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Finding the Next World Champion

The Toyota Racing Series, the five-week whirlwind Championship tour of New Zealand’s best racing circuits, has once more given rising kiwi drivers a chance to test their mettle against some of the world’s best young drivers.

Elite driving programmes and global talent spotters have once more directed their young charges to New Zealand, enabling the drivers to challenge their skills on circuits they have never seen before with five of the country’s most prestigious and storied trophies up for grabs.

Now in its 12th year, the championship attracts drivers from all corners of the globe, attracted to gain massive racing experience and ‘seat time’ during the Northern Hemisphere winter.

Demand for drives in the 2016 championship was intense coming out of a year when a New Zealand driver won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, when another Kiwi won the FIA World Endurance Championship, and when drivers who have come through the Toyota Racing Series (TRS) are at the sharp end of many of the world’s most fiercely contested championships.

The mission of TRS has never been so clearly evident, nor has it ever been so closely aligned with Toyota’s core ‘Believe’ ethos. 

Once more, the championship attracted drivers from elite development programmes. China’s Guanyu Zhou is based in the United Kingdom and races with the Ferrari Driver Academy, which has been sending its rising stars to New Zealand for more than four years. Guanyu finished runner-up in the 2015 Italian Formula 4 Championship in his first taste of single-seater racing, with three wins and 12 podium placings.  The 16-year-old has been based in London for the last three years, furthering his motorsport career after starting kart racing in China as an eight-year-old.

Formula One team Sahara Force India sent Jehan Daruvala down for the championship too – he, like Guanyu Zhou, is tipped as a driver to watch in coming years.

A member of Vijay Mallya’s Force India Academy, Daruvala has his sights firmly set on reaching Formula One.  A recent graduate to formula cars, he first caught Mallya’s eye with consistent performances at the karting level.  He has been based in Britain since he was 13 years old to further his racing career.  In 2014 Daruvala finished second in the German Kart Championship and third in the World Championship.  Moving up to Formula Renault in 2015, he finished fifth and second rookie.

This year, the American Chip Ganassi Racing talent identification programme sent its recruit Devlin DeFrancesco (16) to New Zealand to contest TRS in preparation for a season with leading team Carlin in MSA Formula.  DeFrancesco was the Canadian junior karting champion in 2013, and in 2014 he finished third in the European Championship.  DeFrancesco spent 2015 competing in Britain’s Ginetta Junior Championship, learning the circuits he will race on when he returns to the UK this year.

Among the internationals, there were three returning racers: Russian Time GP2 driver Artem Markelov was back to keep his racing instincts sharp during the off-season, Pedro Piquet was back with two Brazilian Formula Three titles to his credit, and Ferdinand Habsburg was aiming to build on a solid first TRS season in 2015.

There were 14 nations represented in the starting line-up. Three New Zealand drivers fronted up: James Munro and Brendon Leitch returned to the championship and Pukekohe’s Taylor Cockerton made his wings and- slicks debut. All three New Zealanders were assisted by the Kiwi Driver Fund, a new initiative set up to ensure rising Kiwi race stars can compete on an equal footing with the internationals in the series. The Fund is backed by Post Haste and Michelin.

The championship began at a rain-swept Ruapuna circuit near Christchurch in mid-January with the Lady Wigram Trophy at stake.

Ferdinand Habsburg showed the benefit of his TRS experience and a tough 2015 Northern Hemisphere season with victory in the first race of the championship – his first race win in a single-seater formula car.

Habsburg had qualified second but out dragged pole sitter Lando Norris to the first corner, with local driver James Munro initially claiming third after starting sixth. Munro was unable to hold off Artem Markelov after a safety car period and the finish order was an elated Habsburg 1.7 seconds clear of Markelov with young British driver Norris third.

The second race fell to Norris with Pedro Piquet second and Guanyu Zhou third, marking the establishment of

a front-running group of racers that was joined by Daruvala when he won the feature race in the afternoon, inscribing his name on the Lady Wigram Trophy. Habsburg was second and Zhou third. Lando Norris showed his form with fastest lap and a new race lap record of 1.17.062. The stage was set for a torrid championship.

A week later the field assembled at Teretonga, near Invercargill. The southernmost permanent race circuit in the world, the 2.57 kilometre Teretonga is renowned for its fickle weather patterns. Its fast front straight is one of the quickest in the championship and leads into a long left hand corner that challenges the brave and punishes the error-prone.

Exposed to the most bitter southern weather coming north from Antarctica and just a few kilometres from the

beach where motorcycle racer Burt Munro developed the Indian motorcycle he would take to land speed records at Bonneville almost 60 years ago, the track has been the scene of some intense rivalries in the TRS.

This year would prove no different, with chilling rain squalls and blustery wind pushing the cars around and hampering the efforts of drivers looking to shave tiny fractions of time off their qualifying laps.

