Championship leader Roman Bilinski maintained his competitiveness ahead of the fourth round of the 2024 Castrol Toyota FR Oceania Championship in Christchurch, but for once in a great season, he wasn’t the centre of attention.
That honour went to debuting Bryce Aron out of the United States aboard his M2 Competition Toyota FT60 and countryman Jacob Abel aboard his MTEC Motorsport car, and it was the two Americans who had everyone talking at the Ruapuna today.
INDY NXT ace Abel – who finished third in the championship in 2023 and is back for the final two rounds of the 2024 series – followed up his Thursday testing form with another eye-catching performance in the first practice session, completing it in second place behind Bilinski.
Another surprise in the opening run was Aron, another to sign up for the last two rounds but without the experience of a full season behind him like Abel. His third place ahead of top Kiwi Liam Sceats and fifth-placed Michael Shin was impressive and a marker for what was to come during the rest of the day at the Christchurch circuit.
The morning session brought rain and slow lap times, but with track conditions so changeable the previous weekend at Hampton Downs, some of the leading drivers were keen to try slicks in the final minutes as the surface improved. Bilinski, Gerrard Xie and Kaleb Ngatoa all made the switch with eight minutes to go and put in their best laps of the opening session.
Aron – a contracted Andretti Global driver highly regarded in the USA – was fully into the groove by the second session, pushing the best lap recorded marker down into the 1-minute 17-second bracket, an impressive lap time around the 3.33km track, even allowing for the fact that a lot of the runners used this session for a run on brand new Pirelli slicks.
Only Giles Motorsport’s Ngatoa and Bilinski were able to match him in the session and dip under 1 minute 18 seconds, and they ended it second and third fastest.
Patrick Woods-Toth was another to go well, having set the pace on Thursday, and he finished up fourth for Kiwi Motorsport ahead of Abel.
Jett Bowling, in another Kiwi Motorsport entry, put in one of his best runs so far in the championship to take sixth fastest time just two and a half tenths off Aron, with countryman Titus Sherlock eighth and Kiwis Sceats and Alex Crosbie ninth and tenth.
In the third and final 30-minute session before the weekend, it was Xie, Bilinski and Woods-Toth who traded the fastest time early on before th championship leader set a 1 minute 17.821 lap. That was marginally quicker than Aron’s second session time and would stand as the quickest of the day. Ngatoa went close but had to settle for second while Crosbie looked like a contender with third fastest time. Shin was fourth, and Aron was there again with the fifth fastest time ahead of Xie, Woods-Toth, Bowling, Sherlock and Sceats.
With unofficial testing and practice complete, the 15-car field gets down to business on Saturday morning, with qualifying and the first race of the weekend in the afternoon.