Class of 2019: we rank every driver in the Toyota Racing Series
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Today, 15 exceptionally talented young racers will take on the opening race of the 2019 Toyota Racing Series at Highlands Motorsport Park.
As always, the grid represents a well-stirred mix of cultures. There's Kiwis and Aussies of course, but there's also drivers from America, Romania, Russia, Japan, and more. Some are here because it's a logical step in their young careers, while others are staring down the lure of FIA Superlicense points — a vital asset for anyone wanting to break into Formula 1.
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So without further ado, let's go through the grid for a true 'who's who'.
M2 Competition – six cars
Liam Lawson, 16-years-old, New Zealand
He was meant to join the series at the end of last season for the New Zealand Grand Prix, but an age limit rule prevented it.
The shame was that Pukekohe driver Liam Lawson was perfectly justified in wanting to pursue the drive. He had won the New Zealand Formula 1600 Championship fabulously in 2016, and had just completed a very competitive campaign in Australia's Formula 4 series.
TRS was a perfect arena to show what he could do, but getting the shot to compete had to wait almost 12 months.
And he hasn't wasted his time between drinks, either. Lawson spent 2018 competing as a fierce front-runner in the German ADAC Formula 4 Championship, as one of two drivers who were quite clearly a cut above the rest.
He also made a cameo in Asian Formula 3 at Sepang, where he wiped the floor despite being a rookie to both car and track. Every qualifying session, fastest lap, and race win has his name on it.
His leading TRS weakness is lack of race-miles in the FT-50 platform. But otherwise, he knows the tracks and he's beaten drivers comparable in talent to the TRS grid. He's a bit under the radar, and that might be the ace up his sleeve.
X factor: 8.5/10, the not-so-dark horse
Marcus Armstrong, 18-years-old, New Zealand
Arguably the favourite to win the whole thing, Armstrong returns to New Zealand fresh from a solid debut season in FIA European Formula 3.
The Christchurch teenager was the driver to beat for much of last season (and a race winner the season prior). So, there's no doubt that he knows the Toyota FT-50 open-wheeler like the back of his hand, as well as what it takes to make it go quickly.
If there's a weakness in his make-up, it's his knowledge of Highlands — having never raced there before. Only ... he was the fastest driver in yesterday's testing. So, there goes that theory I guess.
X factor: 9/10, the logical bet
Artem Petrov, 18-years-old, Russia
The Russian makes his TRS debut after what looked like a rather humdrum season in FIA European Formula 3. But, there's a few things worth noting there.
His team there, Van Amersfoort Racing, is well noted (Lawson raced for them in F4 last year). But, they're not known as a particularly strong outfit in F3 compared to the likes of Prema Theodore Racing. Petrov was a rookie, as well all his teammates — and he beat them all in the Rookies' Championship.
Perhaps a better barometer for his good Petrov is, is his 2017 season in Italian Formula 4. There, he faced the likes of Armstrong and Enzo Fittipaldi, and he did well to win a few races and finish fifth in the points.
He's never raced here before, so all the tracks will be foreign (especially the distinctively Kiwi stuff like Teretonga Park in Invercargill). And, he had a heavy crash in yesterday's running. But, on past form, he's not a driver you'd rule out.
X factor: 7/10, has done it before, can do it again
Lucas Auer, 24-years-old, Austria
Armstrong might be the favourite, but Lucas Auer brings more star power.
His name might ding a bell for long-time followers of TRS, but it will be even more familiar to those who follow the DTM — Germany (and arguably Europe as a whole's) premier touring car series.
After two seasons in TRS and four seasons of F3, Auer scored a DTM gig with Mercedes-Benz as a factory driver. By year two he was a race winner and by year three a title condender ... not bad for a dude that cut his teeth in little New Zealand, in a category populated by ex-F1 drivers.
Auer's return might seem a bit weird, especially given his age relative to the rest of the grid. But it makes sense when you realise that he's off to Japan next year to compete in the SUPER FORMULA series — Asia's premier open-wheel category and one of the fastest in the world. He's doing it with Red Bull, likely with the goal to use both that series and this one to collect more Superlicense points.
When he was here last time, he was a gun driver with a best title finishing position of third. Time to see what he's learned since.
