No matter your side of the fence, there’s no doubting Red Bull Racing Australia’s Jamie Whincup has been a dominant force in V8 Supercars racing.
But over the past five years, there is one man who has wrestled the Championship away from him, in 2010. And he is in the title race again, with one of the most pedigreed pairings in pit lane for the PIRTEK Enduro Cup.
So, can James Courtney do it again?
“For sure!” he told v8supercars.com.au. “In the last five years, I’m the only guy to take him down for the Championship.
“You’ve got no idea how much I want to do it again!
“We’re pushing like crazy to get that – we’ve got a really quick car and (Walkinshaw Racing is) a slick organisation.”
Courtney debuted in the endurance races in 2005, paired with Jim Richards in a Holden Racing Team Commodore. They went without a result, but Courtney’s talent was immediately recognised and he was quickly swept up as a full-time driver to replace departing Marcos Ambrose, who has gone on to forge a NASCAR career overseas.
But it wasn’t that high profile seat that garnered Courtney’s Championship. Rather, a move to Ford’s Dick Johnson Racing was the key, and in 2010 it was a tight Championship race, which Courtney led by just 53 points heading into the season’s Grand Finale event at the Homebush street circuit in Sydney.
Courtney came out victorious, denying Whincup the title.
With five race wins that season and a handful of podium finishes, Courtney was also awarded the Barry Sheene medal, V8 Supercars’ equivalent of best and fairest.
It was then he shifted to Holden Racing Team, and while impressive on debut with the team in Abu Dhabi, his time at the factory outfit has been lean.
But having racked up two ARMOR ALL Pole Positions and a recent race victory so far this season, Courtney’s consistent performances have seen him jump to fifth in the Championship, within striking distance of Whincup, trailing by 238 points.
Prior to the Wilson Security Sandown 500, 300 points – the allocation for one race win in V8 Supercars – separated the top nine cars. Now, there are just six in that bracket. Courtney is one of the contenders who has improved positions and looks to be improving in form, rather than declining.
But… “We have to make sure we have everything in line,” Courtney said. “We can’t afford for things to go wrong, like last weekend. We have to shine up.”
And, of course, it’s not just the Championship the HRT driver has in his sights.
Like the rest of the field, he is desperate for a Bathurst win, which is something he is yet to tick off the wishlist.
Courtney is the only one of the four HRT drivers facing the enduros not to have won at the Mountain – “Thanks for pointing that out,” he laughed – but paired with four-time winner and fan favourite Greg Murphy, is surely a good chance headed to the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
“Murph and I are in with a good shot,” he said definitively. “I think we did well with what we had at Sandown.
“We were last twice in the race and down a lap at one point. We had a lot of mechanical issues with the car at the end with the braking package.
“Both sides of the garage, we had big issues. It was so mentally draining on the boys – Alistair (McVean, engineer) and Robbie (Starr, car manager), my guys, had to rework the strategy to get us back in the hunt.
“In the end, with 50 laps to go, we broke the brake balance bar, so we pretty much only had front brakes the last 50 laps.
“It was pretty hairy, but that’s what the whole weekend is about – preparing for Bathurst, seeing our strengths and weaknesses.
“We definitely showed, with the stuff thrown at Murph and I, we can knuckle down behind the wheel and drag a result out.
“All in all, I’d have been happy to win the thing, but considering the issues, to come home in fifth was quite good.
“When the car’s working well, it has good pace.”
Courtney is filled with confidence heading to the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 and is determined to challenge for the win, after falling short in 2012, having finished fifth with now Driving Standards Observer Cameron McConville.
Courtney was full of praise for 2013 co-driver Murphy, who he said did a cracking job at Sandown, never giving up.
“Murph doesn’t have to prove anything, he has the stats to back himself up there (at Bathurst), he’s been on the podium there plenty of times and has had really good speed every year.
“It was unfortunate last year not to challenge the guys for a shot at the win, but this year, definitely. I’m feeling a lot more confident.”