MotorSport New Zealand’s recently completed a review of its strategy for premier race categories in New Zealand focuses mainly on the saloon (tin-top) classes and a career direction for rising racers who have aspirations that may not include single-seaters.
Yet the conventional wisdom is that good tin-top racers are born from a solid background in open-wheeler classes right up to and including the Toyota Racing Series.
Consider New Zealand Touring Car Champion, Bathurst winner and journeyman touring car racer Craig Baird. He raced karts with distinction, then mastered and later monstered Formula Pacific but his finest hour is arguably winning the New Zealand Touring Car Championship for BMW, winning the Super Touring Bathurst 1000 for BMW. Oh, and winning the BNT V8s in 2000. His TraNZam racing career. His Porsche racing career, in which he won almost everything there is to win.
Consider Brett Riley, who raced F3 in Great Britain in the heyday of Roberto Moreno, Martin Brundle, Teo Fabi, Tiff Needell and even Ayrton Senna (the latter run by ex-pat Kiwi Dick Bennetts). His touring car career came after the single seaters, and includes winning the NZTCC in 1998, winning the Bridgestone Porsche Championship in 1990 and scoring a podium in the fabled Nissan Mobil 500 race series in a BMW M3.
Almost as an afterthought, the document acknowledges those who seek greater glory overseas. Its take on open-wheeler career paths: “the pathway for those choosing to drive single-seater race cars [starts] with our well-established entry-level Formula First category, then processing to the faster Formula 1600 class, before entering the high-speed, internationally-recognised Toyota Racing Series which is an ideal stepping stone to global competition.”
Current drivers who know the value of committing to single-seaters include Shane van Gisbergen, who was second in TRS before heading across the ditch to join Stone Brothers in the Aussie V8s.
Actually, most motor race fans know the importance of starting long before that, in karts at an age expressed in single digits.
As I explained to my early-teens daughter one day at Hampton Downs, “if you weren’t doing this stuff ten years ago matey, it’s too late to start.” She wisely chose other sports (football) and is now in her first year of a B.Com majoring in business studies.
Though drivers may dally with semi-outlaw stuff like ministocks and speedway or even quads and motocross, the road to glory starts with the zing of a two stroke engine and the reek of Castrol R. There’s pretty much zero chance of any star rising to the top any other way.
Banger racing or thrumming around in farm utes is only going to boost the career of the occasional ‘natural’ talent (hello, Callum Hedge). In either case the raw talent must already be visible and malleable and the spend in categories like that has to be carefully moderated. And for the aspiring single-seater racer, it is arguable that either category would be an unnecessary distraction and would deplete racing budgets or sponsorship without providing much benefit.
So when the fast kids out of Europe are arriving here each summer straights from karting but right on the cusp of 16, it’s hard not to wonder if we’re maybe cossetting our racers a year too long?
Questions, questions, so many questions
Question 1: The single-leader career ladder has been honed in many markets to be an efficient process of identifying race talent runs karting/F-First or F1600 and then the Gerhard Berger designed F4/F3/F2/F1. But why does New Zealand need the additional step or half step represented by Formula First? It adds an extra year to the career ladder process for most drivers, and that extra year doesn’t feature large in the career ladder plans of those who are driven to succeed, nor those whose talent shines through in everything they do.
Question 2: If indeed we Kiwis cannot jump from karts into F1600 (Through some quirk of driver training or the lack of a eugenics-based driver breeding programme), wouldn’t young drivers be better to extend their transition out of karts – for example go to Europe and race karts in the ultra competitive top classes over there?
Question 3: Given those who know the dollar numbers involved in a TRS season-long lease tend to gasp about affordability, is it safe to assume they don’t know the sticker price on an opening season in Formula 3? Or is the cost a natural selection feature that ensures the category is not beset by wannabe hopefuls?
We all know it’s hard to win TRS as a rookie. That takes real talent. But does New Zealand need the additional step up the ladder represented by Formula First?