Motorsport: Kiwi racers aiming for happy New Year

By Eric Thompson

Up and away ... our racers are on track for a winning season

Scott Dixon is riding high after his third IndyCar series win. Picture / Getty Images
Scott Dixon is riding high after his third IndyCar series win. Picture / Getty Images

It's been a strong year for some of New Zealand's top young drivers and although none won a world title, they are positioned for an even better 2014.

Former GP3 champion Mitch Evans experienced a bit of deja vu in his first season in GP2. The Aucklander's first tilt at the GP3 series didn't go according to plan and he was just as frustrated this year in GP2.

When the team managed to get the car in the sweet spot for Evans, he was as fast as anyone else in the field as evident by his four podium finishes and he was in the position to win the odd race.

But if he scores a seat next year with a championship- winning team there's nothing to stop Evans from emulating last year's GP3 season.

Brendon Hartley realised a couple of years ago that single seater racing wasn't for him and set his sights on sports car racing, while retaining his Mercedes F1 simulator testing duties.

It wasn't long before Murphy Prototypes and Starworks Racing saw his potential, and he was soon racing on both sides of the Atlantic.

His talent shone through and he secured wins in the American Grand Am series and the European Le Mans series.

Porsche AG took note and after some comprehensive testing, signed him up for the German company's return to endurance racing as part of its six-driver roster in the new Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 car.

Another Kiwi driver to shift focus, and who also did double duty this year, was Richie Stanaway who made the move to sports car racing after a big crash in the single-seater Formula Renault 3.5 litre series.

After his long, and at time painful recovery, Stanaway's management team put him in the Porsche Supercup series, a support class to Formula One.

Hayden Paddon and John Kennard's WRC Ford Fiesta Picture / M-Sport
Hayden Paddon and John Kennard's WRC Ford Fiesta Picture / M-Sport

He started strongly, finishing in the top 10, but the season went to pot soon after for various reasons, including mechanical issues and driver incidents.

Not all was lost and Stanaway was soon racing for the Aston Martin endurance racing team. He quickly came into his own, often out-qualifying and outpacing more illustrious drivers in the four other Astons contesting the WEC, and he was on the podium towards the end of the season.

It is possible that Stanway will be again racing for Aston Martin on more than a race-by-race basis next year.

While not quite in the "young" category these days, New Zealand IndyCar driver Scott Dixon is still youthful enough at 32 to have many more years at the top of his game. And he's certainly been at the top of that game this year, winning his third IndyCar title.

Regarded as the most consistent driver in the American championship, Dixon is known as "the driver you have to go through" to win a title. The stats certainly back that up. His three championship titles put him fourth on the all-time list, and his 32 IndyCar race wins put him first on the list and seventh on the all-time winner's list that includes AAA, USAC, CART and IndyCar wins going back to 1905.

Dixon battled back from the brink of a written-off season to clinch his third title, coming from more than 75 points behind to overhaul Helio Castroneves, but his season was tempered with the news that his good friend and Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti had to retire on medical grounds.

It seemed to be the trend this year for young Kiwi open-wheel racers to move to sports car racing, and Earl Bamber made a name for himself in Porsche GT racing by winning the Porsche Asia Carrera Cup championship and finishing second in his first Supercup race at Yas Marina.

It was deja vu for Mitch Evans, with a frustrating season in GP2. Picture / GP2 Media
It was deja vu for Mitch Evans, with a frustrating season in GP2. Picture / GP2 Media

Another driver plying his international trade in Asia, Jono Lester also had a good year in the Japanese Super Taikyu Endurance series finishing second in the championship for the second year in a row. In between his international races Lester fitted in a bit of Porsche racing and some V8 SuperTourers.

Chris van der Drift, regarded as the man to fill a one-off seat in most European championships, finally scored a full championship drive in the GT Open in a McLaren MP4 12C GT3.

It was a year of two halves for him, with equal time spent in the pits with mechanical failures and setting the fastest race lap times and being on the podium.

Former production world rally champion Hayden Paddon finally got his wish and drove with John Kennard in a full-blown WRC Ford Fiesta racecar for M-Sport.

Paddon's race year started a little slowly, but at the end of the season he's raced WRC2, WRC and won another New Zealand Rally Championship.

Michael Young and co-driver Malcolm Read had a remarkable season in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship. They became the first pair to win three different APRC championships in one year - the Asia Cup, the Junior Cup and the Two Wheel Drive trophy.

As well, Young is the youngest driver to win the Asia Cup and the first to win the title in a two-wheel drive car.

In Australia, Shane van Gisbergen proved his move to Tekno Autosports in the V8 Supercars was inspired by being the best-placed Kiwi in the championship, finishing fifth. Fellow Kiwi Fabian Coulthard finished sixth, and rookie of the year honours went to the third fulltime New Zealander in the field Scott McLaughlin, who also had his first win in the championship.

In New Zealand, the schism in V8 racing continues, with the two domestic series vying for a limited audience.

The national NZV8 championship had a depleted field that Australian Jason Bargwanna took advantage of to win the New Zealand title.

The breakaway V8 SuperTourer series had a more robust field, and Greg Murphy won his first category title in 16 years.

The locally inspired and run Toyota Racing Series produced another Kiwi champion in Nick Cassidy, and its international reputation continues to grow.

A former competitor in the series, Daniil Kvyat, will race for the Toro Rosso F1 team next year.

Others who raced in the TRS have won various F3 and the like titles over the years, and next year's five-week series has another full field.

The speedway season has started, and Michael Pickens is back in a midget car.

He showed he hadn't lost any skill since his move to sprint cars by winning the feature race at Western Springs.

Congratulations to Kenny Smith who ticked off his 55th consecutive season of racing and seems to have no plans to retire.

And a big hand to all those other Kiwis who took part in national and international motor racing this year.

Internationally, motorcycle racing - apart from Bruce Anstey at the Isle of Man - remains in the doldrums with no one really making any waves in either road racing or motocross.

Levi Sherwood is flying the Kiwi flag in the X-Fighters world series. Picture / Red Bull Content Pool
Levi Sherwood is flying the Kiwi flag in the X-Fighters world series. Picture / Red Bull Content Pool

But Levi Sherwood flies the New Zealand flag high in the X-Fighters world series as a former champion, and Marc Marquez looks to have stepped into multi-world MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi's shoes by winning his first MotoGP title to go with his Moto2 and 125cc world titles.

Daniel Bray remains the leading Kiwi karter racing in Europe and America, and often makes the podium to stay as one of the world's best.

- NZ Herald

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