James Bergmuller won a remarkable sixth round of the TAG Heuer Carrera Challenge at Sandown Raceway, edging out Stephen Grove and Marc Cini in a three-way tie for the round win.
Meanwhile, class leader Tony Bates escaped unscathed from a huge crash in the final race, denying him the round victory following wins in the first two races of the weekend.
Bergmuller qualified third of the Challenge runners on Friday before battling to fifth in the first two races of the weekend, held on Saturday.
However Bates’ crash in the 20-lap finale elevated the Victorian driver to first place and handed him the round win on a countback: Grove and Cini denied in the final moments of the weekend.
Sandown represented Bergmuller’s second TAG Heuer Carrera Challenge race victory of the season – the first coming at Sydney Motorsport Park earlier this year.
“That was really close!” he exclaimed on the podium.
“I was racey at first on Friday and was feeling good. I was quickest in practice two but I couldn’t string it together in qualifying which put us in third. Grove and I came together in the start of the first race and I thought ‘oh no, another bad weekend for me, here we go’.”
Bergmuller said a conservative approach early in the weekend paid off later on.
“Yesterday we just consolidated, went around and around and chipped away and today everything came together. I got lucky with Tony at the end, so I’m rapt. I didn’t expect it and it’s a great result.”
The strong weekend from Bergmuller, coupled with dramas for contenders Shane Smollen and Tony Bates, means just 108 points now split the top four drivers battling for the TAG Heuer Carrera Challenge title.
Bergmuller sits fourth, but says he’s still a shot at the title.
“There’s two to go and it’s going to be really close,” he said.
“I think anyone can have a shot at winning this championship. With both Shane (Smollen) and Tony (Bates) having troubles this weekend I think it’s going to be close and a great fight. I can’t wait.”
Bates now has a 49.5 point margin in the championship lead over Shane Smollen, with Stephen Grove sitting in third – just 4.5 points ahead of Bergmuller for the final spot on the podium.
Bates’ weekend unravelled in the final race when he crashed heavily in the braking zone to Dandenong Road corner, his car veering wide and spearing head-on into the outside barrier.
Leading the race at the time, Bates climbed unscathed from his car showing the safety of the 991 GT3 Cup Car – however it ended his chances of a round win.
Grove backed up finishes of second and fourth, respectively, in the first two races with third in the finale – his finish in the final race allowing him to edge Cini (who was fourth) out for the final spot on the Challenge podium.
On home turf, Carrera Cup’s most experienced contender Marc Cini posted his best round result since the season opening Clipsal 500 Adelaide.
Defending class champion Shane Smollen missed the podium, however rebounded superbly from a race one DNF to finish second in the final race and keep his challenge for back-to-back titles alive. Adrian Mastronado had a consistent weekend, posting results of fourth, sixth and fifth respectively.
A critical penultimate round of the Porsche Carrera Cup Australia championship will see the TAG Heuer Carrera Challenge field join the outright drivers at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, this October.