A pair of aces in the pack

| Photographer Credit: Terry Marshall/Euan Cameron Photography

I’m no poker player (for a start I don’t have the face for it!) but I do know that a higher card or cards always beats a lower one or pair. So a pair of aces will always beat a pair of kings, and a pair of kings beats….etc etc.

I was reminded of my first – and so far only – attempt to learn to play the high profile (lucrative too if you have a head for it) card game as I cast around for a lead-in to a column about the latest Castrol Toyota Racing Series and in particular the final, New Zealand Grand Prix round, at Circuit Chris Amon (Manfeild) at the beginning of the month.

I’ve been way too busy in previous years with promo work for other series to pay more than a passing interest in the TRS. Or at least I have since karter and ‘kid-down-the-road,’ Nick Cassidy won the NZGP (Manfeild) for a record-equalling third time in 2014.

I still followed former series’ media guy (and now fellow Talk Motorsport columnist) Mark Baker’s press releases. But it has only really been this season just past that the performances of our extraordinarily talented young ‘pair of aces in the pack,’ Marcus Armstrong and Liam Lawson, has drawn me back in on a race-by-race basis.

As I said in a previous column I couldn’t quite believe how just having the pair back home and fighting up front changed the way I, and by the sound of it, some of its previously more rabid critics, thought and wrote about both the Castrol TRS (and with it) the local summer motor racing series.

Prior to young Marcus and even younger Liam turning up, you could pretty much guarantee that old-skool motorsport media guys like Allan Dick would be winding up their Facebook friends with impassioned accounts of the parlous current state of the sport and how much better everything was when (fully 50 years ago now!!!!!) Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon were in their prime……………..

Which may or may not be true. Speaking strictly personally however, I’ve always found this ‘back-in-my-day-was-better’ stuff a bit of a cop-out. Sure we all have our favourite periods, and with it drivers, but my attitude has and will always be, why constantly dig up and re-examine the entrails of events/series and/or people from the past when there is so much exciting stuff going on in the present?

To his credit Allan does seem to have got over his ‘issues’ with the TRS, if for no other reason (reading between the lines) the spectacle Marcus and Liam produced this season. That said what does it say about us (motorsport people as a group) if we are constantly finding fault in an activity we supposedly are so passionate about?

The funny/silly thing, too, is that the TRS has been hosting drivers of the calibre of Marcus and Liam, and producing similar sublime ‘did-I-just-see-that?’ moments of close-combat driver-on-driver brilliance since it started. It’s just that Kiwis by and large still seem to be afflicted with a ‘colonial cringe’ when it comes to motorsport, thinking that nothing here, no matter how good it is, can compare with what – say – is happening in the UK, the US or even Australia at any given time.

Yet for the past 15 years the locally conceived, managed and executed TRS series has been providing the best of both worlds, the new (us) and the old (them).

For ambitious local drivers like Armstrong, Lawson, Nick Cassidy, Mitch Evans, James Munro, Taylor Cockerton and Invercargill brothers Damon and Brendon Leitch, it has been a tangible and – in relative terms anyway – affordable ‘premier’ category after karts and/or Formula Firsts and Formula Ford, while at the same time offering an intense, pressure cooker off-season ‘boot camp’ for fellow talented youngsters from Europe, the US, Russia and Asia.

In this respect it is similar to the Tasman Series in its heyday, the only major difference the fact that we get to see the drivers in action BEFORE they are famous, rather than after.

Didn’t – for instance – 2017 Le Mans (joint) winner, two time WEC (joint) series champion and New Zealand’s most recent F1 driver, Brendon Hartley, win the first ever TRS race at Timaru International Motor Raceway back in January 2005? He certainly did.

And didn’t New Zealand’s only World Karting Champion (in 2003), Wade Cunningham, also compete in the inaugural series before going on to win the US Indy Lights championship at his first attempt later in 2005? Right again.

Two years later the 2007 series was won for the second time by a driver who should be – at the very least – in a Supercar right now, Daniel Gaunt, from a certain impressive young rookie, 2006 New Zealand Formula Ford, and 2017 Australian V8 Supercars, champion Shane van Gisbergen, who is (in a Supercar!)

And the list goes on.

Another young Aucklander – and now works Jaguar Formula E championship driver – Mitch Evans claimed the first of his two TRS titles in 2010, despite sterling competition from a fellow kart-turned car star-in-the-making, and one who went on to become a two-time Le Mans 24 Hour race joint-winner, and 2017 WEC joint-champion, works Porsche driver Earl Bamber, from Whanganui.

Evans won his second title (before heading overseas where he went on to win the 2012 World GP3 Series title) in 2011, this time from another (in this case multi-time) former NZ kart champ, Nick Cassidy, also from Auckland.

2011 was the year, too, that one of the series’ current crop of F1 drivers, Russian ace Danill Kvyat made a meteor-like appearance, and third-generation Brit Josh Hill turned up for the first of two goes at the TRS with his Dad, 1996 F1 World champion, Damon, in tow!

Of course, Nick Cassidy went on to win the TRS title twice and the New Zealand Grand Prix three times before heading to Japan where he won the All-Japan Formula 3 championship in 2015 then the manufacturer-backed Super GT class and title in 2017.

