Sunday, Dec 31 07:10pm
AUTHOR: velocitynews.co.nz

The Velocity New Zealand Driver of the year Part 2

Last night, we revealed the first half of velocitynews.co.nz's list of 2017's 30 best Kiwi drivers. You can read that list by clicking here


Tonight? We go one step further, and announce our top 15. 


Here we find the country's brightest stars overseas; from drivers that scored acclaim through what they had to overcome to achieve, to drivers that went above and beyond on multiple occasions and helped remind us why we follow this wonderful sport. 


No more waiting. Let's rip into it. 


15. Hayden Paddon

Categories / World Rally Championship, Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship

Achievements / 8th overall in 2017 WRC, podium finishes at Rally Poland and Rally Australia, winner of Rally New Zealand 2017


Photo: Hyundai Motorsport

MH: Something tells me that 2017 isn't a year that Hayden Paddon will look back on too fondly. 


Maybe it was the unimaginable drama of the opening round of the year, where his car struck an out of place spectator. Maybe it was the punctures that seemed to just come out of nowhere, or the rollovers. Maybe it was the fact that when quizzed about what he'd rate his season out of 10, Paddon responded with a question of his own; “Can I say a negative number?”


Indeed, it was a tough year both on and off the track for the kid from Geraldine. But that didn't mean it wasn't without its highs.


Two impressive podiums at Poland and Australia helped him finish eighth in the points; a bee's you know what away from Kris Meeke. He could well have won in Italy, too, but for an off that trimmed a corner off the car and forced them to retire out of the lead. 


Outside of the WRC, this year also saw the creation of Paddon Rallysport; a further indication of the Kiwi's support of domestic rallying. The team scooped two New Zealand Rally Championship round wins; one with David Holder at round one, and then Rally New Zealand victory at the end of the season with a returning Paddon behind the wheel. 


14. Michael Pickens

Categories / New Zealand Sprint Car Championships, New Zealand Midget Championships

Achievements / claiming his 100th career victory, at Western Springs


SC: Speedway hasn't been something that we've covered on velocitynews.co.nz as much as we would like to, mostly due to the shear scope of competition out there. 


But Michael Pickens' run of form is still something we've followed with high interest.


There's no question Pickens will go down in the record books as being one of New Zealand's greatest racers of the modern era. Last season Pickens dominated the International Midget Series and was nearly unbeatable on Auckland's Western Springs Speedway. 


He perhaps would've been disappointed to not bring the silverware home on his visit two weeks competing in the US, but he was nonetheless impressive — a real ambassador for the sport on the world stage.


The start of the 2017–'18 season hasn't been so kind as he gets to grips with running his own team, but he's still been an ace on the grid and one to watch. 


13. Liam Lawson

Categories / New Zealand Formula 1600, CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4

Achievements / 2017 NZ 1600 champion, 2nd overall 2017 Australian F4



SC: To be able to say you're the youngest winner of a Formula Ford title win the world is pretty special. 


Liam Lawson showed in 2017 he's not just a pretty face. In his Formula 1600 campaign Lawson won all but one race in his 15 race season. With that under his belt he jumped across the ditch to tackle the CAMS Australian Formula 4 Championship.


There he won five races on his way to second in the championship. A lot like fellow Kiwi Marcus Armstrong, mechanical issues dogged the youngster as he sought to win his maiden title. 


Most impressive, however, was his ability on the streets of the Gold Coast. Having never driven on a street circuit, Lawson put in a barnstorming drive to win the first and last races of the final race weekend. 


With two solid seasons in one year under his belt, hopefully he can make a move up the ladder in 2018. 

12. Dom Storey

Categories / CAMS Australian Endurance Championship

Achievements / AEC champion


MH: It was a coming-of-age season for Dom Storey; where he was finally able to achieve in Australia's GT scene.


With co-driver Peter Hackett, Storey looked like a winner in waiting at various points of last year's sprint and endurance titles. But for various reasons the pair came out the other side empty handed save for a podium or two. 


This year though came a more focused campaign. It only included the Endurance Championship roster, and this time there weren't to be any mistakes. The duo drove faultlessly at each of the four rounds, with Storey cracking an emotional maiden race win at the Hampton Downs 500. 


