M2 Competition lead the Toyota Racing Series after a dominant treble race win at the opening round of the 2020 season at Highlands Motorsport Park.
A double-victory – including success in the Dorothy Smith Memorial Cup – kicked off Liam Lawson’s title defence in near-perfect fashion while Yuki Tsunoda made history by becoming Japan’s first winner in the series.
Seventeen-year-old Liam, one of only two New Zealanders in the field, snatched pole position for the finale with a dazzling display in the final seconds of Sunday qualifying to grab the top spot by less than three hundredths of a second.
The 2019 champion converted that into a commanding advantage as the lights went out, built a five-second lead, and dealt maturely with that margin being wiped out by the safety car; again getting the hammer down late in the race to claim his seventh career TRS win.
The Red Bull Junior was joined on the podium by new Brazilian team-mate Igor Fraga; the racer-gamer who made up a spot at the start to move into third spot; a position he held just in front of fellow M2 driver Yuki Tsunoda.
Igor followed Liam home in Race One on Saturday as M2 cars began the season with a one-two finish and again finished virtually in his wheeltracks in Race Two as the pair recorded fifth and seventh spots.
Fifth in Race One meant Yuki started from the front row on Race Two’s partially-reversed grid.
The 19-year-old, who, like Liam, is a Red Bull Junior, made a lightning getaway and was never seriously challenged as he scored his maiden series win on his debut weekend to become M2 Competition’s 25th winner in the TRS.
Liam, Igor and Yuki hold the top three positions in the championship with the first of five rounds completed; Liam 15 points ahead of his gamer-turned-racer team-mate and Yuki one point further back. M2 Competition comfortably lead the Teams’ standings.
Ido Cohen made history by becoming the first Israeli driver to contest the TRS, and after damaging his suspension against a kerb in Saturday qualifying, stormed through from 17th on the grid to finish 10th in the opener.
A strong start from eighth on the Race-Three grid lifted him to an excellent sixth place in the finale, where he ran for most of the race before securing a career-best seventh spot.
Karting superstar Emilien Denner made his car-racing debut at Highlands; belying his lack of experience with the Toyota FT-60 that debuted in the TRS last weekend, to qualify and finish 11th for Race One and improved further with add 10th and ninth places on Sunday.
Rui Andrade – the first Angolan to race in TRS – was an impressive 12th in Saturday qualifying and recorded a best race finish of 14th in Race One after recovering from a mid-race spin. He repeated the result in the reversed-grid race and was 16th in the finale.
Liam Lawson said: “It feels fantastic to start the season in this way. To take away two wins and the championship lead is perfect. It was important to me to win the Dorothy Smith Memorial Cup because Kenny Smith [Dorothy’s son] has been such a mentor to me, so it means a lot to have this one. The team have given me a great car all weekend and today I made the most of it. I took it easy at the start but then felt a bit of pressure, so got the hammer down, and did the same after the safety car and knew that if I kept it tidy, it would be very difficult for anyone to pass me. Now I’m looking forward to next weekend.”
Igor Fraga said: “For my first experience in New Zealand, this weekend has gone very well. Highlands is unlike any circuit I’ve been to before and it’s incredibly challenging and interesting. But I’d studied the onboards hard to learn my way around and we’ve been inside the top three or four in every session and by the end of the weekend the consistency was pretty good and I could come away with two podiums. This is a very important championship for me and the aim is to go for wins as soon as possible. It won’t be easy, but we’ll work hard for this.”
Yuki Tsunoda said: “I’m very happy to make a little bit of history today as the first Japanese winner in TRS. I put quite a lot of pressure on myself to make a good start in Race Two because I knew if I could get ahead, it would be hard for anyone to pass me, and that’s exactly what happened. It rescued the weekend really because I had an engine issue in the testing and a crash in FP1 that lost me track time. I had traffic at key times in qualifying and I couldn’t make the set-up work for me in Sunday’s session, but the races today were much better and I scored good points. Getting the win is great, but the target is the championship, so we’ll work hard to make Teretonga an even better weekend.”
Ido Cohen said: “A weekend that didn’t start so well ended up finishing pretty strongly, which I’m very happy about. I had some technical issues in practice and then a suspension issue in first qualifying, which put me on the back foot, but I managed to go from 17th to 10th in the race, which was really good. I lost a place at the start of Race Two and even though my pace was good, passing is very difficult at this track so I stayed there. Sunday qualifying was very good and I started eighth, made up some positions and finished seventh. In general even though we started on the back foot, there was a clear improvement across the weekend and this puts us in good shape to have a strong weekend at Teretonga.
Emilien Denner said: “I’m very pleased with how the weekend went. It was my first time racing a car, and on a circuit as difficult as Highlands, which I’ve never been too before, it was always going to be a big challenge. But the team did an amazing job to get me up to speed in free practice, and we spent the whole weekend on the edge of the top 10; with ninth place in Race Three exactly the kind of result everyone deserved for the effort they’ve put in. I think we can be even stronger at Teretonga next weekend.”
Rui Andrade said: “It’s been a mixed weekend and the high point was definitely qualifying 12th on Saturday, but I made a mistake at the beginning of the race, which cost me a few positions, and the rest was about recovery. I had a spin, but didn’t damage the car, so I was quite confident about Sunday, but things just didn’t go my way in qualifying and I made a mistake in Race Three and lost some time. Luckily Round Two is only four days away and I’ll give it my all to bounce back.”
Mark Pilcher, Team Principal, said: “It’s been a long week and we’re over the moon to win all three races. We knew our rivals weren’t going to just lay down and let us win 14 times like in 2019, so we needed to raise our game to stay near the top. It’s just worked out very well. Liam made a small mistake in Saturday qualifying and just missed pole, and that spurred us all on to get the job done on Sunday; when he drove magnificently. Yuki’s still adapting to the car, so to see him win is great, and Igor’s been on the money in every session and done a very good, professional job. Ido had a great race today after experiencing more of the new-car teething troubles than the other drivers, and Emilien’s improved every time he’s got behind the wheel – it’s an incredibly steep learning curve for him. Rui’s going to benefit from the large amount of track time TRS gives a rookie driver and you could see how this helped him improve this weekend. It’s been a very good job by the whole team.”