Eight things we learned from Winton
- By Bruce Newton
- Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
1. Nice guy finishes first… twice
Winton continued its recent tradition of providing noteworthy wins; James Moffat in 2013 for Nissan, Lee Holdsworth in 2014 for Erebus, Chaz Mostert scoring for Prodrive for the first time in 2015 and now Tim Slade for Brad Jones Racing in 2016. The Supercars community was delighted for Slade to finally break through after eight years and 226 races. “Genuine nice bloke” was the consensus of opinion around the traps. The manner of his wins was crucial too. No mistakes, no luck, just lots of confidence-building skill. The wins were all about consistent high speed lappery, slick pit stops and a brave strategy call on Sunday that reacted to Prodrive’s innovative play to pit Mark Winterbottom three times and send him on a long run to the finish. So kudos not only to Slade but his engineer, Julian Stannard, who also scored his first wins. Courtesy of his lengthy beard Stannard now joins Chaz Mostert as a subject for debate by the FOX SPORTS commentary team; aka the Supercars fashion police.
2. Now for more
The expectation is that Slade and BJR will feature strongly at Darwin next month because of its combination of high-grip surface and soft tyres. Slade himself acknowledges that history suggests he will be competitive, but he is understandably cautious about making outlandish predictions for what the year will bring beyond that – who could blame him given the craziness of the season so far. Winton’s brand new surface brought the Freightliner Commodore to life on green tyres, but up until now Slade had been unable to qualify in the top 10. BJR technical boss Andrew Edwards and his engineering crew have new ideas and parts to try at a test before Darwin, so here’s hoping this is the start of something big. Right now Slade is seventh in the championship, 264 points from the lead. Who knows where a consistently competitive run for the rest of the year will take him? Hs predecessor Fabian Coulthard’s best finish in the championship for BJR was sixth in 2013. Team owners Brad and Kim Jones would probably regard that as a good target to beat.
Slade’s double act made it nine winners from 11 championship races so far. If you don’t believe this is the most competitive, even and gripping start to a touring car/V8 Supercar/Supercar season ever then please nominate your alternative and justifications below. While the racing at Winton didn’t reach the extraordinary heights of Perth two weeks prior, it was still gripping at best and tense at worst. The new surface everyone had hoped would promote lots of two-by-two racing instead made it hard to pass. That was more obvious on Saturday than Sunday when there were some absolutely berserk moments. There are so many good teams, cars and drivers in this championship now that the margin between success and failure is ridiculously small. Get out a stopwatch and click it on and off as fast as you can. If you’re good you might do it in 0.15sec. The top four cars in qualifying on the 3.0km track Sunday were separated by 0.13sec; the top 10 by 0.39sec and the entire 26 car grid by just one second.
On Sunday Garth Tander and James Courtney qualified their factory Holden Racing Team Commodores, 0.536 and 0.5709sec respectively from pole. In just about any other road racing series where the cars make 650 horsepower modulated only by the drivers’ right foot they would have been in sight of pole. Instead they were 19th and 20th and Courtney looked completely and utterly desolate, sitting alone on the pitlane wall. Failure in this championship is measured in such small increments. The best result for the two cars across the two races was GT’s never-say-die 12th on Sunday. This was not the weekend HRT had hoped for at its test track. At the core of any race team – hell, any worthwhile organisation – are living, breathing, feeling people who hurt, suffer, worry, sacrifice and strive for the cause. Hopefully the results will soon come for HRT that make the pain worthwhile and the joy of success all the more pronounced.
5. Compounding that
It was not missed anywhere that as HRT struggled for pace, David Reynolds showed immense pace and a feisty attitude in racing forward from 17th on the grid to finish sixth in his Penrite Oils Holden Commodore VF… That’s an ex-Walkinshaw Racing Commodore that has now been significantly re-engineered by Erebus. Reynolds ended up setting the fastest lap on Sunday and it wasn’t a complete surprise he was so strong, as he only started so far back in the first place because of a significant error on his qualifying lap. Reynolds took particular pleasure in shouldering his way past Tander during his charge forward. There was no politeness in his move, and most assuredly none expected by hard-nut Tander. Don’t forget it was 12 months ago at Winton, Reynolds took exception to Tander’s on-track behaviour, an encounter that had an entertaining follow-up on Inside Supercars. This was not Reynolds’ best finish of the year as he scored fifth on the water-logged Sunday at the Clipsal 500, but it was a truer reflection of the development program Erebus has embarked on. Wonder what Mathew Nilsson, the former HRT technical chief moved aside in last summer’s reshuffle, made of all this? While he still works at Walkinshaw Racing, Nilsson spends race weekends engineering Reynolds’ team-mate Aaren Russell, who drives another ex-WR Commodore VF.
If HRT is in despair right now, then fellow factory Holden team Triple Eight Race Engineering will be at least annoyed by missing the Winton podium. Last year’s Sunday race has been the only time the squad has cracked the top three in the new gen (car of the future) era at the low-speed 3.0-km track, courtesy of Craig Lowndes. There were some signs of light at the end of the tunnel over the weekend, with Jamie Whincup positing a fifth on Saturday – his best post-2012 result at the track. Red Bull team-mate Shane van Gisbergen did even better with fourth on Sunday, despite starting from 12th after running off in qualifying. Lowndes was the biggest loser of the T8 threesome, dropping from first to fourth in the championship after posting 15-8 finishes.
7. Championship material
As he did last year, Mark Winterbottom took the driver’s championship lead at Winton. Only time will tell if he retains it but it’s worth remembering he went on a huge run from around this time last year that effectively built him the points buffer he needed to grab the number one plate at season’s end. Frosty’s 3-2 result at Winton was full of merit, especially his long run on Sunday, at the end of which he endured extreme pressure from Coulthard’s DJR Team Penske Falcon on newer tyres. Just like Sunday in Perth this was a champion’s drive. Winterbottom’s engineer Jason Gray also deserved his share of the plaudits for a three-stop strategy that got Frosty to the podium despite qualifying 10th with a loose car.
8. Scotty and Robbie
Overnight Saturday for the first time in 30 years a Volvo driver led the points score of Australia’s premier tin-top category after Kiwi Scott McLaughlin’s second place in race 10 at Winton. Last time that happened it was fellow-New Zealander Robbie Francevic, who was on his way to winning the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship in a Volvo 240T. The volatile Francevic was sacked by the team soon after winning the championship and the team itself disbanded at the end of season when Volvo pulled out of global motorsport. So, we already know Volvo finishes up in Supercars at the end of this season on the orders of Sweden. We also know that McLaughlin could well depart Garry Rogers Motorsport at the end of the year to pursue other opportunities. If history truly does repeat, then McLaughlin is looking good for the 2016 Championship. Certainly, given the recent dramas, he’s the people’s favourite.
The ninth item
If you missed it, Tim Slade sent a special message to News Limited Supercars journo James Phelps after he claimed ARMOR ALL Pole Positon on Saturday at Winton. It might have been meant as an ‘up yours’ but Tim, please, don’t. Stuff like that will just encourage him…