Burned-dry grass and shimmering heat haze greet the racers arriving for an opening event that brings international motor racing to the unlikely venue that nestles, improbably, into this world-renowned fruit-growing region.
Completed in 2013, the new circuit winds through a small valley-floor pine plantation that gives it some of the look of a Nurburgring in miniature – minus the track graffiti.
This circuit is home to some of the most exotic road and track cars in New Zealand.
Its corners are tributes to some of the most famous found on race tracks in Europe.
But Highlands Motorsport Park was never designed as a hard-out race track, rather an exclusive club where those lucky enough to own exoticars could take them out for warm-hot laps and use them as intended by their makers.
In fact that debut weekend as a race track was the scene of some frantic behind the scenes negotiation as the owner and management of Highlands Park and Motorsport New Zealand butted heads over a circuit rating.
The discussion was ear-wigged by a number of attendees who were outside the control block meeting room and were gape-mouth shocked to hear a very Scottish voice bellow “well if yez don’t like it ye kin fook arf!”
In the event, the circuit got a temporary signoff and FIA grade 3 rating. Racing went ahead. The brand new 4.1 km international-standard circuit was a ‘greenfield’ build located near the township of Cromwell, approximately 50km from tourism mecca Queenstown in New Zealand’s spectacular South Island.
The Toyota Racing Series website says “The track has a European vibe. Within clear sight of stunning snow-capped mountains during the winter months, the location is one of the driest places in New Zealand and is world-famous for its Pinot range of wines.” All true. The pinot is good. The mountains have snow (quite often). The climate is dry. And there is a kind of European vibe – best evidenced by the (sole) vegetarian option at the The Nose, a salad that seems to have been priced in Euros.
In 2013 the Toyota 86 Championship came to test the curves and straights at that debut race meeting, the 101. The following year was the last outing for the original FT40 race cars used in the Toyota Racing Series.
Mr Continuity: Southland’s Brendon Leitch is the only driver this year with hands-on experience of the circuit, both racing an FT40 and chauffeuring punters around the circuit in exoticars in his previous day job. He also logged some laps in an FT50 during the Toyota Festival, a non-competitive event for Toyota owners.
Lap times: evergreen hard man Craig Baird logged 1:41.9 driving circuit owner Tony Quinn’s McLaren MP4-12C GT3 car in 2013. That was on a clear track, not in the race, and not bad for a supercar. Bairdo then went out in qualifying and set a 1:33 for pole. It was all for nothing when he was taken out of the actual race by a (somewhat) slower car.
Likeable Singaporean Andrew Tang holds the FT40 lap record, a 1:30.517 set in the first TRS race in 2014. He was on his way to the title, ably coached by the redoubtable Andy Neale.
So this weekend someone will set a new mark when TRS returns to the circuit. Which driver will do that, and what will it be – a category record or outright?
Will the weather play along? Not only does rain reduce actual mechanical grip on the track, it also negates the conditioning of the surface – ‘rubbering-in’ – that gradually increases grip as the race weekend progresses. The long term forecast says there’s a chance of rain, which could be problematic.
But then the other name for long term forecast is ‘guess’.