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Thursday, Jan 10 06:00pm
AUTHOR: Simon Chapman

Velocity News Driver of the Year: Top 10

So, here it is. The top 10 in our annual Velocity News Driver of the Year. 

 

So far we've looked at the 50-31 and 30-11 from locally and abroad. You can see part one HERE and part two HERE.

 

Right now you'll find the best of the best performers of 2018 with the best of New Zealand's overseas drivers. 

 

No more lolly gagging, here's your top drivers of the year. 

 

Chris van der Drift

 

10. Chris van der Drift (Up 7)

Categories / Porsche Carrera Cup Asia

Achievements / 3x Porsche Carrera Cup Asia champion

 

Three titles in four years cemented Chris van der Drift as the most successful Carrera Cup Asia driver in the series’ history last year.

 

Key to van der Drift’s third title was his finishing rate. The 2018 season saw van der Drift finish every single race. Measured in his approach, van der Drift was clinical in qualifying and ensured he was inside the top three or four on every occasion.

 

He led the points from the first race of the season to the last, not once falling behind his rivals. Ultimately, finishing every race was what mattered most.

 

While rival Phillip Hamprecht won more races, his sole DNF cost him a chance at victory. The same thing happened for Will Bamber in 2017 when he won the most races of anyone, but non-finishes squandered those hopes.

 

Carrera Cup Asia remains one of the most tightly contested one-make Porsche series in the world, which makes sense of young New Zealanders like Will Bamber and Reid Harker to test themselves against van der Drift.

 

A brief China GT Championship campaign yielded wins, but left frustrated by penalties, teammate Li Chao took a different direction with a one-off drive in the Blancpain GT Series Asia to test the waters with a full campaign in 2019 on the cards.

Perhaps one of New Zealand’s most underrated drivers not to have quite hit the big time, but still a success story in sports car.

 

Marcus Armstrong

 

9. Marcus Armstrong (Down 1)

Categories / Toyota Racing Series, FIA European Formula 3 Championship

Achievements / 3rd TRS, 5th Formula 3

 

Third in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series and fifth in his first season of the FIA European Formula 3 Championship might look average at first, but Marcus Armstrong’s performance in 2018 was brilliant at times.

 

The year began with a breakout performance on home soil. The first 10 races of the season saw Armstrong on the podium, two of those were wins. The then 17-year-old looked on course for an almost certain title win in only his second season.

 

A bit like van der Drift, Armstrong led from the first race until the last. However, Armstrong’s story ended differently. The engine of his Toyota FT-50 lurched into safety mode during a safety car restart in the final race of the season.

 

His teammates Robert Shartzman and Richard Verschoor had been within range, enough so that Armstrong’s seventh place in the final meant he dropped from first to third in the title race. It left many, including us in the media room, floored. It seemed impossible that it could happen having been so strong all season. But, as they say, that’s racing.

Armstrong headed to Europe with his failures behind him.

 

A solid start to the season saw Armstrong lead the season at the halfway point and with momentum behind him it seemed as though he’d be a strong contender for the title. Armstrong netted just two podiums in the second half and five retirements. A stark contrast to his seven podiums and one win in the first half. The season ended poorly. Three DNFs in the final round dropped him from third in the standings to fifth.

 

The telling stat; had Armstrong finished every race where he qualified, he’d have won the championship by over 50 points.

 

Hayden Paddon

 

8. Hayden Paddon (Up 7)

Categories / New Zealand Rally Championship, FIA World Rally Championship

Achievements / NZRC champion, P8 overall WRC 


The story of the year that most would rather forget about is Hayden Paddon’s fall from the World Rally Championship.

An up-and-down season in 2017 saw Paddon finish eighth and some distance away from teammate Dani Sordo and title contender Thierry Neuville. Everyone’s worst fears were realized when Paddon was dropped back to a limited campaign.

The new year began with a fifth place in Sweden, and with a three-round break, Paddon returned to Portugal in style. The Geraldine driver led the rally until a mistake cost him a shot at victory. It was an opportunity missed, one that might’ve meant the end of 2018 ended differently.

Paddon was essentially relegated to being third cab on the rank. Finish as high as possible, but only to aid Neuville and Mikkelsen in their efforts. Paddon was there essentially to keep Hyundai in the manufacturer’s championship.

