New Zealand's 'F1 driver factory' - the Castrol Toyota Racing Series - is set to go up a gear next season when the top five finishers in the series will all gain points towards a Formula One FIA Super Licence.
With Artem Markelov making his practice debut for Renault at his home Grand Prix at Sochi in Russia on September 30th, no less than ten graduates of the series have now made it to Formula One as race or test drivers. Category manager Nico Caillol is expecting that number to rise significantly from the 2019 series onwards with the addition of the Super Licence points for the first time in the 15 year history of the championship.
"We are the only series available at this time of year to drivers worldwide which offers FIA Super Licence points that can go towards securing a driver a licence to run in official F1 practice sessions during a Grand Prix weekend or eventually, a race seat in F1 itself. With that being the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it has distinct advantages in timing too.”
The roll of honour for the Toyota Racing Series is an impressive list, including current Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley, Williams’ Lance Stroll, Nicholas Latifi who did free practice for Force India in Canada this season, Ferrari test driver and former Red Bull and Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat, new McLaren signing Lando Norris, Renault development driver Markelov, Haas test driver Santino Ferrucci, Alfonso Celis Jnr in practice and Nikita Mazepin in testing for Force India, as well as former Williams tester Alex Lynn.
It has also proved very popular for young racers from F1 teams' junior driver programmes, with that roster including names like Raffaelle Marciello, Brandon Maisano, Guanyu Zhou, Marcus Armstrong and Robert Shwartzman from Ferrari's Junior Programme, Jehan Daruvala from Force India and former Red Bull Junior Richard Verschoor.
Four teams, each boasting crews of engineers from New Zealand and Europe with a vast and diverse knowledge base that includes experience from F1, GP2, GP3 and IndyCar, are contracted by Toyota to run identical Tatuus FT50 single seater cars in the month-long, five round championship.
The cars are meticulously prepared and tested by Toyota New Zealand to ensure they are absolutely alike in every respect, including engine power, before they are released to the teams. After that, it's down to the driver's skills on track and working with the engineers off track to extract every ounce of performance from the state-of-the-art composite car. Caillol says that's exactly why some of the best young single seater drivers have made the trip to New Zealand ahead of European, Asian or North American junior single seater campaigns.
"It has always made sense to come to New Zealand at that time of year and run against other high quality drivers in identical wings and slicks cars on five technically challenging circuits," he added. "And in almost every case, the drivers have gone on to enjoy successful seasons after their New Zealand experience and make positive and major steps forward in their careers.
“It's the best training ground at that time of year in the world for single seater drivers. It's also extremely cost effective and now, thanks to the FIA recognising its significance in the motor racing spectrum, it should be even more appealing to those looking to make it to the highest levels of our sport."
The 2019 Castrol Toyota Racing Series begins at Highlands Motorsport Park in New Zealand's South Island on January 12-13 before moving to the world's most southern circuit, the sweeping and challenging Teretonga, a week later. It then moves to New Zealand's North Island with events at Hampton Downs in the Waikato where the winner will take home New Zealand’s oldest motorsport trophy, the NZ Motor Cup, before the penultimate weekend at the Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park, Taupo, the former A1GP circuit. The championship concludes on February 10 at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon with the New Zealand Grand Prix, which along with Macau's Formula 3 race is one of only two FIA recognised Grand Prix events outside of the Formula One World Championship.