It’s easy to forget sometimes just how many Kiwi racing drivers are fighting for supremacy overseas. The likes of Brendon Hartley, Scott Dixon, and Hayden Paddon each earn their fair share of praise and adoration on home soil, but the pot goes much deeper than just the star trio.
One of the most promising names is that of former New Zealand Carrera Cup and North Island Endurance Series driver Jono Lester; the 26-year-old GT ace doing everything he can to forge a professional career in Japan.
“Asia is definitely a semi-untapped market for Kiwi drivers, but it presents its own challenges,” Lester told Driven. “It’s taken me five years to break into where I want to be in Japan, and that’s already as a professional. You might be a star elsewhere, but in Japan you’re nobody until you prove yourself there, on their turf, against their drivers.”
After an Asian hiatus, Lester recently scooped a drive in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Asia series with factory outfit Direction Racing. The Direction squad compete across several different championships with Lamborghini products, including the Super GT championship Lester ultimately aspires to reach.
And the dream appears to be just around the corner after a positive first two events with Direction that included a race and round victory resulted in the team handing him a Super GT “Rookie Examination” test last weekend at Suzuka, which he went on to pass with flying colours.
“Super GT is my dream and driving with Direction Racing is a strong alliance both to the series and to Lamborghini. I will be making my debut in Super GT this season, but we are still discussing the long-term scope of my programme heading through into 2017 and beyond.”
Super GT is a split-category series, made up of GT500 and GT300 classes; the former for DTM-specification rocket ships that are some of the quickest touring cars in the world, and the latter for GT3 cars, similar to what classes like the Australian GT Championship utilise. Though it’s a seat in the latter that’s on Lester’s immediate horizon, a seat in the former represents a more long-term goal. Should he stay with the Direction team, Lester could also build a connection to the Lamborghini factory, which, in turn, could open its own set of career doors.
If he reaches GT500, he’ll be the second New Zealander to compete in the category; following in the footsteps of former Toyota Racing Series champion and New Zealand Grand Prix winner Nick Cassidy who debuted earlier this year with Lexus.
“Nick and I caught up over the weekend. It was my first time at Suzuka in the wet and the Rookie Examination is like getting your L plates — you’re under the microscope for any mistake for the officials to throw the book at you. Nick went through this last year so he was really helpful in pointing out some of the pitfalls to watch out for.
“Reaching [GT500] one day would be unreal for me, but at the same time my experience is in GT3 cars so a career in GT300 would suit me just fine, and I am pushing for a Factory contract with Lamborghini to secure a long future doing just that.”
Lester recently bolstered his career in Asia with a maiden appearance in the GT Asia Series, where he helped haul the struggling Porsche 911 GT3-R platform to a first podium finish for the season.
It’s clear that after some career turbulence, the Aucklander has found home.
“The enthusiasm for motorsport in Japan is electric. The teams, rivals and fans are incredibly passionate, but also really friendly and respectful. It’s like racing used to be at home in New Zealand; big crowds, huge grids, healthy commercial backing, and a genuine buzz around the paddock.
“It’s really uplifting for a driver to be in an environment like this, and this cohesion is really effective when it comes to teams operating as a smooth and fluid unit.”