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Saturday, Dec 30 06:20pm
AUTHOR: velocitynews.co.nz

Announcing the Velocity New Zealand Driver of the Year — Part 1

It's become a hideous cliché, but only because it's true — this little nation at the bottom of the world called New Zealand punches very well above its weight. 

 

And certainly the motorsport sphere is one that subscribes to the narrative. The last three years in particular will one day be looked back on as a watershed phase for the sport in this country. 

 

The response to this incredible surge has been fantastic within the throws of the sport. But in some chanels (mainstream media, I'm looking at you...) there's a lack of recognition towards classes and drivers outside of the core periphery. 

 

In many ways, bringing together these categories has been a motive for velocitynews.co.nz's existence. And so in order to further stab the stake in the sand, we bring you our inaugural Velocity New Zealand Driver of the Year list — a compilation of the 30 best Kiwis of 2017 (as ranked by velocitynews.co.nz editors Simon Chapman and Matthew Hansen) broken down into two editions. 

 

Tonight, we look at the drivers ranked from 30th to 15th. Sit back, enjoy, and happy new year. 

 

30. Callum Hedge

Categories / SsangYong Racing Series, New Zealand Formula 1600 Championships


Hedge


Photo: Media 77

 

SC: It was during the middle of the week on the 13th of May that Callum Hedge took his first big step towards bigger things in his motor racing career. 

 

There wasn't any fanfare, nor much of an audience. Only Callum, his father, a few other onlookers and drivers alike insterested in what the fuss was being made about this 13-year-old. 

 

In the midst of another SsangYong Racing Series campaign Hedge was on South Auckland's Pukekohe Park facility, sitting inside one of the country's most successful Mygale Formula Ford chassis'. 

 

It's last occupant, Liam Lawson, watched on with interest, his mentor Kenny Smith nearby. Trainer, friend, and supporter Daniel Connor there too and a buoyed Mark Petch. 

 

Hedge was quick that day, just about on par with Lawson's times. Earlier in the year Hedge took his first win in the SsangYong Racing Series, making him one of the youngest race winners on the national circuit. It's that success that has the eye of Mark Petch, who has got him labelled as the next Scott Dixon.

 

Perhaps one of the more unassuming faces among the paddock, Hedge's could be one to watch soon. 

 

29. Richard Moore

Categories / PORTERGROUP V8 Utes, ENEOS North Island Endurance Series

Achievements / 2016–’17 V8 Utes champion


Moore

 

MH: What was the fiercest domestic championship of 2017?

 

It wasn't the BNT V8s, or the New Zealand Rally Championship, or D1NZ... No, the most fascinating title fight on home soil was that for outright honours in the V8 Ute Series. 

 

For many the battle was one that went under the radar, but those who observed it first hand or tracked it on television witnessed a grand ding-dong battle between former champ Paul Manuell and rookie Richard Moore — former teammates in the BNT NZ SuperTourers. 

 

It didn't take long for the on-track drama to manifest into a number of contraversial clashes, and things off the track between the two weren't much prettier...

 

This came to a head at the series finale at Hampton Downs, where last-lap contact between the pair sent Moore off track. A subsequent penalty and steering issues in the following race for Manuell helped seal Moore seal the title on debut.

 

The battle looks set to resume in the 2017–’18 season, too, with the pairing sitting first and second in the points after the recent series opener at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park. 

 

28. Andrew Hawkeswood

Categories / Brian Green New Zealand Rally Championship

Achievements / 2017 NZRC champion


Hawkeswood

 

Photo: Geoff Ridder, ridder.co.nz


SC: "It's bloody awesome, eh!" Words that could probably be used to describe the year for all of Kiwi motor racing. 

 

Two decades it took for Andrew Hawkeswood to finally get victory in the New Zealand Rally Championship, and deservedly so having invested so heavily into the AP4+ program. 

 

Hawkeswood was one of the pioneers of the AP4+ progression in New Zealand, having built many of the AP4 machines running around the country. 

 

So it was rather fitting for him to get the title win in one of his own cars, a Mazda 2. More than anything else, however, he was consistent. He never won a rally across the season, but that was the story of 2017 — attrition. 

