Hot on the heels of news that Andre Heimgartner is set to leave Kelly Grove Racing at the end of 2021, the team has announced a new driver signing.
KGR has inked a multi-year agreement with 19-year-old Matt Payne, confirming the Kiwi as the inaugural member of its ‘Grove Junior Team’ academy program.
ANALYSIS: What is Kelly Racing’s Supercars legacy?
Payne won the 2021 Toyota Racing Series in his native New Zealand before stepping into Australia’s Carrera Cup, where he took a maiden race win in just his third round start last time out in Townsville.
He’s competing in Carrera Cup for Bamber Motorsport; a team operated by KGR’s Bathurst co-driver and long-time Grove aligned driver Earl Bamber.
Although Payne’s 2022 program is yet to be confirmed, KGR co-owner Stephen Grove has big wraps on Payne and is thought to be eyeing a potential move straight into the Supercars Championship.
“We’ve spent a long-time analysing Matt, and after seeing his performances in Townsville, it all but confirmed he was the one to launch the Grove Junior Team with,” said Grove.
“We’re investing in his development and talent for the future. We have a lot of faith in him and we’re excited about watching his progression.
“Matt is just the first signing for the Grove Junior Team, as we look to add a few more drivers from varying levels to the program before the end of the year.”
One clear sticking point is Payne’s current lack of eligibility for a Motorsport Australia Superlicence required to compete in Supercars, which would require a dispensation to be granted.
KGR has signalled an intention to field a Super2 entry for the youngster later this season in addition to his Porsche program, which would give him vital experience in a Supercar.
“For the remainder of the 2021 season, the Grove Junior Team will aim to have an entry in both the Carrera Cup and Super2 series allowing Matthew the opportunity to develop in the best testing grounds in Australia,” read a statement.
In a social media post about the new deal, Payne nominated Supercars as one of several options for him in 2022 within the Grove squad.
“I am super excited to share with you that I have signed a multi-year contract with Grove Racing to be a driver in their newly formed Grove Junior Team,” he wrote.
“Make sure you watch this space as we are finalising my 2022 program which could see me driving a variety of cars. There are options of Carrera Cup, Super2, GT or Supercars.”
The sudden announcement of Payne’s signing to the new Grove Junior program comes after Heimgartner’s manager John Ruggiero publicly confirmed that his driver already has a new deal sorted.
Heimgartner is being strongly linked to Brad Jones Racing; a team he co-drove for as an injury replacement for Ash Walsh at the 2017 Bathurst 1000 and Gold Coast 600 after initially missing out on an endurance co-drive.
A stunning podium with BJR on the Gold Coast led to Heimgartner’s signing to what was then Kelly Racing in 2018, replacing Todd Kelly.
The Grove Group subsequently bought 50 percent of Kelly Racing at the start of 2021 and, as recently announced, will complete a full takeover of the squad at year’s end.