Five New Zealand champions have been crowned, at the end of the six-round “Tier One” series for the main championship classes. Four of them are new champions in their classes – Mitch Evans is the only one to repeat a title victory, in the Toyota Racing Series.
The premier title, for the BNT NZ V8s, has yet to be decided. This season, for the first time, the Kiwi V8s will race for points at the V8 Supercars Hamilton street race – so far they have raced there only for glory. Going into the final showdown, Angus Fogg leads Kayne Scott by just seven points with John McIntyre and defending champion Craig Baird all within striking distance. These four are all in Fords, while Andy Booth is the top Holden driver in fifth.
Toyota Racing Series
Mitch Evans won this series last season when he was only 15, after a tough battle with the much more experienced Earl Bamber. This season he was totally dominant, in spite of an influx of overseas drivers including Josh Hill, son of world Formula One champion Damon Hill and grandson of double champion Graham Hill. Russian Daniil Kvyat is part of the Red Bull squad being groomed for Formula One, and Alex Lynn had won the Formula Renault winter series in the UK. Australian Scott Pye had won the prestigious British Formula Ford championship in 2010, and there were several others besides.
Evans finished on the podium in 14 out of the 15 races, even though the final race at each round started with the top six reversed on the grid. The only exception came at Taupo’s final round, where an uncharacteristic error saw him hit the big tyre marking the inside of the corner at the end of the main straight. Evans also won the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild.
Now Evans is off to Europe to compete in the GP3 championship, in a team part-owned by F1 star Mark Webber who is also Evans’ manager and mentor. With a two-litre turbo engine and lots of downforce, these cars are quite a lot faster than the TRS machinery. Evans immediately showed his talent in GP3 – at a big test session with all the teams he was second-fastest on the final day.
The first four rounds of the TRS comprised an International Series, in which Pye came second ahead of Kiwi Nick Cassidy – like Evans, a 16-year-old Aucklander. Cassidy had come close to winning the Formula Ford championship the previous season and he did extremely well for a rookie, even qualifying fastest at the opening round at Teretonga. He won two races at Taupo. Wellington’s Jamie McNee, slightly older, won two of the reversed-grid races and won them well. New Zealand continues to produce fast young single-seater drivers.
Porsche GT3 Challenge Cup
Usually the Porsches are the preserve of Craig Baird, who has won a long string of Porsche championships on both sides of the Tasman. This time however he suffered several setbacks early in the season and Daniel Gaunt built up a big lead. Gaunt already had an impressive CV including two TRS championships and some V8 Supercar racing.
Former A1GP driver Jonny Reid, in his second season in the Porsches, was also strong and he held second place for a long time. Late in the season it was Gaunt’s turn to run into misfortunes, including a DNF in the penultimate round at Manfeild, and after Baird won the opening race at Taupo, with Reid second and Gaunt third, these three were close to being equal on points.
Then Gaunt took advantage of the fact that the final race at each round starts with the top six reversed on the grid, and adopted a clever strategy. In race two he pretty much cruised along to finish fifth while Baird and Reid were again battling at the front. Now Baird was actually ahead on points but Gaunt started that final race with two crucial advantages – he was on the front row of the reversed grid, and he had conserved his tyres better than his rivals.
When the race started Gaunt grabbed the lead straight away and pulled away steadily, gradually increasing his advantage to lead Baird home by eight seconds and win the championship. Now he is off to Australia to contest the revived Carrera Cup Porsche series there and he will be joined by young Kiwi Ant Pedersen, who showed good speed at times during the season. Both will be run by the NZ-based Triple X team, who also fielded Baird during the NZ season. Baird will also be there, seeking another Carrera Cup title, but with a different team.
Usually Formula Ford sees very close racing among the up-and-coming young guns, and the title chase is equally close. Andre Heimgartner had other ideas this season, dominating to become the youngest ever champion in this class, at 15.
Several times Heimgartner broke away from the field early on in races, establishing a gap big enough that no one could benefit from slipstreaming him. The ability to go hard in the opening laps of a race, before the tyres have warmed up to proper operating temperature, is a very useful one indeed.
It was not a weak field, either. John Whelan is a former champion in the class and Stefan Webling has plenty of experience including a stint in TRS. Heimgartner and Webling, who finished second, raced as team-mates, both driving French-made Mygale chassis while most of the rest of the field used different variations of the older Van Diemens.
The Production racing series was boosted by the arrival of two interesting new cars this season. Simon Sceats, who had won the previous championship in a Subaru Impreza WRX, switched to an Audi S3, also a 4WD turbo car. Grant Aitken sold his Mitsubishi Evo and acquired a new Ford Focus RS, also a high-power turbo car but just with front-wheel-drive.
Initially both these cars were hampered by their electronic safety systems like traction control – these systems are great safety aids for ordinary drivers on the road, but on the track they won’t let the driver go as hard as he wants to. Disconnecting the systems only caused other problems but eventually the teams sorted all that out and both cars became genuine contenders. Aitken’s problem with the Focus was that he could lap about as fast as anyone – he qualified on pole once – but the 4WD cars murdered him off the start line because of their superior traction.
But while other teams were sorting out their problems Grant Liston bought Aitken’s old Evo, started the season in red-hot form, built up a big points lead and was able to coast to his first title. Logan Childs was clearly the fastest later in the season in his Evo but he had missed the first round and could not make up the gap.
Suzuki Swift Sport Cup
New Zealand roads are full of Suzuki Swifts, this country’s best-selling small car in recent years. The race cars are the Sport model, with a 1586cc engine developing 92kW of power and 148Nm of torque. These engines are kept standard and indeed the whole car is standard apart from safety equipment like the roll cage and performance-type suspension, brake pads and front differential. Each team is allocated the use of four Dunlop Direzza 03G (R spec) 215/45-17 road tyres for each race weekend. Since the cars are identical the racing is close and entertaining, and results change from race to race and meeting to meeting.
Starting the final round at Taupo, Dane Fisher was just five points ahead of Mike Turley, with Grant Ryan also in with a real chance of claiming the title. Fisher finished third in race one but the other two contenders were both disqualified for technical infringements and after that two sensible drives saw Fisher crowned champion.