It was clear to see that Paddon wasn’t going to win any international rallies in 2018. The only saving grace was when both Neuville and Mikkelsen crashed out of contention at Rally Australia and Paddon – not having to play cannon fodder any longer – was let loose. There he scored a season best second place. It was a positive end to the season, but ultimately not enough to retain his seat for 2019.  

Ultimately, Paddon made the most of what he had to play with. A DNF in Portugal was the only real blemish of his season, which saw him finished eighth, ahead of fellow part-timer Sordo, and not far behind full campaigner Andreas Mikkelsen.

The silver lining in Paddon’s season was an utterly dominant performance in the New Zealand Rally Championship. Competing in five of the six-round calendar, Paddon won each and every rally he contested – and by some margin too.

Paddon isn’t the first to get dropped and certainly won’t be the last, but plenty before him have bounced back and gone on to find success in the World Rally Championship. Hopefully a year off won’t do him any harm and an opportunity surfaces somewhere in the world. We can only hope.


Chris Pither


7. Chris Pither (Highest New Entrant)

Categories / Super2 Series, Supercars Championship

Achievements / Super2 Series champion


Chris Pither’s drive in the Super2 Series truly embodied ‘to finish first, first you must finish.’


The series was Paul Dumbrell’s to lose, and that he did. Dumbrell outgunned Pither properly with five wins to two, though podiums were closer on six and five apiece.

The defining moment in the championship came at the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000. With 300 points on offer, a DNF proved costly in Dumbrell’s championship hopes. Sitting pretty inside the top 10, a costly mistake sent Dumbrell into the wall.

There to capitalize on it was Pither, who came back from an off of his own to finish third behind Dean Fiore and Alex Rullo.

From there, Pither held the points lead to the finish. Pither’s final blow, a podium finish in the last race of the year – Dumbrell could only muster fifth. Pither’s season, like several more on this list, made sure to finish, not once failing to finish a race.  

Now at 32-years-old, hopes of another full-time Supercars berth seem slim. The salt in the wound after winning being that of Garry Rogers Motorsport, who have since dropped Pither from their Super2 line-up and slotted Richie Stanaway alongside James Golding – Garth Tander, hung out to dry.

One can only hope Pither picks up a decent co-drive in the Enduro Cu. Might it be with Garry Rogers? Who knows? He and Richie Stanaway have paired up previously at Super Black Racing. Though being snubbed for a full-time gig or even his Super2 defense may have left a bitter taste in his mouth.


Jaxon Evans


6. Jaxon Evans (Up 5)

Categories / Porsche Carrera Cup Australia, SIES, Bathurst 12 Hour

Achievements / Carrera Cup Australia champion, Porsche Junior Scholarship winner


After a breakout year in 2017, Jaxon Evans made people take notice in 2018.

Born in New Zealand and now residing on the Gold Coast, Evans has quickly made a name for himself in sports car racing. In 2017 he nearly won the CAMS Australian Endurance Championship with fellow countryman Tim Miles and finished fifth in Carrera Cup that year.

They were performances that put him on the map, made more impressive as one of the youngest on the grid.

Having narrowly missed out on the GT3 title, Evans focused firmly on Carrera Cup in 2018 with the occasional one-off drive in Australian GT and the South Island Endurance Series.

Wins were plentiful in a season of Porsche Carrera Cup Australia that saw him win six races and podium nine more. Evans finished no lower than second in the first seven races of the season. Evans was the king of consistency. In just two outings did he finish outside the top five in the 23-race season.

By no means was it a walk in the park either, Evans certainly fought hard and truly earned his keep with McElrea Racing. The title win eventually came, capping off the season with a win over Nick McBride and fellow countryman Earl Bamber.

However, Evans’ biggest scalp came at the conclusion of the 2018 season when he was picked by Porsche to be one of their junior drivers for 2019. The only New Zealander before Evans in the program was Earl Bamber, and we all know how that’s worked out for him.

While having already accomplished plenty, 2019 marks the beginning of a truly international career for Evans.


Shane van Gisbergen


5. Shane van Gisbergen (Up 4)

Categories / Supercars Championship

Achievements / P2 overall Supercars


For a fleeting few weeks, it looked like Shane van Gisbergen was going to become a two-time Supercars champion.

