Trans-Tasman rivalry, new cars, new teams and new drivers: the 2016-2017 Toyota 86 Championship will be picking winners when the 17-strong field wheels out onto the fast corners and long straights of Pukekohe this weekend.
The championship's first round puts drivers in front of a weekend-long crowd of up to 120,000 trackside spectators as part of the ITM Supersprints, New Zealand's round of the Australian V8 Supercar Championship.
The line-up for the opening round is big on talent, with drivers from around New Zealand drawn by the prospect of three televised races in front of the massive crowd. In terms of the series drivers are attracted by six rounds and 18 races of intense on-track action and the championship's record $100,000 prize fund.
Coatesville's Ash Blewett, who won the 2015-2016 Toyota Finance 86 Championship and has since raced the Australian series at Bathurst, is back. Also returning and in a new car is John Penny, who was third overall in the 2015-2016 championship.
The CareVets Racing Scholarship is proving its worth, with successful candidate Jack Milligan of Christchurch joined by the rest of the top three candidates: Brody McConkey, who was second in the scholarship judging; and Ben MacDonald, third. In addition, both the 2015-2016 scholarship winners have returned with their eyes on the title: Ryan Yardley continues in the team's number 18 car while Te Puke's Michael Scott returns in a new car.
There are two Australian drivers competing: Will Brown and Drew Ridge. Brown, 18, has just won the Australian Formula 4 single-seater series and currently leads the Australian Toyota 86 series. Ridge, 17, is a race winner in Formula BMW Asia and Australian Formula 4. Will Brown won all three races at the Bathurst round of the Australian 86 series, raising the prospect of a 'return match' duel this weekend between him and Ash Blewett.
Category manager Geoff Short says the response from new racers and returning drivers promises exciting action at every round.
"For drivers keen to carve out a racing career, the championship offers close racing action with very evenly matched machinery in a professional racing environment. It has already propelled a number of 'graduates' on to greater things. The record entry tells us we are on the right track, so now it's up to the racers to show what they can do," he said.
The 2016-2017 Toyota 86 Championship starts at the ITM V8 Supercar event at Pukekohe November 4-6. All six rounds of the championship are televised and the $100,000 prize fund is the biggest in New Zealand's current premier motor racing series.