They entered the last round of the year as outsiders, and looked beaten both for the race and the title honours. But, motorsport is a cruel and unpredictable thing, and a monumentally chaotic run to the flag saw Storey and Hackett's key rivals fall by the wayside. 


Mechanical issues of their own cost them a second win in a row, but sixth with a limping Mercedes-AMG was enough to seal a well deserved maiden tin-top title for Storey and his co-driver. 


Storey now looks set to take on the Dunlop Super2 Series. We'll be watching with interest. 


11. Jaxon Evans

Categories / Australian Porsche Carrera Cup, CAMS Australian Endurance Championship

Achievements / 5th overall in APCC, 2nd overall in AEC


SC: Jaxon Evans is well on his way to becoming one of New Zealand's next best sports car racers.


2017 was Evans' breakout year, one he'll look back on and probably wonder how a CAMS Australian Endurance Championship title slipped out of his fingers. 


His form in Porsche Carrera Cup Australia had him on par with the achievements of Matt Campbell for a brief period. He went on to win in the class, defeating the likes of Andre Heimgartner, David Wall and Alex Davison. 


Five wins in total put him fifth on the points order. However, it was his exploits in the endurance scene that really got people's attention.


It seemed winning the Australian Endurance Championship would be a foregone conclusion, having won the first two rounds and taking second at the penultimate race at Hampton Downs.


All they needed to do was finish, but they didn't.


In a cruel twist of fate, Evans made a mistake as the race neared it's end. The damage was significant, but not enough to stop them for getting the car. But a technical glitch meant they couldn't get the car restarted. Instead, Dom Storey and Peter Hackett crossed the line to take the championship. 


It was a small error that cost them big, but Evans' career has only just begun. A career in Europe beckons should he follow the right track.


10. André Heimgartner

Categories / Australian Porsche Carrera Cup, Blancpain GT Asia, FRD LMP3 China, Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, ENEOS North Island Endurance Series, BNT V8s

Achievements / 2nd overall in 2017 APCC, 3rd-place finish at Gold Coast 600


MH: After getting bumped out of the Supercars circus at the end of 2016, you'd think that André Heimgartner's calendar would get less crowded. 


Not so. Get a load of the amount of categories he raced in this year. 


When we chatted to him at a soggy Hampton Downs in the middle of the year, he was relaxed, seemingly happy to be out of the pressure-cooker world of Supercars. He said there was little chance of him getting a slot in the Pirtek Enduro Cup — and that was perfectly fine. He wanted to get into GT racing anyway. 


That was off the back of a successful return to the Australian Carrera Cup series, where he ended up finishing second overall to David Wall, with five wins to his name. Speaking of Porsches, Heimgartner also squeezed in a memorable cameo in the Blancpain GT Asia series finale — storming from 13th to third in rubbish conditions. And, save for a return to the BNT V8s, that was meant to be where Heimgartner's 2017 ended.


However, a late call-up from Brad Jones Racing to replace an injured Ash Walsh at the Bathurst 1000 changed everything. 


The 22-year-old did well, finishing ninth with Tim Slade despite Slade overheating to the point of exhaustion late in the race. Keep in mind, this is a driver who hadn't tested with the team (or indeed any Supercars team) throughout the year. He simply got a call a few days before Bathurst, then got the nod on Friday morning. 


But it was at Surfers Paradise that things hit their stride. Heimgartner was handed the keys for the opening stint of the opening race, starting towards the pointy end in massive rain. He quickly carved through to the lead, built a gap, and handed his team a shot at race victory on a platter. 


It was a faultless drive, made particularly impressive considering that it came off the back of a largely forgettable sophomore Supercars season with LD Motorsport. They only finished third (a duffed pitstop spoiling matters), but it was enough to put Heimgartner's name in the pot at Nissan Motorsport for 2018. How quickly things can change.

9. Shane van Gisbergen

Categories / Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour, 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring

Achievements / 4th overall in VASC, four VASC wins

van Gisbergen

MH: There's an alternate universe out there — a universe where in 2017 Hillary became President, Shortland Street's writers decided 'please tell me that is not your penis' isn't an appropriate line to end an episode of their already dowdy show on, and Shane van Gisbergen became a dual Bathurst winner. 


