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This year the Castrol Toyota Racing Series attracted five Kiwi drivers – and what a diverse group they were.
Each had their own distinctive style on track and each came from a different background. They have their coaches, fitness advisors and sport motivators, and in some cases their mums come along. Each also knows where they want to go in their motor racing career: all the way.
Marcus Armstrong – International Kiwi
From the moment he wheeled his Ferrari-coloured FT50 race car out onto the track at Ruapuna this year, Armstrong embodied Toyota’s ‘Believe’ motto. The Christchurch born teen is being hailed as New Zealand’s ‘next most likely’ in a year when the first TRS race winner, Brendon Hartley, steps up to a full-time Formula One drive.
In 2017, Armstrong arrived at the Castrol Toyota Racing Series (TRS) as a quick rookie and won the first race of the series. A year in Europe contesting two Formula Four championships and his extensive experience racing karts at world championship level have burnished Armstrong into a truly world class racer.
Even before the opening round, Armstrong was adamant: his focus was on the title; any race wins were a bonus. He knows that the key to winning a championship is absolute consistency and a single minded focus on the goal.
The Ferrari Driver Academy has long sent its best and brightest to New Zealand to hone their racecraft and speed during the Northern Hemisphere winter, when there is little opportunity to even test for the coming year, much less compete.
Ever since Raffaele Marciello went up against Nick Cassidy, Hannes van Asseldonk, Damon Leitch and Jordan King here in 2012, the Ferrari Academy has added a splash of bright red to the grid and pit lane of the TRS. Armstrong made history in late 2016 when he was named the first-ever Kiwi member of the academy. He spent last year in Italy working full time in the academy and racing with Prema Powerteam.
The academy also sent his 2018 team mate Robert Shwartzman (Russia) to the championship this year, in part to see how the pair interacted and also to measure the relative strengths of each driver.
Armstrong will contest the 2018 FIA European Formula Three Championship.
It is the last year in which Formula Three will operate in its current form as the FIA is looking for ways to blend GP3 and Formula Three in 2019.
Armstrong says the venue for the New Zealand Grand Prix stands out for him because it brings together aspects of every round of the Championship. “Manfeild demands and commands attention. Its variety of surfaces are tricky to master if it rains, and the wind is always tugging at your car. A real driver’s circuit.”
Reid Harker – Raising his Game
Second behind Yardley in last year’s Toyota 86 Championship, Reid Harker started cautiously but responded quickly to the high-pressure environment of a TRS race weekend. He also got the measure of the fast internationals who came to race the series.
The sheer speed of the cars and their identical specification meant there were mid-field battles that were more intense than the races were out in front.
Harker is keen to explore overseas opportunities and pick up drives in domestic championships and series as he expands his already impressive race-craft and experience.
Ryan Yardley – Learning fast, new speed forged in the TRS crucible
If Yardley thought stepping up out of a TR 86 sports coupe and into a Toyota FT50 single-seater was going to be easy, he might have been discouraged by his early form.
Promising testing pre-season gave way to a mad scramble to find the funding to race the series, meaning the 2016-2017 Toyota 86 Championship winner had little time to familiarise himself with the light but forceful touch required to get that last 1/100th of a second out of a TRS lap. Fortunately, he was very much aware of the challenge and of the lightning speed of his European rivals.
Yardley hasn’t finalised his 2018 season, saying he first has to get back to work and get some money together – but he is keen to cap off unfinished TRS business by returning in 2019. In the mid-term he is keen to look at a GT drive, possibly in Asia.
"The Grand Prix circuit is an interesting change after the European character of Hampton Downs, and Taupo. Stringing together a whole ideal lap in an FT50 is no mean feat."
Brendon Leitch – Battered but determined, buoyed by late season form
Invercargill born Leitch is a championship regular, but he was in harm’s way this year from the very start. Struggling with set-up and pace, Leitch found himself snared into other people’s mid-field battles.
As the five week season progressed, Leitch found his way back into form and started figuring in the front-end battles, culminating in a race win at Taupō. Leitch heads back to the USA this year, most likely to contest the American Formula Three Championship.
He is looking to drive some endurance/ GT events here before he leaves.
“Manfeild’s a tricky place with all kinds of corners and the banked ones are pretty cool. I’ve seen people trip over at Higgins and wonder how, and I’ve seen people wreck their suspension on the big ripple strips coming out to the start-finish straight. This place is fast but deadly.”
Taylor Cockerton – An eye on Asia
Fresh back in New Zealand from victory in the Formula Masters Asia championship, Cockerton was the last Kiwi to confirm for the TRS, and the championship began on a busy note with the Pukekohe racer contesting the opening round at Ruapuna, then jetting off to Malaysia to test an Audi R8 GT car before flying back to race the second round.
His form suffered initially because of the distraction, but he hit top speed at Taupō.
Cockerton is definite: he wants to race in Asia, and he is drawn strongly by the plentiful fields and the paddock environment of GT racing there.
“I love the TRS, and I love Manfeild, and it would be great to come back and hit the championship again. Manfeild is unique, both fast and tricky, and those banked corners give the car a really strange feeling. It’s hard not to over-brake on the approach and waste precious seconds getting the car back up to speed.”