OPINIONS
Wednesday, Aug 9 07:03pm
AUTHOR: Simon Chapman

NZ needs Carrera Cup for the next generation's sake, says GT3 ace

In 2006 at just 16-years-old Jono Lester became one of the youngest Porsche racers in the world for the time, and despite significant opposition the move ultimately proved to be the right one. 

 

A decade later, the idea of a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a 911 GT3 Cup car isn’t too farfetched.

 

Success in the series was the first step for Lester towards his goal of becoming a professional driver. Now 27-years-old, Lester is in his first full season of the Autobacs SUPER GT Series.

 

His career began in Porsches and he’s stuck with the brand for much of his career. His success, he believes, can largely be attributed to his time in New Zealand’s GT3 Cup Challenge.

 

In a recent interview velocitynews.co.nz sat down to talk about the prospect of GT3 Cup Challenge returning to New Zealand.

 

How influential was Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge in your early career as you developed as a driver?

 

Incredibly so. I can say that in hindsight, but at the time is was actually a big gamble. I was the first young driver to move into the Porsche Cups and at the time MotorSport New Zealand and the establishment all thought my father and I were mad. 

 

Back then, Formula Ford was the pathway out of Formula First. Porsche’s were for Bairdo [Craig Baird], Jimmy Richards and those fortunate enough to afford them.

 

We were laughed out of the room when asking for a license dispensation, age 15, but persisted and got a special exemption the following season.

 

There was a lot of pressure, because it was made clear that my success or failure would set a precedent for future similar requests from young drivers.

 

 

When it all shook out, I still made plenty of errors as young drivers do while they’re developing their skills, but achievements outweighed this.

 

Overall it gave me the solid foundation upon which I’ve now made a professional career, and come full circle from many GT3 cars back into a Porsche.

 

A Porsche Carrera Cup car is the most difficult sports car to excel in, bar none—most if not all drivers will agree. Wrestling a fast lap out of a Cup Car is still one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, and the most stressful. There’s no margin for error, and no safety net … just what a young driver needs.

Do you agree there is a gap in the New Zealand racing scene after Formula First, Formula Ford and Toyota 86s for those who want to get to sports car racing internationally?

 

Yes, there is, and V8s are not the answer. There is no logical crossover between V8s and sports cars; they are their own unique career pathways.

 

If you want to race a GT or sports car, you need to hone your skills in one, just like an open wheel driver, or a touring car driver. We’re too small a country to entertain the idea of doing things half-assed.

 

But it’s not that simple, because the wounds are still fresh from the dissension within the ranks of New Zealand motorsport a few years ago. You can’t just go out and raise a sponsorship budget now, or field 20 Porsches, or leverage healthy crowds and TV figures.

 

I really feel for young drivers trying to get their start today – it’s not like it was 10-years ago. And even then, we had to scrap for every penny to make the starting grid.

 

What can young guys coming through do to achieve the goal of getting a GT3 drive?

 

I wish I could tell you. I really don’t have the answer. I don’t recommend jumping straight into a GT3 car, even if you can afford it.

 

You need to build your competitive base in a car without ABS, without traction control – something that will bite you if you go over the edge, and challenge every element of your skills. 

 

The New Zealand endurance series' are growing and as a GT driver I love seeing that, but there’s more value to be had in wheel-to-wheel one-make racing when you’re growing up.

 

Developing your speed is one thing, but race craft is another. You don’t really learn to race in multi-class endurance racing.

 

Could New Zealand sustain a new Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge?

 

I don’t see why a GT3 Cup Challenge couldn’t be revived here. It’s very strong in Australia. But it needs a few things to make it happen. Firstly, it needs to be tightly regulated and focussed on the amateur and up-and-coming driver.

 

We can’t have big budget professional teams coming in to trophy snatch with Pro drivers and unlimited resources. Keep the costs low, the entry criteria tight, and the vision clear. Then, you need the dealers involved.

 

Porsche racing was only ever a success here because of the Giltrap Group, Porsche Club of NZ, EMD and the supporting roles played by Continental Cars and the other dealers. You need this – it gives the competitors and the sponsors confidence.

Carrera Cup is proven to foster up and coming Kiwi talent, including yourself, how important is it that New Zealand get its own Carrera Cup series or a variation of it

 

That depends on who you ask. I can only speak for myself, and I think it’s very important.

 

Globally, sports car and GT racing has been the biggest mover and shaker of the past decade. It’s a pragmatic and exciting career pathway for any young driver who dreams to achieve it.

 

I really hope a Carrera Cup – or similar equivalent – can be ignited because it’s a sorely missed ingredient in NZ motorsport than we all miss.

What would you like to see happen with Porsche racing in New Zealand?

 

I think a collaborative partnership with the Porsche Club and their Pirelli Porsche Series is important. Particularly in the early phase of a potential revival, the boosted grids of some of these loyal competitors may help get something over the line.

 

Photo: Euan Cameron

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