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Abel tops Highlands testing, Hedge a major dark horse

INDY NXT racer Jacob Abel – in New Zealand for just the final two rounds of the 2024 Castrol Toyota Formula Regional Oceania Championship – topped the final day’s testing with a fine lap on record-breaking pace.

Callum Hedge was talk of the venue, and was one of the quickest throughout the day on his Grand Prix return.

The first session – overcast and cool compared to what was to come – released some incredible times with Abel and Kaleb Ngatoa both well under the category lap record set by Liam Lawson in 2019 and the Formula Regional lap record established by Callum Hedge in 2023.

Talking of Hedge, he handled his last minute return to the category in fine style, using a seat from his 2023 campaign in his MTEC-run FT60 and immediately going fifth fastest in the first session, straight after arriving from the airport after a trip back from Finland.

Currently recovering from an operation on his appendix, he also reported no ill effects from the recent operation.

In between the two fastest and Hedge, Patrick Woods-Toth maintained his fine form so far this weekend with a lap time good enough for third, and Bryce Aron was just half a tenth behind him in fourth.

Championship protagonists Roman Bilinski and Liam Sceats were further down the order after a red flag when Titus Sherlock went off and got stuck in the gravel trap at the final turn brought the session – and their best efforts – to a premature end.

New tyre and race runs were the order of the day for the second session just after lunch but the air and the track had warmed up by then so lap times were not ‘quite’ what they had been in them morning.

Patrick Woods-Toth was back at the top of the timesheets with his best effort, another sub 1 minute 29 second lap. Callum Hedge was an impressive second as he strung a few fast laps together on his new tyre run. Equally as impressive was Ryder Quinn on his return to the category with third.

Of the morning pacesetters, Ngatoa was a solid fifth just two tenths off while Liam Sceats was top of the championship contenders in fifth. Jett Bowling improved again to sixth , while championship leader Roman Bilinski couldn’t extract the maximum out of his new tyres and posted ninth fastest time.

Callum Hedge topped the times for the final session, arguably the hottest of the day. He still managed to go under the 1 minute 29 second mark with his best effort and that will have sent warning signals throughout the field that the INDY NXT racer is here for one thing only, to win the 68th New Zealand Grand Prix.

The third session also saw championship leader Roman Bilinski shoot to prominence right when he needed to after a day outside of the top three. He couldn’t quite pip Gerrard Xie for second fastest time in the third session, but he got close enough to take third.

Remarkably, the first 15 cars on the timesheets were covered by a second, which bodes well for a super competitive Saturday morning qualifying session when both the Race One grid, and the grid for the Grand Prix itself, will be decided in F1 style with three stage qualifying.

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