X factor: 9/10, age and experience
Cameron Das, 18-years-old, United States
When he made his debut in TRS last year, big things were expected from Cameron Das. He had come from a competitive season in British Formula 3, and in theory was stepping into a lower 'grade' of car.
Instead Das struggled, finishing 12th in the points and last of those who did every round. Things got better as the championship went on (sixth at the penultimate round being the highlight), but it was still a disappointing set of results.
The advantage now is that Das is one of only three drivers on the grid who raced in the series last year. That means he'll have a knowledge advantage on the cars and the tracks over most of the field. Hopefully he can make the most of it.
X factor: 6.5/10, consistency the key
Esteban Muth, 16-years-old, Belgium
Based in Brussels, Muth approaches TRS with cornerstone experience in Formula 4 and karting.
Karting in particular has been a successful venture. He's been doing it since he was four years old, and in his time he's claimed podium finishes and titles all across Europe.
It was enough to catch the eye of Strakka Racing — a name that will be very familiar to those that follow international GT racing. Muth was drafted into their junior French F4 program, earning himself a race win in the process.
His Friday practice pace was good enough to sit mid-field, so we know he's a fast learner.
X factor: 6.5/10, time will tell
Giles Motorsport — four cars
Raoul Hyman, 22-years-old, South Africa
The country says South Africa, but Raoul Hyman is actually based in the UK and has dual citizenship.
On paper he's one of the more decorated drivers in the series. He's a member of the British Racing Driver's Club, a former winner in GP3 with Campos Racing, and the reigning champion of Formula 3 Asia.
Logic therefore places as one of the dark horses of the competition, given that those cars are quicker than the Toyota FT-50 he will be racing over the next five weekends.
There is one caveat though regarding that F3 Asia series. The aforementioned Liam Lawson made a cameo appearance at their series finale, and smoked the grid like they weren't even there — including Hyman. Hopefully for Hyman's sake, that was a flash in the pan.
X factor: 7/10, can't rule out an F3 champion
Petr Ptacek, 16-years-old, Czech Republic
Like Esteban Muth above, Ptacek's career has foundations in karting and junior open wheelers.
The latter comes in the form of numerous F4 attempts quite literally across the world. He's raced in the Formula 4 championships of Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates.
His best result of the bunch were a race win in Spain, and a fifth place in the championship in the closely fought Italian series.
Along with all those race miles, Ptacek also recently took part in the Ferrari Drivers Academy training camp. There he did further track testing in an F4 car, plus phyisical and simulation tests with the illustrious organisation.
Vast improvements in pace were found in yesterday's testing, with a low 1min 29sec time the result in the end.
X factor: 7/10, brings a huge amount of relevant race experience
Thomas Smith, 16-years-old, Australia
The first Aussie on the list is Thomas Smith, fresh from racing in a trio of open-wheel championships on the other side of the ditch.
He endured a learning season racing across the Victoria Formula Ford Fiesta Championship, Australian Formula Ford Series, and the CAMS Payce Formula 4 Championship. Eighth place in the latter was his strongest result of the year, although it's worth noting Aussie F4's humble grid size.
His times yesterday were towards the bottom of the grid, and a crash did put a dampener on things. But immediate results probably aren't the point for Smith.
Instead, watch how he grows and improves over the course of the season. If he can position himself to be a regular top-five contender by the final rounds, he'll have done very well.
X factor: 6/10, watch his results arc
Dev Gore, 21-years-old, United States
The second of the American drivers on the list has wasted little time progressing through his local open-wheel ladder.
Like countryman Cameron Das, Dev Gore is a graduate of the Bertil Roos Racing School. They've also both raced for storied junior formula team Carlin Motorsport (in Gore's case, in the most recent season of Euroformula Open).
His full-size open-wheel debut was in 2017, where he raced in three different series'; two Formula 1600 classes, and the Cooper Tyres USF2000 Mazda Championship. By the end of that season he was a regular top 10 fixture.
X factor: 6.5/10, lots to prove
mtec Motorsport — four cars
Petru Florescu, 20-years-old, Romania
He was the last signing of the pre-season, and Petru Florescu could be one of the dark horses of the competition.