Jehan Daruvala took his second win of the series in race one, with Norris second and Polish driver Antoni Ptak third. Brazil’s Pedro Piquet – son of multiple Formula One world champion Nelson Piquet – won the second race. Wet and windy conditions were holding the times well away from the lap record.

In 2015, Invercargill’s Brendon Leitch became the first local driver to win the feature race, the Spirit of a Nation Cup. He posted a fifth and fourth in the first two races and despite qualifying on the second row of the grid in P4 he had his eyes on defending his feature race win this year.

In the event, it was Lando Norris who became the second feature race winner of the series, Leitch emerging as top New Zealander as the championship headed north. Norris now held 380 points, leading the championship from Markelov on 346 and Habsburg on 303; Leitch was fourth overall on 300 points.

Arriving at the championship’s mid-point, the drivers and teams were treated to a glimpse of progress on work at the Hampton Downs circuit, halfway between Hamilton and Auckland.

Opened in 2008 and now owned by Scottish-born Australian Tony Quinn, the 2.8km FIA Grade 2 track is in the throes of a comprehensive and ambitious upgrade that will include an extension to the circuit, new facilities

for corporate and VIP hosting, media areas, parking and viewer areas and a complex for use by automotive brands and driver training companies.

Here, Kiwi James Munro had TRS champion and 2012 GP3 series winner Mitch Evans providing advice on making every turn count toward a quick lap and it showed.

Racing this year with Giles Motorsport, 18-year-old Munro was in his third run at the title. Munro won the Formula Masters China Series in 2014, was fourth in the Japanese Formula 4 series in 2015 and won the GT Am class in the 2015 Asian Le Mans Series.

Fourth in the first race was an auspicious start, netting him valuable points at a critical time in the five-week championship.

Evans said he had been able to suggest on-track and set-up tweaks for Munro.

“He’s got good natural speed, so we’ve just worked on a couple of parts of the track where he can shave time off a lap,” Evans said.

The reward was a fighting fourth overall, showing the internationals that Munro is a force to be reckoned with. Out front in that race, Lando Norris extended his lead, winning the race ahead of Daruvala and an increasingly quick Pedro Piquet.

“I just wanted to control the race. My start was pretty good. Then I just wanted to be consistent and get more points,” said Norris. It was his third win in three weekends and cemented his position as the man to watch in the 2016 championship.

The following morning, storm clouds circled the circuit, threatening more rain. Pedro Piquet’s dad Nelson was leaving the country that afternoon and was ‘a little’ keen to see his son score a feature race win before he went. If Piquet junior felt the pressure of expectation he didn’t show it.

Guanyu Zhou won the reverse grid race from Invercargill’s Brendon Leitch, who started the main event from 12th on the grid and swept through to second overall, just .79 seconds behind Zhou in a sensational drive with Pedro Piquet holding on to the lead pair and finishing third.

The third race belonged to Pedro Piquet. The storm clouds loomed over the track but somehow held off, leaving the circuit dry and quick. Once he had established a lead, Piquet managed the gap back to second-placed James Munro from Christchurch, who had made a great start from third on the grid.

“Jehan [Daruvala who finished third] piled on the pressure,” said Munro, “but I managed to hold him off.” After a frustrating start to the series, Munro had a good weekend to convert the speed he had shown into results. “The car has been great this weekend. It’s nice to get a result for all the team’s hard work,” he said.

It was a happy Pedro Piquet who added another famous name to the New Zealand Motor Cup trophy after winning the main race. First presented in 1921, the solid-silver trophy has in the past been awarded to the winner of the New Zealand Grand Prix and has the names of no fewer than five different Formula One world champions on it.

Piquet’s father Nelson joined him on the new podium, looking even more pleased than his son at the win. The result took Piquet up to second on the points table after starting the weekend seventh.

Arriving at the 3.5km Taupō circuit a week later, Lando Norris knew he could lock out the championship. With an 80 point lead, he needed to make the most of the three races to extend his lead.

Aware of the need to conserve tyres for the following races, Norris used his head as well as his right foot to win the first race of the weekend, leading Pedro Piquet as the pair drove away from the field to consolidate their positions at the top of the championship points table. Norris won the start from pole position on the grid and was never headed, although Piquet followed him closely and seemed to be on the verge of launching a passing manoeuvre as the 15 laps wound down.

“I could have gone a bit quicker in the first laps, but then the tyres would have gone off more and I need them for Sunday’s first race," said Norris.

James Munro finished an excellent third.

The next day Brendon Leitch led the second race of the weekend until a safety car restart when the flag marshal failed to wave the green flag.

“I was watching for the waved flag but he just held it. In the meantime everyone else was on the trigger and I was swamped,” said a bitterly disappointed Leitch afterward.

Jehan Daruvala notched up the win.  In the afternoon, Norris put his name on his second TRS feature race trophy, winning the Denny Hulme Memorial Trophy in dominant fashion. He was never troubled by second-placed Pedro Piquet and extended his points margin to 86, with Zhou coming through to be third in the standings behind Piquet.

