Credit to Toyota GAZOO Racing New Zealand

Liam Sceats put his name on New Zealand motorsport’s most important trophy with a dominant win in the 68th New Zealand Grand Prix this afternoon, ending his 2024 Castrol Toyota Formula Regional Oceania Championship campaign in fine style.

Sceats fought off an early challenge from compatriot Callum Hedge before stamping his authority on the race and romping home to victory of more than five and a half seconds.

A little overwhelmed after his biggest ever win, the youngster was quick to pay tribute to those who had helped him on the way.

“We have been very strong in the second half of the season and I’ve loved going head to head with Roman,” he said. “We’ve been a bit unlucky with results but it feels great to finish like this.

“I wouldn’t be here without my family and I’m definitely going to share this one, We’ve been through a lot to get to this moment.”

An all-Kiwi front row of pole position man Sceats and dark horse Hedge led the field around the warm up lap before forming on the grid for the start of New Zealand’s unique and historic Grand Prix, which for the 68th time would be run over 27 laps of the scenic and spectacular Highlands Motorsport Park.

With Kaleb Ngatoa absent with a hand injury after his crash on Saturday morning, 17 drivers would take the start and as the red lights went out, it was Sceats who was cleanest away while Hedge had to go defensive immediately as the field surged through the first chicane, several cars launching over the kerb and Gerrard Xie getting close to the barriers as he fought his way back onto the track.

Sceats pushed hard for the first lap, and Hedge settled in directly behind him. As they crossed the line to complete lap one it was those two before a short gap to Michael Shin and Jacob Abel, who were bumping and rubbing as they began a fierce duel over the opening laps. Bryce Aron was fifth with the third Kiwi, Alex Crosbie, in sixth.

There was drama on the second lap as many of the cars ran deliberately wide to avoid the gravel kicked up by the cars who had taken to the grass a lap earlier. Behind the leaders, Roman Bilinski was making the sort of progress one would expect. Roman had promised to give everything in the race, and few could doubt him after a fighting performance in the morning’s race.

With the title already under his belt, it was gloves off from 12th on the grid and he was up to eighth at the close of the opening tour. He turned that into seventh by the end of lap two. He made that sixth with a pass on Crosbie on lap three. That third lap also saw Shin move into third as Abel looked to have some minor but significant damage to his car from the battle.

Things settled a little on the fourth lap as Sceats eased out to a lead of just over half a second from Hedge. Those two had a healthy three seconds over the rest, who were still led by Shin and Abel with Aron now defending against the flying Bilinski. Crosbie held seventh, Patrick Woods-Toth eighth, Ryder Quinn ninth after a good start to his Grand Prix and Elliott Cleary, ever-present in the top ten this championship season, there again in tenth.

As the field entered the last 20 laps, that was the order as tyre management became the focus for the field in the searing heat of Cromwell.

Up front Sceats was pulling away from the rest – but couldn’t shake Hedge who sat a couple of car lengths behind him, pressuring him for a lap or two before resting his tyres and repeating the process.  With ten laps completed it was this cat and mouse battle for honours that was the most entertaining part of the race, along with Bilinski’s repeated efforts to find a way past Aron. Sceats and Hedge traded fastest laps as they stretched their advantage over Shin and the rest to four seconds at halfway.

Liam was controlling the race well, and as it entered the second half it was his M2 Competition car that looked to have a slight advantage over Hedge’s MTEC Motorsport example. It was enough for Sceats to push out to a lead of 1.2 seconds with ten to go. This was Sceats’ moment to take control and over the next few laps he increased his advantage over Hedge by at least three tenths of a second each time around.

Hedge had no answer to his countryman and former school classmate and slowly but surely had to switch his attention to a closing Shin behind. His advantage evaporated with his grip over the next couple of laps and with five to go, the Korean was right on Callum’s tail. Sceats meanwhile kept up the pressure ahead, lapping consistently in the 1 minute 29.5 second bracket, nowhere near record pace but easily enough to build an unassailable lead over his rivals.

Both Sceats and Shin had done the best job saving their tyres and as Liam rocketed away, Shin launched attack after attack on Hedge forcing Callum into full defensive mode.  

It was plain sailing for Sceats in the final few laps and he remained the fastest man in the race right the way to the flag having led all the way.

A career-defining moment for the rising Kiwi star, he added his name to a trophy that includes many of motorsport’s most iconic racers – Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Keke Rosberg and of course New Zealand’s own Kiwi legends Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Denny Hulme. The sizeable crowd in Cromwell duly gave the latest addition a warm welcome across the finish line to the latest addition to that illustrious list.

Hedge made it home in second for a Kiwi 1-2, while Jacob Abel had a lonely race to fourth after his earlier battles with Shin.

Celebrations were momentarily halted as the battle between Bilinski and Aron came to an abrupt and dramatic end as the two approached the finish line. Aron hit the infamous outside wall on his dash to the line leaving Roman nowhere to go and the champion leapfrogged over the back of the American.

It was a big hit and a spectacular one. Aron emerged shaken but unscathed while Roman was nursing some bruising after his heavy impact with the track. Remarkably, the accident meant the remains of Bilinski’s car crossed the line in fifth place. Aron was classified sixth while Alex Crosbie could be well satisfied with his seventh place in his debut season at this level of competition.

Ryder Quinn flew the flag for the circuit-owning Quinn family with a solid eighth, beating Canadian Patrick Woods-Toth in the process. Another fine performance by Elliot Cleary saw the Australian round out the top ten. Arguably one of the most improved drivers in the championship, Jett Bowling finished 11th and Sebastian Manson completed his first home Grand Prix in 12th. He was followed him by US racer Landan Matriano Lim, Brazil’s Lucas Fecury and American Jake Bonilla. Xie was last of the classified runners in 16th after a trip to the pits for repairs to his car and the only retirement was another rising American star, Titus Sherlock.