New Zealand Grand Prix, The Generation Gap

Three teenagers, Marcus Armstrong, Robert Shwartzman and Richard Verschoor have everything to gain and lose when the New Zealand Grand Prix is held at Circuit Chris Amon, Manfeild on Sunday afternoon.

The trio are the leading contenders in the Castrol Toyota Racing Series, which comes to a climax at the Manawatu track.

The trio, together with Clement Novalak, who was second fastest behind championship leader Armstrong had the quickest times in the three practice sessions today.

Apart from the pressure of trying to beat one another to the Grand Prix title and the championship, there is the conundrum of managing the tyres on their cars and dealing with the likelihood of forecast rain for the feature race on Sunday.

If it remains dry drivers only have two sets of tyres for a total of 70 laps of racing on Saturday and Sunday. The Grand Prix is over 35 laps, while the two preliminary races are 20 and 15 laps long.

“The tyres are really good for 5 or 6 laps and then they drop off,” said 17 year old English teenager James Pull. “Then they are OK for another 12-15 laps,” commented Cameron Das from Baltimore, USA. “Then they get worse again.”

But if it rains, the slick dry weather racing tyres will become superfluous, and the grooved wet weather tyres will become all important.

Going on past performance, Verschoor, the 17 year old from the Netherlands, won easily in the rain at Teretonga 12 months ago, while 18 year old Shwartzman from St Petersburg in Russia was quick in the rain at Ruapuna 4 weeks ago.

Armstrong starts the weekend with a 33 points lead over Shwartzman, with Verschoor another 27 points behind.

Their first hurdle is getting through tomorrow morning’s qualifying, where a place on the front row of the grid is all important.

Only hundredths of a second have separated the leading contenders, so that whoever can make the most of a good start, can control the race.

Armstrong has the opportunity to be the first Kiwi since Nick Cassidy five years ago to win the Grand Prix and the Toyota Racing Series title.

At the other end of the age spectrum is New Zealand motor racing legend Kenny Smith will compete in his 47th New Zealand Grand Prix, the final race in this year’s Castrol Toyota Racing Series at Manfeild this Sunday.

Smith,now 76 years-old, has won the race three times and first competed in the event at Pukekohe in 1964 in a 1500cc Lotus 22.

“I can’t remember where I came,” he admits. “It might have been last. I was certainly down the back somewhere.”

That race was won by the late Bruce McLaren in a 2.5 litre Cooper Climax. Serendipitously, Smith will race with number 47 on his car this weekend, the number used by McLaren when he raced in New Zealand.

“I have no expectations of how I will go,” said Smith of his first outing in a modern generation single seater with a paddle shift gearbox. “I’ll just do the best I can do.”

He has had to modify his driving style to suit. “I drive the old cars with one hand at times,” admitted Smith. “You can’t do that with paddle shift. You’ve got to keep your hands on the wheel to change gears.”

Smith is old enough to be the grand-father of all his rivals this weekend. The next oldest drivers in the race at Brendon Leitch (Invercargill) and Reid Harker (Albany), who are both 22 years old. The majority of the field is aged between 16 and 18.

Smith first won the Grand Prix at Pukekohe in 1976 in a Lola T332, during the Formula 5000 era. “Whenever you win it’s exciting,” said Smith. “But that one meant the most because of all the famous names on the trophy up to that time.”

His second win came in 1990 in a Formula Pacific Swift again at Pukekohe and win number three was at Teretonga in 2004 in a Van Dieman Stealth Formula Ford, when the category was the leading single seater class.

Smith reckons he has used about 18 different cars over six decades in his 47 appearances in New Zealand’s most prestigious motor race.

Smith last raced in the Toyota Racing Series five years ago and says the modern cars require a different approach from the Formula 5000 Lola he still races regularly.

“We can chuck those cars around a bit, but these new ones you have to drive smoothly. Brendon Hartley gave me some lessons a few years ago. They drive like they are on rails.”

Smith’s car will promote Manawatu with the signature line #thisismanawatu (one word). It will also carry the web address

#thisismanawatu is realised by Manfeild, Central Economic Development Agency (CEDA), Palmerston North City Council, Manawatu Car Club and Capture Signs.

“We are delighted and honoured that Kenny Smith, a legend of New Zealand motorsport and a fantastic supporter of our venue, will race for the Manawatu for his 47th appearance in the New Zealand Grand Prix,” says Manfeild chief executive Julie Keane.

Source: Toyota Racing Series Media
Image: Toyota Racing Series