The Kiwi karters contesting this year’s Rotax Pro Tour across the Tasman definitely saved their best for last, with both Michael McCulloch (Rotax 125 Light) and Sebastian Manson (Mini Max) claiming breakthrough class round wins (including respective South Australian State Titles) and Josh Bethune (Rotax DD2), Josh Hart (Rotax 125 Light) and Jackson Rooney (Junior Max) finishing second in their classes at the final round at Tailem Bend in South Australia on Sunday.
Josh Bethune also finished second in the Jason Richards Cup standings in the Rotax DD2 class, while former 2018 class round winner Ryan Wood ended up just shy of another podium with fourth place in the Junior Max class, and Sam Waddell rounded out his year with 7th in Rotax DD2.
Because the Rotax Pro Tour round was the first major kart event to be run at the new international-spec 1117 metre track at The Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia, the final round provided an absolutely level playing field for all the drivers, especially the Kiwis who usually fly in and out for just the race weekend, rather than test extensively at each track beforehand like many of their Australian counterparts.
Making the most of that was Michael McCulloch, the teenager from Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast who this year has driven for expat Kiwi Dale Verrall’s Pacific KartSport team. With another Kiwi, Tony Chambers, overseeing his campaign, McCulloch was not only quick from the get-go, he went on to win all three heats as well as the Pre-Final and Final, in a class featuring some of Australia’s best drivers.
As it turned out, it was fellow Kiwi Josh Hart – twice a round winner earlier in the season in the Rotax 125 Light class – who was McCulloch’s only serious challenger, the Palmerston North veteran qualifying second quickest and bar a fifth in the first heat, finishing second to McCulloch in the other four races. He was leading the Final until the second to last corner on the last lap, too, only for McCulloch to sweep around the outside to retake the lead for a perfect end to his debut round winning weekend.
Second place behind McCulloch was enough, however, to earn Hart the series’ title in 125 Rotax Light, and with it a place on the grid – representing Australia – at this year’s Rotax Max Challenge Grand Challenge event in Brazil at the end of November!
As well as being the first ever kart race meeting on the new kart track at Tailem Bend, changeable weather over the three days meant drivers got to race in wet and cold (Sat) and dry and slightly warmer (Sun) conditions. This – again – arguably worked in the favour of the Kiwi competitors, though when strong, gusty winds blew thick red dust across the track at times the advantage swung back in the locals’ favour!
Having finished second at the penultimate round of this year’s Pro Tour at Albury it was very much a case of going one better for the youngest member of the Kiwi squad, Sebastian Manson from Auckland. Manson simply got better and better as the meeting went on, improving on his P12 qualifying performance in the Mini Max class each time he went out.
He finished eighth in the first heat, sixth in the second, fourth in the third, second in the Pre-Final, then won the Final, albeit after a race-long battle which saw him slip back to 5th on lap 3 before climbing back to 4th on lap 4, 3rd on lap 8 then pass both Sebastian Ruiz and Costa Toparis for the lead on the final lap!
Jackson Rooney could hardly have got a better start to his weekend, meanwhile, in the Junior Max class, pipping teammate and class champion-elect Jaiden Pope by .001 of a second (50.626 to 50.627) to claim pole position in qualifying. Pope was back in front – with Rooney second – in the first heat but a penalty dropped second-on-the-road Rooney (who also set the quickest race lap) back to 11th place in the second heat.
Bailey Sweeny got the better of the slippery track conditions to lead Pope and Rooney home in the third heat, while Rooney’s compatriot Ryan Wood from Wellington managed to split Pope and Rooney in the Pre-Final after a clash saw Rooney plummet down the field to P14 on the first lap.
Despite that handicap Rooney showed what he is made of by working his way back up through the field, to 9th by the third lap, 7th by the 13th then to 3rd with three laps to go.
From there he started the Final from P3, went briefly back to P4 for a couple of laps but was back up to 2nd behind Pope on lap 8.
Ryan Wood started the Final from P2 but was shuffled back to 5th at one stage and – despite setting the quickest race lap of a blistering 49.769 – could only make up one more place, to 4th, before the chequered flag came out.
Josh Bethune was the other round class runner-up, the Auckland teenager finishing 2nd in both the Rotax DD2 class for the round, and with it, second in the Jason Richards Cup standings. After being baulked on what was going to be his ‘flyer’ lap in qualifying, Bethune started the first heat from P4 only to be shuffled back to P9 on the first lap and have to work hard to claw his way back up to P5 at the flag.
He then went the other way in Heat 2 – from p4 to a lead which he held for 5 laps – before ending up 3rd, then had a virtual repeat of his second heat – from P4 to P11 on the first lap before a steady climb back up to P5 in the third heat.
The Pre-Final was a less stressful affair, Bethune starting and finishing 3rd, while in the Final he made it to 2nd place by lap 10 and crossed the finish line eight laps later less than a second behind round and Jason Richards Cup winner Cody Brewczynski.
In the same (Rotax DD2) class, Tauranga driver Sam Waddell again displayed the speed and consistency that has been his hallmark in Australia all season, qualifying 10th quickest and after a 10th, 8th and 7th placings in the heats finished both the Pre-Final and Final 7th.
As well as competition, in the Rotax DD2 class for the Jason Richards Cup, the organisers of the Rotax Pro Tour also award a special Jason Richards Memorial Trophy to the driver at the final round who embodies the spirit of the late, Nelson-born Kiwi V8 Supercars ace, who died of cancer in 2011.
This year that Trophy went to 16-year-old Australian Rotax 125 Light class driver, Reece Cohen.