OPINIONS
Monday, Dec 16 10:25am
AUTHOR: Simon Chapman

Nominees announced for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing NZ People’s Choice

An elite list of drivers competing around the world has been nominated for the inaugural TOYOTA GAZOO Racing NZ People’s Choice award.

 

The award celebrates the efforts of a driver who best embodied what it means to represent New Zealand at the highest level of their chosen division in 2019.

 

The award allows fans to vote for some of the country’s best drivers for their performance both on and off the track. 

 

(To vote scroll to the bottom of this page or CLICK HERE)

 

The team behind the Castrol Toyota Racing Series and Best Bars Toyota 86 Championship has offered voters an exclusive merchandise prize package and racing experience.

 

It includes a TOYOTA GAZOO Racing NZ hat, polo and jacket as well as corporate hospitality to a Castrol Toyota Racing Series* or Speed Works Events meeting of their choice.

 

The nominees are as follows in alphabetical order:

 

Andre

 

André Heimgartner, 24

 

It’s hard to believe André Heimgartner is still just 24 years old. After years of toiling away in Australia, the young Kiwi showed what he’s made of in 2019. 

 

On paper, 16th in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship might look below average, but it’s not fully representative of the year Heimgartner had. He should have been knocking on the door of a top 10 finish in the championship if not for shunts at Bathurst and the Gold Coast among other issues. 

 

His year was highlighted by a third-place finish at Phillip Island, beaten only by powerhouse duo Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard. Certainly, he had a golden opportunity at Sandown too, but that went begging. Nevertheless, Heimgartner was a regular top 10 performer ahead of teammates Rick Kelly, Garry Jacobson and Simona De Silvestro. 

 

Now Kelly Racing is making the move to the Ford Mustang, which should put Heimgartner in the box seat moving forward. 

 

 Hartley

 

Brendon Hartley, 30 

 

At one stage this year Brendon Hartley was signed to Ferrari, Toyota and Porsche. After he was unceremoniously dropped by Scuderia Toro Rosso, Hartley was quick to bounce back.

 

This year was highlighted by a double drive at Sebring in the FIA World Endurance Championship and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Success was forthcoming in both, coming third with SMP Racing in the 1000 Miles of Sebring and third with Mustang Sampling Racing in the 12 Hours of Sebring. 

 

Hartley was a Porsche works driver for much of the year until he signed with GEOX DRAGON for Formula E where he was ninth in only his second race. Hartley remains contracted to Ferrari as a simulator driver too. 

 

Best of all, Hartley signed up with TOYOTA GAZOO Racing for their WEC program just a year out from the Hypercar regulations coming into force. Hartley already has a win to his name in just his second race. 

 

Leitch

 

Brendon Leitch, 24

 

Having competed against the likes of Lando Norris, Lance Stroll and other Formula 1 graduates, it’s easy to think Brendon Leitch has had a lot of racing experience.

 

The reality is that 2019 marked his first proper foray into international competition for the Southlander. A headline drive in Lamborghini Super Trofeo Asia was complimented by a stint in the Formula 3 Asian Championship where he impressed in both.

 

Leitch found comfort in Leipert Motorsport and quickly found success with them with a podium in his third race. However, without a consistent co-driver line-up, Leitch was often let down and ultimately couldn’t make the most of a title challenge. 

 

Competing for the under-resourced one-car BlackArts Racing outfit, Leitch brought the team their best result in Formula 3, beating the big names like Hitech GP and Absolute Racing on his way to fourth in the championship. 

 

Chris

 

Chris van der Drift, 33

 

Chris van der Drift felt the highs and lows of motor racing in 2019.

 

At just 33 years old, van der Drift has established himself as a go-to gun in sports car racing. Now a three-time Porsche Carrera Cup Asia champion, he was on course for a fourth.

 

However, when the team dropped him for unexplained reasons he focused his attention on Lamborghini Super Trofeo Asia. In what was his first campaign, van der Drift was the class of the field alongside teammate Evan Chen. Despite having no racing experience in the Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo EVO, van der Drift won the title.

 

At times, van der Drift and co-driver Li Chao looked odds on to win in Blancpain GT World Challenge Asia. However, their championship chase was curtailed by a pair of DNFs

 

This year, van der Drift was unquestionably quick, but ultimately unlucky. He could’ve had a fourth foray this season with a drive in the PIRTEK Enduro Cup if not for a failed deal with Team Kiwi Racing. 

 

Darren

 

Darren Kelly, 30 

 

Darren Kelly brought up his second D1NZ National Drifting Championship title earlier this year, winning three rounds in his RB-powered Nissan GT-R. 

