Home Featured 2015 Toyota Racing Series season review

2015 Toyota Racing Series season review

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
Photos: Toyota Racing Series

Photos: Toyota Racing Series

After nine straight years of local domination, New Zealand’s top single-seater championship Toyota Racing Series was finally conquered by an international driver in 2014. And, this year, the invasion continued, with the foreigners locking out the six highest spots in the standings.

The 2015 TRS campaign proved to be a phenomenal season both for the Ferrari Driver Academy, who returned to the series after briefly flirting with the idea of their own off-season championship, and M2 Competition, who rebounded after a rather tough 2014. Ferrari protege Lance Stroll won the title with a race to spare and claimed the New Zealand Grand Prix in the final race, securing M2’s 12th win in 16 races.

Below, we take a detailed look at each driver who contested the biggest off-season championship in junior single-seaters this year.

The nature of the series means that drivers arrive with varying levels of experience and with differing personal targets. Some want to get their first car races under their belt, while for others its their main focus of the year and a strong championship finish may be the main aim. Rating the drivers and judging them against the same scale is therefore difficult, so, after hours and hours of arguing with each other, we’ve opted not to do so on this occasion.

1. Lance StrollLance Stroll

Canada, M2 Competition, age 16

906 points, 4 wins, 10 podiums, 1 fastest lap

Despite his Italian F4 title and Ferrari support, Lance Stroll was hardly considered the favorite for the 2015 TRS campaign ? an opinion reinforced by him finishing just 14th in the first official day of testing. How is it, then, that the Canadian took the lead after race one and never relinquished it, clinching the title a race early?

Stroll, indeed, was never the quickest TRS driver over one lap, failing to top a single qualifying session. But points aren’t awarded for pole and the Ferrari junior was at his best in the races. In a series with a known predisposition towards hectic racing, Stroll was the best at keeping his cool. It’s how he won the first three races out of four, it’s how he banked points to bring the title home and it’s exactly how he won the prestigious New Zealand Grand Prix.

Yes, luck certainly played a factor in his early coronation and, yes, he wasn’t exempt from mistakes ? the biggest one coming at Hampton Downs when took himself out of the race alongside teammate Charlie Eastwood. But on most days, he was utterly convincing, both a very measured racer and a great overtaker.

2015 will be a huge year for Stroll as he jumps into FIA F3 with its best squad Prema. But, after his TRS showing, the rookie will have every right to be bullish about his chances.

2. Brandon MaisanoBrandon Maisano

France, M2 Competition, age 21

798 points, 5 wins, 8 podiums, 3 pole positions, 6 fastest lap

Unlike with Stroll, there was never any real doubt that Maisano would fight for the title in New Zealand. The ex-Ferrari junior was one of the most experienced drivers of the field and had proved he was still plenty quick in 2014 in Italian F4 ? after all, he could’ve very well beaten Stroll if they weren’t lumped into different points classifications due to age.

Unsurprisingly, on his day in TRS, Maisano was untouchable ? a fact demonstrated by his four poles and five wins (the best record in the field in both).

But too many points were lost and the TRS points system isn’t kind to inconsistent drivers. He went off twice from out front at Ruapuna, had his Teretonga weekend sabotaged by a penalty for incorrect safety car restarts and, right after getting back into the title fight at Taupo with two sublime wins, was back on the outskirts again with an aerial crash in race four.

Still, winning one-third of the races is no mean feat and the Frenchman is profoundly quick. He’s been called up to Prema’s FIA F3 lineup and, given his previous F3 experience, he might just be a major contender.

3. Santino FerrucciSantino Ferrucci

United States, Giles Motorsport, age 16

765 points, 1 win, 6 podiums, 1 fastest lap

Highly-rated ever since his karting years, American Ferrucci made a few headlines in F3 last year despite being just 16. In Toyota Racing Series, he’s found another excellent addition to his CV, plus notched up his first top three finish in a single-seater championship.

After earning good points at Ruapuna, Ferrucci got his sole retirement out of the way, knocked out in turn one at Teretonga. The American was unfazed and got on the podium a day later.

Never quite the quickest, he was, nonetheless, everpresent out front, with four podiums in five races midway through the season. One of them could have very well been a win as he led most of the Hampton Downs race in torrential rain, only to be passed by Maisano with three laps to go.

He almost entered title contention, but any realistic hope was dashed by a troubled final race at Taupo. However, he did find a silver lining in an overdue win at Manfeild and eventually clinched third overall.

Yet another 2015 FIA F3 full-timer, he’ll be looking to carry his TRS form straight into his Mucke Motorsport debut at Silverstone.

