There are pivotal points in every driver’s career and for Liam Lawson, there’s one that stands out in his memory as perhaps the moment that led him to Formula 2.
Reflecting on a critical race victory and an overtake that put him on Red Bull's radar, the Kiwi recalls a January weekend at Highlands Motorsport Park in 2019, one he says changed the course of his career.
“It was actually the race that won me a Red Bull contract, back in 2019. It was in New Zealand in the Toyota Racing Series. I’d wanted to race in this Championship for so many years because the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, especially before COVID, was really, really big. There were a lot of European drivers coming across from all sorts of Championships to compete in it. When I was a kid it was something that I used to watch a lot and I wanted to race in it. So the year before that, I’d tried to get a dispensation because of my age, but they wouldn’t let me race, so I ended up going to all of the races but not racing, hating every second of it.
“Then I finally got to do this Championship that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and I’d done German Formula 4 the previous season. We’d only finished the season three months prior and I wasn’t really sure if we were going to be competitive, but there were good guys racing there. Marcus Armstrong was there, he was doing it and had done the previous two or three seasons as well as a Ferrari Academy Driver. Lucas Auer was there and was a Red Bull junior at the time, and I remember being a massive fan of this guy because he was in his Red Bull gear. At the time, I wasn’t a very good driver, so it was cool to be teammates with him, and we were very competitive but I wasn’t expecting or hoping for too much.
“We were quite quick in Practice that weekend around Highlands. It’s one of my favourite tracks in the world. I had an idea that we were going to be good, but I just remember the feeling of being there, I was just excited and happy to finally be in this Championship, so that Friday was more about enjoying the driving. We qualified third for the main race.
“Each race across the weekend has a specific trophy and the trophy that weekend was the Dorothy Smith Memorial Trophy. Dorothy is Kenny’s mother and Kenny is one of my mentors I had growing up, so I spent a lot of time with him when I was 11 or 12 years old until I went over to Europe. So, it was a very important race, I spoke to him before the race and for him, it was important that I tried to win.
“It was a Safety Car start because it had rained before, and the track was drying slowly. I’d won the race in the dry the day before and it was a drying track and Lucas Auer was leading, then it was Armstrong then it was myself. For the first few laps nothing really happened but as it started to dry more, I started to find quite a lot of time. I think what landed me the Red Bull contract was this specific pass I did to get past Marcus, it was a big pass around the outside of a corner than went up against a wall. It went on for about three or four corners, that was quite exciting.
“The lap before I made the move, there was this corner that he was struggling quite a lot because of the way the track was drying, there was one corner leading onto the straight where I’d gone wide and actually found a patch of grip and it was strong. I didn’t use it the next lap because I wanted to be close enough to do the move properly and didn’t want to show him where it was. So I stayed behind him for a lap and then basically went into that corner on the next one as hard as I could. I got onto the outside of him for this long corner leading into the straight and the wall was coming up that separates the track from the pit lane. We went side-by-side through there and went down the straight almost touching wheels and into this really fast chicane where I finished off the move.
“It was a massive feeling for me at the time but very quickly, I refocused because Lucas was still leading the race. At that point he was a couple seconds ahead, so I still had quite a big gap to make up. Eventually I managed to get to the lead and stretched away to win. I think it was the day afterwards, we had contact from Red Bull.
“The win gave me the confidence that I could absolutely win this Championship. Before I was going into the season with the goal of winning, but I’d sort of been looking up to these guys because they were quite far ahead of me in terms of their careers. But after that weekend it became very clear that I didn’t need to put them up there anymore, I was racing them.
“Those final weekends were very very close, going into the last race I think there were three points between me and Marcus. It was the New Zealand Grand Prix, the biggest race of the season which I was able to win to secure the Championship. The next day was my birthday, and I signed the Red Bull contract that morning in a café. That race was probably the most important part of my journey so far.”