It seems the gloves are off in regional single-seater racing.
The Castrol Toyota Racing Series has begun announcing its first drivers for the 2020 season and F3 Asia has confirmed a massive raft of detail about its season, which will begin in December, straddle key dates of the TRS and finish in February, after the New Zealand Grand Prix and just before the 2020 FIA F3 championship begins.
Some might see no issue with this, others consider it an unfortunate clash. TRS has in the past chosen to ignore the F3 regional series on its back doorstep, and has year by year gained a loyal following among team owners, talent spotters and driver managers.
As a result, a stellar cast of young single-seater hopefuls have arrived in this country, drawn by the chance to race while their contemporaries sat in SIM rigs or the gym in the northern hemisphere winter. The honour roll of those who came south is long, and is well known to most who read articles such as this one.
Suffice to say that few of our current Kiwi race stars now winning races and series around the world would have gone so far or so fast without a solid grounding here at home, one that could only have been provided by TRS.
The key change is in Asia, where from small beginnings a whole regional championship has grown and this (southern) summer will directly challenge the dominance of TRS.
This week the F3 Asian Championship Certified by FIA (a catchy name, more on that later) confirmed most of the detail for its coming season, nicely timed to harvest drivers from the Formula Renault/FF2000/F4/F3 silly season.
As the official announcement says: “With the 2020 F3 Asian Championship finishing on February 23, well before the start of the season elsewhere, the top nine finishers will have stolen the march on their rivals by pocketing Super Licence points ahead of the start of their second championships of the year.”
Why should TRS be concerned with something that happens thousands of kilometres away?
First, because the two series are chasing the same driver resource. There are a few recent F3 drivers TRS has missed. The likes of Mick Schumacher, Dan Ticktum, Jack Doohan have slipped through our grasp. Two of those three have raced F3 Asia.
Second, because while TRS has been recognised as a ‘junior championship’ by the FIA and runs one of only two FIA-sanctioned Grands Prix outside of Formula One, the early versions of this F3 regional series were a toe in the water that enabled the series to work out what it needed to be, and it was given FIA Superlicence status even before it met the minimum criteria for such status. A signal that the FIA is keen to see the Asian championship prosper.
All this raises questions, some of which will be answered over the warm summer months of the coming summer.
What’s the big attraction in Asia?
What can we expect from F3 Asia this year?
Probably a slew of European names coming south, who should by rights have been heading for TRS. A tsunami of top talent from across Asia, and particularly the ‘orient’ end of that super-region: China, Japan, even Korea.
Will a Euro driver take the title?
Possibly, because the lure of the championship is many-fold: F1 circuits, rich sponsors, good teams and most of all Superlicence points at the end right down to ninth place. Possibly not, because the length of the series means a lot of commuting for them between December and March. If the Euro drivers fade away before the final then we will see an Asian driver win and receive a wedge of Superlicence points that raise the prospect of more Asian drivers ascending all the way to F1 and of course bringing new sponsors into the sport.
Will it matter to TRS?
Probably not in the short term, but it does put pressure on our championship to seek equal status with the FIA. TRS category manager Nico Caillol has just returned from a driver harvesting trip to the northern hemisphere and the results of this are now evident, with Swiss and Swedish racers announcing their commitment through Toyota Gazoo Racing.
More to come?
Certainly, and the organisation is bullish about filling its 20 grid spots. But marketing the series offshore will now be more important than ever, and consider the viewpoint of a driver in the USA or Europe or the UK. Do you flip a coin to decide between TRS with its history of moulding winners and a full-on FIA endorsed regional F3 series? Just being called a ‘junior’ series is not enough from this point on and we certainly can’t count on attracting more Aussie drivers now their F4 has fallen over.
What’s in a name?
