What do Teretonga, Timaru and Barcelona have in common? The answer is Mitch Evans. The 19-year-old Auckland motorsport phenomenon has taken the chequered flag at Teretonga Park Raceway in Invercargill, Timaru International Motor Raceway and the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona on his way to becoming one of the most exciting prospects in world motorsport.
Now competing in the GP2 Series, a feeder for Formula 1, Evans earned his stripes in New Zealand’s Toyota Racing Series (TRS). He won back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011 before taking his talents to Europe, where he won the GP3 Series last year. In March this year, Evans made his GP2 debut in Malaysia. Up against older, more experienced drivers, he stunned seasoned commentators by taking third place in just his second race, becoming the youngest GP2 driver to stand on the podium. Evans is mentored by Australian Formula 1 star Mark Webber, is sponsored by Red Bull, and is savvy enough to give credit to the series and the tracks that kick-started his career.
“The TRS and the tight, twisting New Zealand tracks taught me heaps,” says Evans via Skype from his base in the United Kingdom. “Places like Timaru and Teretonga are like go-kart tracks, really. They haven’t changed much over the years but a track is a track, with corners and straights and tarmac. Lots of Kiwi drivers have grown up on these tracks and gone on to be competitive overseas.”
Drivers such as Bruce McLaren, who won his first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1959 at the age of 22; Denny Hulme, the only New Zealander to win the Formula 1 World Championship (in 1967); and Chris Amon, who was Ferrari’s number one driver from 1967–69 and is considered one of the most talented drivers never to win a Grand Prix. Both McLaren’s and Hulme’s careers took off after they were selected by the New Zealand International Grand Prix organisation for its ‘Driver to Europe’ scheme, a one-year scholarship designed to give Kiwis an opportunity to test themselves against the best in the world.
Now some of the best international driving talent comes to New Zealand every summer for the TRS, a series that in a few short years has established itself as a proving ground for young guns.
Raced over five weeks in January and February, it is modelled on Formula Renault in Europe. The car chassis is made by Tatuus in Italy and powered by Toyota engines. The engines are built and tested at TRS headquarters in Auckland by the same engine builder. He tests each engine on a dynamometer to ensure the power output—215 brake horsepower (bhp) in a TRS car, compared to approximately 750 bhp in the current Formula 1 car—is identical. Then they are sealed to make sure they are tamper-proof for the duration of the series. With strict regulations on team budgets and each car using the same engine, tyres and parts, the TRS is a pure test of driving ability.
The drivers reach speeds of up to 240km/h and the gap between first and last is usually no more than a few seconds. Coming into corners it’s not uncommon to see two or three cars battling it out with each driver hoping the other flinches first. Brakes screech, tyres smoke and drivers thrive or fold under the pressure. The changeable weather conditions are also a challenge. Sleet and hailstones are not uncommon in the early rounds in the South Island while the drivers also have to cope with scorching sunshine and temperatures in the early 30s.
This year, just three of the 18 cars in the TRS were driven by New Zealanders. Auckland’s Nick Cassidy won his second title in a row to maintain the proud record of homegrown talent in the series—since the TRS started in 2005, no overseas driver has of the series. With strict regulations on team budgets and each car using the same engine, tyres and parts, the TRS is a pure test of driving ability.The drivers reach speeds of up to 240 km/h and the gap between first and last is usually no more than a few seconds. As they come into corners, it’s not uncommon to see two or three cars battling it out, with each driver hoping the other flinches first. Brakes screech, tyres smoke and drivers thrive or fold under the pressure. The won the championship. In the first year of the series, all 17 drivers were Kiwis. The following year, four overseas drivers competed, and the number has risen steadily since then. The 2013 TRS featured two drivers from Brazil, two from the United Kingdom, and prospects from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Australia, Austria, Ireland, Canada, Holland, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Norway. What brings them to the other side of the world for five weeks of racing?
“They come here because it’s seen as a stepping stone between karting and Formula 1, and because it’s such a hard series,” says Mark Pilcher, the owner of M2 Competition, one of four teams in the 2013 TRS.
“The car is a glorified, souped-up version of a go-kart, but it’s a proper racing car and mistakes are punished. The drivers have to fight like hell to control the car and the tracks are very challenging.”
Pilcher is giving me the tour of the TRS headquarters, a nondescript industrial unit in the heart of Penrose, Auckland. The 38-year-old from Hamilton—who worked as a mechanic for more than 10 years in the IndyCar Series in the United States and the A1GP—spends a couple of days a week here during the off-season, checking on the progress of his six cars as they are stripped down, rebuilt and reconditioned ahead of the start of the 2014 TRS in January. Pilcher doesn’t own the cars; they are the property of Toyota, and drivers pay $165,000 to rent and race them in the five-week series. Pilcher’s job, and the job of the other four teams, is to provide a turn-key service to Toyota—the mechanics, engineers and expertise to make sure the cars and the drivers are looked after on and off the track.
