After one of the most dramatic runnings of the New Zealand Grand Prix at Manfeild, Liam Lawson has won both a maiden NZGP crown, the rookie of the year title, and the 2019 Toyota Racing Series championship simultaneously. He's the first Kiwi to win the Grand Prix since Nick Cassidy in 2014, and the first to win the series since Cassidy again in 2013.
It was a chaotic race packed with red-flag periods, and underlined by a critical penalty for Lawson's leading rival Marcus Armstrong. The penalty, a five-second time addition post-race, came after the title rivals made contact with each other while wrestling for first.
Armstrong's penalty scored mixed reactions. It followed similar lines to the penalty Armstrong incurred in race two, but — ironically — Nick Cassidy was among those to think it was a harsh call at the end of the five-week series. Armstrong ended the race second but dejected for a second year running.
After getting a few average race starts, Lawson made a cracking jump off the line to kick off the Grand Prix. Unfortunately for him, title rival Armstrong had an equally impressive start from the second row.
By turn one, Armstrong was somehow alongside Lawson. The pair were millimetres from side contact — Armstrong getting past at turn three before immediately running wide and giving the lead back to Lawson.
It was clear early that Lawson and Armstrong were the quickest drivers on track. Soon they had a gap of over three seconds over Auer, who also had a managable gap over Brendon Leitch in fourth (who himself soon lost his spot to an invigorated Esteban Muth).
Lawson [left] consoles Armstrong at the end of the NZ Grand Prix. Photo / Matthew Hansen
Before the race could get into a rhythm, a crash on lap nine brought out the red flag. The unlucky Petr Ptacek crashed out at the last corner, hopping out of his car under his own steam.
After a few minutes of clean-up, the race was under way again; Lawson leading Armstrong, Auer, Muth, Cameron Das, and Raoul Hyman. But a six-car pile-up on lap 12 would bring out another red flag.
It was triggered by a fierce battle for third between Muth and Auer — Muth making a superb move at turn one and then defending through turns two and three. This opened the door for Leitch to get by before turn four, and in turn Das thought he had a sniff until Auer closed the door at turn four.
The Austrian and American made contact, Auer spun, and the long train of Hyman, Thomas Smith, Artem Petrov, and Calan Williams all piled in nose-to-tail. Petrov almost avoided the melee, but a glancing blow was enough to rip a corner off his M2 Competition FT-50.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
Another red flag ensued, as most of the crashed cars became retirements. Among the few to not simply retire was Hyman, who pulled into pit-lane for repairs. Another track recovery phase came and went, and the race was back under way with 21 laps still to go. And here the race's complexion changed.
Armstrong made a strong restart, culminating in a dive on Lawson at turn one. As they've done numerous times this year they ran side-by-side until Lawson ran wide through turn three. The Turners driver tracked through the grass and dirt; somehow keeping straight and not spinning out. He kept his right foot planted, and rejoined the order fourth in the queue behind Leitch. Away from the coverage, the move was under investigation from officialdom.
Despite the dramatic circumstances, Lawson didn't waste any time in trying to claw his way back. At the beginning of the next lap he launched inside Leitch at turn one, getting the move done without any trouble. He had started catching up to Muth, when another red flag stopped the action.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
This time it was for a frightening clash between Dev Gore and Jackson Walls on the back straight. The pair interlocked wheels at high speed, with both looping into the inside concrete wall. Both drivers luckily were able to get out of their cars — Walls in particular, given that Gore's Toyota leaped over the top of his. The flag forced Lawson to give up his passing move on Leitch, and fall back to fourth.
As the circuit again was cleaned up, the situation boiled down to whether Lawson would get around Muth and Leitch. Sitting in third, he wouldn't be able to bridge the points gap to Armstrong unless he took second. Then Armstrong could win the Grand Prix, and it wouldn't matter to Lawson's title hopes.
The race restarted again on lap 19, and immediately the drama continued. Leitch threw his ITM Toyota up the inside of Muth for second. The pair made minor contact, and the loss of momentum was enough for Lawson to go inside them both — momentarily living three-wide — before nabbing two spots by lap three.
Leitch was struggling for pace, having potentially burned up his tyres in the early running. After getting ganged up on by the recovering Muth and Hyman, he would lose out to them both. Hyman, who had crashed earlier in the race, had rebounded to a commendable fourth.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
Armstrong's hold on first took a king hit with less than 10 laps to go, with the news that he would incur a five-second penalty for the interaction with Lawson many laps earlier. From there, despite Armstrong's repeated lowering of the race's fastest lap, it was always going to be Lawson's race and title. And so it came to pass; Armstrong crossed the line with a mere 2.4-second gap — not enough to overcome the penalty.
It left Lawson to collect the emotional win, ahead of Armstrong and — thanks to a late five-second penalty for Muth — Japanese driver Kazuto Kotaka. More than notable too was the performance of Kenny Smith. The 77-year-old outlasted many of his rivals to finish a credible eighth.
Having failed to qualify for last year's TRS season due to an age technicality, Lawson embarked on the season with an outside chance of championship contention. But, after winning race one of the season at Highlands Motorsport Park he won four more races — finishing outside the top five just once, with one sole DNF added on top.