Toyota 86 kicks off 2023-24 season at Taupo with 4 women on the grid
New Zealand's Toyota 86 Championship kicked off its 2023-2024 season at Taupo with a high-quality grid which included four talented female racers: at her fourth season in a row, veteran Christina Orr-West claimed two top ten finishes, while Australian ace Alice Buckley had a strong debut in the NZ series battling for the top-10 in race 1. In their first season in tin-top racing, Summer Rintoule and Breanna Morris made good improvements in extreme weather conditions.
Taupo International Motorsport Park hosted the first round of the Toyota 86 Championship, one of New Zealand's most competitive tin-top championships and with a history of producing some exciting talents in the region. The field for the new season includes multiple champions from karting, Formula Ford, the Australian Toyota 86 series as well as promising rookies - and also drivers with backgrounds in simracing. Among the 24-car grid we find one of the strongest female contingents with four extremely talented women: series veteran Christina Orr-West was in fact joined by Breanna Morris, Alice Buckley and Summer Rintoule. One of the most accomplished female racers in New Zealand, Christina Orr-West returns to the series for her fourth consecutive season. Coming from single-seater experience, Orr-West has podiums in the prestigious Toyota Racing Series to her name, as well as entries in Indy Lights and at the Bathurst 12H, before she returned to home soil. In the Toyota 86 Championship, the popular driver has been progressively close to her first win season after season and is currently competing in the Masters class. “The Toyota 86 Championship is always fiercely fought out and it keeps me very sharp as a racing driver", said the experienced racer who flies the flag of Dayle ITM Racing in the #55 machine. “I just love the racing though and flying the flag for the team. We have a great time. I started racing when I was five and as I don’t tell anyone how old I am, all I can say is that I’ve been racing a long time and still love every second.”
Orr-West is also a dairy farmer and mum, and has most recently competed in the South Island Endurance Series in GT4, before kicking off her Toyota 86 campaign, aiming to top her runner-up title in the Masters class from last year. 20 year old Breanna Morris joined the series with a late deal, but is now aiming to learn the new platform quickly, having raced last year in the inaugural edition of the Castrol Toyota Formula Regional Oceania Championship - formerly known as Toyota Racing Series. After that experience, the young Kiwi has raced GT cars in the North and South Island endurance championships, also as part of the Dayle ITM Racing squad. “It’s a late deal but it’s great to be part of this field particularly, it’s going to be a massive season and a great way to learn much more about competitive tin-top racing,” she said. "It’s very different from what I have done before and that’s part of what really appeals about it. I know TOYOTA GAZOO also run a very professional championship and that the series is going to be a place where I only become a better driver on and off the track", Morris continued. “There’s plenty to learn about the car and the technique but I enjoyed the testing we have done and I’m confident we will get up to speed pretty quickly with the circuit knowledge I have and the car knowledge the team has.”
Toyota 86 Scholarship race winner Alice Buckley comes from the Australian series and is one of the most interesting additions to the New Zealand-based championship. The 16 year old from the Gold Coast, in fact, collected three victories, three podiums, two fastest laps and a pole position in the main Australian Toyota 86 feeder series, and has big ambitions. With a superb karting resumé, Buckley was selected as one of the finalists in last year's FIA Girls On Track programme, where she tested F4 machinery for the first time and competed for a seat in the Ferrari Driver Academy. Her Formula 4 experience was then a great asset at her return to domestic competitions, as she is quickly climbing the ranks in the highly-competitive Toyota one-make series. “I want to continue to focus on racing and improving on and off track", Alice said. "I will have a new team, a new car and be learning new tracks which is very challenging and exciting. I want to continue to learn and push myself to improve to always strive to be better." Also from the Gold Coast, Summer Rintoule just started her racing career less than a year ago in the Hyundai Excel regional endurance races - and is approaching her rookie season in New Zealand's Toyota 86 Championship as an opportunity to refine her racing skills and build valuable experience among a quality field.
A Business student, 16-year-old Rintoule was selected for the Toyota Gazoo Racing Australia evaluation day and has since then tested the Toyota 86 machine at Hampton Downs before the start of the season with Action Motorsport. “My main objective for the TGRNZ season is to gain more experience with different tracks, cars and weather conditions", Summer stated before the opening weekend. "These are all things I need to adapt too." “I’m driving in the TGRNZ Series, the TGRA Scholarship Series and the TGRA National Series over the 2023–2024 season increasing my on track experience. Seat time in the New Zealand TGR86 will extend my racing season and will give me the experience I need to improve my race craft.” “I haven’t done karting like so many of the other drivers and I recognise that time in the seat is of paramount importance", she continued. "New tracks and different weather conditions are also a big part of why I chose the TGRNZ Series. I love travelling to new countries and new places and so far everything I’ve seen in New Zealand is beautiful.”
