All three of this year’s New Zealand contingent in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series (TRS) have used their summer racing experience to springboard themselves into international motor racing. By Mark Baker
Marcus Armstrong, Taylor Cockerton and Brendon Leitch all have very different racing years ahead of them.
Fourth overall in this year’s TRS championship with the M2 Competition team, Marcus Armstrong won at Ruapuna, Hampton Downs and Taupō. He is now contesting two Formula 4 (F4) national series in Europe with Prema Powerteam, racing in both the Italian and German F4s.
The Ferrari Driver Academy inductee has a busy year ahead of him. With the five-round, 15-race TRS behind him, Armstrong is now in the midst of a Northern Hemisphere season of 14 weekends that sees him racing on some of Europe’s most famous circuits. The two F4 championships run on separate weekends through the northern spring and summer.
“From the outset this has been our plan – to race the most competitive championships with the best teams possible. Emerging from five weekends of solid racing in the TRS and now going into 14 race weekends plus other work with Prema and the Ferrari Driver Academy means I’m focused on racing 24/7. That’s fantastic!”
F4 is part of the governing body’s new pathway structure. The cars are less powerful and have less aerodynamic grip than the FT50 race cars used in the TRS, but are lighter and with reduced frontal area they have similar top speeds, meaning Kiwi drivers are well versed in the capabilities of the cars when they exit the TRS.
Armstrong says the cars are easier to drive, although the championships are intensely competitive. Taylor Cockerton, meanwhile, is commuting to Southeast Asia to race with the PRT team in the five-round Formula China Masters single-seater series.
The series started at the Sepang Formula One circuit in Malaysia then goes to the Zhuhai International Circuit in China for the third and fourth rounds, with the finale at the Shanghai International Circuit in September.
“The biggest challenge will be getting used to the different circuits. Here in New Zealand the tracks are tight and quick with little run-off. Sepang is a modern circuit, wide and with plenty of run-off, and the Chinese circuits are similar,” Cockerton says.
The Formula Masters car is similar to the FT50 TRS car previously driven by Cockerton. “It has a similar chassis, built by the same manufacturer Tatuus in Italy. It’s powered by a 2.0-litre engine generating 141kW (about 190bhp) compared with over 160kW (215bhp) from the Toyota. It has similar dual shock suspension on the front and rear and we will be racing on a similar tyre compound.”
Still studying at the University of Waikato, 19-year-old Cockerton was seventh overall in the TRS this year – racing with MTEC Motorsport in his second season in the championship. He follows a well beaten path for TRS graduates into the Asian racing scene. Graduates who have preceded him include James Munro, who won the series in 2014.
“I’m going in there with a lot of confidence, with the experience gained in two successful seasons in a very competitive TRS championship. I want to win races and the championship, but we will take every race as it comes, making step-by-step progress.”
Competing with Victory Motor Racing, Invercargill’s Brendon Leitch (21) had a punishing TRS season of highs and lows. He took a podium at Teretonga and won at Taupō, but was dragged into other drivers’ crashes twice, finishing ninth overall. He was the final Kiwi driver to get his 2017 racing plans sorted and will contest the six round United States F4 Championship. Auckland-based Deborah Day, who has been a long-time supporter of Leitch, launched a Brendon Leitch Supporters Club in March to pull together the money he needed to line up in the series.
In the US, Leitch will be supported by New Zealander Garry Orton, director of Nelson-based Victory Motor Racing, who ran all four of Leitch's TRS campaigns.
An uncompromisingly quick driver in the TRS, Leitch says he would love to follow in the footsteps of fellow New Zealand driver Scott Dixon in the US – the F4 Championship is viewed as an ideal stepping stone. The 2017 TRS championship is the first to propel all of its Kiwi entries directly into top overseas drives.
THOMAS RANDLE - OUR FIRST AUSTRALIAN CHAMPION
It wasn’t settled until the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild in February, but Thomas Randle emerged a deserving champion in this year’s Castrol Toyota Racing Series (TRS).
Building on strong early performances, Randle proved the value of consistency.
Right up to the start of the final race of the championship, the 2017 New Zealand Grand Prix front-runners Pedro Piquet – son of multiple Formula One champion Nelson Piquet – and Red Bull’s young Dutch protégé Richard Verschoor (16) posed real threats to Randle’s title hopes.
The 2017 championship was the toughest yet, Randle winning at the opening round (Ruapuna) and at the series midpoint, Hampton Downs, taking seven podiums in all and setting seven fastest laps.
He says the win at Hampton Downs – netting him the coveted New Zealand Motor Cup – was an emotional victory and marked the point at which he “first caught sight” of the title and began to think he could win the five-round, 15-race championship.
His favourite drive of the championship, though, came in the second race at the final round, where he fought his way through the field to fourth overall after slipping to 12th at the first turn.