Yep, that leads us to the name: F3 Asia Certified by FIA. Not very catchy, but sought and received for a reason – to attract international drivers. Two years ago it was easy to be dismissive about racing F3 in Asia, but canny observers would have noted the FIA’s move to exert more control over the season-ending Macau Grand Prix, but the world governing body doesn’t take steps like that lightly. Macau’s reformation coincided with the demise of the F3 European Championship and the rise of the FIA-endorsed F3 championship which has just completed its inaugural season. Now Macau will be run for the new-spec FIA F3 cars and is busy installing DRS zones and safety measures for the bigger, more powerful cars. Remembering that the ‘new’ FIA F3 cars are in many key areas very close to the outgoing GP3 cars – wider, longer, more powerful than the regional cars and with a vastly different performance spec for tyres.
So what’s with the car specs?
New Zealand: all-new FT60 with a Tatuus T318 chassis and turbo four cylinder engine, 275 (or more) old-money bhp (200 kW). Unique, but as always designed to provide drivers with an F3-relevant racing experience.
The Tatuus F3 chassis used in NZ and Asia features side impact panels, front and rear carbon impact structures, wheel tethers, an extractable seat, and the new Halo system.
The difference with our cars is the engine, a Lexus/Toyota turbo four cylinder being developed for racing right here in New Zealand (take a bow, engine guru Dave Gouk).
NZ also switches to Hankook tyres from the proven Michelins run in TRS since it began, and will use different dampers and springs from the Asian car.
That’s a big step up from the FT50, and a big step closer to regional F3.
Asia: When it became obvious TRS would be stepping up to a new halo-equipped car there was little hard info available. A fortnight before the FT60’s launch, we (Talk Motorsport) took a good look at offshore options and one stuck out: Asia, which was already running a regional-spec F3 car. It’s nice to be right occasionally.
The engine is interesting: an Alfa 1.7-litre four cylinder turbo unit built by Autotecnica and producing identical power. In all other respects the two cars seem pretty much identical, so the driver environment will be broadly familiar.
In fact, a Kiwi driver has already gained recent experience of the Tatuus package.
Brendon Leitch, racing Lamborghini Trofeo alongside the F3 Asia mid-year series, is the only driver who has raced all three TRS cars. He says the car will be a huge step up for Kiwi drivers, who come out of last year’s FT-50 or from Formula 1600. The adjustment isn’t impossible, he says, but the potent new package should earn the respect of drivers and teams alike, especially on the faster circuits like Pukekohe.
Given that the cars are pretty much identical, one advantage of TRS is that its compressed timeframe lets racers gain experience, hone race craft and contend for Superlicence points without running close to the start of the FIA F3 season. TRS pays points down to fifth place; F3 Asia down to ninth place.
Remember there is a crucial pre-season test round to go into the month before the championship starts, that the top seats with the top teams will be in hot demand in this second year of the FIA Championship and that most of the good seats will have been signed up by the end of February.
So then drivers wanting to complete the Asia season and score Superlicence points will face the prospect of shuttling down to Thailand for that final round at Buriram, scoring their championship results and rushing back to Europe in time to be in the car for the opening round at Bahrain March 21-22. In those three weeks- hopefully – the pre-season testing calendar will be their focus.
Drivers doing TRS get to leave a week earlier, and in fact in the past many have been on a plane the day after the Grand Prix.
So there’s a definite challenge being laid down by F3 Asia, one that TRS must pick up. Or could the two series co-exist? Perhaps sharing the spill from the dead F4 series in Aussie? Time will tell, and that will happen soon enough for anyone involved in either series.
Castrol Toyota Racing Series
Three races per weekend
Five weekends in a row
Up to 3000 km of practice, qualifying and racing
Superlicence points for P1-P5 at championship end.
17-19 January 2020, Highlands
24-26 January 2020, Teretonga
31 January – 2 February 2020, Hampton Downs
7-9 February 2020, Pukekohe
14-16 February 20-20, Manfeild NZGP
F3 Asia Certified by FIA
Three races per weekend
Racing spread over three months and three countries
Superlicence points for P1-P9 at championship end.
14-15 December 2019, Sepang (Malaysia)
10-11 January 2020, Dubai (UAE)
17-18 January 2020, Yas Marina (UAE)
14-15 February 2020, Sepang
22-23 February 2020 Buriram (Thailand)