Armstrong’s after the big prize
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There’s applause as he rolls into the pit lane, helmet off, wearing a whisper of a grin.
The media are lining up for their turn, as fans behind the fences capture the moment on their smart phones.
The car is a mixture of bright red and carbon fibre. Emblazoned on the side is the unmistakable “Prancing Horse” of Ferrari, and on the rear wing end-plates proudly flies an image of a silver fern.
You could be forgiven for thinking you’re observing some kind of parallel universe variant of Formula 1 while watching the Castrol Toyota Racing Series. Hell, three of the cars on the grid are stickered up to look like current F1 cars.
That’s no accident. Many of these drivers have a berth in the world’s biggest racing show in their targets. And one of those drivers is Marcus Armstrong.
He emerges from the Ferrari-red Toyota FT-50, the grin morphing into a beam, just minutes after winning the first race of the season in his hometown of Christchurch while on debut.
It was a win punctuated by one of the most immense passes for the lead we've seen — one that had a whole media room recoiling in awe.
But you don't need to turn the clock back too far to get to a time where he played the role of passionate fan.
“I have vivid memories of being on that banking over there,” Armstrong says, gesturing to the mound near the pit exit during our interview the next day.
“I would’ve been only 4 or 5 years old, and just screaming at the Porsches because Dad was racing Porsches at the time.”
There are many respects in which Armstrong comes across like any other teenager. He recently sat his learner's licence test for example, failing at his first attempt.
“I didn’t really study, if I’m honest,” he sheepishly admits.
“Luckily the questions were pretty similar the second time around and I got it — just.”
He's hoping to get a Fiat 500 as a first car, in preparation for the test for his restricted licence.
“The best thing I could get is a modest car. The tutor is probably going to give me a few downgrades otherwise.
“I’ll be heel-toeing into roundabouts.”
Marcus Armstrong grew up watching the red cars dominate the big leagues. Photo / Simon Chapman
But once you start talking the language of motorsport, a switch is flicked and you find yourself talking to a seasoned racing veteran. Someone who has travelled the globe off the back of their craft, someone with years of experience who expects to climb the ladder.
Armstrong's motorsport upbringing isn't what you would call typical. Father Rick pedalled in the New Zealand Porsche Carrera Cup against names such as Craig Baird and David Reynolds, meaning that race cars and race tracks were always present.
But Armstrong's central interest lay overseas in motor racing's Formula 1 big leagues. Like many other young racing fans, he grew up watching the red cars dominating, but it wasn't one Michael Schumacher doing the winning — it was Kimi Raikkonen. Naturally, the quiet Finnish driver became an idol for Armstrong.
“When I was, like, 6 or 7 he was always on top of it. I watched him in Melbourne in 2007 and he won that race.
“My older brother and I were both karting at the time. He liked Lewis Hamilton the most at McLaren and I was a Raikkonen fan at Ferrari. So it was a genuine competition between us to see who would win.”
And there are shades of Raikkonen in Armstrong's demeanour. He remained cool and matter-of-fact following his break-out TRS race win, there are no doubts that he's brave behind the wheel, and — most obvious of all — his overalls and race car share the same iconic Ferrari logo.
It was announced late last year that Armstrong was one of a selection of young drivers to be accepted into Ferrari's driver academy — an ultimate training tool that could lead to a drive in Armstrong's coveted Formula 1.
“We were invited to just have a bit of a test at the test track at Fiorano in an F4 car. And I was chosen.
“The boss of Ferrari, Sergio Marchionne, turned up in his helicopter and landed 50m from the track, walked in, and shook everyone’s hand. I was thinking ‘this is pretty cool’.”
I ask Armstrong whether Formula 1 is the end goal.
“Of course it’s the end goal,” he replies immediately, sharply.
“If I work hard enough and do the right things, there’s no reason why I can’t.”
For the past decade or so, a discussion has brewed in the background between commentators and fans concerning who will be our next driver in the world’s biggest rolling motorsport show.
Drivers such as Mitch Evans and Nick Cassidy prompted excited discussions back in their day, too. However, one by one they've had to put F1 ambitions on hold. “I want to do something a little bit different to them,” says Armstrong. “Make footprints of my own.”