Motorsport: Kiwis take on the best at Daytona

By Eric Thompson

Dixon, Hartley in same team for 24-hour race
Scott Dixon crosses the Daytona finish line last year. Photo / AP
Scott Dixon crosses the Daytona finish line last year. Photo / AP

In an ironic twist of circumstances this weekend, only three New Zealanders will be racing at the third round of the Toyota Racing Series at Hampton Downs, whereas five Kiwis will be at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Brendon Leitch, James Munro and Taylor Cockerton are going up against the brightest young single-seater stars from around the globe on the North Waikato track.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Scott Dixon, Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber, Shane van Gisbergen and Richie Stanaway are taking on some of the best long-distance racers in the world.

Two of them, Dixon and Hartley, are on the same team, albeit in different cars. Four-time IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Dixon has often lamented in the past that he's never been able to race with another Kiwi.

The duo are not sharing the same car but are in the same Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team driving a pair of Riley Daytona Prototype-Fords.

"The car was a bit slow during testing as the balance of power [engine power adjustment to try to make the field more even] is a bit strange. Hopefully it'll be sorted by this weekend," said Dixon, who is the defending champion.

"If we can get a bit of boost back, we should be able to challenge, as at the moment, we're probably only good for a solid fourth- or fifth-place finish. If we are close on power, we'll be able to challenge.

"Unfortunately Brendon and I aren't in the same car but at least we're in the same team. Hopefully one of us will be able to get a Ganassi car on the podium."

Hartley is also looking forward to racing out of the same garage as another Kiwi.

"It's nice to have been able to spend some time back in New Zealand before heading off to the Daytona 24 Hour," he said.

"I've done the race three times before and have yet to finish.

"This year being able to race for Ganassi and alongside Scott is fantastic. Unfortunately I'm not in the same car, but to have him as a teammate is really cool. In theory, working with a team like Ganassi, we should be in with a chance to win."

The rest of the Kiwis are spread across the other classes, with reigning Le Mans 24 Hour champion Earl Bamber driving the Porsche 919 RSR in the GT Le Mans class. Bamber would dearly love to place the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona trophy alongside his Le Mans silverware.

"Going back to Daytona again with the GTLM team will be really good," he said. "We don't have a new car this year like some of our competitors so we're going to rely on our reliability.

"We've had good preparation and testing and we know the car is good for 24 hours of racing so we've got everything aligned.

"It'll be a challenge, though, as there are so many good drivers in the field and the race is not like the Le Mans 24 Hour.

"They're completely different animals and the only similarity is that they are both 24 hours long.

"Safety can play a big part in the US. Last year, we started six laps down and in 10 hours, we were back on the lead lap. That would never happen at Le Mans. It's very different and this year, there are many more cars, which will make it difficult."

V8 Supercars driver Shane van Gisbergen is again heading for a big year and will put his hand up to race anything, anywhere. If he could, that young man would race every weekend in a calendar year.

Even his bread-and-butter V8 Supercars championship challenge takes on a new look as the Kiwi will be in a new team this year - Red Bull Racing Australia.

However, he'll be concentrating on this weekend to kick off his season in a Porsche 911 GT3R in the GT Daytona class.

"Testing has been good and it's pretty easy to settle in there [Daytona] now, as it's my third time in a row racing there," said van Gisbergen. "The team and drivers are the same as last year, so we'll all slot back in easily. Daytona is a pretty nice track to start the season off. Don't get me wrong, it won't be easy but I'll be looking forward to getting back into racing.

"The hardest part is getting used to the steep banking - you can hardly walk up it. There are only about five corners but it's a long lap and then you've got all the other cars in different classes flying around.

"You've got someone like Scott Dixon going 10 seconds a lap faster and blowing past you down the straight."

The last, and by no means least, New Zealander in the field is GP2 driver Stanaway, who is a fully fledged works driver, like Hartley and Bamber, but with Aston Martin Racing. He'll be charging around, also in the GT Daytona class, in a Vantage GT3.

Teams and drivers

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing (02): Scott Dixon (NZ), Tony Kanaan (UK), Jamie Murray (US), Kyle Larson (US)

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing (01): Brendon Hartley (NZ), Lance Stroll (CAN), Alex Wurz (AUT), Andy Priaulx (UK)

Porsche North America: Earl Bamber (NZ), Frederic Markowiecki (FRA), Michael Christensen (DEN)

Alex Job Racing (22): Shane van Gisbergen (NZ), David MacNeil (US), Cooper MacNeil (US), Leh Keen (US), Gunnar Jeanette (US)

Aston Martin Racing (98): Richie Stanaway (NZ), Paul Dalla Lana (CAN), Mathias Lauda (AUT), Pedro Lamy (POR)

- NZ Herald

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