 

Hawkeswood optimised the phrase 'to finish first, first you must finish'. 

 

27. Matt Summerfield

Categories / Brian Green New Zealand Rally Championship

Achievements / 2nd overall in NZRC


Summerfield


MH: Hawkeswood won the war in a year where the new-generation AP4 and AP4+ machines held much of the NZRC spotlight. And deservedly so I may add.

 

However, Christchurch local Matt Summerfield was the star of the show. Continuing to campaign an older Group N–spec Subaru Impreza with co-driver Nicole Summerfield, Matt scored a breakout NZRC victory at the FIA International Rally of Whangarei. 

 

He then backed up the feat at the Lone Star Canterbury Rally to take the championship lead, and continued to be a factor for the title until the bitter and at Rally New Zealand. 

 

Hopefully we see him take control of an AP4 rally car sometime soon. It'll be good watching. 

 

26. Brendon Leitch

Categories / Castrol Toyota Racing Series, United States Formula 4 Championship

Achievements / 9th overall TRS, 4th overall US F4 — including round victory in Mid-Ohio


Leitch

 

SC: There's no doubt this year Brendon Leitch expected to be making big strides forward. Instead, he spent much of the year on his back foot. 

 

Having finished third in the 2016 Toyota Racing Series behind Lando Norris and Jehan Daruvala – both F3 drivers, the former a champion – 2017 was supposed to be Leitch's year. It wasn't. 

 

Far from it, in fact. In one of the toughest years of the Toyota Racing Series; he finished ninth. One sole win at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupō came after Marcus Armstrong made a mistake towards the end of the race. A win nevertheless, but none came after that. 

 

With his third successive season of TRS under his belt, the United States Formula 4 Championship beckoned, but that too was another challenge. A hard slog it was to be, having been given a bad hand by the racing package he received—we won't go into that however. 

 

With the issues 'fixed', Leitch got back up the front at the rear end of the season and showed what abilities he had in a completely new environment. A round win at Mid-Ohio capped off a tough year, but hopefully 2018 will bring better fortunes. 


25. Mad Mike Whiddett

Categories / Formula Drift Japan, CAMS Australian Endurance Championship

Achievements / 5th overall Formula Drift Japan — including round 4 victory


Mad Mike


SC: 'Mad Mike' Whiddett shouldn't just be comended for his results in this year's Formula Drift Japan campaign, but more so for the shear scale of what he's managed to achieve this season. 

 

So, on top of his FD drive he also started running his own drift days called Drift Force.

 

Ran another one of his Mad Mike's Summer Bash events at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park.

 

Re-built his Mazda RX-7 and fitted it with a retro front end.

 

Re-built his Mazda RX-8 to compete at the anual World Time Attack Challenge.

 

Built his partner Toni Cook a 'Rocket Bunny' Mazda MX-5.

 

Continued to support his son Lincoln Whiddett in his racing endeavours.

 

Went to the Goodwood Festival of Speed... again.

 

Moved his operation out to Hampton Downs Motorsport Park where almost all of his drift cars are based. 

 

Oh, and lets not forget he raced in the last Highlands 501 with Shane van fricken Gisbergen... and they could've (and maybe would've) won. 

 

2017 was massive for Whiddett. In among all of chaos he still managed to win a round of Formula Drift and came so close to winning the International title. If this year is anything to go by, 2018 won't be quiet for Whiddett. 

 

24. Simon Evans

Categories / BNT NZ Touring Car Championship, ENEOS North Island Endurance Championship, New Zealand Endurance Championship, Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour

Achievements / 2017–’18 NZTC champion, 2017 NZEC and NIES champion


Evans


MH: A third domestic V8 title for Simon Evans was a just reward at the end of another comprehensive whitewash in the BNT NZ Touring Car Championship (which has since been renamed the BNT V8s). 

 

But his most impressive drives came in Audis. Tackling the Bathurst 12 Hour as a GT3 virgin might sound like getting tossed in the deep end, but Evans took the event in his stride — scoring a fourth in class alongside brothers James and Theo Koundouris, and ex-Supercars driver Marcus Marshall. 