But instead we live in this universe, where 'SVG' instead has to cop a couple of 'what if' results on the chin. 


It was a mixed year for the defending Supercars champion. He won just as many races as his Red Bull Holden Racing Team teammate Jamie Whincup, and looked just as likely to scoop the crown until crud results at Sydney Motorsport Park and the Sandown 500 put him back a few notches. 


From there recovery was difficult. An October Bathurst win probably should've been his and Matt Campbell's. They had weathered (haha, rain pun) a treacherous opening few stints to lead with the chequered flag, only for two off-track excursions to spoil chances of victory. 


It was somewhat reminiscent of the Bathurst 12 Hour in February. Only that time van Gisbergen and his co-drivers Craig Baird and Maro Engel had to deal with a car that clearly didn't have the speed to equal the prancing horse that ultimately won. 


It's easy to knock unforced errors, but the display that van Gisbergen often puts on remains as good a reminder as any of why we watch this cars-driving-in-circles sport. He's brash, he's gutsy, and capable at any moment of turning any race on its head. More of the same next year, Shane. But maybe with a few more wins thrown in. 

8. Marcus Armstrong

Categories / Castrol Toyota Racing Series, Italian F4 Championship, ADAC Formula 4

Achievements / 2017 Italian F4 champion, 4th overall in 2017 TRS, 2nd overall in ADAC F4


Photo: Prema Powerteam

SC: If there was one moment of the year that made everyone say "holy shit", it was probably when Marcus Armstrong went around the outside of teammate Jehan Daruvala in his first race of the Castrol Toyota Racing Series.


That really set the tone for the rest of the season, though after a few words in the pit lane Armstrong was a little more subdued for the rest of the weekend. 


Armstrong drove with intent, but that also led to mistakes. Having won his first ever race in the series, he failed to finish the last after a few cumbersome mistakes. Later in the season he led in Taupō, but another mistake cost him the win. 


Armstrong was always there or thereabouts, but never consistent enough to win the title. A tough second weekend in Teretonga really cost him a shot at the championship. 


He ended the season fourth, but it put him in good stead for his Formula 4 seasons in Italy and Germany. He won in Italy and only narrowly missed out in Germany. Still, the mistakes were there, but by the end of the season the only thing that cost him a shot at winning the German title were mechanical failures. 


2018 will be big for Armstrong. He'll have to win the Toyota Racing Series, then we'll see how he really goes in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship. 

7. Fabian Coulthard

Categories / Virgin Australia Supercars Championship

Achievements / 3rd overall VASC


MH: A season where he was in contention to win the whole kit and kaboodle from the get go, padded out with four race wins and a podium at Bathurst? Yes, this was Fabian Coulthard's best season in Supercars. 


What made it particularly impressive was all the pre-season negative nancies who simply didn't give Coulthard a hope of keeping pace with his new teammate; the electric McLaughlin. Yet, he led the ex-Volvoite for a large portion of the season, recording better results at plenty of key events. 


And he could well have given that title fight a better shake if it wasn't for two critical retirements in the last four races (one of which being that spectacular roll over at Pukekohe. Coulthard seems magnetized to spectacular roll overs...).


Room for improvement? Well it comes down to beating and finishing ahead of the other guy more often. That's the easy answer. The hard answer is perhaps the requirement for more mongrel, more fierce defending and attacking when the situation calls on it.


McLaughlin, Whincup, and van Gisbergen in particular are among the best in the world for that sort of white knuckle stuff. Consistency can only go so far to beating them.

6. Richie Stanaway

Categories / Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, Dunlop Super2 Championship


SC: Richie, Richie, Richie... oh what could've been.


Having left the Aston Martin Racing World Endurance Championship squad, Richie Stanaway put his pride on the line when he announced he wanted to be a full-time Virgin Australia Supercars Championship competitor. 


Everyone expected Stanaway to do well, and he proved himself from the outset. A win on debut in the Super2 Series was the catalyst for greater achievements. 


In only his fifth Supercars start he won alongside Cam Waters in the Sandown 500. It was what Stanaway needed to prove himself. Then came Bathurst. 


