Countdown to glory

Jacob Smith 940x450 BJP-6141

The drivers of the 2017-2018 Toyota 86 Championship are closing in on the final races of this year's series and the battle is not yet won.

New racers, returning racers, an epic battle for the championship that heats up at this penultimate round: the Toyota 86 Championship promises this much and more going into this weekend's Manfeild round.

Racers face the unknown this weekend. New rookie drivers join the grid, Jacob Smith makes a welcome return, and in the tussle for points and podiums anything can happen.

At the sharp end of the pints battle, the margin is as close as it has ever been with just two points separating leader Jack Milligan (Christchurch, CareVets Racing team) and second placed Michael Scott (Auckland, International Motorsport).

The next two on the board are close as well - both Connor Adam (International Motorsport) and rookie points leader Jordan Baldwin are also in the 600s.

With four of six rounds complete, no driver can afford a slip-up. Every point counts.

The CareVets Racing team runs both Jack Milligan and a scholarship driver, Bramwell King. The etam dominated in 2016-2017, winning with Ryan Yardley, who has ths year stepped up to the Castrol Toyota Racing Series; and taking the rookie title with Milligan.

Championship watchers agree this year the level of competition is up measurably and the CareVets team faces its stiffest competition from International Motorsport, which has run Scott and Adam all season and will run four drivers ths weekend.

Single-car teams are also within striking disance.

The returnees: Jacob Smith raced the 2016-2017 Championshipbut was forced to miss most of this year's racing when he required surgery for a long-standing back injury. Now the young Aucklander is back, this time in a Castrol-liveried car owned by Albany Toyota's Andrew McKenzie.

Questions about his form are brushed aside and his form in practice confirms - Smith is a racer through and through, and pushing his way through to the top five and top three in these sessions send that message emphatically.

"I followed all the recovery instructions from my surgeon to the letter. Now I'm cleared for racing, I'm back and ready."

Recovering from a massive crash two weeks ago, Jaden ransley is a young man on his way up. A tangle with another racer at Teretonga destroyed his car and spelled the apparent end of his championship until he was offered the use of the organisers' own TR 86 race car.

Brock Gilchrist from Milford on Auckland's North Shore arrives this weekend, aged just 14, to take up a rookie spot on the grid. He follows in the wheeltracks of Marcus Armstrong and Jaden Ransley, emerging from karting into the world of single-make racing and with a single-minded focus on a career path. In Gilchrist's case, the path leads all the way to the Australian Supercar Championship.

Motorsport New Zealand shows the Toyota 86 race lap record at Manfeild to be 1:17.279, set by Tom Alexander in 2015. Will this year's crop of drivers crack that time? And with three races and 75 points on offer for every race win, will Championship leader Jack Milligan emerge with his lead intact on the run to the final round in March?