Coatesville driver Ash Blewett is about to fulfil every racer's dream: to compete at Australia's iconic Bathurst circuit.
Going up against 40 other racers on the fast and punishing 'Mountain', he will need all his considerable race-craft and experience. The drive, in the Australian 'Pro-Am' Toyota 86 Racing Series, is part of his prize for winning the 2015-2016 Toyota Finance 86 Championship.
It puts him in front of a race-weekend spectator audience of up to 200,000 and a whole-weekend average Australian television audience that exceeds two million viewers and peaks above four million.
Blewett, 26, has extensive experience of single-make racing and has contested all three seasons of the 86 championship in New Zealand. Today, he took the opportunity to have a final track test session at the Hampton Downs circuit in the north Waikato before his flight to Australia.
"I'm definitely excited. I won the New Zealand 86 series in March and Bathurst seemed a long way away. But now it's a reality, and I can't wait," Blewett said.
A grid of 40 regular championship competitors will be "quite a crowd" on the world-famous 6.2km Mount Panorama circuit, where the cars are expected to hit speeds in excess of 200km/h down the legendary Conrod Straight.
There are significant differences between the TR 86 race cars used for the New Zealand championship and their Australian counterparts. The New Zealand cars run different brakes and safety equipment and race on Michelin slick tyres with full 'wets' for rain, while the Australian cars run a semi-treaded road tyre. While the Australian series is open to all manual variants of Toyota's cult-classic sports car with CAMS-approved modifications for racing, the New Zealand championship can only be contested by purpose-built TR 86 race cars.
Blewett tested an Australian car at Sydney Motorsport Park in August and says this gives the Australian cars a different feel in cornering and braking that was obvious from the first lap.
"The Aussie car is a lot livelier. Out of slower corners the back-end breaks loose more easily. The NZ cars are pretty well planted most of the time. But with slicks, the flip side is if the car does get out of shape things can go wrong really, really quickly. The Aussie car is more progressive," he said.
Another international visitor observing the 86 races is Tetsuya Tada, Toyota 86 chief engineer, dedicated motorsport enthusiast and patron of the Australian series. Toyota runs one-make series for the 86 in Japan, Germany and New Zealand as well as Australia, and Tada-san says his dream is to create a World 86 Challenge with the best drivers from Japan, Europe and Australasia.
The Australian series is part of the support program at selected rounds of the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship. It has a 'Pro-Am" format, meaning professional drivers join the action on an invitational basis. Returning to the grid for Bathurst are established racers Steve Johnson, Glenn Seton and Leanne Tander.
The Toyota 86 Racing Series is on-track across all four days of the Bathurst 1000 schedule, with two practice sessions on Thursday October 6, qualifying on Friday morning, two 20-minute races on Saturday and a third race early on Sunday October 9 as a curtain-raiser to the Supercars 'Great Race.'