After a short break, the Toyota 86 Championship battle for 2023 resumes this weekend at the 67th New Zealand Grand Prix meeting at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park.
In its tenth anniversary season, the championship remains as exciting, and as competitive as it ever was and this year’s protagonists are enjoying another season of intense battles.
Two rounds have been completed so far. At the first round the man who walked away with the spoils was experienced category racer Brock Gilchrist. Two wins and another placing gave him his best ever start to a championship campaign as he headed to round 2 at Invercargill. In the early stages of the weekend it looked to be going his way again, but Dion Pitt had other ideas.
Penalised for a technical issue after qualifying and starting from the back instead of pole position, Pitt drove hard to get a placing, then won the reverse grid race the next day. He chased home Gilchrist in the big feature race and after Gilchrist was penalised and given a time penalty, Pitt emerged as the unlikely winner of the second round.
With round 3 just a couple of days away, Brock has a narrow lead over Dion of just 13 points while Pitt is just three points ahead of Clay Osborne, the big improver of the championship this season so far compared to last season and a model of consistency – and speed – in the first couple of rounds.
Just behind them is one of the pre-season favourites Justin Allen – who’s kept out of trouble and is possibly playing the long game in this year’s battle, or sensing some drama at the front between the three younger racers.
Allen more than most is fully aware it’s the overall amount of points that wins this most competitive of New Zealand titles, not how many wins. Non-finishes in races are an absolute killer for championship prospects, a hard lesson he learned last year right when his championship challenge had wind in its sails.
A top performer at Teretonga was Australian Rylan Gray – who despite his younger years at 15 is proving to be sensationally fast on occasion. Add in a little more consistency and he’ll be right there in the championship challenge too.
Fellow rookies William Exton and Tom Bewley are also excelling. With speed and race craft ‘boxes’ well and truly ticked, a little more time in the car will see them move further up the pack. Bewley is one of this season’s race winners, a feat he should be able to repeat. Exton’s first win must surely come soon.
Veteran John Penny is up next. A bit unlucky so far, he’s also made a step forward in pace this year and big results are a likelihood rather than a surprise. Talking of surprises, he’s sprung a few at Hampton Downs over the years and could be a dark horse for honours this weekend at the Grand Prix.
The field for the Grand Prix weekend will also include Hunter Robb and former category racer Mark Mallard – who will race alongside son Thomas. The grid will therefore grow to 20 cars. Three races over the weekend after Saturday morning qualifying are certain to be packed with action. The first is based on times from that qualifying session, the second a reverse top ten grid of those first race results. The final big – and slightly longer – feature race on Sunday is based on points accumulated from those first two races.
2023 Toyota 86 Championship – Points after 2 0f 6 rounds:
2023 Toyota 86 Championship Schedule:
|1||Highlands Motorsport Park||January 13 – 15|
|2||Teretonga Park Raceway||January 20 – 22|
|3||Hampton Downs International Motorsport Park||February 3 – 5|
|4||Taupo International Motorsport Park||March 17 – 19|
|5||Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon||April 14 – 16|
|6||Hampton Downs International Motorsport Park||May 5 – 7|
Main image: Bruce Jenkins | Words: Supplied