At her third season in the Toyota 86 Championship, Kiwi talent Christina Orr-West was off to a great start of the 2023 campaign, claiming two top-5 finishes at Highlands Motorsport Park.
During the Covid pandemic, New Zealand's premier motor racing series suffered a halt due to the country's strict restrictions. While the single-seater Toyota Racing Series could only rejoin in its full potential in 2023, the Toyota 86 Championship continued its operation with local talents, thrived and became one of the most competitive in the region. Three female racing drivers took to the track in 2022: Rianna O'Meara Hunt, Chelsea Herbert and Christina Orr-West. Herbert and O'Meara Hunt - both part of The Heart of Racing's driver development program - were then selected for the team's first female shootout towards the end of the year, which eventually saw O'Meara Hunt landing a seat in SRO GT4 America. One of the most established female drivers in New Zealand, a former TRS frontrunner - with a podium to her name - and with experience in both single-seater and GT cars, Christina Orr-West will return for her third season in the Toyota 86 Championship - this time aiming even higher after some very solid results in the past two years. And the opening round at Highlands Motorsport Park certainly suggested that it would be the case. At the challenging 4.100 km circuit in Cromwell, Orr-West progressed through practice sessions and qualifying showing enough pace to aim for the top-10 - but it would be in the races where she really had the chance to shine. In a spectacular season opener, pole-winner Brock Gilchrist led the 18-car pack at the first chicane, but a major crash between Harry Townshend and Saxon Sheehan meant that the red flag was out before the end of the first lap, allowing marshals to clear the badly damaged cars. The restart saw once again Gilchrist defending the top spot, this time from Justin Allen after Clay Osborne had a slower getaway but could then recover to second place after a few corners. From tenth on the grid, Christina Orr-West had a brilliant start and moved up two places. Osborne and Gilchrist pulled away and battled for position, with the race leader having to defend on lap three after an attempt from his rival. From then on, he would be able to stretch his legs and build a small safe gap. The fights in the midfield were just as exciting, as Bryant, Orr-West and Pitt followed each other closely for most of the race. With five laps to go, Christina Orr-West was able to find a gap and made a move stick on Penny, advancing to seventh place. John Penny then dropped down the order in the closing stages due to an ABS failure. With a half a second margin in front, race leader Gilchrist had to survive another late charge from Osborne, while also Allen and Bewley were ready to pick up the pieces; the driver of the #10 IMAC Race Engineering Toyota, though, held off the pressure and took his first win of the season. Christina Orr-West's campaign started with a very encouraging seventh place after a battling race 1. The second race of the weekend featured a top-10 reverse-grid, which put Flynn Osborne - the older of the two brothers - and Rylan Gray on the front row. 15-year-old Grey made the most out of the start and took the lead into the first chicane, in a cleaner first lap compared to the previous race. At the end of the first lap, Grey led Osborne, Pitt and Christina Orr-West, who kept fourth place from the start. Osborne, though, made a late lunge on the following lap and the leading duo collided, with Gray's Castrol-sponsored Toyota ending up facing the wrong way. Behind them, the race 1 pacesetters were also recovering quickly, and Allen found a way past Orr-West - with Gilchrist also eager to make up positions just behind. Pitt meanwhile had moved into the lead and was building a gap; he would have to watch his mirrors from the return of Bewley, Allen and Gilchrist. With the latter two ending up in a battle - which saw Gilchrist eventually gaining the spot - Bewley could pull away and chase Pitt, cutting the gap to around one second. A stunning last lap battle saw Tom Bewley and Dion Pitt fighting all the way to the chequered flag, as Bewley incredibly took the win after a last corner pass. Brock Gilchrist came home third after his race 1 win, ahead of Justin Allen and Christina Orr-West, who had a strong second race to secure her first top-five of the season. Gilchrist slotted in pole position for the final race of the weekend thanks to the amount of points scored in the previous two heats; he kept the lead after the first chicane ahead of Tom Bewley, while Christina Orr-West was the star of the start, moving from sixth to fourth on the opening lap. Bewley was looking for a repeat of race 2, but his charge ended on the second lap, when a mistake meant that Osborne was through - and Brock Gilchrist could pull away and, tenth after tenth, wasn't to be challenged again. Bewley tried to fight back, but he ended up making contact with Osborne and damaged his front suspension; he would pit and retire at the end of the third lap. Orr-West was under pressure from Allen in fourth, but she never made a mistake and held firmly her line even after a side-by-side moment, which resulted in Allen having to desist. Gilchrist took his second win of the season ahead of Dion Pitt and Clay Osborne - and a brilliant Christina Orr-West in fourth place, in what was her personal best of the weekend. With two top-five finishes, her season was off to a great start and will now head to Teretonga Raceway in a few day's time in fourth place in the championship's standings. The second out of the six rounds will in fact be contested at the Invercargill circuit, on January 20-22.