Fabian Coulthard headed a strong home showing with Kiwis filling three of the top six times as the V8 Supercars made a powerful return to Pukekohe yesterday.
Coulthard was fastest in the morning's opening session, dipped to 13th and 18th in the two middle sessions, but rebounded to finish third-fastest in the final practice held in perfect conditions late yesterday afternoon.
With Shane van Gisbergen slickest during the two middle sessions and finishing fifth in the final run and teenager Scott McLaughlin in the mix all day to eventually finish sixth, there are real hopes of local success when the opening two races of the ITM 400 weekend are run today.
But it was Aussie Mark Winterbottom who stole the day against the odds.
He had his Ford ahead of six Holdens to top the field, setting the new lap record on the revamped track at 1:02:6918. That put him ahead of series leader Jamie Whincup and team-mate Craig Lowndes.
Organisers would have been delighted to see a Nissan and Mercedes amongst the top 10 as they look to make their presence felt in the new-look lineup of teams.
Ford has had a meagre run at New Zealand's spiritual home of motorsport in Pukekohe, winning only once back in 2004 when Marcos Ambrose triumphed. Winterbottom declared a liking for the new layout.
"2007 was obviously the last time we were here but as soon as you do that first lap you remember the bumps that are there at the last corner and the bumps that are there at turn one, but it's always a good fun place," Winterbottom said.
"I've always enjoyed it here. I enjoy this place more than Hamilton, just the way the circuit is, so I'm happy we're back. It looks easier on paper than what it actually is. When you're out there, it's a really tough track.
"It's different and that's the good thing about our series. We go all around the country and international as well, and every place is different, unique and that's why we enjoy our sport."
Whincup agreed: "This track has massive character. Most of the circuit is the exact same as what it was while safety has massively improved which is what we needed."
Coulthard, surprise winner of two races in Tasmania last weekend, continued his fine form and had to overcome an emotional interlude in the afternoon sessions when the Jason Richards Trophy was unveiled. Richards, the Kiwi driver who died of cancer last year, raced for Coulthard's Brad Jones Racing team. Coulthard is desperate to get his hands on the trophy.
"I'm sure if you ask any one of us, to win that Jason Richards Trophy is the goal, but obviously we are fiercely competitive as always, so we just have to maximise the tyres and look after it during the races and hopefully we are there or thereabouts."
Coulthard was delighted with the way his car had held its pace from last weekend.
"We rolled out the car and it's fast - it's always a worry, you go from one round to the next and you don't know if the car is going to perform as well as it should - but to roll the car out and go quickest in the first session in front of a home crowd is a pretty good feeling," he said.
Coulthard is the only current Kiwi racer to have driven a V8 SuperCar around Pukekohe before and he described the new segment of the track as "different".
"Obviously it's got no grip on it because there's no rubber on it yet, so I'm sure as the weekend progresses it will get better and better.
"On a Friday we'll always make some adjustments [to the car] - sometimes you make it better, sometimes you make it worse - but as long as the car is 100 per cent by qualifying, and hopefully we're at the front."
Today's racing includes qualifying, the top 10 shootout and two 100km races. A further two races are run tomorrow.
AT A GLANCE
Top 10 times from yesterday's final practice session
1 Ford, Mark Winterbottom, 1:02.6918
2 Holden, Jamie Whincup, 1:02.7069
3 Holden, Fabian Coulthard, 1:02.8854
4 Holden, Craig Lowndes, 1:02.9148
5 Holden, Shane van Gisbergen, 1:02.9803
6 Holden, Scott McLaughlin, 1:03.0166
7 Holden, James Courtney, 1:03.1899
8 Ford, David Reynolds, 1:03.1956
9 Mercedes-Benz, Lee Holdsworth, 1:03.2064
10 Nissan, Michael Caruso, 1:03.2534
- © Fairfax NZ News