A top five for 2018. Let’s do this!

So a top five drivers for 2018. My turn to stick my head on the chopping block, I do hope that axe is sharp…

I’m all about people, not stats with these things. Anyone can spit out stats to prove or disprove their driver is better than another. But Kiwis have a reputation to uphold internationally – humble in victory, gracious in defeat, we’re like Aussies with table manners..

So here we go…in ascending order (5-4-3-2-1) my top Kiwi motorsport performers of 2018 are:

5. Liam Lawson. This first one’s as much about potential as realised talent.

Liam is our quickest circuit racer in years, he’s monstered F4 in Australia and he’s been a constant presence at Toyota Racing New Zealand every time they have tested at Hampton Downs. He’s had to badger his mum to bring him out to the track to see what’s going on because he’s only just reached the age where he can sit his road licence.

See him in pit lane, teasing Kenny Smith about having the same seat fitting; see him going faster when a rain squall sweeps the track and you just know, like Mitch Evans, Nick Cassidy, Marcus Armstrong before him: this kid’s the real deal. And now, thanks to the hard yards pulled by passionate mentor Grant McDonald, he has a syndicate backing him that will help get him through the 2019 Castrol Toyota Racing Series and off overseas.

Liam, you know how much every session in the car matters at this level, and how important it is to stay out of other people’s accidents. TRS is about consistency, about podiums, and about banking points. Your talent is such that I would argue it doesn’t actually matter if you win the championship (although I know you want to). Let’s do this!

4. Hayden Paddon. I rate Hayden highly for all the reasons we all know – he is rallying’s poster boy for all time, no Kiwi has ever achieved so much in the WRC, and he’s such a Kiwi at heart as well. And only one other has been treated in such cavalier fashion by his WRC team (cough, Possum, cough cough Prodrive).

To go so well in the latter half of the competition year and then be offered one rally in 2019 is pure insult. And to have that offer after the game of musical chairs that decides who drives what alongside which other hotshoe driver, that’s injury added to insult. Accidentally or otherwise, the Hyundai team have made sure Hayden can’t drive for anyone else next year. Cruel.

This actually highlights an ongoing issue with the WRC: the dearth of competitive teams and the cost of admission to the Big Boys Club.

With M Sport now struggling to even be in the WRC, we really need another couple of manufacturers in the mix and to do that we seem to be needing another round of simplification of technical regs so that the likes of SEAT can come out to play, and Skoda can look at returning to the top of the game.

Rumours of the return of Subaru and Mitsubishi will not be taken seriously until we see STI and Ralliart decals on actual cars. Hayden, you did everything you could in a limited season where you seemed to get given the roughest gravel to grapple with and where it seemed you were deliberately denied a chance to hone your tarmac skills.

Perhaps Kiwi rally fans could club together with Hyundai NZ and crowdfund a couple of wildcard event entries? Let’s do this!

3. There are no prizes for guessing the almost-top two in our ranking this year. What Scott McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen produced as they vied for the title was stunning sport, beautifully supported by the simmering tensions between DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight.

Until Pukekohe anyway, where jousting turned to open enmity. The press conference on the Saturday was the chilliest, most awkward I’ve been to. So I’m not sure I have an actual order of preference here, not sure one of these guys deserves to be number 3 more than the other except I’d award it to Scott for being so damn irrepressible and of course for winning. Shane seems to have caught the sulky bug from his team, not a very professional look.

Could we get these two to kiss and make up before the new season starts so they can go out and dominate again? Let’s do this!

2. Brendon Hartley, who rebounded from the ugliness of being signed and then sacked by as nasty a bunch of pit vipers as you’d hope not to meet on a dark street in deepest darkest Paris of a Friday night during the migrant ‘unrest’, is my second place driver.

That the team was sending him out to race on unproven suspension and other components and then shrugging when things failed at 220 km/h speaks volumes about the culture within the team, and about Brendon’s strength of character.

That Toro Rosso didn’t even pay tribute to his season in a media announcement when the plus had been pulled, and that it was down to Honda to acknowledge his contribution in a statement also speaks volumes.

Brendon said enough but not too much and was the total pro as he stepped out of the dream year from hell. I loved the subtlety of his statement – thanking ‘almost all’ of the team members for their support and help.

Hats off the Porsche, too, for keeping him ‘on the books’ and welcoming him back. Loyalty does count for something over in their camp. So what price another win at Le Mans? Let’s do this!

1. Scott Dixon. Precision, determination, and an abiding love of the sport. True ambassador for this country at the highest level in US motor racing. Apparently still has a good few years of winning left in him. Indy 500 winner in 2008 (a decade ago) and Indycar championship winner no less than five times. Still planning to add to that tally.

The 38-year-old became just the second driver ever to win five IndyCar championships when he finished second at Sonoma in September. He now sits outright second behind American AJ Foyt who has seven titles, and hopes to overtake him – a tough ask in the superheated Indy championship of today.

Watch him lapping the ovals and you wonder if he’s been replaced by something robotic, an all-conquering, odds-calculating, millimetre-precise AI that just keeps reeling of those perfect laps.

So much has been written about Scott that it’s hard to find new stuff. He is genuinely a massive star in the USA, something Kiwis may not really have a good grasp of. They don’t call him the Iceman for nothing. Team boss and number one fan Chip Ganassi says: “He’s the driver that if you were to take a stone and inject some brains into it, you’d chisel out Scott Dixon.”

And I’m not going to fall into the trap of complaining about the Halbergs, or whatever they are called this year. It remains almost impossible to get recognition for race and rally stars when the judging panel is dominated by sports journalists who have been raised to believe that ballsport codes are ‘it’.

For me, it’s his utter professionalism, and his loyalty to the Ganassi team through tough times and good times, that make him the consummate racing professional. Another championship, perhaps another Indy 500? Let’s do this!

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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