Trass Family Motorsport, the only all-Kiwi team in the Australian GT Championship, aims to wrap up their debut season in the increasingly-popular Australasian GT series with a strong result at Highlands Motorsport Park in November.
The team, with drivers Jono Lester and Graeme Smyth, returns to the scene of their debut race meeting with their Ferrari 458 GT3 when they head to Highlands for this year’s Australian GT (AGT) two-race finale and Highlands 101 endurance race taking place 13 to 15 November.
“The car arrived to us ex-AF Corse just a week before last year’s Highlands 101 and we rallied to prepare ourselves for the event, only starting the engine for the first time on the morning of our practice at Highlands!” says Lester who currently holds sixth place on the AGT drivers’ championship points-table.
Lester and Smyth – aged 25 and 24 respectively, one of the youngest driver pairings in AGT – have proved they’re a combination to be reckoned with this season. With Lester at the fore, they’ve secured four pole positions in five rounds and set AGT lap records against the intensely competitive 36 car-strong AGT field.
“We need to snag a race win,” Lester says of the two 60-minute races which comprise the final AGT round. “It’s eluded us all season despite four pole positions, numerous podiums and two lap records. The results don’t quite reflect the speed of TFM this season; some instances outside our control have had dire effect on our points’ haul. Overall it’s been a coming of age season for the reputation of the team and both Graeme and myself as drivers.”
With considerable international endurance race experience, Lester is one of only two ‘Professional (Pro) 1’ rated drivers in the AGT field, the other being current series leader, German driver Christopher Mies. Smyth, who has a long background in karts, is now quickly gaining experience in race cars. He’s seeded a ‘Pro 5’ among the 12 AGT driver ratings which range from Pro 1 to Amateur (Am) 6, with; these ratings impact critical race elements such as the compulsory pit stop (CPS) time each team/driver must complete in any given race. The CPS is determined by a team’s qualifying position added to their pre-determined driver seeding penalty. At four of the five rounds this season, where TFM secured pole position, their CPS is the maximum possible 2 min 9 sec.
Switching focus from Saturday’s AGT final to Sunday’s 101-lap enduro, the entries for which include the AGT field plus an array of eligible, fast cars from around New Zealand, Lester rates TFM’s chances of a good result.
“I absolutely love endurance racing,” he says. “It has been my bread and butter for the last few years and I love the wider range of factors that contribute to winning in an endurance race. The mind of a driver, the fitness, and the importance of teamwork are all greatly amplified in this form of racing.
“Our prospects are great. The last 101 at Phillip Island saw us lead the field by close to a lap before a safety car late in the race. We know the Highlands circuit well and it’s the first round this season where Graeme and I will both arrive with previous experience at the circuit, which will be a big help.”
Smyth is keen to return to Highlands and hopes the speed they’ve shown through the season will carry through to a good result.
“At the other AGT rounds, we’ve spent the first practice session getting to know the track, so to come back to Highlands in the Ferrari will be great,” Smyth says. “Last year’s Highlands 101 was my first time there, my first time in the Ferrari, and it was all eye-opening. There’s really nothing like Highlands as a venue; the atmosphere and the location are amazing.”
Team owner Gerald Trass is also looking forward to the Highlands round of this year’s AGT.
“Highlands is where our TFM team first experienced GT racing,” says Trass. “It is the also the only New Zealand round in this year’s series so it holds a special place in our hearts. We hope to have many Kiwis fans there so they can cheer a Kiwi team to victory.”
Trass says he was initially attracted to GT3 racing because it pits many marques against each other on a level playing field due to the BOP (balance of performance) nature of GT3s.
“Because I own Ferraris there were attempts to get me to enter into the Ferrari Challenge programme (where all drivers drive a 458 Challenge car). However, I prefer to see different makes of cars battling it out on the track so I opted for the AGT series, which is a world class event attracting the best GT3 cars and good drivers.
“2015 has been a challenging and sometimes frustrating year for TFM. Despite achieving four pole positions and having the quickest car/driver combination, this has not translated into the results we desired. A number of issues from untimely yellow flags to punctures have meant we have few podium finishes to show for our speed on the track.
“We are hoping that Highlands provides us the opportunities to finish the year on a high by achieving good results. It is an awesome track, with great facilities, and well suited to the Ferrari. We qualified in the top four here last year at our first attempt in the AGT and will look to improve on that. We were the second car out of the pits in the 101 race last year and were running in second place until a mechanical issue put us out of the race. We return this year to complete some unfinished business.”
Trass adds: “Our achievements this year as a rookie team in the AGT has encouraged us to return in 2016 and build upon our experiences. The new AGT series format will suit the endurance nature of the car and with a bit more luck we can achieve some good results.”
Alongside the Ferrari 458 GT3s of TFM and other teams, race fans will see one of the most exotic line-ups of race cars seen in New Zealand competing in the hotly-contested AGT final and 101-lap feature race. Europeans like the Lamborghini Gallardo, McLaren 650S GT3, Audi R8 GT3 Ultra, Porsche 997 GT3-R, Mercedes Benz AMG SL and Aston Martin GT3 take on muscle car models like the Camaro GT3.
The Highlands 101 race weekend is the biggest motorsport event of the year at Highlands with exciting race action promised from an array of drivers from all over New Zealand in the supporting 1+01 one-hour race and Euromarque classes. Complementing the on-track action, superbike racer Sloan Frost gets to be the first motorcycle racer to go all out on racing slicks on his Suzuki GSXR1000 superbike to set a new lap record on the 4.1km circuit. Spectators can also enjoy a special helicopter display featuring a former British Army Air Corps helicopter, a 1960s-built Westland Scout courtesy of the team from Warbirds over Wanaka, and flyboard demonstrations on the Highlands lake.
The events schedule includes competitor practice sessions on Friday 13 November with public viewing available from the top terrace with a weekend pass or an entry ticket to the Highlands’ national motorsport museum. On Saturday and Sunday, paying spectators can enjoy the free pit-lane walks, practice and racing from all classes, great viewing sites around the circuit, an array of local food and beverage providers and entertainment. To purchase tickets online, visit TicketDirect www.ticketdirect.co.nz and search for ‘Highlands 101 for discounted pre-event tickets, or visit the Highlands office to purchase directly.
More information about the Highlands 101 and the many activities and adventures running daily at Highlands Motorsport Park is available from www.highlands.co.nz or find Highlands on Facebook or Twitter.