Series front-runners Jay Esterer, Ken Smith and Steve Ross took the Formula 5000 category's historical McRae vs Lola battle to new heights at the latest round of New Zealand's MSC F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series at Invercargill's Teretonga Park Raceway over the weekend.

Though original Tasman Series front runner Graeme Lawrence's period lap record (set in a Lola T332 in 1976) of 53.4 seconds remained safe for another year, Esterer (McRae GM1) set the standard for the weekend with a pole lap of 54.0 before going on to win two of the three MSC series races, the first from defending series champion Smith (Lola T430) and last year's series runner-up Steve Ross (McRae GM1), and the third from Ross and Smith.

Smith was never far behind in either race and won the second - from Ross, Andrew Higgins (Lola T400) and Tony Richards (Lola T332) - when Esterer was slowed and eventually stopped by a fuel problem.

The weekend's round of the 2010/11 MSC F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series was the last one on this side of the Tasman and provided typically close and exciting racing throughout the 15-strong field.

As he was at the most recent series round at Christchurch's Powerbuilt Tools Raceway at Ruapuna Park, visiting Canadian driver Esterer was devastatingly quick, no more so than in the 12-lap A J Auto Electrical final when he steadily pulled away from Smith then Ross to cross the finish line almost nine seconds in front.

In doing so he set his third fastest race lap of the meeting, his 55.564 second lap not quite as fast as the 55.170 he set before being forced out of the weekend's second series race on Sunday morning, but well under the 'contemporary' record for the class - 56.08 - set by Roger Williams in 2004.

Though he is still seeking the weekend clean sweep he is obviously capable of, Esterer was happy just to have a car to drive at this weekend's MSC series round after blowing an engine (as he crossed the finish line) in the first race at the fourth series round at Christchurch a fortnight ago.

With circuits in his own country and the northern USA still covered in snow, Esterer, from Edmonton in the prairie province of Alberta, said it was also good to be able to take a mid winter break in New Zealand. Particularly when he got to race on 'fantastic' tracks like Invercargill's Teretonga Park Raceway.

"For a start," he said, "the Loop (the circuit's aptly named long sweeping left-hand first corner) is one of the best corners in New Zealand - tough to get right but rewarding when you do - and with the short infield straightaway that follows it then the right-left complex of Castrol and the esses it has got to be one of the best combinations of corners anywhere."

Defending series champion and Ken Smith was as competitive as ever, being the only other driver to dip into the 54s in qualifying (his best time just 0.304 of a second slower than Esterer's qualifying best), and with a win, a second and a third he maintained his lead in the 2010/11 series points standings.

However after watching Esterer ease away from him for a third time early in Sunday afternoon's 12-lap feature, then Steve Ross finally catch, pass and also establish a buffer, the evergreen 69-year-old veteran reckoned he could have had a better weekend.

"Yes," he said, "we had a bit of a gearbox problem which limited the amount of time we could get on track on Friday and though we did a good enough time in qualifying there was no way we were going to catch Jay's car in the races. Our car's good, don't get me wrong, we've got it handling the way we want it, but we're giving away a good 130kgs to that car of Jay's and there's no way we can pick that weight up and dump it on the ground and be as quick as Jay can without it." 

And Ross?

Having had to play catch up early on in the first two races (after being pushed down the qualifying order by both Andrew Higgins and Tony Richards) the Dunedin man was third by the second lap and second by the fourth in the final, but even with clear air in front of him he struggled to make an impression.

"I thought I may be able to," he said, "but no, when I got there (into second) Jay was too far up the road."

As it turned out even Smith was finding it hard, conceding that, for some reason, his Lola didn't quite have the legs it did on Saturday or in the first race on Sunday.

"We leaned it out a bit, and perhaps that was the wrong way to go," he said."She was also smoking a bit from one of the banks (of cylinders) round the back and that could have had something to do with it."

It certainly showed in the veteran's pace, with a best lap of 55.302 on his way to victory in the second race, but only a 56.316 on his way to third in the final.

Having struggled with various issues of his own at earlier rounds of the 2010/11 MSC series, Smith's protégé, young Auckland driver Andrew Higgins, was - in contrast - having his best weekend of the season so far, setting the third quickest lap time in qualifying on Saturday morning and following that result up with a fifth place finish in the first race, a weekend best third in the second and a fourth - behind Esterer, Ross and Smith - in the third.

Like Esterer, Higgins rates Teretonga as one of his favourite tracks and, now that he and his family-based team have sorted out various mechanical issues he is getting a real feel for the car.

