Five drivers head for Palmerston North this week with a shot at the 2014 Toyota Racing Series title and for the first time in the ten year history of the series it could fall to an international driver.
New Zealanders have had a lock-down on the title for nine years of intense single-seater competition. During that time the shape of the TRS championship has evolved from one dominated by New Zealand entries to one where international entries edge toward 20 in number while there are four New Zealanders: Damon Leitch, his brother Brendon, Michael Scott and James Munro. Thirteen countries are represented in the 2014 TRS field.
Going into the final three races of the championship at Manfeild this weekend, Singaporean Andrew Tang leads UK driver Jann Mardenborough by just seven points, 610 to 603. The leading two are graduates of the 2012 championship, giving them some familiarity with the intense competition they will encounter in the three races of the coming weekend. Both have majored on consistency, making sure of points at every opportunity. Tang has two wins and has stood on the podium seven times in 12 races. Mardenborough has three wins and has stood on the podium a total of five times.
Russian Egor Orudzhev, who has won three races and been on the podium seven times. He is third for the series on 586. Many are tipping the young Russian for a stellar career, pointing to his spectacularly fast form and daring style behind the wheel through the four rounds to date.
The New Zealander in the midst of the championship battle is Damon Leitch, currently fourth on 581 points. He has four podium finishes so far.
Former championship leader Martin Rump recovered from nightmare results in the first two races of the NZ Motor Cup weekend and won the NZ Motor Cup feature race, becoming the second Estonian racer to do so – the first being his driver coach this year, Sten Pentus. Rump is fifth in the standings on 551 and has won two races, racking up five podiums in total. He is also the leading rookie, and reset the lap record for TRS at Hampton Downs.
With four intense weeks of tough competition behind them, the Toyota Racing Series drivers are honed, fast and fit. The championship arrives at its defining moment with three races this weekend, culminating in the 35-lap New Zealand Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon.
Over the preceding four rounds, New Zealand and international drivers have done battle for race victories and valuable points in the championship, with six different drivers taking race wins in conditions that ranged from the near-horizontal sleet of a windswept Teretonga to the blustery winds and baking 28 degree heat of Timaru, the rain and sun of Cromwell and blistering 32 degree days at Hampton Downs.
The latter round, held last weekend, brought exciting news for new championship leader Tang (pictured). The young Singaporean driver has been racing this year with the prospect of missing the final round due to a call-up to carry out his obligations under Singapore’s compulsory national service laws. He was to have reported for 22 months of service in the Singapore Police.
Intensive lobbying for a deferment that went all the way to the Prime Minister’s office paid off at the weekend when he was given the news he could defer his commitment and race all the way to the Grand Prix.
Tang, 19, told Singapore’s Straits Times he was “literally jumping for joy” in the Neale Motorsport pit garage when he received the news from his father, SK, and mother Anita.
“Now the championship lead comes as the ultimate result for us, and I can focus clearly on this coming weekend and the last three races of the championship,” he said.
Many of the young internationals racing this weekend go on to northern hemisphere season commitments on a career path that could take them all the way to Formula One, a career in sports cars or one of a number of key roles within the major teams in Europe, the UK and USA. Likewise, the top Kiwis are focussed on that ultimate goal. Each and every one would love to add the New Zealand Grand Prix to their cv – and almost all would likewise proudly take the outright championship title away with them.
New Zealand Grand Prix weekend race times for the premier category TRS single-seaters are 3.00pm Saturday, 11.00am Sunday and the feature race, the New Zealand Grand Prix, at 4.00 pm Sunday.