It was the race that they could've won. Stanaway was undoubtedly the quickest driver in tough wet conditions. Having caught the leader he went off the road, but in only a matter of laps caught back up and promptly took the lead. 


It was all looking rosy on a dreary afternoon, until chaos erupted after a late race restart. Caught up in the melee, Waters got his wings clipped and had to retire to the pit lane for repairs. 


It was an unfortunate end. However, will a full-time gig in 2018, we can surely expect to see more gun driving from a man who has a marvelous record. 

5. Scott Dixon

Categories / Verizon IndyCar Series, 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona

Achievements / 3rd overall in 2017 IndyCar Series, pole at Indy 500, winner at Road America


Photo: Ganassi Racing

MH: The problem that's been festering away on the IndyCar Series for several years now has been the lack of success for blue-eyed American folks. Brazilians, Australians, Frenchmen, and a Kiwi named Scott Dixon have all played their part in turning the series into an international driver gumbo with world appeal but not necessarily American appeal. 


So when Penske Racing's new American recruit Josef Newgarden started to show promise, started to look like a contender for the 2017 title, drivers like Dixon became villains to the plot. 


I bring this up because from the outside, it seemed like the Newgarden hype train became the category's primary narrative, instead of the lack of balance between drivers running a Chevrolet package and those like Dixon running a Honda package. 


Dixon was perhaps the only Honda driver on the grid that looked remotely consistent. Indeed, he was the only one to finish in the top five in the standings, in turn breaking up a Penske love in. 


And despite those tools, and just one victory all season, Dixon remained a championship contender all year long. A muted fourth place finish at the series finale wasn't enough, although arguably his horrific crash at the Indy 500 (you'll remember it, it was plastered on every news bulletin over the following 24 hours) was what cost him a fifth Indy title. 


Dixon has more Indy titles in him yet. But he'll struggle to do that if he continues to be a one-man band. 

4. Earl Bamber

Categories / World Endurance Championship

Achievements / 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, 2017 WEC champion


Photo: Porsche

SC: It's hard to imagine how Earl Bamber must be feeling about his career right now. 


On one hand, he's a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and just won the FIA World Endurance Championship in his first full season. 


But on the other hand, he's now out of a drive in the World Endurance Championship and back in the IMSA WeatherTech United SportsCar Championship in North America. 


Asside from reaching Formula 1 like his teammate Brendon Hartley, Bamber's reached the top of the world and only at 27-years-old. That's no mean feat. 


When Earl Bamber writes his book, it'll probably be one helluva read. Just look at his Wikipedia entry and it's already an odd one. 


TRS, to GP2, to A1GP, back to TRS, to GT3 Cup Challenge, to Carrera Cup Asia, to Supercup, to Le Mans, to IMSA, to WEC. It's a wild ride, and we can only hope 2018 will bring him even more success wherever he decides to drive.  

3. Nick Cassidy


Achievements /  2017 SUPER GT champion


Photo: Super GT

SC: Unless you're a diehard motor racing fan who follows just about every racing series in the world where Kiwis compete (please send help; we need sleep), you'll probably not have known just how good Nick Cassidy's year was. 


Cassidy races in two championship that like to have their names written with the caps lock on — SUPER FORMULA and the AUTOBACS SUPER GT Series. They're Japan's premier single seater and tin-top categories. 


This year Cassidy won the SUPER GT Series, becoming the youngest driver in the world to have ever been a title winner alongside teammate Ryō Hirakawa. 


His achievement didn't make the six o'clock news, nor did they send shockwaves through other mainstream media, but that doesn't mean his success shouldn't be commended. 


The SUPER GT Series is the highest level of sports car racing in Asia, and at just 23-years-old Cassidy has already won it in only his second year. That's a bit like if Scott McLaughling rocked up as a debutant in the Supercars Championship and won it in 2014. Unlikely, right? But Cassidy has done just that. 


Cassidy is New Zealand's quintessential underdog right now, punching well above his weight but perhaps without the same recognition or attention as others in this list. 


Having won the biggest championship in Asia at just 23-years-old, the only way surely must be up.