Unfortunately the weekend had its ups and downs for some of the other MSC series regulars, category returnee Reg Cook out before he even had a chance to qualify with a broken thumb (as a result of a coming together with fellow Lola T400 driver Mark Dwyer) in practice on Friday, and visiting UK drivers Michael Whatley (Surtess TS8) and Greg Thornton (Chevron B24) both showing pace but suffering DNFs.

In Thornton's case it was in the second race, Whatley's the third. In the second, Thornton spun exiting the high speed Loop on the first lap, but was able to continue until his car's input shaft broke - for the second time in three meetings.

Initially, compatriot Whatley, a man who peddles a older Class A car quicker than anyone else here or in the UK, had a better run, qualifying 12th but finishing ninth in the first race and seventh in the second.

In the third, though, he outbraked himself at the Elbow and damaged his car too badly to continue.

Also in the wars were local series' stalwarts Stu Lush (McRae GM1) and Stan Redmond (Lola T332).

Lush broke a half shaft on Saturday but thought he could get a replacement part to the circuit on time for Sunday's two races. The part did arrive, but not in time to have the car repaired for the race on Sunday morning, and though he started the final in the afternoon - and ran as high as eighth - he was forced out half way through when his car's engine cut out.

Redmond enjoyed a better start to the weekend only to take a front corner off his car when he ended up in the barriers avoiding a spinning Greg Thornton in the weekend's second race.

Finally, arguably the busiest driver over the weekend was Russell Greer, the man who owns and drives the lap record holding (and 1976 Teretonga F5000 race winning) ex Graeme Lawrence Lola T332. The Blenheim man also owns and enthusiastically races another historic New Zealand racing car, the fearsome Stanton Corvette sportscar and with the three MSC races unfortunately bracketed with the sportscar ones he was literally jumping out of one in the pits and into the other on the dummy grid.

"It's definitely made it interesting," he said, "but in the past we've always been plagued by silly little problems with the Stanton so this year we decided once and for all to sort them out and do every meeting we could alongside the Lola. It hasn't been easy jumping in and out of the two of them and it's definitely hindered my driving as far as the 5000 is concerned, but, you know, we've had 21 wins and a second in the Stanton so in that respect it's also been a pretty good year."

Race 2 (Sun 8 laps)
It was ken Smith who won the weekend's second race after pole man and early race leader Esterer slowed and eventually pulled off the track on the sixth lap with what turned out to be fuel starvation.

Because he was late getting to the grid Esterer originally lined up for this race in pit lane. But after contact between Greg Thornton's Chevron and Stan Redmond's Lola saw the latter in the tyre barriers the red flags came out and because a lap had not been completed the first start was annulled and the cars re-gridded with Esterer this time taking his rightful place on pole.

From there he edged away from fellow front row starter Smith and looked to have the race in hand until he suddenly slowed on the start/finish straight and Smith and the rest of the field thundered past.

Off the start it was Andrew Higgins who had tucked in behind Esterer and Smith but he was quickly dispatched to fourth by Tony Richards then fifth by Steve Ross.

Ross then set off after Tony Richards, catching and passing him for third place on the fourth lap.

Esterer and Smith proved harder to hunt down, the order stabilizing with Esterer holding a small advantage over Smith with a four second gap back to Ross who in turn had what at the finish line proved to be a 12 second buffer on Richards, Higgins and Dunn with Ian Clements sixth after finally getting the better of Class A standout Michael Whatley on the last lap.

Behind Whatley, Brett Willis was the best of the rest with Russell Greer ninth, Hamish Paterson 10th, Phil Mauger in the ex Denny Hulme McLaren M23 11th and Kerry McIntosh in the Begg FM2 12th. Peter Sundberg ran in 10th between Greer and Paterson early on but pulled into the pits with gearbox problems on the fifth lap.

Race 1 (Sat 8 laps)
He might have had problems on Sunday but Saturday's MSC race was a Jay Esterer benefit, the quick Canadian leading it from start to finish.

Second, after joining Esterer on the front row of the grid was Ken Smith with Steve Ross third and Tony Richards fourth.

Series young gun Andrew Higgins impressed with the third quickest lap time in qualifying but in the race it was Tony Richards who slotted into third place behind Esterer and Smith at the start with Steve Ross initially fourth, then third after making a move on Richards a lap later.

As they had in qualifying the top seven cars were a cut above the rest in the race, Esterer maintaining a slight advantage over Smith with Ross, Richards, Higgins, Peter Dunn and Ian Clements line astern behind.