 

From there he remained a force to be reckoned with in an Audi. Alongside an impressive Gene Rollinson and the same gun Smeg Racing team that delivered V8 glory, Evans was able to claim two more titles — the North Island Endurance Series title and the New Zealand Endurance Championship title.

 

The three-gongs-in-a-year actually makes him the driver on this list with the most titles in a season. Hopefully now we'll see him take on some bigger challenges.

 

23. Jono Lester

Categories / AUTOBACS Super GT GT300

Achievements / 8th overall in 2017 SGT standings, including podium finish at Okayama International Circuit

 

Jono


SC: Jono Lester started 2017 with a bang and showed he had what it takes to be competitive in sports car racing. 

 

His first full time drive in the AUTOBACS SUPER GT Series with Kyosuke Mineo and Gulf Racing began in almost the perfect way possible. A solid qualifying effort from Lester put them up towards the front, and Mineo finished off the job by bringing their Porsche 911 GT3 R onto the podium at Okayama International Circuit. 

 

That same weekend fellow Kiwi Nick Cassidy took his first victory in the GT500 division. 

 

The form they'd found on debut in Okayama couldn't be continued, however. Only a fourth place finish at the season closer in Motegi could come close matching that result. The rest of the season they found themselves meddling with the mid-pack, forced to watch the Mercedes' skip away. 

 

But a top-10 finish on debut in a field of 24 cars isn't to be scoffed at. 2018 might bring better fortunes for Lester with a season under his belt. 


22. Will Bamber

Categories / Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, China GT Championship

Achievements / 3rd overall in PCCA


Bamber

 

Photo: Porsche

 

SC: Will Bamber showed shades of his older brother Earl's talent in 2017. 

 

In his first year of Porsche Carrera Cup Asia young Bamber took the most wins of anyone in the field, only DNFs through little fault of his own proved to be a title killer for the up-and-comer. 

 

On top of his Carrera Cup Asia exploits, Bamber won races in the China GT Championship as well as maintaining his driver training duties.

 

2017 was a breakout year for Bamber, even if few New Zealanders knew it. 

 

His success got him a chance to vye for the Porsche Scholarship to drive in the Porsche Supercup ranks throughout Europe. Unfortunately he didn't quite get there, but still, it showed he has what it takes to mix it up with the big boys. 

 

Who knows what 2018 will bring for Bamber. More drives, no doubt, but winning Carrera Cup Asia on his second go is a must. 

 

21. Taylor Cockerton

Categories / Castrol Toyota Racing Series, Formula Masters China

Achievements / 2017 Formula Masters China champion, 7th overall in TRS

 

Taylor


MH: It was a pretty solid year for Pukekohe-based open-wheel racers. 

 

And Mr. T-Cocks was well amongst it. Returning for a sophomore season in the Toyota Racing Series, he impressed almost immediately with a maiden win at Ruapuna — only for it to be taken away from him post-race due to a jumped start.

 

Ending the season seventh overall primed Cockerton for his maiden overseas championship chase in China's Formula Masters Series.Winning a race in round one set the tone. For the rest of the season he would never stray from the top five finishing positions. 

 

Even so, he was still merely an outside chance to win the title come the series finale at Shanghai. But three wins in a row was enough to swing the balance and ensure Cockerton a narrow five-point victory.

 

Now he finds himself in the same situation that many other young aspiring Kiwi racers are in; down on the cash to continue in TRS and potentially elsewhere. Hopefully a change of fortune is forthcoming.

 

20. Andrew Waite

Categories / FRD LMP3, Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour

Achievements / 3rd overall 2017 FRD LMP3

 Waite


SC: New Zealand motor racing's nicest guy is probably one of those up-and-comers who never really got his big break internationally. A stint in the V8 SuperTourers showed he had the mettle to mix it up with the likes of Scott McLaughlin and Greg Murphy, but nothing came of his efforts. Until this year the phone finally rang. 

 

It's been a long time since Waite has had the chance to race overseas in some properly quick machinery. While the odd GT3 drive comes here and there with Tony Quinn, a full season of the Australian GT Championship was never on the cards. 

 

Instead, it was a call from PTRS Racing, a Chinese racing team for whom Waite had driven for a decade earlier. 

