Whoever writes the script for the Winton 300 each year needs a pay rise and a good lie down.
It may not attract the national headlines of other endurance races in the country like the Bathurst 1000, Bathurst 12 Hour or Bathurst 6 Hour, but the Winton 300 (and its sister race, the Wakefield 300) have carved out a niche in the Australian motorsport landscape and continue to attract a dedicated group of entrants, who keep turning up year after year.
Unlike other endurance races in the country, there are virtually no technical regulations; the eligibility requirements are determined based on lap times. This is one of the factors that has gifted this race with such a magical vibe.
Every Winton 300 is contested by a smorgasbord of machinery including production-based vehicles, higher-end sports cars and home-made creations, all of which can compete on a level playing field.
And one key rule – the one that specifies cars in the fastest division must make an extra five-minute pit stop – has created some nail-biting finishes with the fastest cars trying to fight their way to the front of the field right at the end.
So, let’s have a look at some of the more enlightening chapters in the Winton 300 story, starting with the race’s resurrection in 2011:
When the Winton 300 returned in 2011, it was David Raddatz and Shane Otten who taught the rest of the field a lesson in endurance racing. They qualified third on the grid but importantly, didn’t break into the fastest division, ensuring they only needed a single pit stop.
After qualifying, Raddatz and Otten’s main rival appeared to be the Stephen Anslow/Hayden Pullen Mazda RX7 which qualified on pole by a healthy margin, and seemed to have more than enough pace to make up for the extra five-minute stop.
But the Anslow/Pullen entry fell victim to the hurdle that trips up so many contenders: reliability. The V8 RX7 was ruled out with an engine problem early and the other Division A car – the Nathan Jess/Matthew Thomson Future Racer – was off the pace in the second half of the race with a broken sway bar. This cleared the way for Raddatz/Otten to drive their naturally-aspirated Mazda MX5 to an unchallenged victory, a lap ahead of their nearest rivals.
Before the 2012 Winton 300, all the attention was focused on the Future Racer of Nathan Jess and Matthew Thomson, who had dominated every practice and qualifying session. But everyone forgot about another Future Racer – the Jeff Davy/Chad Cotton entry.
Davy/Cotton’s approach to the race was best described as stealthy – they qualified in ninth, and Davy quietly slotted into a top six position in the opening stint and stayed out of trouble, keeping pace with the front-runners while maintaining a pace that preserved the car’s essential components.
By the time Cotton took over for the run to the flag, the Jess/Thomson entry (along with several other Division A contenders) had fallen by the wayside with mechanical problems and Cotton found himself in podium contention.
When two other Division B front-runners experienced dramas (a tyre failure for the Steve/Jake Shelley Evo and drive-through penalty for a pit-stop infringement for the Daniel Kapetanovic/David Krusza BMW M3), Cotton hit the lead. He and Davy ended up winning the race and broke three records that still stand today: race record time, biggest winning margin, and lowest grid position for the winning car.
Hard work pays off
The 2011 and 2012 races had not been kind to Rob Hay and Nick Cancian, mechanical problems sidelining them early in both races – but they made up for it in 2013.
After qualifying their turbocharged Mazda MX5 in Division A, Hay and Cancian had to make two compulsory five-minute pit stops and cleverly executed both stops under Safety Car conditions, even though this meant a third stop for a driver change late in the race to ensure Hay did not exceed his maximum number of laps.
The upshot of the smart strategy was that Cancian was on the lead lap late in the race. One more Safety Car allowed him to close the gap to the leading Chad Cotton/Jase Collins entry, which he had the pace to overhaul inside the last five laps during a frantic sprint to the line.
The Lap That Counts
Chaz Mostert and Paul Morris demonstrated in the 2014 Bathurst 1000 that you only have to lead one lap to win – the last one. And just four weeks later, the Winton 300 produced its own final-lap thriller.
Nathan Jess and Matthew Thomson were on the lead lap, but more than 60 seconds behind the leaders, late in the race. But a Safety Car with just eight laps to go set up a grandstand finish, Jess passing the Michael Caine/Gerry Murphy Mazda RX7 on the very last lap to take a memorable victory in one of the most exciting races ever held at Winton.
In 2014 and ‘15, there were so many entries for the Winton 300 the field had to be split into two races – the main race for the outright cars and a “B-Main” for the slower cars.
The 2015 B-Main produced another classic finish, the Jason Miller/Paul Crocitti Porsche 944 coming out on top after a late duel with the Parry Anastakis/John Taylor Peugeot 205.
The big wet
2016 saw the worst weather conditions in Winton 300 history.
Car after car was caught out by the poor visibility and slippery track surface – the exit of Turn 2 proved particularly difficult for drivers to negotiate, with a number of cars firing into the wall separating the old pit lane from the circuit.
On a day where just staying on the track was an accomplishment, there were no less than eight Safety Car interventions and coming through the chaos to take his second Winton 300 win was Nathan Jess, sharing his Future Racer with Ryan Reynolds while Henry Draper and Linda Devlin took full advantage of the predictable front-wheel-drive handling and ABS brakes of their Mini Challenge car to finish a giant-killing second outright.
And so to 2017
The popularity of the 300s has not gone un-noticed by other motorsport promoters, and as a result competitors are now spoiled for choice when it comes to endurance races. And yet, the 2017 Winton 300 has attracted a field of 29 cars – healthy by the standards of other enduros around the country.
This year’s Winton 300 has seen some subtle tweaks to the division structure and a new qualifying format. The weather forecast is fine so the question seems to be whether the winner will come from Division A (the Adam/Craig Burgess Ginetta, Steve/Jake Shelley Lotus, Rob Hay/Nick Cancian Mazda MX5 and Anthony Soole/Glenn Townsend Lotus are all likely Division A runners) or the slightly slower (but with one less compulsory pit stop) Division B, where a host of BMW-equipped teams are ready to stake their claim including Daniel Reynolds/Matt Stubbs, Andrew Butcher/Lachlan McBrien and Phil Showers/Nathan Geier.
Other contenders not to be ruled out include the Richard Baskus/Jason Miller, Trevan/John Spiteri and Leigh/Gerry Burges Mitsubishi Evos, along with the Michael Hall/Daniel Deckers MX5, which has two drivers on board who are surely due for a big result.
So all the main characters are there, but predicting how the race will pan out, or who is going to win the thing, is totally open to the imagination. Scriptwriters, over to you…