Winner takes all: NZ Toyota Racing Series title fight heats up as Fraga beats Lawson
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Tomorrow's New Zealand Grand Prix looks set to be a down-to-the-wire showdown, following the tightening championship situation between Brazil's Igor Fraga and New Zealand's Liam Lawson.
Fraga led every lap of the Castrol Toyota Racing Series weekend opener at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon, with Lawson's second-place finish meaning the championship margin is now down from eight points to a measly four with two races to go.
Fraga continued his run of excellent starts off the line, snatching the lead from pole-sitter Franco Colapinto immediately. It was Colapinto's breakthrough pole, but he sadly fell to third as Lawson leaped to second from fourth. Along with Colapinto, the other star of qualifying had been American Spike Kohlbecker, who achieved a season-best third place before slipping to fourth at the start and then fifth behind Caio Collet at the end of the lap.
The race was red flagged on lap six following a scary crash at the end of the back straight involving Emilien Denner and Henning Enqvist. The pair appeared to make wheel-to-wheel contact heading into the turn-seven sweeper, which sent Denner backwards into the tyre wall at a significant speed.
A lengthy clean up ensued, and Denner was thankfully fine after the shunt. When the race eventually resumed, Fraga and Lawson led Colapinto, Collet, and Kohlbecker. The leading pair had the best of the restarts, although a resurgence from Colapinto meant it'd be a three-car break-away at the front.
By lap 14, a disciplined Fraga had built a one-second margin over Lawson. The Pukekohe driver appeared to be under pressure from a rapid Colapinto, and he didn't have Fraga's draft to his benefit. The Argentine driver was starting to have little looks here and there, whether it was under brakes at Higgins or through the changing cambers before the turn-five hairpin.
But Lawson was eventually able to build a small but effective buffer — a potentially crucial feat given the category's track record for tight championship finishes. Fraga took a comfortable win (claiming the fastest lap of the race on the final lap, a 1:03.866), beating Lawson by 1.6 seconds. Colapinto, Collet, Kohlbecker, Friday fast man Tijmen van der Helm, Petr Ptacek, Lucas Petersson, Yuki Tsunoda, and Jackson Walls completed the top 10.
For Kenny Smith meanwhile [pictured above], on his return to the series, it was an incident free race that saw him climb as high as 15th after a pass on Rui Andrade and having benefited from a lap-one tour of the grass for Gregoire Saucy. Smith ended up finishing 17th.
"We had good pace during the race, the car felt very comfortable and it was really good,” said Fraga. “Obviously, I was aware [Lawson] was there [on the restart], it went better than the last time we had a restart. To win this race was very important for the championship, we are not giving up, pushing until the end.”
"We had a really good start. Our race pace was OK, the other guys are quick," said Lawson. "We need to focus on nailing qualifying tomorrow which is going to be really important for the Grand Prix. We’re not going to do anything differently.”
The second race of the weekend, which features either a reversed top six or top eight, kicks off tomorrow at 12.30pm. The 65th New Zealand Grand Prix (35 laps) will then follow at 5.00pm. Live coverage is available on Sky Sport 55.
Castrol Toyota Racing Series Round 5 Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon; Race 1
1. Igor Fraga
2. Liam Lawson
3. Franco Colapinto
4. Caio Collet
5. Spike Kohlbecker
6. Tijmen van der Helm
7. Petr Ptacek
8. Lucas Petersson
9. Yuki Tsunoda
10. Jackson Walls
11. Ido Cohen
12. Oliver Rasmussen
13. Lirim Zendeli
14. Axel Gnos
15. Gregoire Saucy
16. Rui Andrade
17. Kenny Smith
DNF. Henning Enqvist
DNF. Emilien Denner