The single seater path to glory

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?


Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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  1. Mark Baker

    Narrative comment: like other Talk Motorsport columnists, I write articles to generate comment and debate. Well-reasoned and politely argued responses are very welcome. The point really is we need to ask whether enough critical analysis has gone into reviews of strategy, especially when they endorse the status quo.

    Is the current pathway the best it can be?

    If not, what should supplant it?

    Mark Baker

  2. admin

    Here’s a comment emailed to Talkmotorsport:
    I’d like to express my disappointment in an article on your website written by Mark Baker. Clearly facts were not researched when writing this.

    A. Craig Baird never won the Bathurst 1000

    And B. Where does mark get off in writing off Formula First. The amount of drivers that have come via Formula First (not just scholarship) and have gone in to better things is unprecedented. To say say Formula First is a waste seems to be pointless. Karting till 12 then 4 seasons of Formula First and Ford before being able to drive Toyota’s. Or is that too hard for someone to work out.

    Formula Firsts alumni are doing so well round the world it has to a part of the NZ Motorsport path to success


    • Mark Baker

      Okay. First up, these articles are designed to generate feedback, so thanks for taking part Sheridan. Also Jordie on the Facebook post.

      Next, actually Craig Baird won in a BMW 320i SuperTourer run by Lyall Williamson and backed by BMW itself through Paul Morris Motorsport. It happened in 1997 and I was there to see it.

      Bairdo ran with Paul Morris and it was Baird who took the flag, stood with Morris on the podium, hoisted the trophy and was acclaimed winner.
      The organisers then counted back and found he had completed too many laps and handed the win to the second factory BMW of Geoff and David Brabham which was second in a close-formation 1-2.
      By the time the change was rubber-stamped and announced (early the next morning), the bubbly was long finished off, the Baird/Morris win had gone around the world, and Bairdo received an award in recognition of his efforts at the BMW Motorsport global function at the end of the year. That’s the danger of having race officials who prefer to pronounce these judgements after the race.

      Finally, as with previous articles of this type, I’m not ‘writing off’ Formula First, nor have I said anywhere that it is a ‘waste’. Sheridan, I would hope you know as well as I do the category is burgeoning. Seems so. But I am asking if we somehow are different from other markets in having more than one full size non-aero racing car category in the mix for our single-seater race drivers, and I am asking if it’s beneficial to the drivers coming through. That’s more about the strategy and the shape of the ladder.

      Certainly, for every driver who has come up via F-First I can cite another who has not diverted that way. People like Craig Baird of course – karting to F-Ford to F Pacific. Wade Cunningham (karting -F Ford Zetec – Indy Lights – Indy – A1GP) for example. Mitch Evans too. Simon Evans. Marcus Armstrong.

      In the end some drivers benefit from a more protected/protracted road to the top categories, others do not.
      Overseas, drivers transition from karting to their national version of our F1600 and then to F4 with no apparent problem. That is the advice from driver coaches, mentors, talent spotters all the way to the likes of Eddie Jordan, who of course liked the look of a young German driver called Michael so much he gave him an F1 start.

      Mark Baker

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