4. Arjun MainiArjun Maini

India, M2 Competition, age 17

732 points, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 3 pole positions, 1 fastest lap

Maini’s status as a rather extraordinary talent has been obvious for quite some time now and reinforced when he took runner-up in his first year in BRDC F4. But not many would have expected him to hit the ground running in TRS.

The Indian did just that. He was always out front in testing, was on the podium twice at Ruapuna and outraced none other than Maisano to cross the line as winner at Teretonga.

But his maiden win would be taken away as the stewards weren’t fond of his restarts and he’d have to wait until Hampton Downs, driving a cool race from pole as rivals behind him crashed and crashed.

By Taupo, he was Stroll’s biggest worry and he began the penultimate weekend by winning from pole to get within 34 points of the Canadian. However, yet another post-race penalty, this time for a false start, more than doubled the Ferrari junior’s advantage and, despite winning the final Taupo race, Maini could not keep the title fight alive for much longer.

The title lost, he controlled most of the NZGP from pole, but a collision with Maisano sent him down the order and demoted him to fourth in the standings.

The Indian deserved better than that. Still, prospective FIA F3 employers were watching and he secured a deal with Van Amersfoort Racing on his return to Europe.

5. Sam MacLeodSam MacLeod

Great Britain, Giles Motorsport, age 20

684 points, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 1 pole position, 1 fastest lap

Sam MacLeod has shown plenty of speed in his two seasons of single-seater racing so far and, yet, did not have quite have the results for it, entering TRS as a driver with a reputation of finding trouble on track.

As such, his pole in round one was no surprise at all ? but neither were him getting caught up in the carnage in the first race or going off when in the lead of race three. Another retirement happened at Teretonga and he was off chasing the lead at Hampton Downs, which at halfway point left the Scotsman in a very unrepresentative 15th.

However, he ended the Hampton Downs round with a superb victory at a drying track and then inherited a second consecutive victory at Taupo. From that point on, he wouldn’t finish a single race outside of the top six and was quite close to adding a third victory in the Manfeild finale.

The highest-scoring driver of TRS 2015’s second half, he would’ve been easily in the title contention if not for the early turmoil. However, even fifth is nothing to scoff at and, if he can take his late-season form to the FIA F3 with Motopark, he’ll be a very serious threat.

6. Charlie EastwoodCharlie Eastwood

Ireland, M2 Competition, age 20

535 points, 3 podiums, 1 fastest lap

It took Charlie Eastwood 22 races to get on the podium in his maiden BRDC F4 season. In the Toyota Racing Series, he did it in race two.

And that pretty much sums up the Belfast racer’s season. Sure, he was with M2 in one of their best seasons yet, but the team alone cannot account for such a staggering improvement.

After clinching a maiden podium at Ruapuna, he would’ve been right up there in the points if not for an oil pump failure in race three. He then could’ve got another top-three at Teretonga but was penalized for a false start.

At Hampton Downs, he was hit out by Stroll in race one and recovered to fifth in race two, only to lose it having passed under yellows in the heavy spray. On course for a podium in the Taupo opener, he was again taken out.

His luck finally turned after that and he got to add two more podiums to his campaign, vaulting himself back up to sixth overall.

Eastwood is moving onto Formula Renault 2.0 with Strakka and will hopefully follow up on his excellent TRS showing.

7. Damon LeitchDamon Leitch

New Zealand, Victory Motor Racing, age 22

530 points

On paper, Damon Leitch’s four prior years in the series meant he should’ve run away with the title. But the introduction of the new FT150 car appears to have thrown a huge curveball his way, because the Invercargill driver just could not find pace.

Out of ten attempts, he qualified in the top ten just three times ? not the kind of results you would expect from a TRS race winner who did not finish any of his four years in the series outside the top ten.

And yet, despite all the struggles for pace, that streak did not end. While the car might’ve changed, the points system stayed the same and Leitch has long proved to be very good at getting the most out of it.

The Kiwi finished every race, staying well out of trouble even when carnage unfolded around. He had two reverse-grid poles but would only get two fifth-place finishes throughout ? one of which came from 16th on the grid. But, in the end, it proved good enough for him to be the top Victory driver, residing in a respectable seventh.

All in all, this season reinforced that Leitch deserves an opportunity away from TRS – perhaps in endurance racing.

Artem Markelov8. Artem Markelov

Russia, Giles Motorsport, age 20

525 points, 3 podiums

After a year in the GP2 series as a rather underexperienced rookie, Artem Markelov went to TRS to get some running time at the front of the pack. As such, it was par for the course to see him qualify high up at Ruapuna in what was expected to kickstart a proper title assault.

