The reputation of the Formula Renault 3.5 category as the final step before young racing drivers reach Formula 1 takes on even more credence in 2012 with the debut of a new car.
Billed as the "World Series by Renault", the season begins at Motorland Aragon in Spain this weekend with pre-season testing suggesting young Tauranga driver Richie Stanaway should be a leading contender.
Stanaway, 20, graduates to the FR 3.5 category as the German Formula 3 champion and, in three pre-season tests driving for the Lotus team, he has been among the World Series pacesetters.
This year's all-new Dallara-built FR 3.5 car adopts a V8 engine developing 530bhp in place of the previous V6 unit. Along with the additional horsepower, the class mirrors Formula 1 technology by adopting a DRS (Drag Reduction System) rear wing to promote overtaking.
In testing, the cars have been nearly four seconds a lap quicker than the previous generation car.
There is a full 26-car grid for the series and Stanaway says the six days of pre-season track time at the Paul Ricard, Barcelona and Motorland Aragon tracks have been valuable.
"The pre-season testing was relatively productive. Due to the fact that the series has a new car this year, there has been a lot that we have had to run through before the first race," Stanaway said.
"I'm happy that all the preparation has been done so we can now get into the racing season."
Stanaway last raced at the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix in November.
"It's been quite a long off-season so I'm really looking forward to it," he said.
The nine-round World Series by Renault also visits the Spa-Francorchamps, Nurburgring, Moscow Raceway, Silverstone, Hungaroring, Paul Ricard and Catalunya circuits with the crown jewel of the calendar being Monaco on May 26-27 as a support race for the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Eight drivers on the 2012 Formula 1 grid have progressed through the World Series by Renault - Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso, Narain Karthikeyan, Heikki Kovalainen, Sebastian Vettel, Kamui Kobayashi and Pastor Maldonado - along with Robert Kubica and IndyCar star, Will Power.
The Midget Car Invitation event at Baypark Speedway on Saturday was a chance for Tauranga's Ross Linklater to finally race in his home town.
Linklater has lived in Tauranga since 2000 and, for 11 seasons, he commuted to Auckland to race with success in the TQ Midget class at Western Springs.
"We've been up and down to race in Auckland each weekend and only been to Baypark to watch a few times," said Linklater.
Linklater sold his TQ Midget last year and hasn't raced this summer.
"I got offered a really good deal to lease Wayne Green's car. All I had to do was turn up and have a go," said Linklater.
"It was jumping in at the deep end. I hadn't raced at all for 12 months and I'd never raced that car or on the Baypark track before."
A solid drive in the first heat showed promise and Linklater posted a fourth place finish.
"I was up to second for awhile, then dropped back and then made it back to fourth again," he said.
A second heat crash ended his night after driving from grid 20 to 13th in heavy traffic.
"I came up to pass Aaron Drever and we just got caught up on the same bit of track at the same time. We touched and I spun and then I got T-boned by the next car."
The impact damaged the exhaust headers and put Linklater out for the night.
"It was disappointing because I really wanted to run the feature but I'm still pleased with how it went."
The one-off outing has Linklater keen to do more midget car racing.
"I really want to race a midget. Wayne's is a really good car and it brought it home to me that you need a really good car.
"In the next couple of years, I'm hoping to go midget racing and, if the midgets get to race at Baypark a few times each year, that makes the idea a lot more attractive."
Two Baypark racers followed up their last home track meeting of the season on Saturday night with Sunday afternoon title success at Kihikihi Speedway.
Tokoroa's James Dahm continued his strong form and added the King Country Sprint Car title to his BOP title success less than 24 hours earlier, with Huntly's Daniel Thomas taking second ahead of Keaton Dahm.
An 18-car field contested the King Country Saloon Car champs with Tauranga's Brent McClymont taking the win while Matamata's national champ Jeff Barron beat Stratford racer Craig Korff in a run-off for second and Baypark racers Michelle Wymer and Brett Kaye were fourth and fifth.
Tauranga rally win
Tauranga rally driver Phil Campbell bounced back from the electronics issues which slowed him at the opening round of the NZ Rally Championship to score a top-10 finish and a class win at round two in Wairarapa last weekend.
Campbell and co-driver Venita Fabbro drove their Ford Fiesta ST to ninth place overall at Rally Wairarapa held Saturday and Sunday.
"It's the first time we've won our class at an NZRC round," said Campbell.
"We got a flat tyre in stage two and lost about a minute but other than that we had a good clean run.
"The roads were awesome and really suited the Fiesta. We had some rain and the conditions were always changing. Some stages were really slippery and others were dusty."
Campbell said the problem which dogged him at Rally Whangarei turned out to be faulty fuel pump.
"The car would lose fuel pressure and the computer was shutting down," said Campbell.
A busy start to the national championship calendar sees the next round in Otago on May 26-27.
"There are night stages at Otago and we're going to do some night-time testing before then to make sure we're on the pace right from the start."
Campbell is now joint leader with Fiesta rival Josh Marston (Christchurch) in the Group N 2WD class of the national rally championship.
Motorsport BOP is running a gravel hillclimb event near Pukehina this Sunday.
The 2.5km course uses Macdougall Quarry Rd starting at the Otamarakau Valley Rd junction and finishing near the junction with Old Coach Rd - where the event headquarters and pit area will be located. Practice runs will begin at 10am with three official runs to determine the result.
Dirt track in actionThe Waihi Beach Dirt Track Club is in action on Saturday with its final points day for the 2011-12 season. Racing starts at 11am and the track is at 597 Beach Rd, Waihi Beach.