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Van Hoepen vanquishes the field for NZGP pole

Lauren van Hoepen may be making his Castrol Toyota FR Oceania series debut this weekend at the New Zealand Grand Prix, but the Dutch superstar came out on top in a dramatic qualifying session at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park today.

Fresh from a season in the Formula Regional European Championship, he used familiarity with the Tatuus-designed chassis common to both the European and the Oceania Championship to dominate each of the closely fought sessions in the F1-style qualifying.

Giles Motorsport’s Louis Foster – who debuted sensationally himself in last week’s round of the five round championship – pushed the M2 Competition driver to within four one hundredths on the final. Its lap of the final session, but the British Indy Pro 2000 champion had to settle for an outside slot on the front row for Sunday’s big race.

With eight drivers in the field for this weekend’s 67th running of their home Grand Prix, there was also a bit of cheer for home fans, and it came from Kaleb Ngatoa, who took pole position for this race in 2021 who will line up third. A small mistake on his final lap cost him a tenth and a likely front row start at least.

Qualifying though, was all about van Hoepen and he was delighted to have retained the strong form he showed in Friday testing.

“It’s great to be on pole, I heard it was quite close but the car was really good and the lap I did was good for pole so I am happy,” he explained afterwards, having received a cheque for $500 and the Castrol Pole Position Trophy. “Right from the first session we were on the pace so I knew we would be in the fight.

“It’s been a couple of months since I last drove or trained so after the first session on Friday I was quite tired but I’m fine now, fit and ready to fight.”

The first session – a double header as qualifying for Race 1 and for the first stage of GP qualifying was topped by van Hoepen with Ngatoa one tenth in arrears. Championship challenger Callum Hedge qualified a solid third and in terms of the first race that was excellent news for the youngster with championship leader Charlie Wurz down in seventh.

Most interest though was at the back of the field to see who would be eliminated and gone for the second session and names crossed off that list were Manfeild winner James Penrose, Chloe Chambers, Lucas Fecury and Kiwis Billy Frazer and Breanna Morris.

The top 14 progressed to one of the most intense sessions in single seater history in New Zealand and at the end of that 10 minutes, the big loser was wild card entry Chris van Der Drift, who missed the cut for the final stage of qualifying by just 13 one thousandths of a second. With him to the pit garages were Brit Josh Mason, Ryan Shehan, Adam Fitzgerald, Brendon Leitch and Ryder Quinn. It was a cruel moment given all were less than a tenth off making the cut.

That left van Hoepen, Foster, Ngatoa, Hedge, Wurz, Abel, Liam Sceats and David Morales to fight it out in the final shoot out.

Van Hoepen pulled the trigger first, but in the 12 minute session – another with the field separated by mere hundredths of a second, Wurz and Sceats took a turn at the top before van Hoepen set a benchmark 1 minute 29.819 on his penultimate flying lap.

Behind Foster and Ngatoa, Hedge couldn’t find the extra tenth to challenge for pole and will line up fourth, alongside Ngatoa on the second row. He’ll start ahead of championship leader and rival Wurz in fifth, who will have Sceats alongside him on the third row for the Grand Prix. It’s an all USA fourth row with Abel and Morales lining up seventh and eighth.

Ninth will be Van der Drift, and rounding out the top ten will be Mason.

The F1-style qualifying was a first for the New Zealand championship, and fitting given it is one of only two races outside of Formula One to have Grand Prix status acknowledged by world governing body, the FIA. The morning’s session was divided into three parts – the first 15 minute session, a second 10 minute session then a final 12 minute session.

The times in the first session determined the grid positions for the first race as is normal from qualifying, but instead of that being the end of the session, it continued into a second session and then a third.

The slowest six drivers were eliminated after the first session and those positions will be where they start the GP on Sunday – from 15th to 20th.

In the second session, the top 14 drivers were reduced to the top eight and the slowest six in that session start the GP from ninth on the grid through to 14th. The final 12 minute session saw only the top eight drivers fight for pole position and the top eight places on the GP grid.

Race 1 gets underway later today with a better weather forecast and conditions more likely to be dry for the 20-lap battle.

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