Well, that never quite materialized, as the Russian was put on the back foot right away ? getting caught up in lap one carnage in the very first race.

Having scored no points in race two as well, he did make it on the podium at the end of the first weekend. And, despite a poor qualifying at Teretonga, he fought back to claim another top-three in the reverse-grid race, steadily making up the points.

He kept on scoring good finishes, but a race incident with Maini at Hampton Downs was costly, as was being flipped by teammate Munro at Taupo. Another tangle, this time with newcomer Camara, left him all the way down in 15th in the standings.

However, he rebounded with a fantastic final race at Taupo, charging from sixth on the grid to second and nearly stealing the win. And three solid finishes at Manfeild finally allowed him to clinch eighth.

He hasn’t really bolstered his reputation with the TRS campaign, but didn’t damage it either. And, surely, it will serve as good preparation for his inevitable sophomore campaign in GP2.

James Munro9. James Munro

New Zealand, Giles Motorsport, age 18

524 points, 1 podium

Munro appeared on our radar with a solid debut campaign in TRS and followed up on that promise with a sublime FMCS run, which took him to the title. Unsurprisingly, he was among the favorites this time around and seemed set on making an impact.

However, just as for his compatriot Leitch, the opener saw him qualify down the order and struggle to make inroads. And, while he almost turned it around in race two by fighting from eighth to second, he spun out while chasing Stroll for the win.

Things went much better at Teretonga ? he was on course for a third place in the first two races, but was overtaken by Stroll on both occasions. However, post-race penalties meant he’d secured a podium after all.

Importantly, he kept on reliably racking up points until Simonyan spun into him at Hampton Downs. Then, a week later, he’d be involved in a heavy crash with Markelov. He rebounded with a stellar drive from 11th to fourth in the final Taupo race, but the last round at Manfeild turned out rather messy, relegating him to ninth in the standings.

His campaign certainly could’ve gone better, but his overall pace was not lacking and he produced flashes of brilliance. Munro’s 2015 plans are now up in the air, with the Kiwi looking for opportunities all over the racing spectrum ? from Road to Indy to GT racing.

10. Thomas RandleThomas Randle

Australia, ETEC Motorsport, age 18

518 points, 2 podiums, 1 fastest lap

You wouldn’t have expected Thomas Randle to emerge as the top ETEC Motorsport driver in this Toyota Racing Series season, what with him paired up with two karting prodigies and a second-year driver. However, five rounds later, the fact is undeniable ? the Australian Formula Ford champion was by far ETEC’s top man.

Quick right off the bat, he ran up front in race one, losing a podium late on to Arjun Maini only to take it back due to a post-race penalty. His race two was undone by electrical problems, but he brilliantly fought from the back to sixth in race three.

He had a good points weekend at Teretonga, but caused a huge wreck by spinning out at Hampton Downs. Yet he was back in full force at Taupo, taking fourth in race one and then picking up his second podium in race two. Fifth in the standings at that point, he ended up only tenth after a very low-key end to the season.

But Randle should not dwell on that as, by an large, his first TRS season went extremely well. An Australian F4 switch now awaits the 18-year-old and he’ll surely be one to watch in that championship.

11. Ferdinand HabsburgFerdinand Habsburg

Austria, Victory Motor Racing, age 17

490 points, 2 podiums, 1 fastest lap

Moving from Formula Renault 1.6 to the Toyota Racing Series would’ve been perceived as a much heftier task if Martin Rump didn’t so thoroughly nail the jump in 2014. But for Habsburg, the situation was obviously different ? not only was he not with a title-winning team, but the 2015 grid did seem a lot tougher.

That probably goes some way in explaining the fact that Habsburg didn’t once qualify within the top ten. And yet after two races he was already a podium finisher, holding third after charging his way to a reverse-grid pole earlier.

He continued to rack up top-ten finishes and passed Ferrucci on the last lap of the wet Hampton Downs race to add a second podium ? which was briefly taken off of him by the stewards before a successful appeal.

However, from that point on, he stopped figuring in the top half of the leaderboards, going from fifth in the standings to 11th by the end of the year, much in thanks to gearbox issues plaguing the car.

2015 will see him step up to Formula Renault 2.0 NEC with Fortec and, should he regain his January form, a first-time podium won’t be far off.

