Spotlight: Who'll lead the bumper rookie crop?

  • 23/02/2018
  • By Mitchell Adam
  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship

From Bathurst to Budapest, five rookies entering the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship in 2018 have been honing their craft in recent years.

The arrival of Anton De Pasquale, James Golding, Todd Hazelwood, Jack Le Brocq and Richie Stanaway represents a significant shift.

It also reduces the average age of drivers by nearly two-and-a-half years from last November’s 2017 season finale. 

The greatest expectations will surround Stanaway.

Tickford Racing’s newcomer has spent the best part of the last decade in Europe, winning races in junior single-seater classes including GP2 and GP3.

More recently he has been part of Aston Martin’s factory GTE line-up in the World Endurance Championship, and turned heads with PIRTEK Enduro Cup Supercars drives for the Ford squad.

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Stanaway even starts full-time Supercars competition with a win on the board, at Sandown last year with Cameron Waters.

In the wet, he starred at Bathurst and on the Gold Coast last October, and made an impression in his very first Supercars outing at Sandown in 2016 in greasy conditions.

He hasn’t been shy about overtaking, even if an error while sizing up Steven Richards in the dry Gold Coast race proved costly in the final 2017 Enduro Cups standings.

It is also worth noting that the Kiwi won a race in a one-off Dunlop Super2 Series outing at Sydney Motorsport Park last August, before the Enduro Cup.

The challenge for Stanaway, as it is for all of this year’s rookies, is to go from stepping into a car that has been developed - and even set-up at each track - by a primary driver and engineer.

Stanaway slots into his own program and has to forge his own relationship with engineer Sam Potter, and his own set-up direction, while learning new circuits.

He does have three team-mates to learn from, something Tekno Autosports has tried to emulate for Le Brocq.

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A long-time Triple Eight customer, the now Adrian Burgess-led Tekno committed to grabbing a new, identical ZB Commodore from the factory Holden team, so Le Brocq has that pool of data to work from.

Le Brocq has been quick out of the box in testing. He finished with the eighth-fastest time of the Sydney Motorsport Park day, as the top rookie and second of the four fresh T8 Commodores in the field.

The 25-year-old has three Enduro Cup campaigns under his belt, but they have all come in different machinery; an Erebus Mercedes, Prodrive Falcon and then a Nissan with Todd Kelly last year.

His 2016 and '17 tilts were paired with similar Dunlop Super2 Series programs, in-house with PRA then with MW Motorsport in an Altima.

They netted a total of 11 race wins, and second and third in the points, while Le Brocq also made a pair of wildcard main game starts last year.

Wildcards and the enduros is what Golding had to settle for in 2017, when he initially looked set to enter the main game.

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A long-time Garry Rogers Motorsport protege and mechanic, Golding finished fourth in Super2 in 2016 but was left on the outer when Garth Tander became available to replace Scott McLaughlin.

Prospects of staying in Super2 were quashed when Richard Muscat and Mason Barbera landed GRM’s two seats. Nevertheless, Golding stuck at it and impressed the team with his attitude.

While he could lean on Tander when they paired up in the Enduro Cup last year, the 2007 champion might be a little more reserved as full-time team-mates.

Golding has regrouped from a tough enduro debut in 2016, and recorded the best qualifying (18th) and race results (16th) of any of the Super2 drivers making wildcard main game starts, both on the Saturday at Winton.

That qualifying performance put him just 0.1359 seconds and five spots behind Tander, which is a decent initial baseline for his step up.

The preparations of Golding and De Pasquale have been shaped somewhat by the arrival of bodywork for the new Commodore.

Golding heads to Adelaide as the only one of the quintet to have not completed a rookie test day, while De Pasquale’s with Erebus was pushed back by about a fortnight, ruling out any hope of doing two.

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For his part, De Pasquale will be getting his first taste of the main game in any capacity in Adelaide, having missed out on a 2017 Enduro Cup drive.

The 22-year-old has impressed in Super2 in the last two seasons, under the tutelage of Paul Morris.

De Pasquale spent his first in an older-generation Falcon, then won a pair of races on his way to fourth in the 2017 points in an ex-Tickford FG X.

Like Stanaway, he has spent time in Europe chasing the Formula 1 dream, following the 2013 Australian Formula Ford title with a dominant performance in the ’14 Formula Renault 1.6 North European Junior Cup.

Two of the drivers he beat that year, Ralf Aron and Ferdinand Habsburg, are expected to be Formula 3 European Championship front-runners this season - Habsburg was even central to last year’s dramatic Macau Grand Prix finish.

While a lack of budget forced De Pasquale’s attention to shift back to Australia, he has taken to Supercars quickly.

De Pasquale impressed during an evaluation day with Erebus at Winton mid-year, doing enough to get the nod to partner David Reynolds.

He will drive Reynolds’ 2017 Commodore, and is expected to be good news for the Bathurst winner, who is yet to be outqualified by an Erebus team-mate, entering his third season with Betty Klimenko’s squad.

Last but by no means least in the rookie group is Hazelwood, who enters Supercars without an experienced team-mate to reference, in a standalone single-car outfit.

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Hazelwood won the 2017 Super2 title with Matt Stone Racing, and the two parties are making the step up together, with a DJR Team Penske-built Falcon.

He does, though, have that continuity on the team front, and with experienced engineer Wes McDougall staying in his corner.

The South Australian has displayed plenty of resilience to get to this stage in his career, including contesting a Super2 race at Sandown immediately after his mammoth Turn 6 accident in the ‘500 co-driver race.

He still flips those famed snags from time to time, too, and a Supercars program is a just reward.

But to write Hazelwood off as simply gritty does him little justice. He won six Super2 races last year, including two in the Newcastle finale when he had to overhaul Paul Dumbrell, in another Triple Eight-built VF.

It’s been a long time since Supercars had this sort of talented rookie crop enter the championship together.

How they grow into the main game and what they achieve on-track this year will be worth watching.

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