The Toyota Racing Series is a stepping stone for the next generation of drivers

Twenty of the best young race car drivers from 11 different countries will line up on the grid at Ruapuna, Christchurch next week for the opening gambit of the 2017 Toyota Racing Series.

Over five race weekends the drivers will go head-to-head over 15 races culminating in the New Zealand Grand prix at Circuit Chris Amon in Manfeild. The series was first contested in 2005 and has grown from a domestic championship to now become a truly internationally recognised must-do series for up and coming single seater racers.

Such has its reputation been over the past few years, that it attracted young pilots who have now moved up through the ranks and have a seat in Formula One. The likes of Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat, Williams' Lance Stroll and Williams' development driver Alex Lynn all now play with the big boys.

Many other graduates of the TRS have gone on to cement careers in a number of top notch categories including Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber, Shane Van Gisbergen, Mitch Evans and Nick Cassidy to name but a few.

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Many records have tumbled over the years, but one will remain forever - the winner of the very first championship back in 2005.

There were 17 contestants for the inaugural series who raced at Timaru, Invercargill, Ruapuna, Manfeild and Pukekohe with the vast majority being local talent. It was Brett Collins who came out on top beating out Andy Knight and Brendon Hartley. In fact, now works Porsche racer Hartley won the very first race, but it was Collins who won the round.

"It was a massive stepping stone being able to get into wings and slicks racing," said Collins. "It was great to be able to get away from the Formula Ford stuff and get into something with traction and a bit of grunt.

Racing series

January 14-15:

Lady Wigram Trophy, Ruapuna Park, Christchurch.

January 21-22:

Spirit of a Nation Cup, Teretonga, Invercargill.

January 28-29:

New Zealand Motor Cup, Hampton Downs, North Waikato.

February 4-5:

Denny Hulme Memorial Trophy, Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park, Taupo.

February 11-12:

New Zealand Grand Prix, Circuit Chris Amon, Manfeild.

"It was so much different to anything I had been in before. I can remember when we first got into them and discovering the variable valve timing they had. You get up to around 5000rpm and then this big, loud throaty noise suddenly happened.

"I reckon everyone testing that day came back into the pits straight away thinking something had gone wrong. Once we knew it was just the way the engine worked it was such a rush driving them."

Collins was among the quickest to adapt to the car and picked up a bundle of points over the opening rounds to pull a healthy lead over the rest of the field. However, once the rest of the field got the hang of the new car, he had a fight on his hands.

"At the end of the day I've driven by the seat of my pants and that's how I probably got away with it [winning] early in the series. Once the younger guys and their technicians got the hang of things they were must faster towards the end of the series. I just got in the thing and drove the pants of it and it was super enjoyable. The times [lap] you could get out of them was incredible."

The brain child of Barrie Thomlinson and Toyota New Zealand, the TRS was set up with a global reach in mind and in anyone's books it certainly has achieved its goal. Back in the early days these scaled down Grand Prix cars were quite revolutionary.

Thomlinson had seen that Collins was quite fast in Formula Ford and invited him to the launch of the TRS car. He was sold on the idea and worked really hard to put together a sponsorship package to go racing. "Brett was looking for something new to do and he obviously had some talent and had that raw Kiwi ability. He was also keen to get into these sort of single seaters," said Thomlinson.

"The original idea was to develop the series and have internationals come and join going up against some good Kiwi talent.

"It slowly developed and by about 2008 it was clear that to keep the series going we needed to get more internationals, so we put a lot of work into that.

"Now the field is predominantly full of overseas drivers with four or five really good young Kiwi talent among them."

Now farming in the South Island, Collins hasn't quite given the racing game away. He's working on a project in his shed and hopes to be ready to go later this year.

"I'm building a brand new replica of the 1977 Trans Am used in the film Smokey and the Bandit.

"I've got a 620kW ex-Dale Ernhardt Junior Nascar engine to go in it and I'm going to race in the Central Muscle Cars," he said.