The last year has been exceptional for New Zealand motorsport, ranging from the arrival of its first Formula 1 driver in over three decades, to the strength of its national scene.
A highlight of any country’s motorsport scene is its Formula Ford 1600 championship, and New Zealand has a heritage in the category that rivals Britain.
Last year the New Zealand Formula Ford championship received international attention when Liam Lawson took the title on his 15th birthday, a record for a country that allows drivers as young as 12 to compete.
Lawson lost to FFord Festival runner-up Keith Donegan in the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout last December, but has achieved success in Europe instead, winning races in ADAC Formula 4.
His successor as New Zealand FFord champion, Callum Hedge, has lowered Lawson’s record to 14, having started the 2017-18 season as a 13-year-old.
He’ll have to wait another five months to add MRTI Shootout triumph to his achievements, but he’s already picked up a scholarship to contest the NZ-based Toyota 86 Championship this year, and spent last week at a training camp for the prestigious Elite Motorsport Academy.
Alongside that, he’s competing in Autralian FFord (in the Duratec class) and SsangYong Actyon Ute Racing Series when he has the time.
In 2017 Hedge raced mostly in karts, winning two national titles, and made his car racing debut in SsangYong Utes. A win late in the season attracted sponsorship, enabling Hedge to then enter FF1600.
“We chose FF1600 because it is a proven class for learning and almost every successful racing driver has raced Formula Ford,” he explains.
Although he may be a two-time FFord champion by this December, Hedge is unsure whether he will actually be present at the MRTI Shootout.
“I’m not entirely sure if I’ll have enough money to do that. But if we do [have enough money], I think we will go.”
It’s a matter-of-fact answer from a driver facing the challenges of a car racing career while most of his contemporaries are still in karts.
Hedge’s NZ FFord season started off with a double victory at Timaru, but a retirement in the final race meant it wasn’t until the third round of the season at Teretonga that he led the standings.
“[The season] sort of started off a little bit slow, then after the second round we got beaten by the other guy I was racing against,” Hedge says.
“We ended up hooking it up at Teretonga, and then the pressure was on. I got faster and faster, and then in the last two rounds I think we won every race except for one.”
In total, Hedge won 11 of the 17 races.
“It’s awesome to have my name on that trophy, with all the other successful racing drivers from New Zealand that have come through the class.”
The list of NZ FFord champions is impressive, from IndyCar legend Scott Dixon to Australian Supercars stars Steven Richards, Fabian Coulthard and Shane van Gisbergen.
With 2017 producing the youngest ever title winner, there was pressure on Hedge to replicate that success, especially as he was using Lawson’s car.
“There was definitely pressure, especially with the car I’ve got, since it’s so successful in the past. You really want to continue the success the previous drivers have given it. So it was awesome for me to get up to speed pretty quickly and go on to win the championship.”
The Mygale SJ08A Hedge used is the most successful chassis in the championship’s history, having won the 2008-’09 title in the hands of Richie Stanaway and every title since the 2014-’15 season thanks to Taylor Cockerton, Michael Scott, Lawson and Hedge.
Hedge’s title wasn’t confirmed until four months after the Manfeild season finale, after title rival Josh Bethune, who changed from a Mygale SJ2007A to a Ray GR17 chassis mid-season, lost his court case against Hedge.
“Bethune protested the shock absorbers on my car,” explains Hedge.
“He appealed at Manfeild, saying my shocks were 4-ways modified to be 3-ways. And then they took that to the stewards after the first race, and they dismissed their protest.
“They appealed it, and then took it to the High Court, where motorsport in New Zealand does all their appeals. That was on 18th June. We ended up coming out on top.”
The stresses of a court case for a 14-year-old were to be imagined. So, did it rattle Hedge?
“Not particularly, because I didn’t really have control over it. And we knew going in there, our car was legal and it didn’t really seem possible [we’d lose].”
“The shock absorbers were the same that appeared on the car in its previous title-winning seasons, a car that had been fine-tuned to the point where a rookie could step in and beat veterans immediately, even technically inexperienced ones.
“I was definitely starting to give a bit of technical feedback, particularly recently when I’ve been racing in Australia.
“But I hadn’t done enough laps in the car to be changing the set-up, and learning what the changes do to actually have an effect on it yet. We had a window [for the car] – and we ran it there.”
A season in Australia will give Hedge the extra experience needed for him to start making contributions to how the car is ran.
“Definitely. Even now, where we’ve done two rounds in Australia and at the last round at Wakefield Park, I was really trying to get the car up to speed, compared to the top teams. My engineer said I started to give some good feedback and that’s starting to become relevant now, which is cool.”
“In New Zealand, there was one or two people I was racing. In Australia the top 10 is close, and anyone could win it really. There’s a lot of cars and everyone races extremely hard, so that’s something to get used to.
“I’ve talked to a couple of drivers, and they’ve said get used to the driving style [in Australia] because it’s a bit different.”
The Antipodean FF1600 championships often run as supports to the Toyota Racing Series and Supercars, two of the biggest championships down under.
“We were the support category for three of the TRS rounds. I was talking with a couple of the drivers because I knew one or two of them, and Cockerton used to own my car. He helped me out a little bit, and I knew Ryan Yadlin as well.
“I’d go round and look in the cars, and I got to sit in one at the start of the season, so that was cool.
“[TRS is] definitely something I would consider. [I’ve] still got two or three years until I’m actually old enough to compete in it.
“The minimum age for TRS and Supercars is 16. By then I’ll probably be racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup Australia, or Super2 [the Supercars feeder].
“My manager knows a couple of people in Supercars, but I haven’t done much as I’ve only done two rounds with Supercars [paddock] before.”
Supercars is Hedge’s end goal, and is where his motorsport idols van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup race.
It may be roofed cars where Hedge sees himself plying his trade, but it’s FF1600 where New Zealand’s next big star is learning it.
“FF1600 is so much fun to drive. You learn so much, and it’s awesome to be going round in it, having all these little slides and not much power. That’s always fun, when you get it going sideways.
“Formula Ford is an awesome learning category and probably the best learning category in the world.”