Highlands Motorsport park has proven to be a happy hunting ground for the Kiwi contingent competing in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series, as races two and three today were clinched by local talent.
Race two was won by Invercargill's Brendon Leitch, while race three was earned in scintillating style by Liam Lawson after a stunning performance in challenging conditions. The latter's memorable win in the wet helps solidify him as a true contender for the overall title. Visit Driven to watch race three in full.
Quizzed on where the win stacked up in his career, Lawson was confident in his answer.
"It's probably the biggest one, to be honest," he said. "I made it quite difficult, but massive thanks to M2 for giving me the car to do it."
Leitch's earlier win was briefly a topic of controversy. Initially he had finished second to Belgium teenager Esteban Muth, but the 16-year-old was later judged to have jumped the start. Leitch had been threatening Muth early in the race, but a slight mistake saw him drop off the back of the series rookie.
Muth ended up being classified in fourth, while Raoul Hyman and Christchurch's Marcus Armstrong filled the podium.
Beyond the penalty, the race was also notable because title contender Lucas Auer crashed heavily on the front straight with just a few laps to go. It prompted a red flag, and a lengthy rebuild for his M2 Competition team.
Thankfully the car was repaired and he would be able to start the 20-lap feature race — a race he had pole position for alongside Armstrong, with Lawson and Petr Ptacek on the second row.
Heavy showers and potential hail were forecast for Sunday's racing, and while the category avoided it for race two things were different for race three. A long pre-race shower glazed the track prior to the start, with further drizzle helping maintain slip for the opening laps.
Auer won the start from pole, but was under pressure straight away. This was most notable over the bridge, as the leading trio (Armstrong and Lawson right behind) parked on the shallow inside line — an area of track that cars rarely ever occupy — to both attack and defend in the braking zone.
The move of the season so far came from Lawson shortly afterwards. On a still damp track, the Pukekohe pilot set himself up to get by Armstrong through the fast sweeping final corner (the corner that Auer had crashed at by running wide earlier in the day).
Armstrong defended the inside line, but Lawson instead went to the outside. The pairing ran side by side at pace through the corner, with Lawson making the most of the wetter outside line to take second place.
As the track got drier he then got by factory Mercedes-Benz driver Auer [pictured above] in an almost equally brave passing move. This time it was after the bridge on the inside — yet another unorthadox passing corner, but nonetheless an effective one for Lawson. Despite only taking the lead halfway through the race, he still ended up winning by a massive nine-second margin.
"That was a really cool race," added Lawson. "I knew it was going to be really difficult after qualifying third — the two guys in front were really quick in qualifying. So it helped that it was wet at the start."
Lawson's win helped him secure a healthy championship lead and the Dorothy Smith Memorial Cup. The trophy honors the life of Dorothy Smith, mother of open-wheel legend Kenny Smith who just happens to be one of Lawson's motorsport mentors.
Auer, appearing to struggle with grip, faded as the race went on (he only posted the ninth-quickest time). Armstrong got past him to collect second, and in the dying laps a flying Raoul Hyman got past to take the first podium finish of his season. Auer and Ptacek rounded out the top five, while Leitch [pictured above] completed the Kiwi contingent in ninth.
The series is now set to travel to Teretonga Park in Invercargill for round two of the series — Lawson now potentially the favourite to take the crown in his debut season.
Championship points to come.