 

It was a dominant performance all season, winning the two concrete stadium rounds in Tauranga and Wellington before capping off the season with a win at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon.

 

With three round wins from five, Kelly was unquestionably the best in 2019. Only once did he not finish on the podium. 

 

Bamber

 

Earl Bamber, 29

 

Much like last year, 2019 was full-on for Earl Bamber. Headlined by a GTLM title alongside Laurens Vanthoor in IMSA, Bamber also found success out of the drivers’ seat. 

 

Via his new team Earl Bamber Motorsport, he and younger brother Will Bamber began the year in style, bringing Porsche their first win in the Bathurst 12 Hour. It began what would ultimately end in title success for the German marque in the Intercontinental GT Challenge. 

 

Bamber was proficient in sports car racing through the year. A win in the 24 Hours of Spa went begging as did an easy win at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring after they were given a late-race penalty.

 

Perhaps his most poignant moment of the year came when he was challenging for the FIA GT World Cup title most recently at Macau. Teammate Vanthoor let Bamber by to challenge for the lead. In what was an agonizingly close defeat, Bamber gave second place back to Vanthoor at the finish line.

 

Fabian

 

Fabian Coulthard, 37

 

Fabian Coulthard was often referred to throughout the year as the sacrificial lamb, perhaps an unfair term for a driver racing in the shadow of teammate Scott McLaughlin.

 

Despite all the drama throughout the season, Coulthard still deserves credit for sitting second in the most competitive car for much of the season. 

 

After a slump in 2018, Coulthard came back strong with wins at Phillip Island and Barbagallo. Podiums came at Albert Park, Symmons Plains, Winton, Hidden Valley, Townsville and Newcastle. 

 

In the end, Coulthard finished fourth but was perhaps deserving of more. 

 

Hayden

 

Hayden Paddon, 32

 

Hayden Paddon has to be the unluckiest WRC driver of the modern era. Two attempts at getting back into the top flight were curtailed by circumstances ultimately out of his control.

 

A crash in testing put an end to a long-awaited drive in Rally Finland and fires at Rally Australia caused the event to be cancelled. Paddon was tenacious throughout the year, pushing on the in the face of adversity. 

 

By the end of the year, he’d admitted he probably wouldn’t be likely to ever get back in a WRC car, but his efforts aren’t without recognition. 

 

Paddon remains firmly in contention for a seat at the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team moving in 2020. 

 

Hunter

 

Hunter McElrea, 20

 

Having won the Road to Indy Scholarship in 2018, Hunter McElrea came out firing to start his campaign in the USF200 Championship.

 

Perhaps one of the most consistent drivers in the series, McElrea led going into the final round, only to be robbed of victory by a mechanical issue in qualifying.

 

A storming drive to the front was to no avail, but McElrea was gracious in defeat. With four wins and eight podiums, McElrea was arguably as good as Eves all season, dogged only by one bad result. 

 

jaaxon

 

Jaxon Evans, 23

 

Like close friend Hunter McElrea, Jaxon Evans was the recipient of a scholarship in 2018. Porsche signed the young New Zealander to their Junior Program to race in Porsche Carrera Cup Germany and Porsche Supercup.

 

Success came immediately. He was on the podium on his debut but had the trophy stripped due to the smallest of indiscretions by the team. 

 

Evans had a lull midway through the year but came on strong at the back end with pole positions in both series’ as well as podiums the Norisring, Hockenheimring, Spa-Francorchamps and Mexico City. Evans will continue racing with Porsche as a junior driver in 2020. 

 

Porsche has since re-signed Evans for 2020 and will no doubt look to continue that late-season success moving forward. 

 

Liam

 

Liam Lawson, 17

 

Liam Lawson’s year was one perhaps one of the most noteworthy in the last decade. The 17-year-old became the first New Zealander to sign up with the Red Bull Junior program since that of Tom Blomqvist. 

 

Lawson’s year was punctuated by winning the Castrol Toyota Racing Series and the New Zealand Grand Prix in his debut season, beating Marcus Armstrong to the title in a tightly contested affair that went down to the wire. 

 

The young gun was subsequently signed to the Red Bull Formula 1 junior team and launched into the FIA Formula 3 Championship with MP Motorsport and Euroformula Open with Motopark. 

 

Lawson wasn’t able to make the most of his time in the FIA Formula 3 Championship, but with the experienced Motopark outfit he claimed wins. However, it was a season curtailed by crashes. Fortunately, he managed to claim second overall. 

