Round 4 of the Formula Regional Oceania Championship (FROC) was held this weekend at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park. The New Zealand Grand Prix — the series’ highest-profile event — featured a bigger grid, a new qualifying format and a first-time Grand Prix winner. Here are our takeaways from the race weekend.
By Jan Husmann
Alternative qualifying format was a success
For the New Zealand Grand Prix weekend, FROC used an alternative qualifying format which closely resembled the three-session system seen in Formula One. Six of the twenty entries would be eliminated after the first session, and only the eight fastest drivers in session two would progress to the pole-position shootout in session 3.
The results from the first session would also set the grid for Race 1. This meant that all drivers had to be on the pace from the start of qualifying, as a poor showing in the first session would result in a bad starting position for Races 1 and 3. Championship contenders Charlie Wurz and Jacob Abel could only manage to finish seventh and twelfth in the first session; despite advancing to the second qualifying session, they would both start out of position in the first race.
In session two, Chris van der Drift — guest driver and one of the favourites for the Grand Prix win — was eliminated by just 0.017 seconds. Laurens van Hoepen clinched pole position in the final session, beating last weekend’s débutant Louis Foster by just 0.044 seconds.
The change in qualifying format led to several drivers starting out of position, resulting in more exciting races. Furthermore, the tension created during the first two sessions resulted in a thrilling climax in the pole-position shoot-out during the final qualifying session. FROC will go back to the original format for the fifth and final round, but the success of this weekend means that a future change to the qualifying format cannot be ruled out.
Hedge and Wurz trade championship lead
Charlie Wurz has been leading the FROC standings ever since the opening round at Highlands. However, he has been in lockstep with Callum Hedge throughout the season, with the Kiwi slowly gaining on Wurz’s advantage.
Wurz started from seventh for Race 1, significantly behind third-placed Hedge. Whilst Hedge maintained his position, Wurz dropped another place to finish eighth overall. This meant that Wurz lost his championship lead before the second race of the weekend.
The Austrian was in good position to take back the lead in the standing in the reverse-grid Race 2, where he started from pole position. In contrast to Wurz’s fortunes, Hedge was unable to take the race start due to a battery failure. Whilst he was able to join the race five laps behind the field, he was unable to score any points. Wurz took the win in Race 2 and with it, the championship lead, as he created a seventeen-point gap to Hedge.
The New Zealand Grand Prix saw the title fight swing back in Hedge’s direction. Wurz lined up fifth on the grid, behind fourth-placed Hedge. Whilst the Kiwi was able to jump up to third at the start, Wurz lost several positions in lap one and could only finish seventh. Hedge held on to third, despite managing his battery problem throughout the Grand Prix; in doing so, he shrunk Wurz’s lead to ten points ahead of Round 5 in Taupō.
Abel stays in the title hunt
With ninety points up for grabs at the final Round in Taupo next weekend, there are still five drivers with a mathematical chance at securing the FROC title. However, only Hedge and Wurz will be able to secure the title without relying on other drivers’ race results.
However, there is one driver that has collected enough points to be the clear favourite should Wurz and Hedge both experience terrible weekends in Taupō. Despite not having won any races nor clinched any pole positions, Jacob Abel has been consistent throughout FROC.
Abel’s highest points tally over a race weekend has been sixty-five, whilst his lowest has only been fifty-six. His worst race result was eighth and he has scored at least ten points in every race so far. These consistent results are the key to his title challenge.
Abel is thirty-two points behind leader Wurz ahead of the final round of the championship. The American’s cautious approach has given him the chance to fight for the title in the last round, but he will need to go for wins more aggressively to have a shot at securing the title next weekend.
Newcomers take over
Traditionally, the New Zealand Grand Prix attracts drivers to FROC that we have not seen for the rest of the season. For drivers from New Zealand, the chance to win FIA-sanctioned Grand Prix on their home soil is an enticing proposition. Local heroes Chris van der Drift, Kaleb Ngatoa and Brendon Leitch joined solely for the Grand Prix weekend, with Billy Frazer having already joined in Manfeild to gain an extra week of preparation.
Laurens van Hoepen also joined the grid for the New Zealand Grand Prix, with the 17-year-old Dutchman coming off his rookie season in the Formula European Championship by Alpine (FRECA).
None of the newcomers needed any time to get up to speed. Van Hoepen and van der Drift led the test sessions on Thursday and Ngatoa was on top in Free Practice 2 on Friday, whilst Brendon Leitch finished in the top ten in all test and practice sessions.
By qualifying, it was van Hoepen who topped the time sheets. He was fastest in the first and third qualifying sessions, securing pole position for Race 1 and the Grand Prix. However, Ngatoa took victory from second on the grid in the first race after driving cleanly around the outside of van Hoepen at the start.
During the Grand Prix, van Hoepen again lost out at the start to the driver starting from second — in this case, it was Louis Foster. However, van Hoepen was able to stay with him and pull off an overtake during the race. The Dutch driver found a gap on the inside of Foster on the run down to Turn 2 and managed to outbrake him for the lead. Van Hoepen has shown a great ability to overtake during his first season in FRECA and he has certainly showcased it in FROC.
Ngatoa and van der Drift battled throughout the Grand Prix. Ngatoa ran wide in Turn 1, allowing van der Drift the opportunity to take fourth place. Despite this, van der Drift was unable to overtake Callum Hedge in third, which prevented him and Ngatoa from challenging for the race win.
Laurens van Hoepen has emulated Richard Verschoor by becoming the second 17-year-old Dutchman to win the New Zealand Grand Prix. In doing so, van Hoepen also became the second driver this season to finish each race of the weekend on the podium, after Hedge at Teretonga.
While Leitch, van der Drift, Ngatoa and Frazer will depart from the grid for Round 5, van Hoepen is looking to continue his impressive pace in Taupo as he prepares for his second year in FRECA.
Foster continues impressive showing
One driver that will try to challenge van Hoepen during the final weekend of the season is Louis Foster. Foster had a spectacular race weekend at Manfeild, winning his first race in the series despite never having raced the car before.
In Hampton Downs, his pace remained strong but his luck ran out at the start of Race 1. A clutch issue forced him to retire and left him at the back of the starting grid for Race 2. Despite this, he managed to recover to eighth by the chequered flag.
Foster started the Grand Prix in second place and briefly took the lead at the start. Throughout the first half of the race, the Briton constantly pressured van Hoepen despite being unable to find a way past him. Foster seemingly went easier on his tyres in the middle part of the race in order to mount one last attack on van Hoepen in the closing stages of the race. However, he ran out of laps to get past the 17-year-old and had to settle for second place.
The addition of van Hoepen and Foster has not only made the races more exciting, but has also added another complication to the title fight. Whilst Wurz and Hedge dominated the podium positions early on in the season, they now face tougher competition for race wins. Van Hoepen and Foster also have the power to significantly change the points gap between Wurz and Hedge, particularly when the two new entrants finish between the championship protagonists.
It will be interesting to see how Hedge and Wurz approach the last three races of the championship with the title fight in mind, whilst Foster and van Hoepen have only race wins to fight for. Speaking to Feeder Series last week, Foster stated that he would not “throw a stupid lunge because [he] is not in the championship fight” — but it does not take a lot for someone’s race, and potentially their title hopes, to end in a collision.
The final championship round at Taupo will certainly be fascinating to watch, no matter who lifts the Chris Amon Trophy.
Header photo credit: Castrol Toyota Formula Regional Oceania Championship
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