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Take an expert-guided tour through New Zealand’s circuits

22 July, 2015

Here in New Zealand we are spoilt for choice when it comes to racing circuits. With four in each island, you never have to drive too far to get in a few laps or catch some action. Our purpose-built tracks date back to the late 1950s, with the very first sealed circuit opening in Levin in 1956, though that has since closed. Fast forward to the present day, to the most recent circuit to be built — Highlands Motorsport Park — opened in 2013. Each of the eight New Zealand tracks has challenging corners, fast straights and plenty of racing heritage. In this feature we give you an overview of each circuit, and talk to expert driving instructor Mike Eady, who passes on a few pointers on our highlighted sections of track, to help cut your lap times. 

New Zealand’s first 

Photo: The Sprague family collection

Before the first purpose-built facility, races were held on beaches, then on grass tracks until post WWII. The first official sealed road race wasn’t held until 1949, at Wigram Air Force base in Christchurch. Known as the Lady Wigram Trophy, the race is still run today, although it’s now held at Ruapuna. In the North Island, the New Zealand Grand Prix was first run in 1952 at Ohakea Air Base, moving to Ardmore Aerodrome in 1954, where up to 70,000 spectators would witness star-studded international driver line-ups.

The country’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, located in Levin and opened in 1956, originally had a total length of 1.6km. Later that year it was resurfaced and extended to 1.9km. The circuit was built inside the local horse racing facility, a trend subsequently followed by many other tracks around New Zealand. Levin hosted some of the world’s best drivers and stayed open for nearly 21 years, but closed in 1975 due to declining spectator numbers. Sadly there is little or no evidence left of the circuit, as most of it was removed to enable use of the area as horse paddocks. 

Pukekohe Park Raceway

  • Location: Pukekohe, Auckland
  • Opened: 1963
  • Length: 2.841km, 2.91km dual layout
  • Fastest lap time: 52.972, Simon Wills, Birrana Racing Formula Holden (Short circuit)
  • Surface: Hot mix
  • FIA grade: 2

Pukekohe Park Raceway was built in 1962 after the New Zealand Grand Prix got the boot from Ardmore Aerodrome. The Franklin Racing Club allowed the circuit to be built around the existing horse racing circuit, a format that still works in harmony today. The track was constructed for $75,000 (around $500,000 today) in only six months, under a tight deadline to host the 1963 New Zealand Grand Prix. 

It originally had a short and long circuit with an extension that turned left at the infamous sweeper, and followed out toward the main road before a right-turn hairpin and a long straight which joined in at Castrol Corner. This section was removed in 1967 due to the congestion the sharp left-hander produced on race starts. 

The change gave birth to the 2.85km track layout that stayed unchanged until 2013, when the facility underwent a $6.8M upgrade that saw the inclusion of three new corners along the back straight, creating more passing opportunities and lowering the tracks top speed. The track is now almost completely lined with concrete barriers to give it a street circuit feel, with the new section adding around eight to 10 seconds per lap.

Track tip

Mike Eady explains the sweeper: “Heading down the front straight, try to be on the left-hand side of the racetrack, as when you’re approaching turn one there is a series of bumps. Keep the car straight over these bumps, approximately a car’s width in from the left side of the track. Brake lightly to maintain entry speed and settle the car over the bumps.” 

Hampton Downs Motorsport Park

  • Location: Meremere, Waikato
  • Opened: 2008
  • Length: 2.8km single layout
  • Fastest lap time: 59.84, Michael Lyons, Lola T400 HU7 Formula 5000
  • Surface: Smooth asphalt 
  • FIA grade: 2 

Hampton Downs opened in 2008 in a partially finished state. The track was designed by Clive Bowen to mimic famous corners from around the world, including the big dipper at Bathurst, a blind crest similar to one on the Nürburgring, and turn one, which mimics a Brands Hatch’s Paddock Hill bend. The track had a stage one cost of $120M, which saw the completion of the 2.8km medium circuit, consisting of eight corners and a 950m start/finish straight. With Tony Quinn purchasing the circuit earlier this year, the extension is set to finally be completed — elongating the circuit to almost 4.0km in length.

In 2010 the circuit opened its polished-concrete skidpan. Measuring 100x50m, it was the single biggest concrete pour in New Zealand history and has an integrated watering system.

