Toyota 86 Championship kicks off with three women on the Grid
The popular Toyota 86 Championship got its season underway at Highlands Motorsport Park, New Zealand, featuring three women on the grid. Christina Orr-West had three solid races and a top-10; teammates Chelsea Herbert and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt fought in the midfield and made good progress ahead of Round 2 at Ruapuna.
Motor racing in New Zealand has been particularly disrupted over the last two years, with the country undergoing very strict COVID restrictions. The country used to host the Toyota Racing Series, a championship that gathered some of the best single seaters drivers in the world during the winter, as they prepared their summer season and collected some important Super Licence points. Among the most notable graduates are Brendon Hartley, Daniil Kvyat, Will Stevens, Lando Norris, Lance Stroll, Robert Schwartzman, Liam Lawson. Headline event of the series was the New Zealand Grand Prix - first held in 1950. While the 2020 edition went underway in January just before the global health crisis, the 2021 championship was contested with a reduced schedule and an all-local grid. Unfortunately, the challenges of the ongoing border restrictions meant that the 2022 TRS season had to be canceled.
The series had historically featured several women on the grid: Fiona Hamilton, Christina Orr, Leanne Tander, Michela Cerruti, Tatiana Calderon - and, in 2020, home-hero Chelsea Herbert. Herbert, 23, had also been part of the W Series selections, targeting some formula racing experience to maximize her chances of a professional career in GT or touring car racing. Unfortunately, Herbert had a big crash in qualifying at the second round of the season and injured her spine. She has since then fully recovered. While the TRS could not go underway, the Toyota 86 Championship - a popular GT series that has supported TRS in the past - has hit the track after all, launching the Toyota Gazoo New Zealand season at Highlands Motorsport Park, Cromwell. And on its grid, three female racers: Christina Orr-West, Rianna O’Meara-Hunt and Chelsea Herbert. Orr-West is one of the most experienced drivers on the field, with over 20 years of racing in her resumé, in both single-seaters - including Indy Lights - and the top touring cars series in Australia and New Zealand. Herbert returned to a full season of racing after her injury, but made her debut in Toyota 86, as well as Rianna O’Meara-Hunt, who graduated from karting. A total of 22 cars took the start at Highlands, with the series also offering a very exciting prize package that includes a V8 Supercar test. The first race of the weekend saw Simon Evans - brother of Formula E driver Mitch - taking a dominant victory for Giltrap Group Motorsport. Evans started from pole and immediately built a comfortable gap mid-way through the race. The battle behind him - which saw Justin Allen and Dion Pitt fighting for the runner up spot - would ultimately hand him a 4-second margin across the chequered flag. Allen held off the attacks of rookie Pitt, and was able to break away after a failed passing attempt by the latter, which then came under pressure from a train of cars behind. Nevertheless, he managed to secure the final podium spot from Giltrap, Osborne and Allan. Christina Orr-West, Rianna O’Meara-Hunt and Chelsea Herbert all battled closely in the top-15 and ran together for much of the race. Orr-West led this group, finishing in 13th place. The second race featured a reverse-grid from the top-10 finishers, meaning that Simon Evans and Justin Allena lined up on the fifth row of the grid, while John Penny and Ronan Murphy shared the front row. Sunday morning's race, though, proved to be a very troubled one and ended after only two laps of racing out of the 12 scheduled due to oil spilled on the track. At the start, Penny and Murphy went side-by-side into turn 1 - and it would be Penny to hold on to the lead, as the two pulled away from the pack. Soon after, though, the Safety Car was deployed when Prujean hit the wall. The race resumed once the stricken can was recovered and Penny and Murphy resumed their battle, with series champion Rowan Shepherd following in third. After a difficult qualifying, Shepherd had to recover in race 1 but had made it up to seventh, which resulted in a start from the second row in the reverse-grid Race 2. The action was short-lived though, as Ronan Murphy's car started to smoke heavily and pulled off the track to pick up a fire extinguisher. The car had scattered oil all around the track and a lengthy red flag resulted in the race being called after only 2 laps of green flag racing. Penny took victory ahead of Shepherd and McCutcheon, as Prujean was hit by Stichbury - who ultimately ended up with a penalty. Starting from P13, Christina Orr-West made it up to P10 and conquered her first top-10 of the year; Chelsea Herbert also gained a few places to finish P13, while The Heart of Racing's teammate Rianna O’Meara-Hunt slipped down to 17th place. The third race's grid was shaped by the championship order after the first two races - resulting in Simon Evans starting from pole, ahead of Rowan Shepherd. Evans had the perfect getaway and led Shepherd in the first laps, despite the pressure of the reigning champion. Penny, meanwhile, was defending the third place from the attacks of Penny and McCutcheon - who would eventually get by. This triggered a 6-car battle for position, only interrupted for the Safety Car intervention when Fynn Osborne ended his race in the gravel. When the race resumed, all the attention was for Ronan Murphy, who had made the start from 18th after the Race 2 fire after a remarkable rebuild, and managed to climb up to 10th position. Unfortunately, the race was again shortened by a red flag, as Sam Cotterill hit the wall with two laps to go. Evans took victory for the second time of the weekend, ahead of Shepherd and Allen. Christina Orr-West had another solid race around the top-10 and finished P13, preceding Todd Prujean, Chelsea Herbert (P15) and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt (P16), who rounded out their first weekend as series rookies. The second round of the season will be in just a few day's time, as the teams head to Mike Pero Motorsport Park, Ruapuna.