Winterbottom homes in, Ford checks out
Mark Winterbottom and Prodrive Racing Australia may not agree but it is fitting the fight that is the drivers’ championship be decided at the final round on the big stage in Sydney next week rather than the picturesque but relatively low-key Phillip Island. Despite all the chat about Frosty cracking up under the pressure he presented a cool, cam and relaxed demeanour last Sunday night. He knows he is still in the box seat to win his and PRA’s first championship and seems genuinely excited by the challenge. After nines years of near misses that emotion is easy to understand. But it is frustrating through all this how notable Ford Australia has been by its complete absence. In the run-up to Phillip Island it did actually issue a motorsport press release… about Australian expat Ryan Briscoe racing GT3 cars overseas. There were no Ford heavies at Phillip Island and it would be a great surprise if any show in Sydney. Considering that race signals the end of any formal ties with Prodrive and V8s it would actually be the brave and appropriate thing to do. Don’t hold your breath.
Lowndes second… again
It is so very appropriate that Winterbottom’s championship challenger is Craig Lowndes. The veteran has rolled into Homebush more than once since the street race was inaugurated with a shot at the title … and missed out each time. This time round though, at least it’s not Red Bull team-mate Jamie Whincup he’s chasing. Win, lose or draw, Lowndes has had a great season and it could end up statistically being his best since his championship-winning days at the Holden Racing Team in the 1990s. He has already scored four poles and five wins in 2015, including win number 100 overall and his sixth Bathurst 1000. His best ever year at Triple Eight was 2012 when he claimed five poles, seven wins … and second in the championship. New engineer Grant McPherson has been an important part of Lowndes’ great year, but plaudits also to his predecessor Jeromy Moore, who has been part of Mark Webber’s world championship winning efforts in the World Endurance Championship with Porsche.
SvG versus Reynolds
When Shane van Gisbergen pushed David Reynolds off the track in the opening 60km sprint on Saturday it looked on television like an incredibly blatant and irresponsible act. Yet as it turned out once IPO Jason Bargwanna investigated, mitigating factors and nuances came to light. That is a relief because while SvG is as hard as any racer out there he doesn’t have a reputation for being dirty. Bargwanna is proving to be a success in his difficult role judging by the fact that most teams complain about his judgements at some stage or another. He is walking a difficult line between robust and over-zealous racing and for the most part getting it right. For all that the fact remains that one moment in that one race ended David Reynolds’ brave charge at the drivers’ championship. He was like a deflated balloon for the rest of the weekend and did not figure at the pointy end again. Reynolds will almost certainly finish third in the point score, by far the best result he has had in his V8 Supercars career, an achievement he should be proud of. After the chequered flag does fall on the last race and he heads off for a well earned break what will he make of a season that started with his ‘career on the line’, was punctuated by Bathurst dramas and ended with him headed to Erebus Motorsport after Prodrive didn’t renew his contract.
Nissan in action
The Nissan lads are emphatic their strong Phillip island performance was no flash in the pan but instead indicative of the effort being put into development of the Altima – most notably of course, the engine. It was great that Todd Kelly got the reward of leading three Nissans home in the top eight and that’s because the elder Kelly brother has consistently sacrificed his own career to act as a mobile test bed for the family-owned team ever since its establishment as a privateer Holden outfit back in 2009. Todd’s already talking enthusiastically about the carsales.com.au Altima’s 2016 performance potential and that’s great to hear. A sympathetic plug for the fourth Nissan driver Michael Caruso, who could have made it on to the podium if not for a pitlane infraction that he had no control over.
Scotty back on-song
It was like 2014 all over again at the weekend with Scotty McLaughlin and the Volvo S60 harassing the Red Bull Holden Commodores for all they were worth. It would have been great to see him break through for his first win of 2015 after coping stoically with his car’s severe bout of second year blues for much of the season. Call it a character-building year for Scotty and GRM and hopefully it acts as a motivator to come back strongly in 2016. Judging by Phillip island, signs are good for that. McLaughlin may well have won on Sunday if he’d had a pitlane position closer to pit exit, but that’s the price you pay for not having a strong team’s championship result. That situation won’t be resolved next year because Wilson Security GRM simply hasn’t been able to wrack up enough points to be closer to the pointy end.
HRT walking the walk?
Off-track the split between Walkinshaw Racing and customer Charlie Schwerkolt was the surprise news over the weekend. Publicly this is being presented as an amicable decision by mates who see more opportunities going their separate ways than sticking together. The reality may be a little more complex than that, but if this latest restructure at Clayton does deliver front-running form from the Holden Racing Team then that simply adds strength to the championship. Think about next year’s line-up; three undoubtedly competitive cars running out of Triple Eight, ditto for Prodrive; two out of DJR Team Penske; resurgent Volvos with James Moffat adding to their strength; better Nissans and now maybe HRT – the team with greatest pedigree and following in the category – walking the walk as well as talking the talk. James Courtney and Garth Tander consistently back qualifying at the front and racing there? We’d like to see that.
The Charlie and Lee show
The fact that Charlie Schwerkolt has bitten the bullet and appears set to establish his own independent operation running Triple Eight equipment after three years as a customer of Prodrive and Walkinshaw makes sense. The equipment will be good, his driver Lee Holdsworth is good, the money will apparently be enough. Now we wait and see who he employs to make it all click together. The orthodox thinking in the V8 Supercars pitlane is that single car teams don’t fare well, but when you consider the form of Tekno Autosports over the last couple of years and DJR Team Penske this year it’s apparent this need not be the case. At least now Schwerkolt is fully in charge of his own destiny. And let’s hope it also delivers some stability for Holdsworth, who will drive his fourth different car in five years in 2016.
Dumbrell brothers racing
It was nice that Paul Dumbrell got to drive for younger brother Lucas’ V8 Supercars team, but unfortunate that Nick Percat had to be pretty sick for him to do it. Paul slotted back into the seat comfortably enough, a reminder that he retired young – as well as started young! The two other substitutes at PI – Dean Canto and Chris Pither – also did a good job, proving there are less seats available in V8 Supercars than there are good drivers to to fill them.
It’s a ninth item but worth recording. Race 32 at Phillip Island was the last of the 60km sprint races. Next year we go to a single 120km race with mandatory pit stops. It can’t be worse than some of the high speed procession that got dished up this year (eg: Race 32). The Saturday program at V8 Supercars events has proved to be something of a moveable feast in recent years. But isn’t the evidence in by now that the longer the races and the more variable the challenges the drivers, engineers and teams are confronted with the better the racing is?