Matthew Payne and karting’s backdoor route to ‘the top’

| Photographer Credit: Kartsport NZ/Bruce Jenkins

Hey, I’m back; not quite as rested and ready to come up with another year’s worth of columns as I might have hoped, true. But as the old saying goes, ‘time & tide wait for no man.’

Or boy, as the subject of my first column of the year, a young fella I still can’t stop describing as ‘…18-year-old Karter Matthew Payne from Pukekohe,’ turns out.

Sure, Matthew only just wrapped up the 2021 Castrol TRS title – what? – 10 days ago. But in saying that if you are reading this the day Benjamin posts it (Tuesday Feb 23) then it is literally just hours before the first round of this year’s Repco (Australian) Supercars Championship kicks off – at Bathurst no less – meaning the start of what I always tend to think of as ‘our’ annual international motor racing season is indeed upon us.

As it is there has been no shortage of things to write about since my own summer sabbatical started (between Christmas & New Year) and if I don’t ‘get back on the horse’ this week (as it were!) I will run the very real risk of never actually catching up with the news of the day or week.

So……where do I start? Pukekohe in south-west Auckland is as good a place as any. But not – this time, anyway – because of the storied motor racing circuit the Super City’s bustling little satellite burgh shares its name with at the Buckland end of Manukau Rd, either.

No. In this case it is because it is currently the place two of our most talented young racing drivers, Liam Lawson, and Mathew Payne, call home.

Liam Lawson, of course, the vast majority of Talkmotorsport readers will not only have heard about, but many will also know chapter and verse about his – and they really are quite amazing – achievements to date.

Matthew Payne though? Not so much. In fact, several of what I would call my ‘casual’ karting contacts, particularly those who live south of Taupo, have asked me to ‘fill them in on the bugger,’ so that they – in turn – can look and sound a little bit more knowledgeable than they really should be if and when the subject of this season’s truncated Castrol TRS comes up.

So, in theory this column should be all about Matthew; where he was born and raised, at what age he first raced a kart and why he chose his own particular route to ‘the top.’ And don’t worry, there will be (a lot about Matthew) later on.

First though I think it is constructive to talk about Liam Lawson, who – as it turns out – went to the same country school as Matthew, Waiau Pa, north west of Pukekohe – remains a close friend, and was in his corner over the first (NZGP Weekend) of this year’s Castrol TRS.

There’s a lot of the ‘Scott Dixon’ in Liam Lawson, so it should come as no surprise that – like a young Scott – Liam either got out of karts or got into cars (the way you see the move will very much depend on your attitude to karts and karting vis a vis what I will call the ‘larger wheel’ branches of motorsport here and around the world.

In both cases it was via a special Motorsport NZ ‘Junior Driver’ licence and the Formula First (nee Vee) category, at the ripe old age of 13.

Where Scott’s Dad, Ron, had to physically go out and buy and then run a car, Liam won the 2015 SpeedSport scholarship, giving him the use of a fully prepared Sabre car for the 2015/16 New Zealand Formula First championship.

Like Scott, Liam proved a natural, winning races in both the Manfeild Winter Series and the New Zealand championship, going on to earn the Rookie if the Year title on his way to 6th place in the overall series’ points standings.

The next season he did even better, winning a quite incredible 14 of the 15 races run to win the 2016-17 NZ F1600 (nee Formula Ford) title.

Well and truly ‘on the ladder’ now it was to Australia where Liam turned his attention to next thanks in part to CAMS backing the Formula 4 category. While that decision was widely panned across the Tasman it got Liam into a wings-and-slicks single seater and drove home the fact that, though he was still only 15 at the time, he could compete with the best the Lucky Country had to offer.

Though still ‘too young’ to join the Castrol TRS that summer, Liam’s second place series’ finish in his rookie year in Australia had not gone unnoticed – at home or further afield – and with backing from Turners he made the big move, to Europe, to contest the ADAC German Formula 4 championship – in 2018.

There he again won races and finished second in the championship standings, before – on returning home – fighting a pitched, 2018-19 summer-long battle with fellow young gun Marcus Armstrong, to win both his first NZ Grand Prix, and first Castrol TRS title.

And the rest – the daring pass on Armstrong at Highlands that prompted Red Bull boss Dr Helmet Marko to get on the phone and confirm Liam a sprot on his Junior Team, and the now famous photo of Liam offering a consoling word to Marcus after a time penalty saw first across the line Armstrong lose both the win and the coveted NZGP title – is history, with both now very much a part of the rich tapestry of local motor racing folklore.