Track tip

Mike Eady explains turn one: “Coming off the 950m-long straight the braking points for turn one are off, the 100m mark is not to the start of the corner, but to the apex. As the corner is blind this can catch a lot of people out. Entering the corner you want to place the car in the middle of the track. Braking should be done in a straight line as the corner drops off a total of 10.5m to the exit. The inside pole-line has four-degree banking, but this flattens out toward the outside of the turn one, which is very wide, at 27m.”

Manfeild Autocourse

  • Location: Feilding, Manawatu
  • Opened: 1973
  • Length: 1.5km, 3km and 4.5km
  • Fastest lap time: 1:01.45, Simon Wills, Reynard 94D (GP circuit)
  • Surface: Special hot-mix bitumen
  • FIA grade: 3

It was the dedication of Manawatu Car Club members that saw the building of the track in Feilding. The circuit is an FIA Grade 3 and one of few New Zealand tracks to have hosted international events, including the World Superbike finals, twice, and an F1 demonstration lap. The track has three possible layouts with the 3km common race configuration, including one of the best drifting sections in New Zealand, which is run through the centre of the circuit. The track includes banked corners, something not common here in New Zealand. Turn six, for example, carries seven degrees of camber. With three long straights on the circuit there are plenty of passing opportunities. 

Track tip

Turn Six, thanks to Mike Eady: “Known as Higgins Corner, it has a deceptively fast entry as the corner features over seven degrees of cambered banking. Turn in within the last third of the outside ripple strip. Once you have turned the car in you can get on the throttle, aiming for the apex which is two-thirds of the way round the inside kerbing. Exiting the corner you want to be aiming for just inside the kerbing in the last third of the strip. As with any corner leading onto a straight, it is important to get it right to increase straight-line speed. Turning in too early will force you to stay off the gas longer.”

Ricoh Taupo Motorsport Park

  • Location: Taupo
  • Opened: 1959
  • Length: 1.3km, 2.2km, 3.3km and 3.5km
  • Fastest lap time: 1:14.07, Nico Hulkenberg, A1GP (Track 4)
  • Surface: Slurry/hot-mix
  • FIA grade: 2

First opened in 1959 by the Taupo Car Club, Taupo Motorsport Park started as a short 1.6km dirt track that was later sealed. This track and its adjoining facilities still exist today, known as track three. In 2005 work began on the $6M project to lengthen the circuit to a 3.5km FIA grade two facility allowing for four different configurations and the inclusion of the NHRA-spec drag strip. The upgrade also included new pit and control tower facilities. Because of this the circuit can now run two events on separate tracks simultaneously. Taupo is traditionally run in an anticlockwise direction for grip racing, although for drifting it runs a clockwise direction with a drift section through the centre. 

Track tip

Mike Eady explains Turn 11: “This corner is very hard to get right, and the ideal line can vary according to the handling of the car. But the important part is to get a very fast exit speed to gain pace down the long straight. When entering the corner, brake in a straight line, almost one car width from the left-hand side of the track, brake right up to within half a metre of the white line on the outside of the track before apexing the hairpin and powering to the outside of the corner onto the long back straight.”

Mike Pero Motorsport Park

  • Location: Christchurch, Canterbury
  • Opened: 1963
  • Length: 1.1km, 1.19km, 1.60km, 2.18km, 2.28km, 3.28km, 3.38km
  • Fastest lap time: 1:15.81, Scott Dixon, RLH Reynard 92D (GP circuit)
  • Surface: Hot-mix
  • FIA grade: 3

The Canterbury Car Club, which still owns and runs the 100-acre facility, opened what is now known as Mike Pero Motorsport Park in 1963. With seven possible track configurations, this is New Zealand’s most versatile facility. The main straight also plays double duty as the Pegasus Bay Hot Rod Club’s NZDRA drag strip, and there is a Speedway on the grounds. It’s one of the oldest circuits in New Zealand and the track is very fast and known for its unforgiving ripple strips. The park also hosts both D1NZ and Drift South, with the longest drift section in the country.

Track tip

Turn three (hairpin) explained by Mike Eady: “This is the slowest corner of the circuit. Turn the car into the corner and use a sensible speed to late-apex the corner two-thirds of the way around, it is important to be close to the kerb, but there is no advantage in touching it. Hitting ripple strips might seem like you’re going fast but all it does is unsettle the car and cost you grip.”