2. Brendon Hartley

Categories / World Endurance Championship, Formula 1

Achievements / 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, 2017 WEC champion


Photo: Scuderia Toro Rosso

MH: Before we go any further, let's just reitterate something.


Brendon Hartley getting into Formula 1 is the biggest story in New Zealand's motoring history in a long long time, perhaps even my life time. Apart from Earl Bamber's 2015 Le Mans breakthrough, it's hard to think about anything that rivals the national euphoria the various news announcements triggered nationwide. 


I make this distinction because the idea of putting Hartley anywhere on this list apart from first will read as blasphemy to quite a few readers. On top of getting the F1 nod with Toro Rosso, he won Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship with fellow list-ee Earl Bamber and Germany's Timo Bernhard. 


And surely beyond F1, the biggest international prizes are the 24 Hours of Le Mans and WEC ... are they not? 


Well, they are and they aren't. In terms of scale and history they certainly fit the bill, but in terms of competition it's hard to make a case. Porsche arguably had the better package in what was effectively a two-horse race with Toyota, and so title success was more an expectation than a hope. 


Hartley's F1 debut was very impressive; a 13th-place finish in a near faultless race. But the rest of the 2017 season was largely spent dealing with Renault power-unit failures. 


2017, as celebrated as it was, wasn't 'the event' for Brendon Hartley and his career. No, it's just a toe dip. 2018 is the ticket.

1. Scott McLaughlin — the 2017 Velocity New Zealand Driver of the Year

Categories / Virgin Australia Supercars Championship

Achievements / 2nd overall VASC, eight race wins


Photo: Shell V-Power Racing

MH: Porsche's WEC battles were at their peak in pit lane, with engineers screaming over computer monitors and mechanics fixing power train issues in the dead of night. 


Scott McLaughlin's battles in the Supercars Championship were of a far more intense variety. They were fought on the track, door to door with the best touring car drivers in the world, ending in a manner that reset the bar for four-wheeled high drama. You probably heard about it...


In the end, that's why I placed the 24-year-old at the top of the pile. His whole season was a gloves off, take no prisoners, dog fight with Red Bull's twin powerhouses. He might've lost that dog fight, yes, but to many (perhaps a majority) he was the best Supercars driver of the year. 


To put this into perspective, we need to look back at 2016. Remenber, neither of the Penske Racing Falcons even finished in the championship top 10. After high initial hopes, they wound up with just four podium finishes to their name across both cars, and a best championship finish of 12th for Fabian Coulthard. 


Sure, a big part of why the team made comprehensive gains during the off season was the signing of certified genius Ludo Lacroix. But, I would argue that McLaughlin's influence was just as big. He gave Coulthard a target, his popularity helped ensure a new long-term deal with primary backers Shell, and his blood-filled bag of bones was the one that happened to perform incredible feats of racing mastery on a more-than-monthly basis. 


I could watch that 2:03.831 Bathurst lap on a non-stop loop all bloody day. 


SC: I genuinely struggled to watch the last race of this year's title fight.


Everyone remembers that feeling when Shane van Gisbergen stalled his car in the pit lane late in the 2014 edition of the Bathurst 1000. For me, when Lowndes and McLaughlin collided, it was that same gut wrenching feeling. 


This was more than a roller coaster of a race, this was like Jenson Button at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, except in this version Jenson didn't win. He got utterly destroyed. 


Perhaps no one felt it moreso than Greg Murphy, who through tears battled through probably one of his toughest interviews with a distraught McLaughlin. 


It's not the first time we've seen McLaughlin this emotional. Think Bathurst this year twice, the last Bathurst, and the one before that. Plenty of opportunities gone begging, though not without trying. 


Scott will be a champion one day. This year's title race was a champion's effort, one deserving of a championship next to his name. His day will come, but this year McLaughlin drove like a man possessed, driven to win and so much faster than anyone else. 


He's my number one for 2017. 


That's a wrap

So, that's it. That's the end of the motorsport year. 


We at velocitynews.co.nz sincerely hope you've enjoyed our comprehensive coverage of New Zealand's racing talent as they've repeatedly taken aim at championships around the world. 


Hopefully you had a wonderful Christmas, and hopefully an equally great new year's. We'll see you back here in 2018.


Simon Chapman / Matthew Hansen