TRS v F5000 at Hampton Downs
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New Zealand's connection with the international open-wheel racing world runs more than skin deep.
Many will equate our circuit racing peak to that of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when the world's motorsport elite would flock to Aotearoa to take on our best at the top level.
While the open-wheel formulae would often go through cycles, it was the earth-shaking Formula 5000 machines with their thick tyre set and big wings that scooped the greatest cult following during this phase. Overseas names such as Frank Matich and Frank Gardner would challenge themselves against local heroes such as Smith, Lawrence, Radisich, and McRae.
How ironic it is, then, to see the current-day SAS Autoparts New Zealand Formula 5000 Championship unite with the Castrol Toyota Racing Series for three races each at this weekend’s Speed Works Events Premier Motorsport Championship event at Waikato's Hampton Downs Motorsport Park.
Ironic, because these days the TRS is the closest New Zealand gets to these international historic open-wheel roots.
Drivers in the five-round championship are made up of the world's most promising up-and-coming talent. These include drivers from Europe, North and South America, and Russia — as well as five young Kiwis.
Most of the young grid has Formula 1 in their sights. And it's not without merit, with as many as three TRS graduates competing last year's F1 title chase; most notably late Scuderia Toro Rosso recruit Brendon Hartley.
With two rounds of the series complete, Christchurch teenager Marcus Armstrong leads the standings by 28 points over Russia's Robert Shwartzman. Dutchman Richard Verschoor is third, ahead of the UK's Clement Novalak.
The potential for Armstrong to knock on the door of Formula 1 in the coming years is real. Having won the Italian Formula 4 Championship in 2017 with the Prema Powerteam (arguably Italy's most illustrious feeder-category team), Armstrong's TRS campaign functions as the perfect entree for his upcoming debut with Prema in the 2018 FIA European Formula 3 Championship.
The Italian squad has won the last five Euro F3 titles on the trot, with two of those title winners (Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll) current drivers in F1. A third champ, Lando Norris, is a test driver at McLaren and expected to graduate into a driver role in the coming years.
Uncanny, then, that Stroll and Norris are both former Toyota Racing Series champions in New Zealand.
Meanwhile on the Formula 5000 side comes a packed grid headlined by Kenny Smith — who’s won races in the series as recently as last weekend’s Taupō Historic Grand Prix. Smith will have to deal with the likes of Andrew Higgins, and the UK-based Greg Thornton.
It might not attract the spotlight as much as other domestic titles, but top flight open-wheel racing is very much alive and kicking in New Zealand.
- Download the new Speed Works Events app for live timing and streaming.