Predicting a winner of the five round, 15 race Castrol Toyota Racing Series which starts next weekend (January 14-15) at Ruapuna near Christchurch could be like predicting our at times fickle weather.
With defending champion Lando Norris staying home in Britain to fulfill sponsorship obligations nobody stands out as a hot favourite.
Four other drivers from last summer won races when Norris was not at his imperial best and can be regarded as front line candidates.
Jehan Daruvala was runner rup in the series and knows that consistency is a must as drivers cannot discard their worst results as points gained in all 15 races count. The London based Indian driver won the Lady Wigram Trophy and returns with the support of the Formula One Force India driver development programme.
Pedro Piquet provided the closest opposition to Norris 12 months ago, but ultimately finished fifth overall. He then has had a wretched season in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship. The next five weeks will be all about rejuvenating the Brazilian’s career.
Ferdinand Habsburg won races at the first and last round of the series last year, but his form fell away in the middle rounds. More consistency could reap a greater reward than fourth overall last summer.
Brendon Leitch, the most experienced of the locals was third last year and has the advantage of knowing the South Island tracks in particular really well, but has done virtually no racing since last February. If he can score some wins at his home stomping ground – Teretonga – to boost his confidence he could definitely be in with a shout, provided he can improve on his one lap qualifying form from last summer to get the better starting positions that bring more podium results.
The Castrol Toyota Racing Series always throws up outstanding newcomers, who have just graduated from the ranks of karting.
The most likely looking prospects this year are Dutch teenager Richard Verschoor, who only turned 16 in December. He is the youngest driver in the field and has already had a season of Formula 4 racing in Europe to get used to the transition from karts to single seater racing cars. Verschoor has the backing of the Red Bull Junior Development Programme, which grooms drivers all the way to Formula One.
The other is Christchurch’s Marcus Armstrong who has had just two single seater outings at the end of the European season after an outstanding karting career. Some good results at his home town track could spark a successful transition to the next rung on his motor racing ladder to success. He has just been signed to the Ferrari Driver Academy.
Add in a couple of Aussies, Thomas Randle, who has been here before and gained plenty of experience at home and in Britain and Luis Leeds, another driver just out of the karting ranks and with a single Formula 4 season behind him could also ginger up the field.
Enaam Ahmed, another 16 year old, also has a strong karting pedigree to recommend him, while at the other end of the scale is 26 year old Shelby Blackstock who has gained plenty of experience in six years of racing in North America.
The only question will be whether he can adapt to the lower horsepower of the Toyota powered cars used by everybody, compared to the larger engine Indy Lights single seaters he has driven for the last two years.
Pukekohe’s Taylor Cockerton will also have designs on podium placings this year after finishing ninth overall in his debut season 12 months ago.
With so many likely prospects, drivers could be fighting for a top three placing one race and then finding themselves battling to even stay in the top ten in the next race.
The Castrol Toyota Racing Series will follow a familiar weekend format consisting of free practice each Friday, qualifying and race one on Saturday and two races on Sunday at each round, finishing with the New Zealand Grand Prix on the Chris Amon circuit at Manfeild on February 12.