Home Featured What Igor Fraga did to beat the Toyota Racing Series’ local hero

What Igor Fraga did to beat the Toyota Racing Series’ local hero

by Elliot Wood

Photos: Toyota Racing NZ

The Brazilian is best known for his Esports exploits, but it was skills he was learning – rather than those already honed on a computer – that propelled the 21-year-old to his first international single-seater title

Before the start of the Toyota Racing Series season, Formula Scout questioned whether (ill-fortune aside) anyone would be able to beat defending champion Liam Lawson to the title.

The New Zealander, who had become a winner in Euroformula and a Red Bull junior since his TRS title success, had matured from the youngster whose 2019 rivalry with fellow Kiwi driver Marcus Armstrong had flitted into bitterness, and had no pressure – or personal expectation – to repeat his success. A FIA Formula 3 Championship drive with Hitech GP was all but already secured.

An all-new car based around Tatuus’s regional F3 chassis had the potential to shake up proceedings, but Lawson’s team M2 Competition had seized the initiative to build up experience with the car’s base model by joining the Formula Renault Eurocup.

The Tatuus T-318 was also used in the Formula Regional European Championship, where Lawson’s 2020 team-mate Igor Fraga had been a race-winner and the surprise star with DR Formula by RP Motorsport. According to Fraga, the car was only delivered to the team days before competition began, and RP’s inexperience outside of Euroformula was exposed. Even at the end of the season it was struggling to get on top of the car, but Fraga won four races and finished third in the points.

Those performances turned the head of M2 Competition team boss Mark Pilcher, and after running Fraga in a private Eurocup test at Paul Ricard, the Brazilian was signed to the team.

While the chassis was fundamentally the same, the retitled FT-60 used different tyres supplied by Hankook and a turbocharged 2.0-litre Toyota engine for TRS. The reliability of the new engines impressed Pilcher, and helped the transition of the new larger cars to New Zealand’s narrow and technical circuits.

The differences between the European and New Zealand equipment is a factor Fraga cites for his Formula Regional experience being of limited use. “It has very different characteristics which mean you have to drive it in a different style straight away,” he explains to Formula Scout.

Working around changing characteristics of similar cars is something Fraga is an expert of sorts on, as his victory in the McLaren Shadow Project Esports competition little over a year ago included several different driving simulation games. The accessibility of the regional F3 car and New Zealand’s circuits on these games was very limited prior to the season though.

Roberto Moreno, who mentors Fraga’s career, won the New Zealand Grand Prix and the then equivalent of the Toyota Racing Series – Formula Pacific – in 1982 but the former Formula 1 racer and IndyCar race-winner offered no insight for Fraga to learn from. As Pilcher describes it, “everything Igor did was all self-taught”.

“Igor is making it with no money,” Moreno says. “And in this world of motor racing, without the finances it is very, very difficult.

“Igor knows what to do, he’s quite cool. He’s doing a great job. From the beginning of the first run he did here [at Manfeild], without knowing the circuit, to now, he’s improved so much in such a short time – he’s capable of doing everything.

“I have to thank Toyota for such a fantastic series, so competitive. It was the first time I see Igor from the first day that he doesn’t know the circuit, how quickly he can develop at a circuit he’s never been to. It’s amazing.”

This could be observed when M2 was struggling at the start of a weekend, as Fraga usually beat Lawson to improving the car with his engineer David de la Fuente Cainzos, even if Lawson would end up being faster of the two.

During the title-deciding grand prix weekend, Fraga confessed his car was really uncomfortable to drive in free practice and needed a set-up change. One day later he was reporting that it was far more consistent after qualifying on the front row for race one, while Lawson and his engineer Marc Wood were still searching for improvements in one-lap race until Sunday’s qualifying session.

On this occasion Fraga was the faster of the two, with Lawson making several small but crucial errors over the weekend that turned an eight-point lead into a six-point deficit and a lost title.

Moreno first got involved in Fraga’s career while he was in Brazilian F3, having followed other talents in the country. After an interim campaign in NACAM Formula 4, Fraga then switched to racing in the USA and spent times sleeping in cars and the houses of his mechanic and Moreno due to his lack of funds. It was “a rough time”, but Fraga looks back at it fondly for shaping him today.

“Definitely,” says Moreno. “When I saw him in 2017 Mexico, I never thought he was this good. He’s growing so quickly, and his mental focus is fantastic. I don’t do much, I’m just watching at the moment. And he’s just developing each time. What I’m emotional about is it reminded me of my old days with no money, trying to succeed.”

M2 Competition bosses Jonathan Moury and Mark Pilcher also point to Fraga and Lawson’s working relationship as a factor in their TRS success, with a noticeable distinction from previous times where it’s had more than one driver in the title hunt.

Pilcher believes this was a necessity, with rival teams MTEC Motorsport and Kiwi Motorsport being strengthened by full support from Eurocup squads R-ace GP and MP Motorsport respectively.

“I wasn?t stressed during the grand prix, as I said beforehand to them, do no funny business,” Pilcher tells Formula Scout. “At the beginning of the season we set it up that in an ideal situation the title would go down to final race, and then they can fight over it. The drivers are more relaxed than last year, Liam and Igor are good friends and there’s no bitterness.”

The pre-race meeting was expanded on by Moury, who described how the sportsmanship between the team’s two lead drivers had a “powerful” effect.

“The atmosphere has been really, really positive. Powerful as well, because we work together and I think that was a big difference on that side,” explains Moury. “They were awesome, they thanked each other actually for the season, then wished good luck to each other, so that was nice to see. But it shows also the respect they have for each other.”

Working with Lawson after a gap of nearly a year meant the two team bosses could immediately see how much the teenager had improved in the time between seasons. One of Pilcher’s observations was that Lawson was less frequently flustered when circumstances weren’t benefiting him, and his failure to defend his title means he will be inclined to return in 2021.

The maturity of both was highlighted by Moury, with an inclination that Fraga and Lawson’s willingness to work together got the former up to speed quicker, and therefore made it easier for him to beat Lawson.

“We knew Liam from last year, but Igor has been a discovery for us,” Moury says. “And such a nice guy. Liam as well. They compliment each other, in a certain way, within in the team as well. Igor has impressed us in every aspect. They both work hard for it, they really want it. It shows on track, but also in the garage. It’s been incredible. Two really talented drivers.”

Photo: Toyota Racing NZ

Moreno also praises Lawson, and hopes both drivers make it to F1 in the coming years. Their first destination will be FIA F3, and Fraga had just a day of celebrating his title before he flew to Prague to start preparations with Charouz Racing System.

The other future F1 star in M2’s line-up was Honda and Red Bull junior Yuki Tsunoda, whose backing from the Japanese engine manufacturer has earned him a Formula 2 seat with Carlin after just one year of racing in Europe. He won a race in the Highlands Motorsport Park season opener but was usually fighting for positions off the podium due to poor qualifying results. On the plus side, it meant the Japanese racer had to frequently charge through the field.

M2 ran six drivers for the second year in a row, and the strength of its lead trio assisted in not only having to manage such a large group of people and getting a full understanding of the new car on the New Zealand circuits, but also in speeding up its less experienced other three drivers. Pilcher’s plan is for them to continue their learning curve with his team in the Eurocup.

 

M2 Competition’s title contenders compared
Fraga Lawson Tsunoda
Wins 4 5 1
Poles 3 3 1x4th
Fst laps 3 7 0
Podiums 9 10 3
Points 362 356 315