If you’ve never seen the Toyota 86 Racing Series, you’re missing out. Sure the races take place early in the morning, and the trackside bars don’t open until 10am, but there’s still plenty to be excited about. For one, it’s an outlet for young drivers to showcase their skills in front of talent scouts and large TV audiences, and two, the series captures the same racing spirit as the Supercars without requiring your attention for a full 161 laps. Last weekend, Toyota invited us out to the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 to experience the 86 Racing Series first hand and revel in the youthful exuberance of its drivers.
Nearing the end of its second season, the Toyota 86 Racing Series is an affordable solution to the exorbitant costs associated with motorsport. For around $70,000 AUD, a team can buy a Toyota 86 and fit it with a complete racing kit. It’s not cheap, but far more accessible than the other series’. For example, a Supercar can cost upwards of $500,000.
The lower price point encourages young drivers to take their passion for racing beyond go-karts and have a real shot at a professional racing career. If they don’t succeed, the $125,000 prize pool can at least help take the edge off. The series also caters to more experienced drivers looking to continue their passion for racing. This season, at least 5 of the 40-odd drivers were born before 1980.
The 86 Series kicked-off the Bathurst 1000 bright and early on Saturday with the first of three races; each just six laps around the mountain – the perfect length for short attention spans, as the race and podium presentation were done and dusted within an hour. It’s also a nice contrast to Sunday’s big endurance race.
The victory in race 1 went to 21-year-old driver Cameron Hill who took the time to share his love for the series. “I think what’s special about it is its just grassroots, it caters to everyone,” he said. “There are drivers with a lot of experience, older gentlemen as well, then there’s guys having their first ever taste of race cars. It’s a really good mix, and it really showcases Toyota’s products.”
The 86s themselves are sleek vehicles based on the Toyota GT and GT5 Manual with controlled specifications to ensure suitability and reliability while keeping costs to a minimum. Since its debut in 2012, the 86 has become a cult favourite, winning over critics and motor enthusiasts alike, with its nimble dynamics, low centre of gravity and near perfect weight distribution.
Built with a 2-litre, 4-cylinder boxer engine, superb handling and max speed of 230, km/h, the 86 is perfect for closed circuit racing. The top speed is impressive considering the Supercars can just touch 300km/h in the right conditions. The performance kit is also developed by Aussie rally champion Neal Bates who is heavily involved with the series.
Every vehicle is built the same so to create a level playing field. “We are all in the same car. At the end of the day it comes down to the driver,” said 19-year-old series leader Jimmy Vernon, who succeeded Hill at the top of the ladder after a mechanic’s interference resulted in Hill losing his standing before the second race. That day had more drama than an episode of Days of Our Lives.
Bathurst 1000 was the second to last circuit of the 2017 racing calendar. Taking on such an iconic track didn’t go unnoticed by the young drivers. “It’s quite daunting,” said Cameron, in a chat before his disqualification. “It never gets old; it’s just an amazing place.”
For each circuit, Toyota invites a number of experienced drivers to race as wildcard entries. They are ineligible for the prize money and participate purely for the fun of it. They also entice a broader racing audience. Bathurst saw 3 wildcard entries: Leanne Tander, Kiwi Jack Milligan and 1997 Bathurst 1000 winner David Brabham.
Brabham had been waiting for the right opportunity to join the 86s and there is no track like the one that made him a household name. “I managed to win it 20 years ago, so it means something to me more than just a great race track,” he said.
On the subject of the 86 Series, Brabham sees it as a positive force for the future of motor racing. “It’s an opportunity to understand the game,” he said, talking about the lessons learned by the young drivers. “It’s about how they got to drive, how they got to mix with other people on the track and the rules of the flags and racing conditions.”
Jimmy Vernon went on to claim victory in race 2 and 3, and now he leads the competition going into the final race. “To win at Mount Panorama, especially on Sunday, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
While at Mount Panorama, the entire Toyota media team were treated to hot laps around the mountain with rally driver Neil Bates. Sure it was in a Toyota Camry Hybrid, and our speed limit was capped at 130km/h, but it was still an impressive ride, and afterwards, I was forced to rethink my opinion of hybrids.
I finally got to see Toyota’s Tonka HiLux Concept which I first read about months ago. The custom vehicle was designed to rekindle your childhood love for Tonka and to celebrate both the 70th anniversary of Tonka and the 80th anniversary of Toyota.
As for the 86 Racing Series, the final circuit for the year is the Newcastle 500 commencing November 24. It is incredibly exciting to know drivers from all classes are taking on a new track and to see what effect it will have on my hometown. “A new track is always fun,” said Vernon. “It’s a nice challenge, so I think it will be good because everyone is on an even playing field.”
Time will tell if Vernon, Hill or any number of the other drivers are poached by the major racing teams and then return to Mount Panorama for the most important race on the Australian motorsport calendar. It’s possible, as the 86 Racing Series is a more suitable platform for launching racing careers than grooming go-kart drivers for professional motorsport.