“The drivers turn up here and it’s a case of, ‘There’s your car, let’s go racing’,” says Pilcher. “A lot of the overseas drivers come to New Zealand for the first time, take one look at the track and go, ‘Where the hell are we?’ Some of our tracks are bumpy and there’s no grip, and as soon as you go off the track, you’re in the tyre barriers or the wall.
“It rains almost every time we race in Invercargill and everyone’s wearing gumboots in this grass pit area with a giant tent. We tart it up as best we can, but the Europeans are used to air-conditioned garages on the pit lane.”
Teretonga in Invercargill is a couple of kilometres from Oreti Beach—the old stomping ground of Burt Munro, of The World’s Fastest Indian fame—and the weather coming in off the Southern Ocean can be severe in early January when the TRS rolls into town. When it rains, the mechanics and drivers can end up sloshing around the pits in six inches of water.
It’s a rough-and-ready experience for the spectators as well. Back in the day, the locals used to drive their sheep trucks and utes to the top of the bank and line up nose to tail around the track to create temporary grandstands. In recent years, one local company has come up with a novel solution to the lack of any corporate boxes: it hires a house-removals company to bring a vacant house track-side for the weekend.
“That’s what makes it a bit Kiwi,” says Pilcher. “This series couldn’t be done anywhere else in the world. European teams wouldn’t accept it. They wouldn’t accept the conditions. We work off generators in Invercargill that break down every five minutes and you’ve got guys from the different teams mucking in to get them working again so we can keep racing. After every race, you have to pack up the truck and drive hundreds of kilometres to the next track. It’s a hard, manic few weeks. After five weeks of racing around the country, you need five weeks off.”
The first race of the 2014 TRS is in Teretonga from January 11–12. The week after that, the travelling roadshow stops off in Timaru, followed by the new Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, which was built by Australian pet food tycoon Tony Quinn at a cost of more than $20 million. It opened this year and is already receiving rave reviews as one of the best tracks in Australasia. The series moves to the North Island for Round 4 at Hampton Downs outside Huntly, another highly regarded track, and concludes with the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild, Feilding.
Next year, Kenny Smith will drive in his 48th New Zealand Grand Prix. At 72, the grand old master of New Zealand motorsport shows no signs of slowing down. Smith has raced at the top level in New Zealand every year since 1958, when he won the New Zealand Hill Climb Championship as a 16-year-old. Not even a triple heart bypass in 1987 could keep him off the track.
Smith competed in the first TRS in 2005 and, while his last full series was in 2008, he still gets a kick out of testing himself against the teenagers and twenty-somethings who dominate the sport now.
“If I’m still walking around, I’ll keep driving,” says Smith. “It doesn’t faze me racing against these young fellas. I wonder what they’d be like if they had to drive some of the old shit we drove years ago. The cars now have so much modern technology. You’ve still got to drive it but the cars suck the ground and computers tell you what you’re doing wrong. In the old days, you had to work hard to make the car work for you.”
Seeing overseas drivers coming to race in New Zealand is not a novelty for Smith. He raced in the Tasman Series in the 1960s and 70s that attracted legends of the sport such as Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt. They came here because it was an ideal place to do off-season testing.
“We never came close to beating them because we were driving cars with half the horsepower, but it was still a privilege to race against them,” says Smith.
Pilcher says the TRS continues that tradition of international exchange. Whereas it was once about off-season training, it’s now about European drivers wanting to win the title. The other attraction is that New Zealand is still seen as a relatively cheap place to buy track time. With six practice sessions, a qualifying session and three races every weekend of the TRS, the drivers clock up close to 3000 kilometres on the race track and pay $165,000 for the privilege. Drivers in the Formula 3 European Championship get similar track time, but it costs up to $1 million. Money can’t buy you talent, but as every race-car driver will tell you, track time is almost more important than flair.
“Every driver that comes down here, even the bad ones, improves incredibly and [they] are much better drivers when they go back home,” says Pilcher.
Despite the growing popularity of the TRS with overseas drivers, there will always be a seat available for New Zealanders, according to Barrie Thomlinson, the man who sold the concept to Toyota and still manages the series.
“All they need is the passion and the money to do it,” he says. “There are fewer of them knocking on the door at the moment, but if there are any young Kiwi drivers out there with ambition, they should be in the TRS.”
New Zealand’s latest prospect for motorsport greatness is a case in point. Mitch Evans got into kart racing at just six years old and is the third generation of his family to race cars. His father, Owen, set the New Zealand land speed record in 1996 and almost killed himself in the process—his arm was severed, he broke his legs, shoulders and ribs, punctured his lungs, and was blind for a month.
Since Mitch Evans started racing, his father has invested millions of his own and other people’s money (including New Zealand motorsport’s biggest benefactor, Sir Colin Giltrap) in furthering his driving ambitions. This year alone the cost to race in GP2 is approximately $2.4 million.
“If Mitch didn’t have the ability, we couldn’t justify the cost,” says Owen Evans.
“A lot of dads out there will sacrifice everything trying to get their kids to the top level of motorsport and the kid is never going to be good enough. Mitch has the driving skills for Formula 1. He’s got raw speed and that’s something you can’t buy.”