Teretonga Park

  • Location: Invercargill 
  • Opened: 1957
  • Length: 2.62km
  • Fastest lap time: 51.61, Greg Murphy, Reynard 92D 
  • Surface: Bitumen
  • FIA grade: 3

Teretonga is New Zealand’s longest-serving racing facility. It was the country’s second track to be built, with its first race meeting held in 1957 followed by an international event in 1958. In 1966 the track was extended to its current 2.62km length. It is also the world’s most southern FIA-graded track, with a very famous high-speed sweeping loop that has been replicated at the newly built Highlands Park. The 2.62km track features an 850m-long straight and a series of sweeping corners. This track has earned a reputation as the second-fastest track in Australasia next to Sydney’s Motorsport Park.

Track tip

Turn two through four explained by Mike Eady: “Approach turn two from the left-hand side, late-apex the turn, keep your eyes up and stay smooth driving from apex to apex. It is better to sacrifice a bit of entry speed to turn two in order to set up and hit three and four with higher speed. A fast, good-handling car will stay flat throughout the section.”

Timaru International Raceway (Levels)

  • Location: Timaru
  • Opened: 1967
  • Length: 1.6 km, 2.4 km
  • Fastest lap time: 56.26, Greg Murphy, Reynard 92D (GP circuit)
  • Surface: Asphaltic concrete paving
  • FIA grade: 3

First constructed in 1967 by the South Canterbury Car Club as the shorter 1.6km club circuit, the track was extended in 1988 to the 2.4km GP circuit to bring it up to FIA grade 3. Levels is built just outside Timaru, and in recent years the encroaching housing has surrounded the facility, meaning the 95-decibel noise limit is strictly enforced and track days are somewhat limited. The wild South Island weather makes this track notorious for its tricky wet-weather driving, as water often pools on the trackside.

Track tip

Mike Eady explains turn 5: “Although fast and simple in the dry, turn five is tricky in the wet and the scene of a lot of crashes and people spinning. It’s located on the lead-up to the start/finish straight, and in the wet you drive almost mid track, off the inside apex to avoid the puddle. Don’t hit the kerbing on the right-hand side, let the car flow gently through the kink so you end up on the left-hand side over the start finish line.”

Highlands Motorsport Park

  • Track: Highlands Park
  • Location: Cromwell
  • Opened: 2013
  • Length: 4.5km
  • Lap record: 1:30.517, Andrew Tang, Toyota Racing Series
  • Surface: Asphalt 
  • FIA grade: 2

The newest edition to New Zealand is Highlands Park, just outside Cromwell. It is also our country’s longest track at 4.5km. The circuit is comprised of three separate tracks that can join together to make five different configurations. A local group privately funded the track until businessman and racer Tony Quinn purchased a majority shareholding to finish construction, which only took nine months, and it opened at Easter 2013. The track will mostly be used as a private facility for members. Its design includes many unique features to New Zealand including the carousel, the bridge and the southern loop, which runs through the forest. It is a very demanding circuit with very limited passing opportunities.

Track tip

The southern loop, thanks to Mike Eady: “Turn in and hold the apex the entire corner with the same throttle and steering input for almost 12 seconds, as you travel through the forest. The corner is blind, don’t get on the gas too early, wait until you can see the corner exit. Although it’s wide enough for two cars, there is only a single racing line, go too wide and it’s extremely slippery. The corner is outlined with concrete barriers.”

Keen for more racing tips and advice from Mike Eady? Grab his book The New Zealand Racetrack Manual, which is available on the Track Time website

The Jowett Jupiter turns 70

John Ball has always enjoyed tinkering with old boats and cars. He’s old enough to think having gearbox parts on newspaper on the floor of his bedroom, while the relevant car sat waiting on nail boxes, was a normal part of growing up. His passion has always tended towards old British bangers. He reckons he’s fortunate not to have got caught up in the American muscle scene.
John’s love affair with this Jupiter started in December 2015 when, with some time on his hands during a Christchurch trip, he searched online for ‘cars, before 1970 and in Christchurch’.

A passion for classics and customs

In the highly competitive field of New Zealand classic and custom restorations, reputations are won or lost on the ability to maintain consistently high standards of workmanship. A company managing to achieve this is D A Panel beating Ltd, of Rangiora near Christchurch. Is your classic or custom car restoration stalled, or in need of a refresh, or perhaps you are looking for experts to rebuild that recent import project out of Europe or the ‘States?