The 2019 Toyota Racing Series was preceded by a barrage of anticipation, unanswered questions and the announcement of an incredibly-talented field, which featured a DTM race-winner, a Formula 3 champion and a Ferrari junior.
The season began with a near incident-free opening race, with all 15 starters reaching the chequered flag. This would prove to be a false omen, with either a red flag or a safety car (or both) in nearly all of the remaining 14 races – the most high-profile being the crash at the safety car restart of the rescheduled opener at Hampton Downs, which saw race leader Cameron Das tangle with second-placed Liam Lawson on the pit straight.
It soon became a two-horse race in the championship, fought between two of New Zealand’s biggest rising stars, leaving the combined talents of European,?Asia and America in the shade.?There were plenty of surprises – both exciting ones as well as disappointments – in what will surely go down as a classic TRS season. Here’s five things we learned from the 2019 series.
Liam Lawson is the real deal
For those who hadn’t been watching his career closely, Lawson’s display of speed on his Asian F3 debut late last year, where he won all three races at Sepang came as a big shock.
Fresh from narrowly losing out on winning the Road to Indy Shootout victory and Australian Formula 4 title in 2017, Lawson put his stamp on the European map in 2018, with a stellar rookie ADAC F4 season that resulted in another second place.
He wouldn’t have been the first driver to arrive in Europe with a bang and fizzle out later, so it was a relief that up against established European competition,?Lawson immediately showed that from the first TRS weekend he meant business.
The 16-year-old wasted little time in establishing himself as the man to beat, winning the opening race, but more impressively, dominating the final race of the weekend in style – passing his M2 Competition team-mates and pre-season favourites Marcus Armstrong and Lucas Auer on his way to winning the feature race by 9.921 seconds.
These moves demonstrated his brave racecraft, passing Ferrari Driver Academy member Armstrong around the outside as well as throwing it down the inside of DTM race-winner Auer.
Lawson repeatedly showed this, excelling in all weather conditions, only occasionally being caught out by his audacity. Sluggish race starts were compensated by a knack for efficiently slicing his way through the field.
He was perhaps unnecessarily over-ambitious when it came to the title decider, but at the end of the day, it was team-mate Armstrong, not Lawson, who felt the wrath of the stewards when it mattered.
It was inevitable that an F1 team would soon snap Lawson up to its junior programme, and it took just a week for him to be named a member of the Red Bull Junior Team, having reportedly received offers for multiple teams.
The now 17-year-old (his birthday was the day after the season ended) is far from the finished article, but he truly proved that 2018 was no flash in the pan.
Armstrong not at his best, but better than ever
While Lawson realised his dream of not only racing in, but winning the New Zealand Grand Prix and TRS title, Armstrong faced a third successive year of defeat.?But it wasn’t all negatives for the Ferrari junior, who won five races, and was only denied the title by two stewards decisions.
“The TRS car is really different to anything you race in Europe, especially because it’s extremely light and the [Michelin] tyre is very good as well,” Armstrong explained to Formula Scout.
“You use techniques in the TRS car that you wouldn’t be able to get away with in F3, and it’s quite feeling dependant. You can’t really just put your finger on what makes you faster in a TRS car. You just have to drive by feeling.
“I think I was good at that in ’17. This year I feel maybe I overdrove a little bit, considering it’s underpowered. Even though it was my third season, when I did the first free practice, it was like starting from zero.”
Armstrong enjoyed the challenge, particularly Taupo’s abrasive surface, and despite the closeness of the title fight, found it less intense than 2018’s battle after a suspension failure at Taupo meant he went to Manfeild as the chaser rather than chased.
Known for his maturity, Armstrong was tested in the title decider, with a penalty in the penultimate race only revealed to him 20 minutes before the start of the season-ending grand prix, taking him by surprise. During that race, he seized the lead from Lawson with a move that resulted in his rival taking to the grass when neither backed out. Armstrong was penalised again.