This year Liam will be back in Europe plying his trade in not one but two key series, the F1-supporting FIA Formula 2 Championship and the new-look GT3-based DTM series in Germany.

And after that? Realistically the next step is F1. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

#18 Matthew Payne

This column, after-all, is supposed to be about Matthew Payne and how this supposedly ‘unknown’ 18-year-old made such an impact – post Shane Van Gisbergen’s win in the NZGP race at the opening round anyway – on this season’s Castrol TRS Series.

So, I had better crack on.

Before we ger to the ‘meat & potatoes’ part of Matthew’s own, unique ‘road-to-the-top’ of the local racing scene, I would like to strongly dispute the notion that Matthew was a complete unknown when he first lodged his entry for his year’s Castrol TRS.

He might have been ‘little known’ in car circles perhaps. But definitely not in kart ones. And therein lies the rub. And reason, if you like, for my column this week.

As the long-term ‘media guy’ covering the sport of karting, for the best part of 20 years now, I must have written about literally hundreds of talented young drivers who – given the right set of circumstances – could now be enjoying the fruits of a well-paid professional career.

Yet of those hundreds, the number that have been able to do so is measured in the tens.

There’s our shining light, of course, Scott Dixon, and now also Scott McLaughlin racing IndyCars. There is also Le Mans 24 Hr winners Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber, and Mitch Evans on the world stage, with Nick Cassidy about to join him in Formula E by the look of it, from Japan.

Closer to home we obviously have Shane Van Gisbergen, Fabian Coulthard and Andre Heimgartner in Supercars across the Tasman. Typically, with a list like this I’ll miss the odd person out, but by my count that is just 9 drivers being paid well enough to pursue driving as a full-time career.

Not that many when you think of the amount of time and money invested – initially by the driver’s parents then by sponsors, teams etc into just getting their talented young fellow or fellow-ess into a position where the money starts flowing back the other way.

It is for this reason I’d like to take a look at the alternative – kart-based – path which obviously prepared Matthew Payne so well for his first – winning – foray into the world of wings-and-slicks single-seater motor racing.

Before I do though let me just say that there is nothing new about drivers here using major karting evets here, across the Tasman and in the US and Europe to fast-track a career move to cars.

Wade Cunningham – so far, the only Kiwi to win the CIK-FIA World Karting Championship title (at Sarno in Italy in 2003) – used that success to leapfrog straight to the US and a drive first in the Cooper Tires US Formula Ford 2000 series in 2004 in which he finished 5th, then to the Indy Lights championship which he won on debut in 2005.

You don’t necessarily have to win a world title to make a kart-based move ‘up the ladder’ either – as ’18-year-old Karter Matthew Payne from Pukekohe’ has conclusively proved.

Matthew started racing karts at the age of 7 and won his first two National Sprint titles in the Cadet class (The NZ#1 at the National Sprint title meeting over the Easter weekend, and the NZ Schools one at the annual NZ Schools Championship meeting later the same year) just two years later (2012).

#130 Matthew Payne

Two years further on – 2014 – he finished 2nd to Caleb Cross in the Junior Restricted class at the National Sprint Championships meeting at Easter while in 2018 – at the age of just 15 – he won the Junior class title in that year’s multi-round Rotax Max Challenge, and with it a trip to that year’s global Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals meeting at Sarno in Italy.

And that, pretty much was it. Having watched local mentor Daniel Bray fly backwards and forwards from Auckland to Europe and run with the best in the world at successive CIK-FIA KZ2 World Cup meetings Matthew decided that this was also what he wanted to do.

Initially he did so – in 2017 and 2018 – while nominally still ‘at school’ here in NZ. But in 2019 he packed his bags and – at just 16-years-of-age – flew to Italy to live and race karts there full-time.

Italy remains the ‘home’ of the sport of karting and as such the level of competition – from club-level up – is extremely high. Most race meetings would attract over 100 competitors in the class Matthew was competing in and it would be fair to say that just living in a foreign country and having to learn a new language provided a steep enough learning curve for the young Kiwi.

He persisted though, and twards the end of the 2019 season in Italy Matthew was consistently qualifying and running through to the finals at the European championship level he was running at and at the end of the year he was ranked 30th in the 2019 FIA European Karting Championship.

