Defending champion Jamie Whincup has opened his victory account for the 2018 season, with a masterful performance in the wet at the Coates Hire Supercars Melbourne 400.
Whincup led from start to finish to cross the line 4.2034 seconds clear in the second leg of his 200th Supercars event, despite a two of the 13 laps being run behind the Safety Car and a pair of mistakes.
Rain arrived at Albert Park on Saturday morning, meaning drivers tackled their first wet session of the year.
It had all-but stopped falling by the time proceedings started under Safety Car conditions, with the green flag coming out for lap three.
Whincup then wasted little time building an advantage at the front, making the most of the clear road ahead.
Scott McLaughlin couldn’t go with the Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore, instead having to contend with team-mate Fabian Coulthard right behind.
More than a second faster than the rest on some laps, Whincup was leading by more than three seconds on lap six, when he locked the right-front and ran wide at Turn 1.
That slashed the advantage back to seven tenths, but he led by 1.8s again by the end of the lap, still setting a time quicker than roughly half of the field.
He cleared out again to lead by more than four seconds with five laps to go, when an error cut that back to 1.5s.
Whincup, though, rebuilt that buffer on the run home to take his 109th career victory with a commanding margin.
“I was pretty loose out there, I nearly speared off a couple of times,” Whincup, who moves up to 10th in the standings, said.
“I actually nearly spun on the warm-up lap as well which would have been embarrassing.
“But it was good fun… it’ll probably be another wet race this evening, so we’ll see how we go.”
Opening-race winner McLaughlin led home Coulthard, as the two Shell Fords finished on the podium again; McLaughlin now becomes Shane van Gisbergen’s closest rival in the points, 67 adrift.
Five seconds further back, Cameron Waters and van Gisbergen spent the second half of the race fighting for fourth, as a drier line emerged.
Waters looked set to hold on, but a slide and slow exit out of Turn 10 let the championship leader pounce and take the place.
The following battle on the road had a similar pattern, between Nick Percat and Chaz Mostert, with Mostert finding a way past at Turn 3 with two laps to go to finish sixth.
Percat came home seventh, ahead of Michael Caruso in the lead Nissan, Mark Winterbottom and Tim Slade.
Andre Heimgartner crossed the line in 16th place, but is under investigation for contact with Craig Lowndes, that forced latter into retirement.
“The steering wheel is cactus from another competitor, unfortunately,” Lowndes said.
“We were on the outside of Turn 15 and he understeered straight into my left-front.
“The steering is all bent. I can turn right ok but I can’t turn left.”
James Golding was the first rookie home in 17th, one spot ahead of Garry Rogers Motorsport team-mate Garth Tander.
Tander was delayed by a tangle with Simona De Silvestro and Todd Hazelwood at Turn 3 on the second racing lap, Tander and Hazelwood being turned around.
Hazelwood then made contact with the Turn 5 wall as a result of the ensuing steering damage.
James Courtney made progress from 23rd on the grid in his Walkinshaw Andretti United Commodore, until being turned around at Turn 4 by Jack Le Brocq mid-race.
Le Brocq was handed a 15-second time penalty to be 22nd, while Courtney ultimately finished 20th.
Richie Stanaway had to pit at the end of the first lap, behind the Safety Car, having been served a mechanical black flag for a rear rain light that was not working.
Tickford Racing made repairs, but that did not rectify the problem, Stanaway called back in as it went green and winding up 25th and four laps down.
Saturday’s second race, the third of four in the Coates Hire Supercars Melbourne 400 and 25 laps in duration, will start at 6:30pm.