November 11, 1998 A Rising star in European motor racing will compete in the coming Tasman Express NZ Grand Prix series as part of a career path aimed directly at Formula One.
Austrian Robert Lechner, the son of a successful race team owner who has helped the likes of countryman Alexander Wurz into F1, has just completed a standout season in German Formula 3 - a highly-competitive, prestigious launching pad for young drivers.
That’s where current Formula 1 superstar Michael Schumacher, little brother Ralf and Heinz-Harald Frentzen made their names.
Now the 21-year-old Lechner is hoping to follow in their footsteps: He was runner-up in this year’s German championship, taking two late-season wins and 10 top-four placings. Continuing evidence of the series’ role as a ladder to the top has come with a rash of F3000 tests for this year’s champion, Belgian Bas Leinders.
Lechner, a front-runner in British Formula Ford two years ago, wants the German F3 title next year - and all that it brings. And his campaign is taking no breaks: He and Dutch team-mate Wouter van Eeuwijk come to Invercargill’s Teretonga meeting on November 29 directly from the Macau F3 Grand Prix.
"My aim is to learn everything before I move higher," says Lechner.
Although he concedes that winning the German F3 title next year "will be difficult," he also adds: "But my only intention is to win."
The Salzburg driver and his team-mate have signed with Adelaide-based Arthur Abrahams’ NRC International team to drive his Reynards in the Tasman Express NZ Grand Prix at Ruapuna on December 6 and the Teretonga Formula Holden series opener the previous weekend.
Abrahams for one expects Lechner in particular to give front-running Kiwis Scott Dixon and Greg Murphy "a bit of a shake - even though he hasn’t done any work in the car.
"If he can steer an F3 car and finish second in the German championship, he shouldn’t have any problem adjusting."
Van Eeuwijk is a relative newcomer to single-seaters, having only debuted in German F3 late in the season. Nevertheless he has a long a successful karting career behind him and still managed to finish 14th overall in the F3 points - claiming eighth place, for instance, in the series finale.
With the two Europeans, the list of likely front runners for NZ’s four-race Formula Holden series is out to seven - with Dixon, Murphy, Lechner and van Eeuwijk joined by Aucklanders Simon Wills and Jason Liefting and Queensland-based Kiwi Chris Staff.
Wills, 22, is a race-winner in Formula Holdens. He joined this year’s series at its mid-point, having run two years in the British F3 championship - winning the Class 2 title in ’96.
Liefting too has taken a win in the class - and even though that was a non-championship meeting, with many of the stars absent, veteran Kenny Smith rates the 20-year-old talented enough to stay with the front-runners in this series.
He was NZ Formula Ford Rookie of the Year last year, after graduating from karting. And he and team-mate Staff aim to go into the Tasman Express meetings with good testing mileage under their belts.
Staff was the sensation of Australian Superkart racing in 1996 and ’97 and is also tipped by Smith as being capable of latching onto the front group in the Teretonga and Ruapuna races.