After three tough and challenging weeks in New Zealand’s South Island, the International Toyota Racing Series heads north to Auckland for the historic New Zealand Motor Cup at the modern Hampton Downs circuit set in lush and rolling North Waikato farm country with the smallest-ever margin between the two leading contenders.
With five different winners from the nine southern races at Teretonga, Timaru and Highlands Motorsport Park, the overall championship is delicately poised as the racers head into the sharp end of the rapid-fire down-under TRS season. Just two points separate the championship leader, Estonian rookie Martin Rump, from second-placed GT Academy ‘find’ Jann Mardenborough of the UK.
Any one of the leading five drivers could emerge from this penultimate round of the championship with a defining points advantage. So who will have their name engraved on the NZ Motor Cup at the end of the coming weekend? And who will be the 2014 Toyota Racing Series Champion?
Hampton Downs and the grand finale, the 59th New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfield, will provide the answers.
The ever-changing wet and dry track conditions encountered at all three South Island races have tested the ability and resolve of all the racers. High intensity back-to-back qualifying sessions, frenetic race starts and re-starts under the safety car are what the European mentors and driver managers are seeking for their young protégés.
So, with 18 International drivers at an average age of just over 18 years, just who amongst these 22 youngsters will emerge from TRS and shine as a rising star of International motor racing in the not too distant future. They have a clear path to follow.
Mitch Evans won the 2012 GP3 Championship and has stepped up to GP2. First-ever TRS race winner Brendon Hartley has been reserve driver for both Toro Rosso and Red Bull in Formula One, has distinguished himself in simulator work with Mercedes GP and has just been signed by Porsche to race alongside former Red Bull F1 driver Mark Webber.
Daniil Kvyat raced in TRS three years ago when he was aged 16, won his first International race at Manfeild, won the GP3 Championship in 2013 and in 2014 the Russian lines up on the Formula 1 grid for Toro Rosso.
Following in Kvyat’s footsteps, another young Russian, Egor Orudzhev, has won three races of the nine to date. Consistency is the biggest lesson drivers learn in TRS. A mistake at Teretonga where he went off the track in streaming rain while leading the second race cost Orudzhev a clean sweep of races at that opening round. Another that stymied a magnificent charge through the field at the feature race at the third round also cost him dearly, but he is currently fifth in the points on 406.
Ahead of him in the standings is New Zealand’s Damon Leitch, fourth in the points battle on 420 with three strong podium finishes.
A strong third in the standings with 422 points is Singaporean driver Andrew Tang with two wins including the wet second race at Invercargill (pictured) and the feature race at the second round, the Timaru Herald Trophy.
Jann Mardenborough likewise has two wins including the feature race at the third round, the Denny Hulme Memorial trophy and is clear of these three on 438. A graduate of TRS 2012 and rookie of the year in his debut season that year, he says Hampton Downs is his favourite of all the circuits the championship visits.
Series leader Martin Rump from Estonia has taken just a single win at Highlands Motorsport Park but backs that with a further three podium finishes to hold a narrow margin of two points on 440.
In the tenth year of the championship, the Toyota Racing Series field is the strongest ever seen, with 18 international drivers going wheel to wheel with four New Zealanders. Thirteen nations are represented on the grid.