The Red Bull ace had a five-round streak (Townsville, Queensland Raceway, Sydney Motorsport Park, The Bend, and Sandown) where he never finished lower than second. It set him up with the series lead over Scott McLaughlin.

The all-Kiwi championship fight hit fever pitch on home soil, with ‘SVG’ and McLaughlin sharing a win and a second-place a piece (with a bit of … err … questionable parking thrown in for good measure).

But it wasn’t to be — minor errors at the Newcastle series finale costing him and Red Bull a 50/50 chance of title glory at the final race of the year. Still, it was another year of big results and mature (yet still unforgiving) driving from van Gisbergen. In an alternate universe, he probably would’ve won that Supercars title.

Beyond Supercars, van Gisbergen also dabbled in international GTs with McLaren — the best showing being his role in the manufacturer’s debut of their new 720S GT3 weapon at the end-of-year Gulf 12 Hours. Late mechanical dramas ultimately cost him and his crew a fabulous debut victory for the new platform.

Closer to home, he also competed in three rounds of the D1NZ National Drifting Championship in MCA’s V8-powered Nissan 370Z — always throwing down excellent performances (many of them happening to occur alongside the eventual champion, Cole Armstrong).

He has always been a driver to watch, and that won’t be any different in 2019.


Nick Cassidy


4. Nick Cassidy (Down 1)

Categories / Toyota Racing Series, FIA European Formula 3 Championship

Achievements / 2nd overall SUPER FORMULA & SUPER GT


Nick Cassidy didn’t win a championship in 2018, but he came bloody close and fought to the bitter end.

His 2017 SUPER GT Series title win has so far been the biggest success of Cassidy’s international career. In 2018 he came close to going back-to-back. A title-less ‘18 was arguably a stronger year for the Toyota factory driver.

Never before had SUPER FORMULA outfit KONDO Racing been at the point end – often relegated outside of the top 10. In the two years that Cassidy has been with the team he earned them their first pole position, first win, and turned them into a front running outfit.

Unfortunately, he fell just shy of winning both SUPER FORMULA and SUPER GT last year. Each went down to last lap deciders, eventually only a few car lengths in it in the end.

Cassidy’s clinical performance at the season-ending Suzuka race saw him execute one of the most ambitious strategies to run long initially, pit late, then try to catch race leader Naoki Yamamoto. His hunt for the win wasn’t without mistakes, but lap on lap Cassidy clawed back valuable seconds as he got nearer and nearer to the lead.

As his tyres faded and the dirty air approached the margin began to stabilize. Yamamoto’s straight-line advantage from his Honda engine proved too much for Cassidy in his Toyota-powered car to overcome.

Only a few tenths were in it, but it was one of the most enthralling title fights ever seen by a New Zealander – up there with Scott McLaughlin’s title deciding, and ultimately heartbreaking, efforts in the 2017 Supercars season.

It mustn’t be forgotten that only recently Red Bull Racing recruit Pierre Gasly raced in SUPER FORMULA and, like Cassidy, finished second in the 2017 season. As is well documented, he went on to Formula 1 alongside Brendon Hartley and soon to Max Verstappen.

Cassidy’s ability belies his exposure and the 24-year-old remains one of New Zealand’s best single seater exports who hasn’t made it to Formula 1. Perhaps if Toyota were still in the World Championship, we might’ve seen Cassidy crack the highest heights.


Brendon Hartley


3. Brendon Hartley (Down 1)

Categories / Formula 1

Achievements / P19 overall Formula 1

 

His year was engulfed in speculation and rumour — perhaps one of the most vitriolic baptisms of fire for any Formula 1 rookie in recent history. And the true shame of it all was that, by the end, Brendon Hartley looked every bit the star we knew he could be.

It wasn’t all that way. The former Le Mans champ’s early season was dogged with bad luck, a lack of reliability, average strategy, and — let’s be honest here — pace that was made to look average by teammate Pierre Gasly.

But, as the Dolly Parton quote goes, if you want the rainbow you’ve got to put up with the rain. Hartley did that, and grew as a driver throughout the season. Threats both implicit and explicit about being replaced added further motivation, and combined with the loose promise that his future at the team would be considered if he outperformed Gasly, Hartley pushed.

