Defending Toyota Racing Series (TRS) champion Nick Cassidy faces possibly the biggest challenge of his motorsport career as the 2013 championship gets under way.
Not only is he facing what many say is the strongest field of international racers ever to contest the TRS, but he is doing so with a new race team, a new engineer and new mechanics.
A near-record field of 18 drivers will contest the series, which begins next weekend, and runs for five weekends and 15 races from Teretonga at Invercargill to the final round at Manfeild near Feilding. The championship offers drivers some of the most historic and prestigious trophies in New Zealand motorsport, including the New Zealand Grand Prix title, which is the final race in the series.
Aucklander Cassidy, 18, went from winning the rookie title in 2011 to winning the championship in 2012. He has switched from the multiple championship-winning Giles Motorsport team to be part of a six-car entry from Hamilton-based M2 Competition.
Cassidy competed in several Formula Renault Eurocup races after winning the TRS title in 2012 and has tested a GP3 car for the Status GP team. He also filled in for an injured Greg Murphy in the New Zealand V8 SuperTourer event at Taupo, winning on debut in the big touring cars.
With strong local and international interest in the series, Cassidy's title defence will face determined opposition this year.
Kiwi Damon Leitch, of Invercargill, is back for 2013. He won his home round at Teretonga to take an early points lead in 2012 and eventually ended the championship third overall.
Leitch has spent the winter securing sponsorship for the series, working on his fitness and racing in the South Island's regional karting championships to stay race fit.
Cassidy and Leitch are joined by a third Kiwi, Michael Scott, of Te Puke, who is stepping up from Formula Ford to make his "wings and slicks" debut in the TRS.
Arriving this week to compete against the young New Zealanders are 15 drivers from around the world, some of them with experience of the TRS. International drivers returning for their second season of the TRS this year are Bruno Bonifacio, of Brazil; Felix Serralles, of Puerto Rico; Alex Lynn, of Britain; Lucas Auer, of Austria; and Tanart Sathienthirakul, of Thailand. They have the knowledge of New Zealand's circuits, know the car and all competed in Europe with outstanding results in 2012.
Serralles finished third in the British Formula 3 championship; Lynn won the Formula Renault 2.0 UK championship in 2011 and recently took pole at the famous Macau Grand Prix Formula 3 race, finishing third in his rookie debut; Auer finished second in the 2012 German Formula 3 championship; and Bonifacio finished third in the Formula Abarth European championship.
The TRS will again have a young female driver on the starting grid: Tatiana Calderon, of Colombia, comes to New Zealand fresh from a strong campaign in the 2012 European Open Formula 3 series.
Jann Mardenborough, of Cardiff in the UK, is a unique entry, a gamer-turned-racer. Outright victory in the Nissan Sony PlayStation Gran Turismo gaming competition in 2011 won him the opportunity to compete in a season of GT racing in 2012.
He comes to the TRS to gain experience in an open-wheel race car on his way to competing in the Le Mans 24-Hour sportscar race.
Championship organisers say the TRS has been a standout success, offering many young New Zealand racing drivers the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to compete at the highest levels of motorsport around the world.
Young international drivers come to New Zealand to race in the TRS to hone their skills on unfamiliar tracks while European tracks are closed for winter.
Now entering its ninth season, the series has never been won by an international driver.
- Sunday Star Times