Das wins and it’s game on for the Grand Prix
The 2019 Castrol Toyota Racing Series is poised for a dramatic showdown in the final race of the series - the 64th New Zealand Grand Prix - after a titanic battle in the Sunday morning race between championship protagonists Liam Lawson and Marcus Armstrong.
A post-race penalty for Armstrong of five seconds following an incident with Calan Williams leaves Lawson ahead by six points heading into the Grand Prix, the championship is finely poised.
In the reverse top eight grid format based on the Saturday finishing order, United States racer Cameron Das made the best getaway from the front row, out dragging pole position holder Romanian Petru Florescu to the first corner and taking a confident lead through the first lap - a lead he wasn't to lose as he survived a safety car period to record his first win in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series – and a landmark 200th podium in the series for M2 Competition.
“It was really good to win,” said the delighted American. “I’ve had a lot of highs and lows this season, but it’s good to learn from them and this is the culmination of all of that. I’ve been working on consistency, getting the procedural stuff right but the race was about trying to pull as much of a gap as I could. We’re starting from sixth in the Grand Prix which isn’t a horrible spot to start from. It's the last race of the season so I think everyone is going to be on the limit.”
That win, and a decent battle for second that went the way of Lucas Auer with Esteban Muth in third went almost un noticed, however, after a titanic battle as good as any seen over the years in New Zealand motorsport unfolded between the two Kiwis.
At the start, all eyes were on the fourth row and it was Armstrong who made the better getaway and headed towards the outside of the cars ahead. Lawson headed to the inside and got the better of the runs through the first turn, emerging ahead of his compatriot. As the battle carried on through the infield, Lawson got boxed in behind Brendon Leitch who had a poor exit from the infield hairpin.
In the frantic scrap behind the leaders Calan Williams boxed Armstrong in on the inside but moved left, and that's where Leitch was with Lawson behind. That made it even harder for Lawson to find a way by and opened up the road for Armstrong, who was quick to take advantage. Into Higgins and Armstrong tried to go around the outside of Williams but couldn't quite make it stick and put two wheels on the grass, losing ground and allowing Lawson to surge by once more.
After that frantic opening lap the 15 lap race settled down just a little with Das comfortable out front, followed by Auer, Muth, Florescu, Leitch, Lawson, Armstrong, Williams, Raoul Hyman and the rest. Armstrong passed Williams in the battle but was later judged to have not left sufficient room for the pass and he would ultimately cop a five second penalty to his race time.
The drama kept coming, however, as Florescu went off in a big way at the final corner and brought out the Safety Car, and then the red while the beached car was removed. That gave everybody time to breath - and they needed it - because as soon as the Safety Car pulled in with seven to go it was all action again. Das timed his restart to perfection and was gone, but Armstrong was also away well and was all over Lawson and Leitch into turn one. Through the infield and Marcus pulled a great passing move on Lawson to steal the advantage but Lawson matched it a lap later to regain the place as both fought hard trying to find a way by Leitch.
The crowd were on their feet as the two traded attacks on each other and on Leitch, with Raoul Hyman having a look at Armstrong on occasion too.
Leitch held on for fourth, and more importantly Lawson held on for fifth and extended his lead to three points with one race to go. Armstrong would have finished sixth, but with the penalty was classified ninth.
“That was one of the hardest races I’ve done,” said Lawson. “I had to focus on the car in front every single corner, and the same with the car behind watching where both of them were going. It was a good race and a hard race. Bring on the Grand Prix.
“For me the focus is the Championship. It’s awesome to be going in my first Grand Prix, alongside Kenny Smith is something very special also. As much as it would be awesome to win the Grand Prix, I’m here to win the Championship. That’s where all the focus is.”
Elsewhere in a breathtaking race, veteran Kenny Smith fought hard and came through the dramas – which included a last lap crash for Jackson Walls and Dev Gore – to grab an impressive 12th place.
2019 Castrol Toyota Racing Series - New Zealand Grand Prix, Manfeild, Race 2
1. Cameron Das (United States)
2. Lucas Auer (Austria)
3. Esteban Muth (Belgium)
4. Brendon Leitch (New Zealand)
5. Liam Lawson (New Zealand)
6. Raoul Hyman (United Kingdom)
7. Calan Williams (Australia)
8. Thomas Smith (Australia)
9. Marcus Armstrong (New Zealand)
10. Kazuto Kotaka (Japan)
11. Parker Locke (United States)
12. Petr Ptacek (Czech Republic)
13. Kenny Smith (New Zealand)
DNF: Dev Gore (United States)
DNF: Jackson Walls (Australia)
DNF: Petru Florescu (Romania)
DNS: Artem Petrov (Russia)