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New Zealand’s new generation

by Peter Allen

Photos: Stanaway/Evans/Cassidy/Riddle

Hulme, McLaren and Amon made them a driving force in international motor racing, but New Zealand hasn’t had a Formula One driver since 1984. However, they’ve now got another trio of driving stars ready to take on the world…

New Zealand have only had eight Formula One drivers, but as Keith Collantine of F1Fanatic once pointed out (in an article named Formula 1?s lost nations: New Zealand), “they include a world champion, the founder of one of the great F1 teams, and a driver considered to be one of the best never to win an F1 race.” Respectively, they are Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, and as a trio they brought motor racing glory to New Zealand during the 1960s and 1970s.

Hulme made his F1 debut in 1965, and was world champion two years later beating his Australian team owner Jack Brabham. The following season he moved to McLaren, the team formed by compatriot Bruce. McLaren had already won three Grands Prix earlier in his career, and added a fourth in 1968 behind the wheel of his own car. Both he and Hulme won titles in the Can-Am series, but it was while testing a Can-Am car in 1970 that McLaren was killed. His name has lived on with the team that he created, which has gone on to win 12 drivers’ championship and eight constructors’ championships.

Amon partnered McLaren to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, while racing for the team in Can-Am. He was subsequently signed by Ferrari to race in Formula One for the following season, and finished fourth in the drivers’ championship. Despite claiming five pole positions, Amon never won a world championship Grand Prix thanks in part to some notoriously bad luck.

Known as the ‘Trio at the Top’, a documentary about Hulme, McLaren and Amon was made in 2001, and can be viewed by clicking here.

The last New Zealander to race in Formula One was Mike Thackwell in 1984. Thackwell’s five-race career was notable only for being the youngest ever driver to participate in an F1 race when he debuted in 1980 – a record he held for nearly 30 years until Jaime Alguersuari arrived on the scene in 2009.

The nation hasn’t been entirely void of talent in that time. Scott Dixon has found success in the United States, winning the Indycar title in 2003 and 2008, as well as the Indianapolis 500 in 2008, but this never earnt him an opportunity in Formula One. Brendon Hartley was a member of the Red Bull Junior Team and won the Formula Renault Eurocup in 2008, but after being beaten by Alguersuari to the British F3 title the following year he missed out on an F1 chance, and after struggling to impress in Formula Renault 3.5 he was dropped from the energy drink’s roster. A subsequent lack of funding leaves his hopes looking slim.

But a new trio of young drivers are finding success, and are hoping to replicate the efforts of Hulme, McLaren and Amon by putting New Zealand back on the Formula 1 map.

They are lead by 20-year-old Richie Stanaway. After racing in Formula First and Formula Ford down under, Stanaway upped sticks and moved to Germany. His first full season of European competition brought the ADAC Formel Masters title in 2010, and he follwed that up last year with a dominant run to the German F3 Cup crown. He also won on his debut weekend in GP3, and this year will race in Formula Renault 3.5 after an impressive post-season test performance. Stanaway is supported by Gravity Sports Management, and is a member of the new young driver programme created by Gravity and the Lotus F1 Team. As such, Stanaway could be in a Formula 1 race seat as early as next year.

The second member of the trio is 17-year-old Mitch Evans. Evans won the national Toyota Racing Series in both 2010 and 2011, and last year moved to Europe to race in GP3. Driving for the MW Arden team co-owned by his mentor Mark Webber, Evans won a race at just his second meeting, and went onto lead the championship. He remains with the team for a second season in GP3, and will begin as the pre-season title favourite. Racing on the support bill at Grands Prix, he’ll have no doubt already caught the attention of the team bosses.

Completing the trio is another 17-year-old, Nick Cassidy. Having risen through the ranks in his homeland, Cassidy has just won the Toyota Racing Series title, as well as the New Zealand Grand Prix – previously won by McLaren and Amon, as well as Evans in 2011. Cassidy is now eyeing a move to Europe, following an impressive performance in the Formula Renault 2.0 collective test at the end of last year.

There are a number of parallels that can be drawn between the original trio at the top and the new young guns. Both McLaren and Hulme got their first chances on the international scene thanks to a New Zealand scholarship scheme called ‘Driver to Europe’. Today, Stanaway, Evans and Cassidy are all graduates of the ‘Elite Motorsport Academy’ scheme run by New Zealand’s governing body.

Furthermore, McLaren, Hulme and Amon all had the opportunity to test themselves against international competition at home in the Tasman Series, a championship run in Australia and New Zealand which took advantage of the off-season during the Northern Hemisphere winters to attract names such as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart.

Today, the Toyota Racing Series provides a chance for international drivers to get in some racing during the European off-season. Evans and Cassidy are both champions, while Stanaway also raced in the series part-time, dominating a non-championship round on the streets of Hamilton in 2009.

New Zealand is certainly long-overdue some Formula 1 success, and these three youngsters all hope it’s them that returns the nation to the grid.