“It was a bit easier than Saturday’s race, when Pedro pushed me quite a bit, but it’s not over yet. There are a lot of points up for grabs,” said Norris afterward. Piquet had a realistic view of his second place. “The championship is more important than one race so I am happy with the weekend.”

The championship campaign of Munro, who started third, was derailed when Markelov dived down the inside into the first turn in an ambitious overtaking attempt.  With two wheels on the grass, Markelov couldn’t get his car slowed for the corner and sledged into the side of Munro’s car, smashing the front wings of both and damaging Munro’s front left suspension.  Munro returned to the pits and was able to rejoin the race in 17th place, charging back through the field to finish 11th.

In the mayhem Brendon Leitch who started seventh, grabbed third place, but Zhou got past him as the Southlander’s tyres lost grip.  Austrian Ferdinand Habsburg made several passing attempts, which Leitch fended off gamely before finally succumbing.  Rookie 17-year-old Taylor Cockerton of Pukekohe had his best race of the series to finish sixth.

Jehan Daruvala set a new race lap record of 1:23.357.

The championship would thus come down to the final round and in particular the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild.

Australian Thomas Randle became the 2016 championship’s 17th international driver from 14 different countries, joining the field for the New Zealand Grand Prix weekend.

Randle came 10th in the 2015 TRS.  The 19-year-old Melbourne driver finished runner-up in the Australian Formula 4 Championship last year after racing in the TRS, with seven wins and another eight podiums in the 21 races.  Racehardened, he was instantly quick, going fourth fastest in the practice sessions.

Piquet, with his name already on one TRS feature race trophy, was in no doubt that he could win the Grand Prix and even the series.  With just 86 points between him and Norris and 75 points available for every race win, it would take just one misstep by Norris to close the gap right up.

“If Lando has some bad luck and I get some really good results I still have a chance. If he does a good job and gets third or fourth then he will win the series,” said Piquet.

Manfeild is an FIA Grade circuit, 3.03km long with unique banked corners that enable drivers to brake later and harder than at similar circuits, using inertial forces to slow the cars on the angled surface.  Ferdinand Habsburg, won the first race of the weekend.  He surged from P5 on the third row of the grid to take the chequered flag, making the most of a pair of safety car periods. Habsburg led home James Munro with championship leader Lando Norris finishing third.

“Those safety cars were great,” said Habsburg in reference to the two occasions the field was bunched up behind the safety car while cars were removed from dangerous positions.  “It gave me the opportunity to rise.”  The first safety car was called after M2 Competition team-mates Artem Markelov and Pedro Piquet tangled in the first corner, with the Brazilian on the outside of the Russian sliding off into a gravel trap.  Markelov was given a drive-through penalty for his part in the incident.

The second safety car was called after back markers Theo Bean (USA) and Nicholas Dapero (Argentina) tangled coming on to the front straight.  On the second restart Habsburg, Norris and Munro went through the first turn three wide.

Two laps later Munro forced Norris into a mistake, running a little wide out of the first corner and the Christchurch man was through in a flash.  I got on the power a bit too early,” said Norris, “and got the rear wheel over the kerb and that just dragged me off.”

Into the final day of the series, Norris felt safer.  Piquet’s Did Not Finish in the previous day’s race dropped him to third on points and brought Jehan Daruvala through to second.  Brendon Leitch was fourth on points and the best of the Kiwis.

Leitch bounced back with a well-deserved and emphatic victory in the morning’s race.  Norris was simply masterful in the Grand Prix.  Leading from start to finish in the 35-lap feature event, the 16-year-old British driver – world karting champion and winner of the British Formula 4 series in 2015 – showed the form that will likely take him all the way to Formula One.  “It’s the longest race I’ve ever done,” said Norris. “I didn’t have anything to lose.”

He had to fend off the attentions of Artem Markelov, who had been third initially, but managed to overtake Pedro Piquet after a safety car period.  Piquet tracked Markelov until the last lap, when he got back in front at the last corner in an effort to grab third place overall in the series but was then penalised 30 seconds for passing under waved yellow flags because the car of Theo Bean was parked on the side of the track.

That gave Brendon Leitch enough buffer to maintain his third position.  He was the only Kiwi to win a TRS race this year. James Munro finished fourth in the Grand Prix to be top Kiwi for the round.

Three feature race trophies and six wins from 15 races were proof positive of the abilities of Norris and the benefit for Northern Hemisphere drivers of coming south to contest the championship.

“I’m really pleased with the five weeks, it’s been very intense and at the same time it’s been great fun.  There couldn’t be a better way to get ready for my coming season.”

Pedro Piquet, too, acknowledged that the standard of competition was as high as any he had faced and a perfect preparation for racing in Europe during the New Zealand winter.  “I think we have been racing with the best at this level.”

 

Source: Believe Magazine - Issue 13 2016