4 tenths off pole" – wrote O'Meara-Hunt. Reigning champion Rowan Shepherd (Action Motorsport) started from pole in his home race and held the lead pulling away from the pack early on. Marco Giltrap (Giltrap Group Motorsport) and teammate Simon Evans - also leader of the points standings after Round 1 – followed, in a battle that also included International Motorsport's Justin Allen, Ronan Murphy, and Hugo Allen. After the great qualifying, Rianna O'Meara-Hunt had a difficult start and dropped to the very back of the field, forcing the young New Zealander to charge back. The action-packed midfield saw Mark Mallard making contact on two separate occasions, but the Mallard Racing's driver managed to continue. The top four opened a gap, but they were joined by Murphy and Allen as well, as 6 cars remained in contention for the top positions. Shepherd managed the gap and controlled the race – he could take the chequered flag in first position despite struggling in the final laps for grip. Giltrap and Evans rounded out the podium positions. Chelsea Herbert gained two positions and finished in P12, just outside the Top-10. Christina Orr-West also recovered from 19th to 15th, while O'Meara-Hunt was 16th across the finish line after a good recovery from the tail end of the field. "Was very excited to have my first race in the top 10 but unfortunately I made an error on my start putting me back to P19" – explained Rianna. "I worked my way back up to P16, practicing my passing for tomorrow’s race. We will push forward and try to get back into the 10!"
On Sunday morning, the grid for the second race of the weekend was shaped by the reverse order of the top-10 from Race 1 – which put Fynn Osborne and Matthew McCutcheon on the front row. In rainy conditions, neither of them were able to make a strong start - opening the door to Dion Pitt and Ronan Murphy at the first corner. Simon Evans was undoubtedly the star of the show, though, with a stunning start from the fourth row that brought him up to third place. The Safety Car interrupted the action when Sam Cotterill came to a halt on track. The conditions had significantly worsened and when the race resumed, Pitt, Murphy and Evans managed to break away. Behind them, a 6-car battle animated the top-10; but the attention quickly returned to the leading group when Pitt and Murphy made contact at the hairpin – paving the way for Simon Evans. Murphy would be handed a 5-second time penalty for the incident. Shepherd and Giltrap emerged from the group of pursuers and closed in on Evans - with three more cars joining the front runners in the final laps. Shepherd went off and dropped to tenth, leaving Giltrap and Allen in contention for the podium positions. It was a difficult race for all the three female competitors: Chelsea Herbert crossed the finish line in P14, O'Meara-Hunt finished P19 and Orr-West was down to P20. The afternoon's feature race was formed by the points scored across the weekend and therefore saw Simon Evans getting pole position from Marco Giltrap. The weather conditions improved dramatically after the earlier rain showers and the third race went underway on an almost completely dry track. Evans had a good getaway and led after Turn 1, while Giltrap was overtaken by Justin Allen for second and had to watch his mirrors from Ronan Murphy – the latter having made a great start from the third row and had emerged ahead of Rowan Shepherd after swapping places during the first lap. Positions remained unchanged after the Safety Car briefly neutralized the race to allow the recovery of Clay Osborne's stricken car; among the tight battles in the midfield, Chelsea Herbert was again at the doorsteps of the Top-10, as she continued to show great progress. Evans came under pressure from a very quick Justin Allen, who tried a few passing attempts, but couldn't ultimately find his way past the race leader. Simon Evans' defense gained him another race victory from Allen and Marco Giltrap, while Murphy and Shepherd rounded out the top-5. Just behind them, Stichbury lost sixth to Dion Pitt on the final lap when the former made a trip to the grass as they battled for position.
Chelsea Herbert equalled her best result in the series with another 12th place in the feature race and preceded Christina Orr-West (P15), who had a good charge from the back of the field after a troubled second race. "Developing my skills of driving the [Toyota] 86 even further and getting quicker everytime." – explained Herbert after the second round at Ruapuna. "My speed is now in the top 10 and I finished testing up at the pointy end! Race results were all around 13th so I will be looking to crack into the top 10 next round at Hampton Downs on 11-13 February", she continued the young driver. Herbert's teammate at The Heart of Racing, Rianna O'Meara-Hunt, finished 17th in the final race of the weekend at Mike Pero Motorsport Park. "Learning another new track and ending Friday practice inside the 10 then backing that up with quali inside the 10 on Saturday morning was pleasing" – she summed up. "One lap pace seemed ok and was a good stride forward from Highlands. I was disappointed that I was not able to back that up with my racing but it provides plenty of work ons." "Big shout out to my race engineer Tim White for the continued patience and persistence and to Hadleigh Coffey for doubling up as my race mechanic this weekend", continued O'Meara-Hunt via her facebook page. "Looking forward to working hard in the coming days as we prep for round 3 at Hampton Downs in a couple of weekends' time." The Toyota 86 Championship will in fact return to the track after a two week break. Chelsea Herbert currently sits in 13th position in the championship standings, with 150 points – 9 more than Christina Orr-West, in 15th place. Rianna O'Meara-Hunt follows in 19th, with 116 points.