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New Zealand’s success at the 83rd 24 Hours of Le Mans this month has come at the hands of four of its most talented young drivers, and all four have one unique competition-based development programme in common.
Race winner Earl Bamber, second-placed Brendon Hartley, Mitch Evans (second in LMP2) and Richie Stanaway have all graduated from New Zealand’s own Toyota Racing Series.
Now in its 11th year, the Toyota Racing Series was established to help rising New Zealanders hone their motor racing skills before venturing onto the world stage.
Contested over five high intensity weekends during summer, the championship attracts some of the quickest young drivers from around the world and gives local racers a valuable chance to gauge their speed and race-craft against the internationals.
Toyota New Zealand Motorsport Manager Steve Boyce says the presence of four New Zealanders in the entry for this year’s Le Mans race – and the subsequent podium finishes for three of the four – are further evidence of the value of Toyota’s unique and innovative single-seater programme.
“It’s great to see graduates of the series winning internationally at such a high level. This is one of the reasons we started TRS. We saw Kiwi drivers unable to advance into overseas categories and wanted to help bridge the huge gap between local and international racing for our best young drivers,” he said.
Mr. Boyce said the result was a strong signal to new drivers of the top level opportunities that can be achieved through TRS.
“Earl, Brendon, Mitch and Richie have achieved something very special and they are part of a resurgence in New Zealand motorsport. This is just the beginning,” he said.
Earl Bamber was born at Jerusalem on the Wanganui River. He contested the Toyota Racing Series from 2007-2011, finishing second overall in 2007-2008 and 2009-2010. He won the Hamilton 400 Trophy TRS race in 2008 and won the prestigious New Zealand Grand Prix in 2010 ahead of Mitch Evans.
Brendon Hartley of Palmerston North won the first ever TRS race at Timaru in 2005, aged just 15. He placed fourth in the inaugural Toyota Racing Series. Now 25 years old, he is an official Porsche factory driver.
Mitch Evans is a multiple TRS champion and New Zealand Grand Prix winner. Racing for the JOTA Sport LMP2 team at Le Mans, he was central to an epic fight-back from tenth in class after gear change problems early in the race. Evans brought it up to second in class and tenth overall at the end of the punishing race.
Evans won back to back titles in the Toyota Racing Series in 2010 (leading Bamber home by just three points) and 2011 and won the New Zealand Grand Prix in 2011. He went on to win the 2012 GP3 series and is now fourth in the GP2 series, racing with Russian Time.
Richie Stanaway led the GT class for almost half of the 2015 Le Mans, driving for the factory Aston Martin team. He was slowed when his co-driver collided with an LMP2 car, dropping to 41st position while repairs were made. The car never recovered finishing sixth in class. Stanaway raced part-seasons of TRS in 2009 and 2010. He won the Hamilton 400 trophy in 2009 in a one-off TRS appearance, taking pole for both races and then winning both.
All four now return to their regular racing codes, each with an eye on returning to the La Sarthe circuit in 2016 for another crack at one of motorsport’s most prized and challenging titles.