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International drivers line up for Grand Prix glory

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

There is one question for race fans heading to Palmerston North this weekend: can the internationals stop Nick Cassidy’s determined drive to a second Toyota Racing Series title?

Cassidy, 18, had an uncertain start in the 2013 series after switching teams but from the first race of this year’s championship his run has been about consistency and persistence, making sure he finished every race and banked the most points possible.

Though he trailed the fast-starting international drivers at Teretonga and Timaru, he took the narrowest of leads at the series mid-point two weeks ago. Coming north from that round at Taupo he then extended his advantage at Hampton Downs, winning one race in the process.

More than ever before this year’s championship is populated by some of motor racing’s names of the future. With graduate Mitch Evans flying to Europe this week to start his GP2 season build-up and up to six of this weekend’s Grand Prix grid confirmed for European Formula Three, the Toyota Racing Series is fast making a name for itself as a place to race in January and February.

Austrian Lucas Auer shared the early series lead with Puerto Rico’s Félix Serrallés; British racer Alex Lynn recovered from a spectacular crash at the opening round to win at the following round and twice at Taupo; young Brazilian daredevil Pipo Derani won a race at the opening round and took up residence in the top five through subsequent rounds.

These four were among the first six drivers announced by teams contesting the European Formula 3 championship and they will be joined by 2012 TRS graduate Raffaele Marciello. Australian Spike Goddard is the most recent signing from the TRS grid to a seat in Euro F3 alongside TRS graduate Will Buller, with more announcements likely in the coming week.

With a maximum 225 points available across the three TRS races this weekend and a 32-point lead over Auer, Cassidy cannot yet count on winning his second title.

Lynn, Serrallés, Derani and Steijn Schothorst are all in with a chance and will be looking to maximise their points from each race this weekend.

New to this year’s series are Italian driver Ignazio D’Agosto, making a first foray into the series with a view to returning in 2014 and racing with Victory Motor Racing; and Pieter Schothorst, brother of young hotshoe Steijn, who will race with M2 Competition. Making a one-off appearance for the Grand Prix and aiming to make the most of a drive in the Giles Motorsport car vacated by Mitch Evans is Grand Prix veteran Kenny Smith. At 71 years of age, Kenny is the oldest competitor racing in any Grand Prix anywhere in the world. He is starting his 48th New Zealand Grand Prix and is the only driver to have contested all eight New Zealand Grand Prix races for the TRS cars.

With four intense weeks of competition behind them, the Toyota Racing Series drivers are race fit and ready to do battle. They have completed 12 races and have already driven more than 2000 kilometres at the wheel of their fast and agile race cars as the championship arrives at its defining moment.

Eleven drivers have won races so far in conditions that ranged from sleeting rain and high winds in free practice at Teretonga to 32 degree days at Taupo and Hampton Downs where track ambient air temperatures exceeded 65 degrees Celsius.

The latter round, held last weekend, re-introduced 2010 and 2011 champion and youngest ever Grand Prix winner Mitch Evans to the series for a flying farewell on his way to Europe to start his GP2 season.

Arriving with the 2012 GP3 championship already to his name, Evans won the first race at Hampton Downs and then battled wheel to wheel with Alex Lynn in the feature race for the NZ Motor Cup, one of the most prestigious trophies in New Zealand motor racing. With his name once again on the trophy, Evans is now on his way to Europe.

The intensity of competition in this year’s championship has surprised many, and can be seen in the fortunes of Southland driver Damon Leitch, who came into the season better prepared than ever.

Race-fit and with a winter of karting behind him, Leitch was looking to replicate his form from 2012, where he led the series after the southern rounds.

But with strong performances from internationals returning for a second shot at the title and race lap records smashed at the first two rounds, Leitch was battling for every point from the first race. He has posted a string of top five finishes, with his best being a second in race two at Timaru.

Damon Leitch arrives at the final round seventh, with five fast international drivers between him and countryman Cassidy.

Michael Scott of Te Puke has taken a wise and measured approach to his first season of TRS, working with his engineer at Victory Motor Racing to get to grips with the car in his rookie ‘wings-and-slicks’ season.

Scott is fourth in the rookie standings behind UK racer Jann Mardenborough, Norway’s Dennis Olsen and Malaysian driver Akash Nandy.

Trophies available this weekend are the Dan Higgins Trophy, New Zealand Grand Prix trophy and the Dorothy Smith Memorial cup which is awarded for the winner of the weekend across all three TRS races.

All of the young internationals racing this weekend will leave New Zealand immediately after TRS to race in the northern hemisphere season on career paths that may take them all the way to Formula One.

The young Kiwis will also set the next steps in their careers.

But first there is the task of trying to add the New Zealand Grand Prix title to their racing CV. Race fans are assured of a great weekend of top quality on-track action as the series finale plays out.

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