Pedro Piquet, the Brazilian 17 year old stands out as an early favourite to win the five round Toyota Racing Series which starts at Ruapuna Park Christchurch next weekend. (January 16 and 17)
He has dominated the Brazilian Formula 3 championship and arrives in New Zealand with a reputation as a calm, steely driver, without the fiery Latin temperament that often emerges from South America.
But Piquet’s 14 wins in 16 races at home this year, may not have prepared him for the level of competitive pressure that several European based drivers are likely to bring to the 15 race series which finishes with the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild on February 13 and 14.
However he does have the indefinable X factor and pedigree – his father Nelson is a three times World Formula One World Champion.
The likely main opposition will come from former World Kart Champion Lando Norris, China’s Guanyu Zhou, Jehan Daruvula from India and Artem Markelov of Russia.
Norris has just won the British Formula 4 Championship and also raced and tested in Europe in 2015 in preparation for his 2016 season of which New Zealand is only the start.
He already has plenty of single seater experience after 8 years of karting and is still only 16 years old.
Markelov at 21 years old is the second oldest driver contesting the Toyota Racing Series and probably the most experienced. He has spent two seasons in the GP2 Championship in the same team as Aucklander Mitch Evans in the main support class to the Formula One World Championship and is returning for a second crack at TRS.
Twelve months ago he was fast but got involved in a few too many incidents. If he can stay out of trouble, the youngsters may have to defer to his experience of the local tracks.
Formula One team Force India is backing Jehan Daruvula, who is being coached by Ollie Rowland, the British driver who has just won the European wide Renault 3.5 litre title. Daruvula has accumulated quite a bit of experience in his 17 years.
Zhou may be the biggest surprise. Like Norris he is only 16, but finished runner-up in the very competitive Italian Formula 4 Championship. Ferrari thinks he is very good as he is part of its Academy which develops young drivers to advance to the higher echelons of the sport.
Ferdinand Habsburg’s chances don’t appear as good on paper, but after a mid season crash at Silverstone he has spent the rest of 2015 testing in Europe for 2016. And apart from Markelov he is the only international driver to have previous experience of the New Zealand tracks having raced here last year.
James Munro from Christchurch is expected to be the best of the local drivers. He will be starting his third Toyota Racing Series. He has the advantage of local experience and track knowledge, but has not done a lot of competitive racing since last summer, although he did win his class of a 12 hour sports car race in Malaysia just before Christmas in a Lamborghini.
The TRS is held over five consecutive weekends, with practice sessions on the Friday, qualifying and one race on the Saturday and two races on the Sunday.