Next, UK visitors Michael Whatley and Greg Thornton disputed eighth position with Whatley holding onto it until the final lap when Thornton won a drag race to the finish line, crossing it just 0.021 of a second in front.

The battle for 2010/11 MSC F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series The MSC F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series is organised and run with the support of sponsors MSC, NZ Express Transport, Bonney's Specialized Bulk Transport, Mobil Lubricants, Pacifica, Smith & Davies, Avon Tyres and Exide.

2011 MSC New Zealand F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series Rnd 5 Evolution Motorsport Classic Speedfest meeting Teretonga Park Invercargill Sat-Sun Feb 19-20 2011.

1. Jay Esterer (McRae GM1) 54.00
2. Ken Smith (Lola T430) 54.304
3. Andrew Higgins (Lola T430) 55.123
4. Tony Richards (Lola T332) 55.218
5. Steve Ross (McRae GM1) 55.357
6. Peter Dunn (March 73A) 55.434
7. Stuart Lush (McRae GM1) 56.699
8. Ian Clements (Lola T332) 57.341
9. Hamish Paterson (Chevron B34) 58.508
10. Greg Thornton (Chevron B24) 58.666
11. Stan Redmond (Lola T332) 58.667
12. Michael Whatley (Surtess TS8) 59.667
13. Mark Dwyer (Lola T400) 1.00.087
14. Brett Willis (Lola T330) 1.00.244
15. Russell Greer (Lola T332) 1.00.381
16. Peter Sundberg (Lola T332) 1.00.730
17. Ken McIntosh (Begg FM2) 1.04.471

Race 1
1. Jay Esterer 7.29.737
2. Ken Smith +0.858
3. Steve Ross +4.757
4. Tony Richards +12.183
5. Andrew Higgins +12.519
6. Peter Dunn +12/994
7. Ian Clements +16.154
8. Greg Thornton +24.327
9. Michael Whatley +24.348
10. Hamish Paterson +31.511
11. Brett Willis +32.161
12. Russell Greer +38.793
13. Peter Sundberg +43.382
14. Stan Redmond +44.089
15. Phil Mauger +51.192
16. Kerry McIntosh +1 lap
DNF Mark Dwyer
DNS Stuart Lush

Fastest lap: Jay Esterer (McRae GM1) 55.340

Race 2 (8 laps)
1. Ken Smith 8:06.736
2. Steve Ross +1.068
3. Andrew Higgins +2.073
4. Tony Richards +2.701
5. Peter Dunn +9.163
6. Ian Clements +20.667
7. Mike Whatley +21.932
8. Brett Willis +26.552
9. Russell Greer +33.668
10. Hamish Paterson +33.833
11. Phil Mauger +37.770
12. Kerry McIntosh +1 Lap
DNF Jay Esterer, Peter Sundberg, Gregory Thornton

Fastest lap: Jay Esterer 55.170

Race 3 (12 laps)
1. Jay Esterer 12:55.888
2. Steve Ross +8.740
3. Ken Smith +11.461
4. Andrew Higgins +14.967
5. Tony Richards +15.413
6. Peter Dunn +18.980
7. Ian Clements +23.137
8. Hamish Paterson +34.885
9. Brett Willis +42.907
10. Russell Greer +53.764
11. Peter Sundberg +56.770
12. Phil Mauger +58.529
13. Kerry McIntosh +1 Lap
DNF Stuart Lush 3 Laps, Mark Dwyer 9 Laps

  Fastest lap: Jay Esterer 55.564

Rnd 2: Jan 21-23 2011 NZ Festival of Motor Racing - Chris Amon meeting x 1 Hampton Downs Auckland
Rnd 3: Jan 28-30 2011 NZ Festival of Motor Racing - Chris Amon meeting x 2 Hampton Downs Auckland
Rnd 4: Feb 05/06 2011 Skope Classic meeting Powerbuilt Tools Raceway @ Ruapuna Park Christchurch
Rnd 5: Feb 19-20 2011 Evolution Motorsport Classic Speedfest meeting, Teretonga Park Invercargill
Rnd 6 (Final) March 25-27 2011 Qantas Australian Grand Prix March Albert Park Melbourne, Australia

All pictures courtesy of Fast Company/Alex Mitchell.

Ken Smith won Race 2 in his T430.

Jay Esterer and Ken Smith lining up for the feature race on Sunday.

Russell Greer (Lola T332).

Fourth place for Tony Richards (Lola T332) in Races 1 and 2.

MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series field lining up on the warm-up lap for the first race.