Mathias Kristensen12. Mathias Kristensen

Denmark, M2 Competition, age 16

488 points

Of the 19 drivers contesting the 2015 Toyota Racing Series season full-time, three took the checkered flag in all 16 of the races. And considering the massive leap Mathias Kristensen was making in stepping up the series, his achievement was probably most impressive.

Yes, Kristensen was a very consistent driver in Formula Ford, finishing all but ten races in the points. But TRS, naturally, is a different level ? much more competitive and close with a far bigger grid to boot.

Usually at the back in qualifying, the Dane clearly brought his ‘A’ game to the races ? made evident by him making up 16 positions over the three Ruapuna races. But Hampton Downs featured a particular highlight to his campaign as he kept it together in pouring rain to finish 0.4s off the podium.

His ability to avoid racking up repair bills should certainly be attractive to JD Motorsport, who will employ the Dane for the 2015 Eurocup FR2.0 season.

13. Stefan RienerStefan Riener

Austria, Victory Motor Racing, age 19

483 points, 1 podium, 1 fastest lap

The driver who came closest to stopping Stroll from leading the points from race one to race 16 was not Maisano or Maini ? in fact, it was Stefan Riener.

The Austrian, a graduate of ADAC Formel Masters and current FR2.0 racer, chased Stroll throughout all of the opening event, eventually finishing just three tenths behind. However, he was penalized for a false start shortly thereafter, losing his maiden podium.

Just a week later the penalties were now on his side, promoting him to a third-place finish. Yet a shunt in the second race meant his Teretonga weekend was over early.

Two early non-scores ended up doing big damage to his campaign and, while he was in or around the top ten for the rest of the season, he couldn’t trouble the podium again. A spin at Taupo left him down the order, but three solid points finishes at Manfeild moved him up to 13th.

It was a place not representative of his speed and one Riener shouldn’t be settling for when he tackles the Alps series with reigning champions Koiranen this year.

14. Brendon LeitchBrendon Leitch

New Zealand, Victory Motor Racing, age 19

475 points, 1 win, 1 podium

On the one hand, Brendon Leitch scored less points than any of his teammates in 2015, despite being in his second year in the series. On the other hand, it was he who broke a three-year winless streak for Victory Motor Racing.

And he did so in style ? qualifying on pole and the capping a very strong Teretonga showing with a maiden win, made much sweeter by the fact he’d claimed it on home soil in Invercargill.

Unfortunately, none of the other rounds went particularly well for the Kiwi ? his best finish outside of Teretonga was eighth at Taupo and he endured three retirements over the season.

But, crucially, he had delivered when it mattered the most and demonstrated he has serious potential.

It’s a shame that, just as his brother Damon, he doesn’t appear to do much racing outside of the fives weeks of TRS. We can only hope that changes in 2015.

15. Jamie ConroyJamie Conroy

New Zealand, M2 Competition, age 23

446 points, 1 win, 1 podium

Given that TRS was dominated by international drivers in 2015, a Teretonga win from an Invercargil local was a massive surprise. A surprise that actually happened two times during one weekend.

M2’s Jamie Conroy was the other Kiwi to win at the 2.5-kilometre track as he inherited the reverse-grid pole for race two after numerous penalties in the field and proceeded to put on a superb defensive drive.

The shock win was the highlight of what was clearly a learning year for the NZ Formula Ford champion as Conroy usually resided on the outskirts of the top ten. But as a rookie, he was solid ? and both of his retirements, it’s worth noting, were pretty much out of his hands.

It would be a big surprise not to see him return in 2016, but his plans for the meantime are still unclear.

16. Callum IlottCallum Ilott

Great Britain, ETEC Motorsport, age 16

358 points, 1 fastest lap

Callum Ilott’s graduation to cars was always going to be a big deal ? not just because of his prodigious karting record, but also due to apparent links to Red Bull. And he was clearly deemed special enough to be railroaded straight to F3 with a team as major as Carlin.

So, in that regard, TRS for Ilott was more training camp than anything ? a five-week preparation for the biggest season of his life.

As such, it was no surprise to see the Brit’s campaign get off to a rocky start, as two weekends that started with promising pace in practice ended up in lowly finishes and retirements.

Then he clicked, qualifying well at Hampton Downs and taking a fourth-place finish in the opening race. But, while he made the front row at Taupo, he would not make the top ten in six more races, struggling to keep it together for the full race distance.

He was much better at Manfeild, finishing just mere seconds off the podium on two occasions. But all of that amounted to just 16th overall ? not representative of his pace, but no surprise due to the bumpy nature of the campaign.

