Gallery: come for a tour of Toyota Racing New Zealand's new pad
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Few manufacturers are more loved in New Zealand than Toyota.
That might sound a bit like marketing guff, but it's hard to deny. Through nameplates like Corolla and Hilux they have long lived atop our lists of national best sellers, and they were even made here for a while.
But less acknowledged are their efforts in New Zealand motorsport, via the Castrol Toyota Racing Series. What started off in the noughties as a budding open-wheel stepping stone class has blossomed into arguably New Zealand's best circuit racing series — going from strength to strength while others continue to find new and innovative ways to shoot themselves in the foot.
The category comes off its most competitive championship yet, where six drivers entered the series finale with the chance of glory — the top three separated by a mere handful of points until the bitter-sweet end.
But perhaps the category's sweetest win has been the placement of its key graduates. Two drivers, Lance Stroll and Daniil Kyvat, currently compete in Formula 1 (we won't go too deep into the latter's status...), not to mention the bevy of New Zealanders including Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber, Shane van Gisbergen, and Richie Stanaway that have taken the world by storm following their stint in the series as wee whipper snappers.
The series has long been based in Feilding, but elected to shift its headquarters to Waikato — right next to Hampton Downs Motorsport Park. They're now nestled in the industrial hub at the top of the track, opposite the existing workshops.
The series opened the doors to their new facility today, with a veritable 'who's that' of New Zealand motorsport media meeting and greeting with category officials, drivers, and spokespeople.
The building is punctuated by the slightly chilling vision of all of the category's cars from last season, jacked up and stripped of most of their panels. Still wearing last year's strip. They're hardy little cars these things, capable of putting up with a pretty high level of abuse without crumbling to pieces.
The Q+A segment of the pre-tour chat was punctuated by a question about the future direction of the class; whether the market's move towards electrified cars would potentially be in the TRS' future. After a pause, the category said reaffirmed their focus on keeping costs down — the 'if it ain't broke' response. In the current climate of disdain for the likes of the FIA Formula E, perhaps the best answer.
The building is pristine, and reflects shades of the shiny Formula 1 facilities that we've only ever really seen on behind-the-scenes television exposés. Certainly it's a healthy evolution from the perennial 'Kiwi shed' that we've all become so lovingly accustomed to.
Apart from its race car exoskeletons, the shop floor is home to a variety of work benches. A reception area greets you through the front door, with further ground-level offices just inside around the corner.
Above on the mezzanine floor lies a treasure trove of spare parts. Trim pieces, lights, door cards — some cataloged some not.
An array of more specialised equipment sits quietly behind glass doors on the other side of the building, where Toyota's engineers will create and develop new parts. It was tempting to duck in for a little nosy, but I didn't think such hi-jinx was a good idea.
Most of these buildings look far bigger inside than they do from the street, and this one is no exception. It's more than big enough to swallow up the enormous TRS transporter with plenty of room to spare.
Part of which is taken up by the Toyota's other Kiwi racing series; the TR86 Championship. After a rocky initial uptake, the series has started to string together competitive grids of cars. It's also had some successful graduates including the likes of Marcus Armstrong — a winner in his rookie TRS season as well as a championship contender in Europe's comprehensive Formula 4 carnival.
On display at the event was a race car as well as the Toyota 86 Club Sport; an entry-level track car that the manufacturer make for those still warming up to the idea of entering the series. It's also a car that they can modify to race spec in this building.
Some have criticized the category's focus on international drivers, but the creation of the 86 Championship has a completely Kiwi grid. Not to mention, Kiwis still take part (and win races) in TRS. One of these is Invercargill's Brendon Leitch — pictured here monitoring his Instagram or updating his FB status or something.
Leitch was announced today as the first driver to join next year's championship, doing so with the Victory Motor Racing squad. He'll soon be back on the road to compete in the final round of the United States Formula 4 Championship at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. The day also saw TRS announce that storied engineer Nicolas Caillol would join ex-Supercars manager Sarah Brown at the reigns of category management and operations.
We've said it before and will probably say it again ... New Zealand motorsport is in the middle of a golden age. And whether you're a diehard Toyota fan or not, it's hard to argue that most of our best and brightest can be traced back to the manufacturer's work on the ground back at home.
Bring on the season ahead.