Randle claims stunning maiden TRS title
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Australian Thomas Randle and his Victory R squad are the winners of the 2017 Castrol Toyota Racing Series title by just a measly five points over Pedro Piquet.
The Melbourne local is the first ever Australian to win the domestic open-wheel category title, having won the 2014 Australian Formula Ford Series crown three years ago.
Randle took the title after a tense New Zealand Grand Prix race at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon that was eventually won by Jehan Daruvala, who controlled the race from start to finish to lead home Marcus Armstrong and the elated Randle.
The Grand Prix was almost perfectly set up by the events of race two, where Richard Verschoor took victory.
His win, with Marcus Armstrong in second, Pedro Piquet in third, and Thomas Randle in fourth, helped tighten the championship picture to a barely believable three point deficit between the top three runners — Piquet leading Randle by one point, then Randle leading Verschoor by one point.
This meant that the race for the New Zealand Grand Prix would effectively become a winner-takes-all race for the title contenders.
Of particular note was Randle's drive, which mesmerized the crowd. After running wide at turn one during the race start, Randle fell from fifth place all the way down to 12th.
But after plenty of wild passing throughout the remainder of the 12-lap race, Randle recovered to a commendable fourth place; securing the result after a last-lap move on Ferdinand Habsburg.
“I think that the outside move on Habsburg was the championship-winning move,” Randle told herald.co.nz. “It's what got me in contention again.”
“I was getting good runs out of the hairpin, a lot of times I saw the M2 cars were getting a bit sideways out of there, so I knew I could get on the power early and the car had a lot of grip.
“And then I got the run, they'd defend, and at the last second I'd move out which left them vulnerable. And then I'd just do the switchback and it ended up working on the most important competitor.
“I thought it was all over by turn one, then I stormed from 15th back to fourth. Don't know how I did that — could probably never do it again.”
Come the final race all three contenders would start in the top five places; Verschoor fifth, Randle fourth, and Piquet second, adding to the mystique of the 62nd running of the New Zealand Grand Prix.
The 35-lap season finale began with a bang further down the grid between Luis Leeds and Christian Hahn, which suspended proceedings early; Jehan Daruvala and Marcus Armstrong spoiling the championship party by sitting first and second, while Piquet, Randle, and Verschoor sat third, fourth, and sixth.
With the race having restarted on lap five, the title picture began to take shape. Verschoor fought through to fifth, as Piquet started pestering teammate Armstrong for second. However, Piquet's squabbling cost him time through the esses and allowed Randle and Verschoor to both catch up.
Randle then pulled off the move he made several times during race two, by sliding the nose of his Sky Sands FT-50 inside Piquet at Higgins. It was a shallow overlap, but enough to see the pair run side by side along the back straight, with Randle snatching the position by the final corner.
By the halfway mark of the race, Randle appeared to be in the best position. He had closed onto the back of Armstrong for second, and had a lengthy 1.2-second lead over Piquet behind. With most of the top 10 all restraining themselves over the middle portion of the race, the fate of the silverware would have to come down to tyre degradation or a safety car.
With 10 laps to go the margins among the leading trio had tightened; Daruvala's lead just a second over Armstrong, who now only had three tenths over Randle. The pair fighting for second nearly traded places with nine laps to go on the back straight after Randle made a healthy run out of Higgins, but Armstrong resisted.
And that's how the order remained at the flag; enough for Randle to take the championship crown, ahead of Piquet, and early season leader Richard Verschoor.
Marcus Armstrong was the first New Zealander to finish in the championship, taking fourth after a tumultuous year underlined by three race victories. Taylor Cockerton and Brendon Leitch rounded out the Kiwi contingent, finishing seventh and ninth respectively after trying final rounds.
Randle, Armstrong, Verschoor, and many others dotted throughout the series now prepare to attack a number of different categories in Europe, Asia, and the US later this year.