Eight things we learned in Perth
- By Bruce Newton
- Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
1. Racing on a knife edge
Has there ever been a stronger, harder, fiercer and more exciting start to an ATCC/(V8) Supercars season? We now have had eight winners, six different pole qualifiers and three different brands winning at least once in the nine outings so far. There is now an extraordinary number of quality drivers, strong teams and fast cars in the field and they produced two brilliant races at Barbagallo – with the right race formats. On Saturday the variable weather helped shape the outcome of qualifying and the race, but on Sunday under clear skies the action was, if anything, even more intense. So high was the standard of driving and preparation that 320km of cut-throat racing in variable conditions at a biff and barge circuit surrounded by car-swallowing sand bunkers produced not one safety car. Certainly, none were needed to lift the excitement level.
2. The drivers’ championship
For all the variety, intensity and unpredictability there is a big five emerging at the top of the drivers’ championship points battle. Craig Lowndes, Jamie Whincup, Scott McLaughlin, Mark Winterbottom and Shane van Gisbergen look like they are edging away from the rest. Will Davison is sixth and doing an exceptional job in the Tekno Autosports Commodore, but even he says a championship challenge is unlikely in his first year in a new car. Maybe Garth Tander or James Courtney can come forward if the Holden Racing Team can crack the set-up code. Rick Kelly was mighty in Perth on Sunday and perhaps he can take the next step in the Sengled Nissan Altima. But the most likely outsider is Chaz Mostert, who will surely make a strong charge as he and his Supercheap Falcon find race as well as qualifying pace.
3. Battle of the brainiacs
Of course, the Whincup versus Lowndes versus van Gisbergen intra-team battle is one of the stories of the season. But the sub-plot in all this is Cauchi versus Lacroix versus McPherson. That’s Whincup’s engineer David Cauchi, Lowndes’ engineer Ludo Lacroix and SvG’s engineer Grant McPherson. While all of us pundits and fans outside the team ruminate about Whincup’s errors, SvG’s inconsistencies and Lowndes’ ability to cope with a new setting, we should also be pondering how they, in footy parlance, are being coached. So far, each team has one championship race win apiece in 2016 and are first, second and fifth in the championship. Look back through the events run so far and you can see where each combination has held the advantage and disadvantage. In Perth it was Lowndes and Lacroix to the fore thanks to the Saturday two-stop call and Sunday pace. At Phillip island Whincup and Cauchi were ascendant while SvG and McPherson starred at Symmons. Which way will the internal struggle swing at Winton?
4. Of course we should mention…
That it’s not just the three T8 entries with a lock on the results – indeed a Red Bull Commodore hasn’t finished first since Saturday at Symmons. Prodrive’s Mark Winterbottom and Jason Gray won out on Sunday at Barbagallo in The Bottle-O Falcon, closely followed home by the GRM Volvo S60 of Scott McLaughlin and Richard Hollway. The defending champion’s win was significant because it was his first since the Sandown 500 last September and the first for Prodrive this season, despite five poles between its three drivers (congrats Cam Waters!). You could have got long odds on Winterbottom winning the race on a two-stop strategy considering the issues the team has had keeping Dunlops working under the FG X. There was another important factor in Winterbottom’s win; his grit and speed in difficult circumstances were outstanding. It’s yet another in a series of elite drives from him. Victory was overdue and much deserved.
5. In defence of Aaren Russell
So let’s get this straight. Aaren Russell was on a fresher set of tyres than Mark Winterbottom and caught him using superior lap speed. He then unlapped himself and pulled away in the Plus Fitness Erebus Holden Commodore. The other options were; reduce his pace and follow Winterbottom to the end, or pull over and let the chasing group by. Neither are viable choices for a driver trying to establish himself in the championship. Sure, have a crack at Russell based on his pace and his results; this is a highly competitive category where every competitor is under the microscope all the time and it is unarguable the rookie from Newcastle is battling. But whatever you do, don’t chastise him for racing as hard as he can as long as he can.
Mark Winterbottom talked about redeeming himself on Sunday for his mistakes on Saturday, but the most powerful story of redemption in WA belonged to Super Black Racing’s Chris Pither. In 2016, after a sometimes fraught 10-year campaign, he finally gained a seat in the main game but then started the year disastrously with major crashes at the Clipsal 500 and in Tassie. He was also struggling to get off the back four rows of the grid. At Barbagallo he turned it around by qualifying eighth on Saturday and then holding his ground in the race. On Sunday he we went even better, qualifying a sensational fourth. In the race he was again strong until late in the race, drifting to 14th in the Prodrive Ford as the hectic end-game panned out. What we wait to see now is whether WA was a one-off or the start of something big.
7. McLaughlin, Rogers and Volvo
That Scott McLaughlin is a fast driver doesn’t make him much different to the exceptional racers that surround him on the grid every time he races in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship. But for the 22-year old to take the mantle of leadership upon himself after a traumatic week for Garry Rogers Motorsport and deliver the closest of second places last Sunday spoke volumes for his strong character. And didn’t you love the fact that he was spewing post-race about not optimising his last two laps and having a better crack at Winterbottom for the win? We all have our biases and favourites in this championship, but surely no-one would be unhappy if Scotty Mac and GRM could sustain their form all the way to the 2016 drivers’ championship. Well, maybe a few people in Sweden wouldn’t be too chuffed…
8. Winton watershed
It’s time for Nissan Motorsport and Brad Jones Racing to come to the fore. Winton is the test track of both teams and they tested there only a couple of weeks ago, giving them an understanding of the new high-grip surface. There is no doubt the Nissan Altimas are now bonafide back-half top 10 runners, but rostrums and wins are where it’s at. Winton, the site of the factory team’s sole win in 2013, would be a great place to hoist the silverware. For a variety of reasons BJR has had a poor start to 2016 and there’s no doubt good humour would be in short supply around Brad and Kim Jones’ place at the moment. The Albury team built up strong momentum over the last three years, but from the outside it looks very much like Fabian Coulthard and Phil Keed’s departure has ripped something from the performance fabric. It’s time for Tim Slade, Jason Bright and the undoubtedly talented engineering crew to fight back. Home ground is the right place to make a stand.
And the ninth item
When will Holden claim an ARMOR ALL Pole Positon in 2016? In nine championship race qualifying sessions the count is seven Ford and two Volvo. The last Commodore to claim pole in a championship race? James Courtney’s HRT VF in the Sunday Top 10 Shootout at Homebush last December.