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Rising to the Top

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The big story of the summer in New Zealand motorsport, and indeed arguably in the rest of the motorsport world in the opening few weeks of 2019, was the rise and rise of young racer Liam Lawson. His speed, ability to overtake and never-say die attitude in a season-long battle with fellow Kiwi Marcus Armstrong raised the performance and profiles of both drivers and left the rest of the high-quality Castrol Toyota Racing Series (TRS) field in their dust.

Both drivers’ performances were nothing short of remarkable, but as ever in motorsport, there could only be one champion and in 2019 that was Liam Lawson. Too young to compete last season, he used this season’s championship to put his name under the international racing spotlight and propel himself into a long-term motorsport opportunity with one of the biggest names in the game – Red Bull Racing.

Arguably one of the most interesting facts about Liam’s story is that he did not come from a motorsport background like many of his young rivals in New Zealand and around the world.

However, his racing career did, like most, begin in karting. The major difference was that he wasn’t always destined to be put in a kart like many other young drivers; his family had never been involved in motorsport previously.

He used to sit on the couch with his father, who was nothing more than an avid fan of the sport, and watch racing at the weekends. Desperate to go from watching to racing, a passionate and enthusiastic young Liam got his first kart at just six years of age.

This got the ball rolling, not only for Liam but for his family too. His father, having no previous experience with running and working on go-karts, had to learn quickly the ins and outs of the machine and the sport.

Major success in karts came first in 2012 when Liam won the New Zealand CIK Cadet Championship, his first national title. He backed that up the following year with another CIK title, this time in the Junior Restricted class.

After another two national karting titles, to bring his total to four, he and his family made the decision to step up into circuit car racing. May 2015 saw Liam join the likes of Shane van Gisbergen, Richie Stanaway and fellow TRS champ and New Zealand Grand Prix winner Nick Cassidy in winning the SpeedSport Scholarship. This gave Liam his first season in car racing, fully funded and part of a prestigious and historically successful programme.

In his debut pre-season event, he won a race and impressed everyone. While his debut national championship in the New Zealand Formula First category was up and down with mechanical dramas, Liam collected an impressive race win alongside a handful of podiums. He also finished as the top rookie of the season.

Then came the step into the New Zealand Formula 1600 (Ford) Championship in late 2016. Again for Liam, a limited budget saw him opt for a family-run effort over a professional team. His father once again upskilled his knowledge, and they were lucky to receive help from a few great people during the season.

Liam’s debut weekend in the class saw him take pole position and win all three races. In fact he won every race of the 15-race season bar one, where he finished in second place. This saw Liam comfortably claim his first national championship in cars and become the youngest-ever Formula Ford champion in the world at the time.

Next came the big step into racing overseas, with a season in the Australian Formula 4 Championship.

Again on debut Liam impressed, taking two race wins at the opening weekend and finished on the podium in all six races that weekend. Liam would collect a total of five wins and 13 podiums during the season, to finish second overall in the championship.
Just when he thought the step across the ditch was big, the decision to take Liam to Europe blew that out of the water in every aspect, from the money required to the competition level! His first season in Europe saw him net three wins and 11 podiums to finish second in the most competitive series he’d competed in to date, the German ADAC Formula 4 Championship.

A one-off weekend at the end of the 2018 season confirmed Liam had something special. After being invited to run in the final round of the Asian Formula Three series, Liam took both pole positions and all three race wins. Even with next to no practice in a completely foreign car due to mechanical issues, he was about to take pole by over half a second and won by over eight seconds in the first race and over 20 seconds in the second one.

The TRS at the start of 2019 – run exclusively in New Zealand of course and taking in five of the local tracks – proved to be the coming of age for one of our brightest young sporting stars. Again he took a win in his first race in the category and that set him on a championship challenge.

The field throughout the five-round series was brimming with the best up-and-coming talent in single seaters in the world. And more – one driver, Lucas Auer, already had time in a modern Formula One car, while plenty of others in the field were aiming to use the TRS season to springboard into successful 2019 seasons, where they might secure support from teams in Formula One or similar.

But it was Liam who prevailed. His passing move on Armstrong at Highlands Motorsport Park was one of those ‘it cannot be done’ type passes and it caught the attention of almost all the big players in motorsport, who constantly look for drivers with the ‘X’ factor. And he repeated those impossible moves whenever he had the chance.

In addition to that he showed great maturity and humility for a driver of his age and experience. ‘X’ factor in spades, in fact.

It was no surprise that come the end of the championship at the New Zealand Grand Prix – which of course he won to sign off a dream five weekends – the major players were knocking on his door. And he and his management team chose Red Bull and a career path that will take Liam back to Europe for a dual campaign in major junior formulae in 2019.