The Castrol Toyota Racing Series is set to likely have its title decided at next weekend's New Zealand Grand Prix, after first and second in the standings ended the final day at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park separated by just five points.
After watching Liam Lawson take a win yesterday, Marcus Armstrong was able to win the final race of the weekend in Taupō — collecting the Denny Hulme memorial trophy in the process. The pair of young New Zealanders now sit on 278 and 273 points in the championship respectively, with Lawson holding the narrow edge.
"It's quite strange. Yesterday in no way, shape or form was I able to fight for the win, then today it was quite easy," said Armstrong at the end of play.
"I'm really happy to have won the race, and to make up for failed suspension yesterday - we're back in the championship fight. I'm sure [the title] will go down to the wire. It will be a spectacular show. We have to make up for what happened last year and take the title."
Sunday's first race was an action-packed affair, led by a race-long exchange for first between three drivers; Esteban Muth, Brendon Leitch, and Lawson. Starting from the front, Muth [pictured below] led every lap to take his first race win of the season. But it wasn't easy. Leitch was on his tail from the start, and in the end finished just two tenths ahead of the Invercargill ace.
After initially being mired in the partially reversed grid, Lawson weaved through the order and latched onto the back of first and second. But, save for a few peeks on the inside at the end of the back straight, he seemed to largely settle for third place.
The other big story from the race was Armstrong's charge from the back. Having started from last after yesterday's suspension, he had to slice through the pack if he wanted to mitigate Lawson's chances of extending his lead of the championship. After picking off a few on lap one, he eventually joined a battle pack consisting of Calan Williams, Dev Gore, and Jackson Walls.
Soon he had worked his way into second in the queue behind Gore, lucky to not incur damage along the way — especially when, with seven laps to go, he and Gore went off at the end of the back straight. Armstrong was able to get the position, while Gore lost spots as he recovered through the dust.
Armstrong eventually eighth. Although he made up for it in the last race of the weekend.
He won the feature-race start from second on the grid, edging teammate and pole-sitter Auer to turn one as Muth, Lawson, and Leitch filed in behind. The early laps claimed a few drivers, including Australian drivers Jackson Walls and Thomas Smith, plus Russian driver Artem Petrov.
The latter's fall through the order was the most spectacular, after he lost his front wing on the run to turn five during lap one. Leitch also lost time on the lap — falling from fifth to eighth after running wide on the right-hander before Taupō's iconic sweeper.
While Armstrong and Auer were the class of the field, Lawson was had a tough time getting by Muth. The pair battled phyiscally over a number of laps, coming within millimetres of making contact at turn one on one occasion. It was a long battle, which invited Raoul Hyman as the laps wore on. The three-car battle for third was one of two tight fights on track, equalled only by the dice for eighth between Leitch and Cameron Das.
Lawson had a big moment with 11 laps to go; getting sideways into turn five and onto the dirt. He didn't lose a spot to Hyman, but lost some margin to Muth. Behind them a lap later, Das finally got by Leitch on the front straight.
The complexion of the race changed with nine laps to go, following an incident down the order between Petr Ptacek (Czech Republic) and Parker Locke (USA). The duo interlocked wheels exiting turn five, sending both cars into a spin. Salt was added into the wound when Ptacek's rolling Toyota rolled straight into Locke as he tried to recovered.
With both cars immobilized the race was yellow flagged. Then a few laps later, it was red flagged in order to preserve the chance of a green finish. Armstrong and Auer's gap would be whittled to nothing, with Muth, Lawson, Hyman, Kazuto Kotaka, Calan Williams, Das, Leitch, and Petru Florescu made up the top 10.
The race restarted with four laps to go, and Lawson pounced immediately to grab third from Muth at turn one. From here it was a question of whether he could get to Auer, or even Armstrong in first. But, those questions were nullified by another safety car.
This time, it was brought out for the crashed cars of Smith and Petrov. At the back of the pack, Smith appeared to have out-braked himself. And, in the process of recovering, he collided with the back of the passing Petrov. Smith was able to drive away from the scene (minus a wing), but Petrov was beached in the sand-trap.
Because of the limited laps remaining, the race would finish under yellow — handing Armstrong his fourth win of the season. The points gap between he and Lawson is now just a measly five points, with three races at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon left to go. Behind them, Auer's strong weekend has seen him jump to third in the standings (225).
"I stuffed it up for myself in qualifying, we should have been a lot further up the grid," said Lawson.
"So I knew it was going to be hard from there. Esteban [Muth] was aggressive keeping me behind. Any other time I would have kept going and we would have touched, but it wasn't worth it. So I waited and waited and I got him on the restart, and straight away we had the pace to catch up to Lucas [Auer]."
Quizzed about whether he thought he'd lead the standings heading into the series finale in his rookie TRS season, Lawson added that he "certainly didn't think it would happen."
"We were a long way behind at the start of the weekend. We got lucky with Marcus having his bad race. We've both had a bad race and now we're back on even terms again. Its going to be all on at Manfeild."