Earlier in 2019 – on a flying trip back ‘home’ – he also won his third NZ Sprint Kart championship title – this time in the premier 6-speed-125cc KZ2 class, while on his way back home again later in the year he won the KZ2 class at a round of the Australian Karting Championship.

The good news was that performances like these saw him offered a full works drive for the 2020 season by the Birel ART team. The bad (news) was that two months into 2020 the whole COVID-19 pandemic hit, and his ‘season’ was effectively over before it had begun.

What to do?

The plan at that point was to stay in NZ and start preparing for the 2021 year.

In karts back in Italy? Or in cars back here, and across the Tasman though?

As it turned out, the decision really made itself. Living just down the road from Hampton Downs, and the local HQ of Toyota Gazoo Racing NZ it was only natural that Matthew would investigate what – if any – options there might be to compete in the 2021 Castrol Toyota Racing Series.

As it turned out there definitely were, including the opportunity to ‘fast-track’ the transition from karts to cars via a new initiative set-up by circuit-owner Tony Quinn and run by local driver-turned-entrepreneur Daniel Gaunt.

Called the Hampton Downs Racing Academy it offers talented youngsters like Matthew the opportunity to learn the ropes in Formula Ford and TRS FT-50 or Toyota 86 cars so that they can decide for themselves if it is worthwhile to go ahead and commit to a programme.

Matthew Payne raced to his first win in TRS (Rnd 2) at Hampton Downs and took the series lead. Picture Bruce Jenkins

Needless to say, Matthew impressed in his first drive of the FT-50 so much that there was no way he was NOT going to run in the 2021 Castrol TRS Series, despite only two days testing in the – vastly different – later model FT-60 he was to drive.

And, well, you should all know the rest by now.

Not only did Matthew dominate the second and third rounds of the 20210 Castrol TRS while he was doing so powerful forces rallied behind the scenes to secure a drive for him in this season’s new-look Porsche Michelin Sprint Challenge (nee Carrera Cup) in Australia with 2 x Le Mans 24-hour race winning Kiwi Earl Bamber’s new team, Earl Bamber Motorsport.

Matthew Payne, winner of the 2021 Castrol Toyota Racing Series

There he will pair up with fellow Kiwi kart star Madeline Stewart, the former Wellingtonian another promising young talent to stick with karts through her teens and graduate – in her case initially anyway – direct from a KZ2 kart to an Aussie Supercar at the end of 2019.

Not every story has a moral, of course. If this one does it is simply that.

1/ talent will out, and

2/ in motorsport as most other mediums of ultimate human endeavour, there is more than one way to skin a cat!

Each still requires some profoundly serious funding, though if you play your cards right a lot of the sheer cost of racing a kart in Europe, can – say – be offset by winning your class in the local ROK Cup NZL series, where the main ‘prizes’ are heavily subsidised entries to an annual global ROK SuperCup meeting in Italy.

Plenty of youngsters and their parents still believe that it is best to – at some point anyway – sell up the kart gear and either buy or lease a Formula First or Formula Ford and go through the whole process of learning how to set up and drive a ‘new trolley’ on a completely new set of new tracks all over again.

Matthew Payne Porsche livery 2021

And believe it or not, I have absolutely no truck with them doing so.

However, until Toyota created its targeted Kiwi Driver Fund to help soften the blow, most of these ‘Dad ‘n lad (or lass!) outfits baulked and finally buckled at the ‘what if I bin it bad and we have to buy a new monocoque, Dad?’ potential cost blow outs of doing a full season in the Castrol TRS.

Which is a shame because for the first time in my memory of the local ‘scene’ there are not only – literally – boundless opportunities for our best and brightest young drivers, there are also now any number of – if not clearly sign-posted, at least well-trodden – pathways from which a driver and his/her family can choose!

And we, either as fans of a particular driver, or simply followers of the sport in general, can nod knowingly, as I did on first hearing that Marcus Armstrong had just completed his first test drive of a F1 Ferrari at the Scuderia’s famous test track, Fiorano, and think back to the last time I had seen him racing a kart……at his home track, Carrs’ Rd in Christchurch, then the last time I’d seen him in a TRS car, at Hampton Downs back in 2018.

Both times I remember thinking to myself… ‘that kid’s actually the real deal.’

I finally got to see (and talk to) Liam Lawson up close and personal at the recent City of Sails kart meeting, and left with the same impression.

Now it is Matthew Payne’s turn. And something tells me that ‘the 18-year-old Karter from Pukekohe’ is not going to disappoint!

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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