Relief, not celebration, swept across Rowan Shepherd after winning the 2021 Toyota 86 championship in a hotly contested final race showdown in Taupo last weekend.
Shepherd held a small points lead over season-long rivals Simon Evans and Ryan Wood heading into the last race of the year.
But when Evans got the holeshot at the start, Shepherd was left to fight two separate fights.
He had to finish at least second to win the title. That meant Evans tried to back his rival into the queue of traffic behind.
Shepherd had to resist a relentless onslaught of pressure from behind, and he also battled to try and find a way past Evans.
But seeing off an immensely tense final lap and securing second, Shepherd was crowned this year’s champion by a mere five points over Evans.
“It was a bit of a crazy one,” Shepherd told Velocity News. “It came down to the last straight on the last lap of the last race.
“The focus for the weekend was to eliminate mistakes. We said we should be able to get a race win or second, and that would give us a good chance at the championship.
“But coming into the final race, I knew all I had to do was finish either first or second.
“So, as Evans tried to back me up, I just put my focus on protecting second.
“He was driving super aggressive and shut the door on me any time I got close.
“I just sat back for the final few laps and just eliminated any possibility of letting those behind me get past.
“It was bloody tricky, but I got the job done.
“When I crossed the line at the end of the race, I don’t think I even celebrated. All I felt was relief.
“I have never had a championship season like it before.”
Despite being classed as one of the more experienced drivers in the field, this year was still Shepherd’s rookie season.
It was a last-second deal that secured his spot on the grid.
“It wasn’t something we planned to do,” Shepherd said. “We kind of put all together just before the first race.
“But I have enjoyed the series a lot, especially the learning aspect.
“With the series having a real data focus and being able to compare data, you can learn a lot each weekend.
“Young Ryan Wood has been impressive with his ability to read data, so we tried to benchmark him for the year.”
As part of his prize package, Shepherd has the opportunity to test an FT60 Toyota Racing Series car.
He says his next goal would be to land a spot in the New Zealand Grand Prix.
“I would really like to race in the Grand Prix,” he said. “It is something I have never done before and definitely one I want to tick off.”