“That was just fantastic. Totally memorable.” Randle (21) has raced the TRS before, doing the whole series in 2015 and the Grand Prix in 2016.
“I loved racing there in 2015 and was keen to go back and have a crack at the title. I picked a massively competitive year to do it! This was a very hard fought championship; there was no time when I thought I could relax.”
Melbourne born and raised, Randle is a versatile driver, comfortable in single-seaters, touring cars, classics and now the fast and agile LMP3 endurance cars. Like most single seater racers he began his career in karting, culminating in 2012 when he won the Junior Clubman class of the Australian National Sprint Kart Championship and the Rotax Junior class of the Australian Rotax Nationals.
The following year he stepped up to junior categories in full-sized single seaters and has not looked back. In 2014 he won the Australian Formula Ford championship; then in 2015 he was runner-up in the new Australian Formula Four championship and ran with the ETEC team in the TRS.
In 2016 he switched teams and raced the final (Grand Prix) round of the series as a one-off with Nelson based Victory Motor Racing, finishing fifth in the Grand Prix and amassing 93 points across three races.
He returned this year – again with Victory – to win the title.
Randle credits the TRS with giving him the race-craft to win and the tactical nous to know the value of consistency. The championship also helped to propel him into his new challenge – an LMP3 drive.
The Aussie hopes to follow in the footsteps of Kiwis like 2015 WEC champion Brendon Hartley, Le Mans winner Earl Bamber and GT category racer Richie Stanaway, all drivers who have raced in the TRS and forged careers in endurance racing.
“I think that these days endurance racing is the way to go. It’s hard to get competitive drives in the top single-seater categories, but endurance racing is growing in profile all over the world. I would love to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But it will all depend on how we go this year.”
In its most fiercely contested year, Thomas Randle has proved that consistency – and self-belief – are key to taking out the TRS title.
NICK CASSIDY - SETTLES INTO HIS BUSIEST YEAR
Champion race driver Nick Cassidy has started his 2017 racing year in ideal form, with victory at the first round of Japan’s SUPER GT Championship.
Driving their, new for 2017, TOM’S Lexus LC 500, Cassidy and co-driver Ryo Hirakawa dominated the opening round despite flat-spotting a front tyre under heavy braking.
Cassidy (22) won the TRS in 2012 and 2013 and won the New Zealand Grand Prix in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He won the All-Japan Formula Three Championship the following year and then spent 2016 commuting between Europe and Japan, racing for respected singleseater Prema Power team in the FIA.
Formula 3 European Championship and for Lexus Team TOM’S in his maiden Super GT year. Although international recognition has come slowly and been hard won, he is widely acknowledged as one of the most exciting talents in motor racing.
This year Cassidy faces a busy 15 weekends of racing between April and November, competing for the TOM’S team in Super GT and for Toyota-supported KONDO Racing Team in the spectacular Super Formula open-wheeler category. The Super Formula cars have higher cornering speeds than the 2016 Formula One cars.
“It’s a massive challenge and a big jump from Formula Three,” says Cassidy, who finished fourth in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship last year.
The opportunity to be based in Japan and contest two premier race series in a single year could be seen as a reward for Cassidy’s years of loyalty to Toyota and Lexus in motor racing. He credits the TRS with setting him on the path to becoming a full-time driver.
“In my TRS campaigns I built up so many valuable links with overseas drivers, team managers and engineers. As soon as you do one race in Europe you see faces you know: ‘I’ve just done this, have you got anything available? Can I drive here, can I drive there?’ This is how my career has been built: a race here, a race there.”
While most motorsport drivers are in a hurry to go places, Cassidy is content to park up in Japan after an encouraging debut season in the GT series.
“I’d be happy to stay here for the next 15 years. It’s fantastic racing, very exciting, and the teams I race with are great, totally professional,” he says.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more at this stage of my career.”
THE NEXT STEPS FOR THE ‘CLASS OF 2017’ - WHERE TO NOW?
After 13 sensational years, the best young drivers in the world still chase drives in Toyota Racing Series. Talent spotters and elite driver programmes continue to direct their new stars to TRS.
This year Thomas Randle arrived bearing the crest of the British Racing Drivers’ Club and the logo of its Rising Stars programme.
Kiwi Marcus Armstrong was confirmed as a Ferrari Driver Academy inductee just before the 2017 championship started. India’s Jehan Daruvala came for a second run at the title with the support of Force India F1 and Richard Verschoor carried the colours of Red Bull on his car as a member of the F1 team’s junior driver programme.
The championship filled its grid with 20 young drivers, some chasing the title, some pursuing experience in modern single-seater race cars and some making the transition from karting. Once more, the Kiwi drivers showed they were well able to race alongside the internationals. All 20 have confirmed they continue on into racing series in the UK, Europe and the USA this year.