The result was a rush to the end of the season where he and Gasly were almost inseparable on track. Hartley arguably had the more confident run to the line, scoring more points by virtue of a ninth-place at the Circuit of the Americas while also making more aggressive moves.

It was a spirited series of performances that were exciting to watch through the Kiwi lens, even if it only resulted in a 19th-place finish in the championship standings.

Sadly despite eventually outshining Gasly (a feat in itself that is impressive, given the Frenchman’s sea of tangible recent open-wheeler experience), Hartley was once again benched at the end of the season to make way for Alexander Albon.

Gasly’s promotion into the main Red Bull squad as Daniel Ricciardo’s replacement was salt in an already open wound — a clear sign of what could have been if things had unfolded just a little bit differently.

Through it all, the biggest point to take home is the incredible pride felt seeing the New Zealand flag flying inside motorsport’s most decorated arena. Hopefully we see that flag fly in the Formula 1 paddock again sometime soon.

 

Scott McLaughlin

 

2. Scott McLaughlin 

Categories / Supercars Championship

Achievements / Supercars champion

 

Last year we ranked Scott McLaughlin as our driver of the year after he finished second in the championship, so it might seem odd now that he’s won the title that we not rank him as our number one.  


A painful finish to the 2017 season left a bitter taste in the mouth of many New Zealanders. The debate of the wall jutting out, a questionable speeding penalty, and the pain of watching of one of the greatest comeback drives ultimately coming to an unsatisfying end.

 

Come 2018, McLaughlin returned a far more matured driver and individual. Not coaxed into a slip of the tongue by media, resistant to any on or off-track games played by his rivals, McLaughlin was Alain Prost-esque in his determination for the title.

 

The happy-go-lucky McLaughlin remained, but a clearly more focused and calculated effort resulted in not a single DNF all season. Sure, van Gisbergen was on par with races finished, but McLaughlin was all around just better – nine wins to van Gisbergen’s seven.

 

At times van Gisbergen outsmarted McLaughlin. Who can forget the ultimate showdown at Sydney Motorsport Park in the dark. That night, McLaughlin was outclassed, but he didn’t let it get to him.

 

The season ended in style. Two second place finishes bookended wins at Pukekohe Park and on the streets of Newcastle. This time, no risks taken and a measured drive across two weekend that truly earned him the title.


Scott Dixon


1. Scott Dixon (Up 4)

Categories / IndyCar Series

Achievements / IndyCar Series champion


It was the IndyCar Series season that Scott Dixon had no right to win. If you want an ultimate reason why he tops this list, then that’s why.


It’s not a question of his talent or the professionalism of the Chip Ganassi team of which he’s remained loyal — neither of those things are being questioned.

 

No, the issue was almost always a numbers one.

 

Like 2017’s IndyCar season, Dixon spent most of the year single-handedly batting away Team Penske’s three-car onslaught. The only other Honda-powered driver that showed the same consistency was Alexander Rossi, and he and Dixon weren’t teammates or allies. Dixon’s sole teammate Ed Jones, by contrast, was rarely in the top five.

 

This meant that in on-track battles, Dixon’s losses often counted for double, as Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden used their numbers advantage to muscle anyone who dared to challenge them down the order.

 

Where Dixon made things up was in consistency — an ongoing trait of his (you don’t earn a nickname like ‘The Iceman’ by crumbling under pressure). Out of 18 races, Dixon finished outside the top six just two times. And neither of those discrepancies was a DNF. An incredible stat.

 

If you wanted to boil Dixon’s season down to one drive that illustrated the peak of his talents, look no further than the penultimate round of the year at Portland.

 

He didn’t win or anything … in fact he only finished fifth, making it one of his worst results of the season. But it was a result that came off a lap-one crash that was severe enough that some other drivers might’ve instinctively retired their cars.

 

Falling back to the rear of the field, Dixon chipped away through balanced lap pace, superb strategy calls, and sheer determination. His efforts took him to be firmly inside the top five, then had to do it all again after getting a pit lane speeding penalty.

 

In the end, he finished fifth — outgunning all his championship rivals to somehow extend his points lead.

 

It’s fast becoming a favoured cliché in motorsport; that champion drivers are named as such through their ability to take a bad day and turn it into a good day. And nobody in world motorsport — the Lewis Hamiltons, Joey Loganos, and Scott McLaughlins included — did it better than Scott Dixon in 2018.

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