 

All of a sudden Waite and close friend Simon Evans were on a plane to Shanghai to contest the FRD Chinese LMP3 Series. Success came almost immediately. Second place in the season opener was followed by a win in just the second round of the championship. 

 

Eventually he and co-driver Yann Clairay of France finished the season third. Not bad on international debut.

 

Perhaps there is still some fire in the belly? 

 

19. Cole Armstrong

Categories / Demon Energy D1NZ National Drifting Championship

Achievements / 2017 D1NZ champion


Armstrong

 

SC: If there's one overarching story for 2017 then it'd probably be the long awaited victory. Hawkeswood's New Zealand Rally Championship title or Brendon Hartley's Formula 1 breakthrough, a lot of drivers got what they wanted after years of trying.

 

Add to the list Cole Armstrong, 2017 Demon Energy D1NZ National Drifting Championship title winner. 

 

Now, I'm obviously a little biased (full disclosure: I'm the Media Manager for the series), but Cole Armstrong really put in the performance of his career in 2017.

 

Victory at round one held inside Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium started the ball rolling for the Tauranga terror and was a sign of how the rest of the season would go. 

 

Armstrong drove with confidence at a level not in previous seasons. What high levels of confidence he matched with strategy and passion to get through to the final with a comfortable cushion. 

 

He finished the season the way he started it, winning the final round at Pukekohe Park and taking out the title. It was a champions effort. 

 

18. Matt Griffin

Categories / Castrol BMW Driver's Series, BNT V8s, Australian V8 Ute Series

Achievements / round winner at Australian V8 Ute Series finale


Griffin.

 

Photo: Stoneman Race Tech


MH: 'Who the heck is this kid?'

 

That was the reaction to Matt Griffin when he popped on the Aussie ute scene as a ringer replacement for Peter Ward.

The final round of the ECB Australian V8 Utes Series was meant to be a coming together of the arguably the category's strongest grid for one last wave goodbye to the formula as the series shifts to turbo-diesel double-cab utes in the new year.

 

Instead, this Kiwi stole the show. He scooped pole for race one (after ruffling the feathers of former champ Ryal Harris), and then went on to win on debut.

 

With another win coming in race three, the honours of winning the last Aussie V8 ute race ever were handed to a debutant few in Australia had heard of two days prior. An incredible performance, deserving of a Trans-Tasman encore.

 

17. Chris van der Drift

Categories / Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, China GT Championship

Achievements / PCCA champion


van der Drift

 

SC: For the longest time Chris van der Drift has flown under the radar of Kiwi motor racing success. 

 

Now 31-years-old, van der Drift has firmly established himself as a GT3 specialist. A former winner in Carrera Cup Asia, van der Drift out drove Phillip Hamprecht and edged out Will Bamber to the title. Bamber couldn't been champion if not for retirements, but van der Drift was consistent and was hardly ever off the podium.

 

Now a two-time Carrera Cup Asia champion, van der Drift has his sights set back on an endurance drive in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship. 

 

It's not an unrealistic goal either, having driven for Erebus Motorsport in 2016. 

 

16. Mitch Evans

Categories / FIA Formula E

Achievements / 14th overall in 2016–’17 Formula E, podium in 2017–’18 debut


M Evans

 

MH: Joining a new team, in a car new to him (and powered by old tech), on a calendar of circuits mainly new to him, Mitch Evans was up against it from the outset.

 

But though prime results were few and far between, it was clear that Evans was one of the leading drivers amongst a field filled with star-studded open-wheel talent from first to twenty first. He trounced teammate Adam Carroll (a talented rooster in his own right), and recorded a stellar fourth-place finish at the Mexican ePrix — one of the races of the year.

 

While some racing fans continued to slam the category, Evans' Jaguar Panasonic Racing worked hard in the off season (Formula E has a wonky cross-year calendar). And by the time season 2017–’18 kicked off the team were among the front runners.

 

Evans was the driver to beat in practice at the Hong Kong series opener. Bad luck and penalties prevented him from making an impression in qualifying but come race time he was quick. Third in race two was the net result — a first podium for Jaguar.

 

And it won't be the last

 

Tune in to velocitynews.co.nz for Part 2 of the Velocity New Zealand Driver of the Year, where we crown our top 15! See you at 7.00pm tomorrow night...

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