 

marcus

 

Marcus Armstrong, 19 

 

Marcus Armstrong probably should have been the title winner in this year’s FIA Formula 3 Championship. In the end, he finished second. Certainly not a bad result for the Ferrari junior. 

 

Armstrong was bested by Liam Lawson in the Toyota Racing Series and was troubled at times in the FIA Formula 3 Championship by teammate Robert Shwartzman. A crash at the Red Bull Ring and a penalty at Monza were probably the difference between being able to challenge for the championship.

 

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed though with the young Kiwi being signed to ART Grand Prix, the team responsible for Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and many more succeeding in Formula 2.

 

Pickens

 

Michael Pickens, 36

 

Michael Pickens still remains one of New Zealand’s best all-time speedway drivers. This year he won five from nine international meetings in Sprintcar and claimed seven from nine feature race wins in Midgets, winning both major titles. 

 

The 2019’-20 season didn’t get off to a great start though with the Auckland ace given a 23-day standout, curtailing hopes of a repeat performance. Pickens certainly let Speedway New Zealand know his thoughts and in doing so attracted a lot of support from the community.

 

If Pickens doesn’t get to race this Christmas, the International Series will be worse off without the legendary speedway driver. 

 

Mitch

 

Mitch Evans, 25

 

Jaguar Racing is finally coming on strong in their third season of the FIA Formula E Championship. Victory finally came the way of Evans with a scintillating drive on the streets of Rome where he beat André Lotterer and Stoffel Vandoorne in a thrilling finish.

 

Podiums came at Bern and New York, and at one point Evans was in contention for the title. Ultimately, he claimed fifth overall in his best season to date.

 

Perhaps most importantly, he was able to dispatch teammates Nelson Piquet Jr and Alex Lynn, beating them both convincingly through the season.

 

Nick

 

Nick Cassidy, 25

 

Nick Cassidy came so close to doing the double in 2019, winning SUPER FORMULA and finishing second in SUPER GT. 

 

The Kiwi made history in SUPER FORMULA as the first champion in the new Dallara SF19, winning the first race and claiming three more podiums in the series that is second only in outright speed to Formula 1. It remains one of the hardest single-seater championships to win in the world. 

 

His success certainly caught the attention of world motor racing with talks of a Formula 1 test among other possible opportunities in the future. 

 

Cassidy’s season has certainly put him in the frame for a drive in the FIA World Endurance Championship with TOYOTA GAZOO Racing as well in the new Hypercar era. 

 

Dixon

 

Scott Dixon, 39

 

Championship success wasn’t forthcoming for Scott Dixon in 2019. However, the Indianapolis-based New Zealand was in it all the way to the end.

 

Against the might of Team Penske, Dixon was the best-of-the-rest. Incidents at the Indianapolis, Detroit and Texas ultimately kept him out of the picture. In all instanced, Dixon was well poised for strong results. 

 

An incredible comeback at Toronto, Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Pocono put him back into contention. However, technical gremlins at Gateway and Portland put paid to what had been a season arguably as strong as his 2018 championship year. 

 

He may have finished fourth, but his personal performance was outstanding. 

 

McLaughlin

 

Scott McLaughlin, 26

 

Scott McLaughlin set the record straight this year. In a season dominated by controversy, whether it be parity or otherwise, McLaughlin was simply the best. 

 

The 26-year-old reset the record for the most wins in a season with 18 to his credit, including a maiden Bathurst 1000 win. 

 

DJR Team Penske wasn’t immune to the controversy though. With four wins on the trot, the Ford Mustang attracted the ire of the rival Holden and Nissan outfits. Despite parity changes across the board, McLaughlin was still dominant, winning his second Supercars title with a round to spare. 

 

Aside from Supercars, McLaughlin returned to his roots at the KartSport New Zealand National Sprint Championship. He finished second only to Ryan Urban, but best of all was his presence for the young up-and-coming talent who he never said no to throughout the weekend. 

 

van Gisbregen

 

Shane van Gisbergen, 30

 

Through all the drama of 2019, Shane van Gisbergen was perhaps the coolest head of all. Often quizzed about his chances, the Kiwi didn’t bat an eyelid at the thought of being able to compete with McLaughlin late in the season.

 

The Red Bull Holden Racing Team front runner eventually claimed second in the standings with four wins to his name, the biggest coming on home soil at Pukekohe Park where he claimed the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy.

 

However, the standout of the year had to be when he stopped on track at the Gold Coast 600 to help Scott McLaughlin who had just rolled his car in Qualifying. 

 

He said he would have done it for anyone, but after all hullabaloo about SVG vs MCL, it was good to quiet down some of the speculators. 

 

 

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