Interestingly in winning the 2019 title Liam Lawson has ended a five-year title drought for the Kiwi drivers who had previously locked out the top step of the podium.

Before Singaporean Andrew Tang took out the 2014 title, winning the TRS had been all about Kiwis – from Timaru’s Brent ‘Bones’ Collins way back in 2005, to Nick Cassidy in 2013.

Once Tang broke that particular model, however, the floodgates opened.

A year later (2015) the first of two current F1 drivers – young Canadian Lance Stroll – flew here in the family’s private jet before zooming from airport to circuit in a chartered helicopter, claiming the series title from fellow internationals Brandon Maisano, Santina Ferrucci and Arjun Maini.

2015 was also the year another private jet spent time in our skies, this one transporting young Russian driver Artem Markelov.

That year and the next Markelov finished eighth overall, though in 2016, when the series was dominated by 2014 World Karting champion and the latest graduate to snare a full-time F1 gig, 2019 McLaren F1 team signing Lando Norris from Great Britain, he finished a close second (to Norris of course) in the 61st NZ Grand Prix race.

Aussie Thomas Randle, now trying to make it to the ‘main game’ (Supercars) across the Tasman, will no doubt look back on his win in the 2017 TRS as the highlight of his single-seater career, as much for the drivers he had to beat to win it (Brazilian Pedro ‘son-of-Nelson’ Piquet, Frenchman Richard Verschoor and our own Marcus Armstrong) as getting his name on the trophy.

Of course, to finish first, first you have to finish, a lesson Russian Robert Shwartzman taught Verschoor and Armstrong in 2018.

Armstrong might have won the first two rounds, and Verschoor the next three (not to mention the NZ GP after Armstrong’s car overheated), but it was the apparently luckless young Kiwi’s fellow Ferrari Driver Academy member (and 2019 FIA Formula 3 championship teammate) Shwartzman whose consistency won him the TRS title.

On any objective measure therefore, the Castrol TRS has, and continues to be, a jewel in our local motorsport crown.

Series management continues to be concerned about numbers – this year as last around 15 cars is five or six light of what I think everyone involved would like to see. There are also issues, apparently, with the next upgrade, in particular the demand from drivers, stakeholders and even race fans for the cars to have some sort of ‘halo’ safety device.

Speaking strictly personally here, however, the only bum note the 2019 series struck with me had to do with the howler of a decision to slap a five second time penalty on race leader Marcus Armstrong in this year’s New Zealand Grand Prix race at Circuit Chris Amon Manfeild.

Between them Marcus and Liam Lawson put on an absolute masterclass of often wheel-to-wheel racing this season and Marcus’ long-way-round pass on Liam to finally take a decisive – and what looked like race and NZGP title-winning – lead late in the race was a thing of rare beauty – as was Liam’s similar multi-corner manoeuvre on Armstrong on a damp track at the opening round at Highlands a fortnight before.

While I’m not sure ‘beauty’ is the correct word in the context of two uber-talented and competitive young stars-in-the-making involved in a high-speed arm-wrestle where only millimetres separated success from disaster, I’m sure you get what I mean.

Both moves were – and I’d imagine already are – the stuff of legend. To the point where, in my humble opinion, ‘the steward’ or ‘stewards’ of the meeting (or whoever it was that made the Manfeild decision) should have gone down and shaken Marcus’ hand and told him ‘job well done.’

Instead – inexplicably and unforgivably (again this is just my opinion, you are welcome to agree or disagree with it) – the bugger/s slapped him with just enough of a time penalty to deny him of his on-the-road victory and the NZGP trophy, title and general kudos that goes with it.

It was such a pissy little penalty too. If Marcus’ move was deemed by those who – apparently – know about these things, to be so mad, bad or dangerous that it demanded some sort of official response, why didn’t they call him into the pits for a drive-through, or DQ him immediately afterwards and levy a big fine?

They didn’t because – again this is only my opinion – 1) Marcus completed the pass safely without hindering Liam…..and 2) It was Liam’s call to either accept that Marcus had got the better of him and tuck in behind, or keep his foot hard up it and take to the grass and whatever consequences that might entail.

Had it been Liam making the pass and Marcus making the same call not to yield my opinion would be the same. So it’s nothing personal. In fact, when asked about the ‘incident’ on TV, Liam said he would have done exactly the same thing had he been in Marcus’s shoes….

Because?

Because, though ultra-aggressive in its nature, from where I was standing I’m adamant that Marcus had already completed the pass when he took the second part of the infield complex (the flick from left to right) and simply took the optimum line because it was ‘his’ corner, rather than from any desire to ‘run Liam out of road.’

The last thing I want to do, however, is take a side and create one of those silly little ‘he-said/she-said spats’ so loved by those who live their lives vicariously via social media.

In fact, all I really wanted to do in my column this week was expand on comments I made in my ‘Best game/sport in town’ column a fortnight ago.

The Castrol TRS round at the recent NZ Motor Cup meeting at Hampton Downs provided some of the best, most enthralling and with it most engaging ‘racing’ any fan – any sports enthusiast for that matter – could ask for.

I’m sure it’s been the same in other TRS series over the years as well. It just seems so much more real when, whatever the final result, the pair of aces in the 2019 pack are two young Kiwis…..both destined, obviously, for greater things!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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