Lance Stroll, 16, has won the first race of the 2015 Toyota Racing Series, fighting off a determined late challenge from second-placed Stefan Riener of Austria.
Third after a storming battle through the field was young Indian driver Arjun Maini.
Stroll confessed afterward that he was not confident of winning after struggling to get to grips with the circuit in the new Toyota FT50 car used by this year’s championship.
“But the car felt great, the team really gave me a winning race car and I stayed out of trouble out there. Sometimes that’s the most important thing, to stay out of trouble and stay consistent,” he said.
The Ruapuna circuit at Mike Pero Motorsport Park is a 3.33 km FIA Grade 3 course, challenging drivers with high speed straights and technical groups of corners.
In qualifying this morning Stroll’s M2 Competition team-mate Brandon Maisano of France had taken pole, and Russian Time GP driver Artem Markelov would have lined up second but was penalised five grid places for going outside the circuit limits. This promoted Stroll to the front row of the grid alongside Maisano.
At the start, down the front straight and into turn one Maisano held his advantage, but he went wide and Stroll slipped into the lead. Also off at this point was British driver , who had been third overall.
This promoted Australian Thomas Randle through to third, a place he would hold for two laps.
But the big mover through what he described as ‘the chaos’ was young Indian driver Arjun Maini. Consistently fast through the unofficial testing prior to the weekend, Maini had been unable to translate his early speed into a top grid position and had started eighth.
But he carved through the field in the early laps and settled fourth behind Randle, then a lap later was through into third.
“To be honest I don’t know how many cars I passed, but it was great!” he said afterward.
A safety car period enabled the field to close up on the leaders, but when the circuit was declared green Stroll got the perfect restart and re-established a lead of 1.5 seconds.
Pole man Maisano was back to sixth but showing no sign of moving up the rakings from there.
Stefan Riener, running in clean air two seconds behind leader Stroll, was putting on the pace and reeled off a series of fastest laps that would culminate in a new lap record for the class of 1:17.310 on the last lap of the race.
In the process he came close to striking distance of Stroll – halving the Canadian’s lead.
The leading pair were engaged in their own private battle and none of the field – now down to 16 cars – was able to challenge them.
Stroll took the win with a gap of just .310 to Riener. Maini had halved his gap on these two to just 1.807 seconds and Thomas Randle had stayed in touch, just a further two seconds behind.
The first New Zealand driver was 11th placed Brendon Leitch, who headed home a three-car freight train of Kiwis, with Jamie Conroy 12th and local driver James Munro 13th.
The 2015 Toyota Racing Series returns to the track for its second race of the weekend tomorrow morning (Sunday) at 11:04. This is a partial reverse grid over 15 laps, race one winner Stroll having drawn the number 6 marble to reverse the first six places and put Brandon Maisano on pole.