“It was quite clear that both of my penalties were unreasonable. [Team-mate] Esteban Muth got a penalty for almost the identical move that I did, and the penalty was given because Lucas [Auer] had to lift, which to me makes no sense.
“Liam had to make the choice whether or not – because the nature of the corner means we’re going to the outside of it whether we like it or not – to stay full throttle and drive off track, or lift and try to fight back at the next corner.
“That was my best drive. I was fired up because of the penalty, and winning the title was looking to be a bit of a challenge starting from third. I made it to the lead, the car was spot on, and I really enjoyed it until I was told I had a five-second penalty.”
His plan to back Lawson into third place had to be abandoned, and a late race push proved insufficient, but eye-opening. Armstrong set his fastest lap on the final tour, demonstrating tyre management that other drivers were only dreaming of.
The other star rookie is one to watch
With Lawson’s stunning title win as a rookie, it would be easy to overlook the other star debutants down under. Esteban Muth had a solid if unspectacular debut in car racing, finishing seventh in French F4 last year, so it was a shock when he won in only his second TRS race.
He would lose that win as a result of a jumped start, but it showcased the raw potential of the 17-year-old protege of Andre Lotterer. The incidents and mistakes would continue, but that’s expected as a rookie, and they were less frequent than the far more experienced Auer.
In the Taupo reversed-grid race Muth finally got his win, and ended the season fifth in the standings, just 12 points adrift of Auer in third. He’d have been even closer had he not been denied a podium in the New Zealand Grand Prix by a harsh penalty for a pass on Auer.
Muth far exceeded fellow rookies Kazuto Kotaka and Petr Ptacek, both who made it onto the podium once, and although he was in the shadow of team-mate Lawson, expect him to shine in whichever series he decides to race in full-time this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he stuck with M2 Competition for its Formula Renault Eurocup expansion, which it is basing in Muth’s hometown in Belgium…
M2 Competition is ideally placed for Europe
Since its debut in 2011, M2 has consistently been the team to beat, but its 2019 campaign was statistically its most prolific yet. For the first time in the history of the series, it won 14 out of the 15 races, with each of its six drivers winning at least once.
There’s no doubt that M2 always attracts the top driving talents, granting it an advantage over its rivals, but operationally it has consistently proven itself the team to beat in all conditions as well.
That should transfer well when it makes its European racing debut in the Formula Renault Eurocup later this year. The series is a tough nut to crack, but will be somewhat of a more level playing field now with the addition of a new car, a new tyre supplier and the departure of two of its most experienced teams, Josef Kaufmann Racing and Fortec Motorsports.
It’s signed Kush Maini to its programme already, and it would be beneficial to call upon a couple of the many talents its had success with in TRS in recent years.
There’s an element of naivety to expect similar levels of success in the Eurocup, but don’t be surprised if it manages to establish itself as one of the leading teams in European junior single-seaters over the next decade.
TRS is still the best winter racing series
TRS faced and exceeded its usual competitor MRF Challenge this winter, which had just 12 entries for its season opener, and did the same to its new FIA-backed challenger in the Asian F3 Winter Series.
The Asian championship initially boasted more superlicence points than TRS,?threatening to dislodge TRS from its usual spot as the go-to winter series before it was revealed that the F3 series actually counted for none.
Red Bull junior Dan Ticktum and Formula Renault Eurocup stars Max Fewtrell and Yifei Ye had already joined the series before the superlicence clarification had been made, but low entry numbers beyond the big names meant the series would have lost superlicence eligibility anyway.
It made a mockery of the whole reason why Red Bull placed Ticktum in the series, a point made even more bizarre by the fact that his Red Bull stablemate driver Auer headed to TRS in an independently-funded deal. Had Ticktum elected to compete in TRS, he could have now received enough points to make his F1 debut – or perhaps Lawson would have shocked him too.
The racing in Asian F3’s two opening rounds has been dull in comparison to the excitement that TRS regularly produced throughout its five back-to-back weekends format.