His driver bio might not sport many headline championship results, but that's mainly because he's rarely completed a full series. Narrow the search down to individual results, and things improve.
That said, his strongest season remains his 2016 British Formula 4 season with Carlin (there's that name again). Against a grid that included numerous former TRS drivers (James Pull, Luis Leeds, and Delvin DeFrancesco), he won five times.
That's more wins than the guy that won the championship, but ultimately undone by a lack of consistency.
X factor: 7/10, consistency is key
Jackson Walls, 15-years-old, Australia
Now, as good as Jackson Walls has shown himself to be, he actually won't be allowed to race this weekend. That's because of his age. By round two, he will have turned 16 and he'll be on the grid.
Nonetheless, he's been given dispensation to compete in selected practice sessions at Highlands Motorsport Park. And, he's been pretty quick too. You won't see him on track today or tomorrow, but you'll see him next weekend onwards.
X factor: 6.5/10, keep an eye out next weekend
Kazuto Kotaka, 19-years-old, Japan
Here's one of the most exciting prospects of the season ahead.
Kazuto Kotaka is the first Japanese driver to take on the Toyota Racing Series, and one of the few that's already a factory driver. And, that's with Japan's Toyota TOM's outfit.
Nick Cassidy rates him highly, and you can see why. He used to be a regular front-runner in Japanese F4 in 2015 and 2016 — sixth overall out of a grid of 55 drivers throughout the year in 2015 was followed by fifth overall out of 48 in 2016 with three race wins to boot.
He's now in Japanese Formula 3, having experienced a brief taste of the series late last year with the potential to take part in the full series this year. He's also tested with a Toyota' GT300 SuperGT team. Give it a few years, and there's no reason why he couldn't be following the same career trajectory as Cassidy.
Despite being at a track that he concedes is unlike anything he's raced on in Japan, Kazuto-San dipped into the 1min 29s in yesterday's practice. A driver to watch for sure.
X factor: 8/10, expect speed and aggression
Calan Williams, 18-years-old, Australia
The last of the Aussies in Calan Williams.
While most of the grid sport Formula 4 experience, Williams doesn't. But, he makes up for it with a dominant championship win in the Australian Formula 3 series back in 2017. Eleven wins from 16 races is nothing to sniff at.
More recently he competed in the 2018 Euroformula Open series against fellow TRS drivers Das, Florescu, and Gore. He didn't do the full series, but was solid with numerous top 10 finishes.
Going on his Friday practice times, he'll be aiming for the top 10 at this opening round. Like Thomas Smith, it will be more about seeing how he develops as his knowledge of the cars and tracks improves.
X factor: 7/10, can't rule out an F3 champion ... again
Victory Motor Racing — two cars
Parker Locke, 17-years-old, United States
Racing a Toyota FT-50 that looks a little like a chocolate wrapper, Parker Locke brings the requisite resumé of karting and Formula 4 to the party.
That was further bolstered by time in the F3 Americas series at the end of last year, where he scooped up three podium finishes. Although admittedly, like its Australian counterpart, the F3 Americas series is somewhat under-supported.
Locke will be looking to grow in confidence against a largely blue-chip field over the season. His practice times yesterday were low, but within the ballpark to potentially see him move up the grid as the weekend unfolds.
X factor: 6/10, practice makes perfect
Brendon Leitch, 23-years-old, New Zealand
And lucky last on the 16-driver list is Brendon Leitch. The Invercargill ace was another late inclusion to the grid, and can well and truly classify himself as a veteran of TRS.
Along with miles, one of Leitch's other benefits is having effectively two 'home' events on the calendar. Round two at Teretonga is his local circuit (one where hes tasted success plenty of times), while he should also go well this weekend at Highlands given that he works there as a professional driver.
Leitch approaches the season with a more relaxed demeanor than he's had previously. He's had more local miles under his belt than ever before, including a class win in the North Island Endurance Series and time competing in the South Island Endurance Series. He should be a frequent runner in the top five, if not the top three.
He has form, too, having snagged a couple of race wins in last year's series. Don't be surprised if he gives the other two Kiwis more than a hurry up.
X factor: 8/10, up to his eyeballs with experience