On the first day of running at Taupo, drivers had three practice sessions to get up to grips with the car and the track, as well as complete their setup work and brake bedding. In the changeable weather conditions, Christina Orr-West shone by consistently running close to the top-10 - also setting the sixth fastest time in FP2 and FP3. Alice Buckley got up to speed towards the end of the day and started to climb the leaderboard, ending the day in a promising P15. Summer Rintoule and Breanna Morris also improved their times, in a very compact midfield that saw most of the drivers only separated by a handful of tenths. Things got serious on the second day, when the 24 racers tackled qualifying in the pouring rain. The 20 minute session was a battle between Tom Bewley, Hunter Robb, William Exton and Jackson Rooney - but Alice Buckley was equally impressive with a tenth place in her first qualifying in the series, having set a 1:57.349 lap in a red-flag-interrupted session. Christina Orr-West was 12th fastest, while Rintoule and Morris followed in P21 and P22 respectively.
Later in the day, the first race of the season was another soaking wet session: from second on the grid, Hunter Robb snatched the lead at the first corner and held on to the top spot until a first safety car neutralization on lap 5. At the restart, pole-sitter Tom Bewley tried to respond back, but was ultimately unable to do so and had to settle for second, ahead of William Exton in third.
Despite extremely poor grip and visibility, the race was clean and drivers managed the tricky conditions well; Alice Buckley had a remarkable debut with a solid P11, barely seven tenths from the top ten. Buckley ran as high as eighth in the opening stages - when she had a elbows-out duel with Orr-West. Alice then settled in tenth, but fell just outside the top-10 after battling wheel to wheel for the entirety of the race. Christina Orr-West finished just behind, in a still positive P13 after being shuffled back on the opening laps. From P21 on the grid, Summer Rintoule ran smoothly and made no mistakes to finish P19, gaining two places; Breanna Morris took the chequered flag in P21 in race 1.
The grid of race 2 was shaped based on the top-10 reverse finishing order from the first race; in another wet contest, the pack took the start behind the safety car - who made it back to the pits at the end of the second lap. From ninth, Tom Bewley was the protagonist of a remarkable charge and, by lap 4, he was already in the lead, having completed a clean pass at turn 4 on Hayden Bakkerus - who had moved into first place after a mistake by reverse-grid pole-sitter Townshend. From there, he pulled away and was never under threat, despite a late charge from rookie Jackson Rooney. Race 1 winner Hunter Robb also recovered positions from the fifth row of the grid, but was eventually third - 6 seconds down the order and never close enough to the leading duo. From fourth down to tenth place, battles were incredibly tense throughout the race and, from P13, Christina Orr-West emerged as one of the biggest movers, as she gained five places to finish eighth in a strong run. While Summer Rintoule couldn't secure another top-20 like in the first race, she had good pace and finished P21, just behind Breanna Morris, who bounced back and gained a position. After a really strong debut, Alice Buckley's second race was an unlucky one, as she had to retire after 2 laps.
The third and final race of the weekend saw Tom Bewley - who had set the fastest lap in the previous race - lining up on pole, sharing the front row with Jackson Rooney. Bewley, though, had a challenging getaway and lost the top spot to Rooney into turn 1. However, Bewley soon recovered and, by the end of the first lap he was back ahead. Behind, Hunter Robb found a way past Rooney for second - and the two continued to fight for the runner up spot until a contact between the two sent Robb into a spin and cost Rooney a drive through. This allowed Bewley to open a 20 second gap as the unchallenged race leader, preceding Hayden Bakkerus - who crossed the finish line in second but was then handed a penalty for another contact. William Exton's defensive run to third was then converted into second place, as he preceded John Penny by two tenths across the line. Penny took the victory in the Masters class, ahead of Christina Orr-West, second in class and ninth overall after another superbly consistent race - and her second top ten of the weekend. Having started from P15, Orr-West was again on the move and managed to gain six places in race 3 alone.
While the unfortunate race 2 put Alice Buckley in a difficult position for the final race, the 16-year-old racer made up two positions to finish P20, just behind Summer Rintoule - who was protagonist of a really solid debut weekend considering her experience, clinching two top-20 finishes. From the tail end of the field, Breanna Morris got ahead of Alex Hawley - who hit trouble on lap 3 - and then passed Brooklyn Horan to finish P21, just one tenth behind Buckley.
Following the first out of the six scheduled rounds in the 2023-2024 season, Tom Bewley leads the drivers' standings from Hunter Robb and William Exton. Christina Orr-West sits ninth in the championship standings, having scored 101 points; she is second in the Masters class, 47 points behind John Perry. Alice Buckley's 42 points (19th in the standings) are not representative of her strong debut, which saw the Australian teenager steadily able to battle for the top ten. She precedes Summer Rintoule (38 points) and Breanna Morris (32 points), both focused on learning the platform in their first outing in the series. The second championship will now resume in nine week's time, with the second round scheduled at Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon on 26-28 January, where the four female drivers will aim to build on the experience gathered at Taupo in extremely challenging weather conditions.