Ilott clearly has immense speed and, despite the tribulations, the TRS campaign could very well be crucial in setting up a good debut season in FIA F3.

17. Alfonso Celis, Jr.Alfonso Celis

Mexico, Giles Motorsport, age 18

329 points

Despite being only 18, Celis has already raced in more junior single-seater championships than most drivers will get to do in their entire careers. As such, the appearance of the everpresent Mexican on the TRS entry list was no surprise.

It was also not surprising to see the GP3 graduate do rather well at Ruapuna ? despite qualifying down the order, Celis dragged himself up into the top ten on all three occasions and was residing in seventh in the standings.

But it all unraveled from there ? at Teretonga, Celis crashed heavily in qualifying, which led to him completing just three laps during the weekend’s races. He was wiped out in a big wreck at Hampton Downs, albeit recovered to tenth in the reverse-grid race.

He’d finish tenth twice over during the remaining two rounds, but generally found himself to at the back of the pack.

The 14 races he contested in TRS are just a small part of what is set to be a 47-race schedule for Celis in 2015 as he also tackles GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5.

18. Nikita MazepinNikita Mazepin

Russia, ETEC Motorsport, age 15

304 points

Mazepin was another karting prodigy to venture into TRS in his debut year, although he already had prior experience ? racing in the off-season MRF series where he even made it on the podium on his very debut.

But TRS proved much tougher for the Russian and, unlike teammate Ilott, he never really seemed to get fully up to speed in the car.

He did end up having less retirements than the Brit and enjoyed one particularly strong race on a drying track at Hampton Downs, going from 16th on the grid to eighth.

Two more top-ten finishes followed Taupo, although one was taken away due to a false start, and he was a solid 11th in the NZGP.

Mazepin will make his debut on the European single-seater scene in Formula Renault 2.0 NEC with Josef Kaufmann Racing.

19. Matteo FerrerMatteo Ferrer

Italy, ETEC Motorsport, age 19

286 points, 1 pole position

After a breakthrough season in Protyre Formula Renault where he finished every race on his way to third, Ferrer seemed perfectly suited to tackle TRS again after a tough debut season in 2014.

What awaited the Italian instead was another torturous five weeks full of bad luck, technical issues and crashes.

Indeed, the gearbox on Ferrer’s car refused to work for much of the campaign, putting him on the back foot right from Ruapuna. Over the 16-race season, his best finish was just a seventh ? not even matching his sixth place from 2014.

During a brief respite to the early gearbox issues, he actually took pole for the first Teretonga race ? ETEC’s first since 2012. But, going into turn one, he collided with Ferrucci, losing his best chance at a top result.

Having scored three points less than in 2014, he’s probably pretty happy that the campaign is over and done with. Having tested with Cram, he might be moving up to racing FR2.0 in Europe and will be hoping to regain his Protyre form.

Sergio Sette Camara20. Sergio Sette Camara

Brazil, Giles Motorsport, age 16

199 points (7/16 races)

For someone who only contested TRS for two weeks, Sergio Sette Camara sure managed to make a lot of noise.

Replacing Simonyan at Taupo, the F3 Brazil graduate first blindsided everyone by topping his first collective testing session. On his debut, he qualified and finished fifth. He was running well within the top ten in two other races of the weekend, but had a collision in one and went off in the other.

At Manfeild, he got two further top-ten finishes and would’ve repeated his personal best of fifth if not for a late incident.

If he scored points at the same rate over a full TRS season, he’d only be 15th in the standings ? but, considering he started the season lagging three rounds behind, that’s definitely not too shabby for a driver who only contested a part-time F3 schedule in 2014.

For 2015, he’s a got a great seat lined up ? a full FIA F3 run with Motopark.

Simonyan21. Dzhon Simonyan

Russia, Giles Motorsport, age 23

55 points (7/16 races)

On paper, Simonyan was the weakest driver of the 2015 TRS field. On average points per race, he was outscored at least two-fold by every other driver. The 55 points he amassed in three rounds are less than what Stroll got in the first race.

But that does not tell the whole story ? Simonyan was, in fact, far from the slowest driver in the field. After all, he did top two practice sessions on Thursday at Teretonga and was fighting for a podium on his final outing at Hampton Downs, only to gretire.

His problem was simple – he absolutely couldn’t keep the car facing the right way. He demolished the chassis at Ruapuna, was out on lap one at Teretonga and spun at Hampton Downs after a fantastic start.

It’s quite a shame that he had nothing to show for three weeks in TRS despite solid pace. However, lining up a sophomore EF Open season with RP will provide some continuity and that might very well help him out.