M2 Competition scored their 75th Toyota Racing Series victory on an impressive weekend at Teretonga that brought a double win, a podium lock-out and an increased championship lead.
Victory for Liam Lawson in the main event – the Spirit of a Nation Trophy – meant he left the world’s southernmost FIA circuit with a strengthened series lead, while Emilien Denner’s first win in car racing was just as significant an achievement.
Liam, 17, suffered a tough start to the weekend as the opening qualifying session amounted to just four minutes of running. This left him unable to find time for a flying lap and leaving him 13th on the grid.
But the Red Bull Junior was in scintillating form in the opener as he climbed to sixth spot with some splendid passing moves, and added third in Race Two when his Saturday result was converted into a second-row start on the partially-reversed grid.
Second place on the Race-Three grid – following a dramatic end to qualifying in which pole position changed hands four times in the final 60 seconds – became the lead at the start, and he duly converted this into his third win of the year and the fifth from six races for M2.
For team-mate Emilien, his maiden car-racing victory was achieved in commanding fashion at what was only his second event since stepping up from a glittering career in karting.
The 17-year-old Frenchman started from pole position on Race Two’s partially-reversed grid after finishing eighth on Saturday.
He led off the line and held his nerve after an early safety-car period to take a 0.7-second win, which was M2’s 75th in the TRS – a figure that increased to a record 76 a few hours later.
A top-10 finish was on the cards in Race Three when the Strasbourg rookie was punted off – and into the Turn 1 gravel – two laps from the end by a rival.
Igor Fraga set the pace during testing and free practice and quick thinking, combined with searing speed during the shortened Saturday qualifying session enabled him to take his first pole position.
A gearshift issue at the start prevented him from converting pole into victory as he finished third, but he added sixth and second places across the remainder of the weekend; his runner-up spot in Race Three coming just 0.7s behind winner Liam.
He lies 18 points behind Liam in the championship in second place overall. Ninety remain available at each of the remaining three weekends.
Yuki Tsunoda suffered an up-and-down Saturday. Like his team-mates, he was unable to set a fast lap in the shortened qualifying session, and – from ninth on the grid – was punted into a spin at the start, for which his assailant was penalised.
The Red Bull Junior recovered from last to 11th by the chequered flag and made further gains from 11th on the Race-Two grid to finish seventh.
A determined challenge for pole position left Japan’s first TRS race winner fourth on the grid for Sunday’s feature race, which he converted into third at the finish for his second podium of the season.
Ido Cohen drove impressively throughout testing – in which he placed inside the top five – and practice, and was rewarded for his effort with a career-best fifth place on Saturday; a result he then bettered in Race Two as he only missed out on a podium when passed by Liam during the closing stages.
The Israeli then added 11th in Race Three to amass his best weekend points total to date in the TRS, and the fifth-highest score of any of the competing drivers.
A fuel-pump issue meant Rui Andrade – the first Angolan to participate in the TRS – was unable to set a competitive time in Saturday qualifying, and started the opener from the pitlane.
Fourteenth in Race Three was his best result as the rookie completed a weekend free of errors, in which he focused on continuing to learn the nuances of the Toyota FT-60 and build on the experience gained at Highlands.
The series continues this weekend at the Hampton Downs circuit on the North Island.
Liam Lawson said: “As a team we’ve done a very good recovery job this weekend. The situation with the red flags in first qualifying screwed us massively and I didn’t get a proper lap in. But Race One was good because I could overtake a lot of cars and get into the mix for the reversed grid, Race Two brought a podium, and in Sunday qualifying we had good speed and got pole, which I was able to convert into a win. I’m ahead in the championship, but not by much, but I expected that because I saw a few of Igor’s races and knew he was good. Yuki’s also finding his comfort zone with the car, so he’ll get better and better, and the threat from some of the other teams is very clear from the performances here and at Highlands, so we have to keep up the momentum now at Hampton Downs.”
Emilien Denner said: “It’s an amazing feeling to win at only my second event in a car. It’s way beyond what I expected. I finished in the top 10 twice at Highlands so my target was just to try and build on that, but this is incredible. There was a lot of pressure, but I just focused on my driving, and especially on making sure I exited the last corner well so nobody could get a slipstream from my car. This is going to do so much for my self-belief! Pace-wise we were a little more consistent than at Highlands across the weekend as a whole, so that’s yet another positive, and I really want to feel this again at Hampton.”
Igor Fraga said: “The results have been strong this weekend, but they could have been even better. We were so strong through testing, practice and qualifying that I expected to have a chance to win Race One from pole position, but I had an issue with the gearshift at the start – and again one time later in the race – and lost two positions. In Race Two, with passing so difficult, you just take the points you have from the reversed grid, and in Race Three I had traffic on my last qualifying lap, so I was third instead of on pole, and finished second. I’m determined to push for a win and close in on the championship lead at Hampton. For the first time in my career I have a real title-winning team and I’m excited and motivated by this.”
Yuki Tsunoda said: “It’s been an up-and-down weekend, but I think we recovered well to get on the podium in Race Three, even though my pace in that race wasn’t where I wanted it to be compared to the top two. First qualifying was quite messy with the red flags and then after I was hit, I was last and this was very frustrating. But the speed from the car was good, I could overtake people and we kept working on the set-up so I could get more comfortable. I missed pole on Sunday by less than one tenth of a second, so we were potentially very close to being in a position to win again, like at Highlands. I’m looking forward to Hampton now, where the aim is to pull back points and fight for wins.”
Ido Cohen said: “It’s been quite a good weekend. First qualifying was a really big mess and we all only got one lap in. I got a decent lap to qualify eighth, but two drivers were penalised, so I started sixth, and finished fifth. That was quite good. Because of that, I started and finished fourth in Race Two. In the second qualifying I had traffic and couldn’t put a lap together. I started 14th, which wasn’t good, but I made up some places and finished 11th, so the race went quite well. Overall I’m quite happy with the weekend and I’m pretty confident for the next one.”
Rui Andrade said: “It’s been a difficult weekend, but the big positive is that I’m feeling much more comfortable with the car and the tyres with the extra track time I’ve gained from a second weekend. The fuel-pump issue meant I had to start from the pitlane, but I caught up quickly and finished 15th. Passing is tough here so I tried to gain positions at the start of Race Two around the outside of Turn 1, but it didn’t work and I lost grip and positions instead, but Race Three was much more consistent, even if I didn’t fully nail my qualifying lap. We go to Hampton Downs in better shape and I know what I have to do to continue my progress.”
Mark Pilcher, Team Principal, said: “We’ve come away with two wins out of three, six podiums out of nine, and ahead in the Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships, so it’s been another strong weekend. I’m particularly pleased to see the resilience Liam showed after the red flags seriously disrupted Saturday qualifying and the composure with which Emilien delivered his first win. Even with it being the reversed-grid race, to do this in only your second weekend in cars, and against a field littered with champions across the world, is highly impressive. Ido did a great job to come so close to the podium too. We’ve created a winning package with what’s a new car for TRS, and will take all of our learnings back to Europe for the Formula Renault Eurocup, which uses the same chassis.”