Igor Fraga sealed the Toyota Racing Series title with M2 Competition with a commanding New Zealand Grand Prix victory on Sunday.
His GP win, which was his second of the Manfeild weekend, overturned a two-point deficit to team-mate Liam Lawson and made him the first South American to secure the championship.
The former World Champion online racer began the weekend eight points behind in the title fight, but won Saturday’s race from second on the grid to cut his deficit in half to Liam – who made it a one-two finish for the team.
He then passed his rival on the opening lap of Race Two, and made several other clinical overtaking moves to finish fourth, having started eighth on its partially-reversed grid; again halving the gap to Liam – who was fifth – to just two points.
Snatching pole position for the final race of the season – the GP – by just four thousandths of a second, with Liam less than two hundredths behind in third, Igor then controlled the 35-lap main event, keeping a cool head amid three safety-car restarts.
He was joined on the podium by 2019 TRS champion Liam, who finished third to end the season as the series runner-up with five wins – more than any other driver.
The day’s results ensured a sixth Drivers’ title for M2 in eight years plus a sixth straight (and seventh overall) NZ GP victory.
A third M2 driver; Yuki Tsunoda, began the weekend with a chance of becoming champion, but by qualifying 11th and finishing ninth on Saturday, Japan’s first TRS race winner was out of the hunt before Grand Prix day.
A penalty for a practice-start infringement pushed the Red Bull Junior back to 17th on the final-race grid, but a storming drive brought him up to eighth within a handful of laps and sixth by the finish, despite suffering power issues. He was seventh in Race Two.
Israel’s Ido Cohen qualified a strong seventh for the GP – again only fractionally away from pole position, but he lost positions at the start and finished 11th.
That result was a repeat of his finishing position in the other two races, where he showed determination to fend off several attacks from behind. He finished the season ninth overall.
Teretonga winner Emilien Denner was quick in free practice, and was just over half a second away from pole in Sunday qualifying.
His best race result was 14th in Race Two; the French rookie recovering from a pitlane start to score his only points of the weekend. Contact put him out of Race One early while a spin eliminated him from the grand prix.
Rui Andrade also spun on Sunday afternoon, the first Angolan in the TRS clipping the wall at Turn 6 and retiring in the pits shortly afterwards with damaged suspension.
He twice qualified 18th – Sunday’s best just seven tenths from pole – and took a best result of 15th.
M2 Competition’s end-of-season figures feature 11 wins, 23 podium finishes and 10 fastest laps from 15 races, plus six of the 10 pole positions on offer.
The team now turns its attention to the upcoming Formula Renault Eurocup, which starts in Italy in April. The campaign will be orchestrated from M2’s base in Brussels, Belgium.
Igor Fraga said: “When I crossed the line at the end of the last race, I thought ‘Is this really happening?’ and even now, I still can’t believe that I can can myself the champion and the New Zealand Grand Prix winner! As a team, we actually were not as strong in practice and qualifying as we had been at some other tracks, so I had to really dig deep in both sessions to get myself high up on the grid. I knew I needed to be at my best to beat Liam to the title, and even if I was at my best, it’s still no guarantee. I stayed out as late as I could in qualifying to take advantage of the track conditions, and I just found that last little bit. The top five were covered by less than a tenth in qualifying on Sunday, which shows you how super-competitive this series is. A huge thank you to M2 Competition and to everyone who’s been on this racing journey with me. I couldn’t have done it without every one of them.”
Liam Lawson said: “To say I’m gutted not to have won the title is an understatement. We had everything we needed this season; the speed, the package, everything – even more so than last year, but it just didn’t quite happen. We had the speed in qualifying today, but I made a tiny mistake on my best lap and it cost me pole position. In the main race this weekend [the GP], we just didn’t have the speed. I’m happy for Igor though. Congratulations to him. He’s been great as a rival and as a team-mate. For a championship to be this close between team-mates all season, and yet have no bad blood between us at all, is pretty extraordinary.”
Yuki Tsunoda said: “It’s been a bit of a mixed end to the season. I went too low-downforce on the set-up in first qualifying and it hurt me, which is a shame because I was actually very pleased with my best lap. The set-up was adjusted after that and I could pass cars in Races One and Two, and then in Sunday qualifying the car was better than it’s been all season, but I made a mistake at the last big corner and that cost me the chance to be in the top three. Then I got a penalty for making a practice start before Race Two, so they put me back to 17th on the Grand Prix grid. It was a good race though and I finished sixth, despite some issues with the power and some steering damage after contact. Overall I’ve learned a lot coming here. I’ve strengthened my strong points and worked hard on my weaknesses. I can definitely feel the benefit from having raced here.”
Emilien Denner said: “It was a difficult weekend. I never really had the pace to make good results, plus the speed everybody had was pretty similar. That made qualifying even tighter than normal and meant even small mistakes had a bigger effect on your grid positions than normal. Because this was the last round of the season, and also the New Zealand Grand Prix, I wanted to finish the season on a high. Unfortunately that didn’t happen for several reasons, but I will definitely take away some huge positives from my first championship in car racing; my win at Teretonga and an enormous amount learned.”
Rui Andrade said: “It’s been a tough weekend. The balance wasn’t there on Thursday, but we made lots of changes and the car was a million times better for Friday. By qualifying there was another little balance issue, so I wasn’t fully comfortable, but the pace in the first two races was pretty good. I was able to make some progress, even if overtaking at Manfeild was pretty tough. The last qualifying was very tight and the many red flags – coupled with the amount of changes we’d made with the set-up – meant it wasn’t easy. In the GP, I made a good start, but spun, hit the wall and broke the suspension. While the results in TRS haven’t been what I wanted, I’ve enjoyed coming to New Zealand and I feel I’ve improved as a driver. Thanks to M2 for taking me through this process.”
Mark Pilcher, Team Principal, said: “What an excellent way to end the season with the Drivers’ Championship in the bag for the sixth time plus a seventh New Zealand Grand Prix victory, to add to our Teams’ title from last weekend. With a new car this year, everybody started from the same position, so to have achieved all we have is a huge credit to the hard work everybody in the team has done. Igor has exceeded our expectations and is a thoroughly deserving champion, but Liam would have been too as they’ve been so evenly-matched since the first round and their relationship – despite the fact that they were each other’s main rivals – has contributed to a really great atmosphere inside the team all season. This is a perfect way to start 2020 and I’m sure it can act as a springboard to a successful season in the Formula Renault Eurocup too.”