The pressure is on at New Zealand’s premier single-seater category ahead of its five week, 15 race 2019 season with the confirmation of a new three-round Asia-Pacific regional F3 championship to run across the key dates of the Castrol Toyota Racing Series.
The new Asian Winter Series seems directly targeted at northern hemisphere teams and will offer the victor no less than ten SuperLicence points. The season gets underway on January 11, at Thailand’s Buriram International Circuit, and concludes at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit on February 22, well before the start of the new seasons in Asia, Europe and the USA. This places the series in direct competition with TRS.
The top five finishers in the Asian Winter Series will earn Super Licence points on a scale of: 10 for the winner; seven for the runner-up; five for third; three for fourth place; with one for fifth. Nico Caillol at TRS points out that the FIA’s own rules require such series to run at no less than three tracks if they are to offer drivers SuperLicence points.
Entries are expected for the new regional F3 series from the UK’s HitechGP outfit, which has just been appointed to run all the cars in the new W Series (using the same Tatuus race cars as the Asian Winter Series), Absolute Racing, Super License, Pinnacle Motorsport, Japanese Formula 3 team B-Max Racing, M-Sport Asia, BlackArts Racing and Seven GP.
Both the 4.5km Buriram International Circuit and the 5.5km Sepang International Circuit were designed by F1 track specialist Hermann Tilke. The Thai facility opened in 2014, and has hosted the Japanese Super GT Series, TCR International Series, World Superbikes and, most recently, a round of MotoGP. Opened in 1999, Sepang, which until this year hosted the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix, is one of the most well-established and respected facilities in Asia.
Round 1 of the Asian Winter Series gets underway on January 11 in Thailand with the first three races, before moving to Malaysia for Rounds 2 and 3 on January 18, and February 22 respectively.
Already, there are questions about the strength of the grid for this year’s TRS. Heading into Christmas week and the end of the business year, the 2019 Castrol Toyota Racing Series had announced 11 confirmed entries, down from 14 for the 2018 championship. At the same time last year all but two (Kiwi) drivers had confirmed their intentions to race. A full grid is 20 cars; organisers say they remain confident of delivering a grid of 16-18 cars.
In previous seasons, the full 20-grid field had been announced by the same point, leaving organisers free to focus on final car builds at the operation’s Hampton Downs base.
So far, the championship is attracting strong interest from Australia and the USA along with three Europeans and two Kiwis – Liam Lawson and Brendon Leitch. First-timers and rookies predominate, with only Baltimore-based American Cameron Das and of course Leitch having previous TRS experience.
At the end of December unconfirmed rumours of entries covered:
– UK racer and back- to- back Macau GP winner Dan Ticktum
– Expatriate Kiwi Hunter McElrea
– European F3 winner Mick Schumacher (unlikely)
– two Prema drivers from the Italian team’s 2019 F3 squad. Sources said Prema was considering the prospect as late as the last week of the year
– Multi-season TRS racer Lucas Auer (nephew of F1 great Gerhard Berger). Believed to be on his way to retune his skills to single-seater sharpness as he prepares to step out of the saloon-/coupe based Deutsche TourenMaster (DTM) Championship and back into single-seaters, this time with Red Bull backing.
This could take the championship to as many as 17.
If it is not able to front at least 16 cars, TRS faces its second troubled year with low revenues and high costs marring its recent form as an incubator of racing talent. With drives priced around $220,000 and only 14 cars on the grid the championship suffered a significant shortfall this year of more than $NZD 1 million. Entry fees have been set for 2019 at $199,000
To remain relevant to the European driver base that has traditionally added zest to the competition, TRS must also change its car fleet to a new chassis with the FIA-mandated ‘halo’ driver safety structure and fresh aero package.
That means 2019 will likely be the swansong for the FT50 Tatuus-Toyota cars, just five years into their competition lives. The previous FT40 cars completed a full ten years and the best of them are now being run as drive school cars in Australia.
The first round of the 2019 championship is at Highlands Park, Cromwell, on January 12.