Mark Winterbottom declared this year’s Wilson Security Sandown 500 was the most critical in history as the prelude to the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
The longest race stints the new generation V8 Supercars had run this season had been 250km prior to the Sandown weekend, so the 500km meant teams had their first chance to assess the challenges an endurance race could throw at them.
Now in just a fortnight, they double the distance.
“In the past, we knew the car would last 1000km and we knew what to expect,” Pepsi Max racer Winterbottom said.
“This time, using Sandown was more important than ever – (assessing) data, set-up changes on the fly, componentry that’s weak, and componentry that’s strong.
“Everything they knew back to front on the old cars has to be looked at. And in terms of driving, obviously the circuit is unique and challenging. Long story short – a lot more could go wrong.
“You drive them now like a 1000km sprint race,” Winterbottom said of the cars at the traditional endurance race.
“If the cars survive 1000km there, they will anywhere – gone are the days you cruise around and save the car, you can’t do that now.
“I expect reliability will be quite good. It might throw up some tyre issues there we haven’t had – there are things in my mind to be wary of, but you don’t know until you get there.”
Winterbottom did not say a negative word about long time co-driver Steve Richards, who had trouble getting off the line when starting the race at the Wilson Security Sandown 500.
The team’s quick thinking managed to get #5 back in contention for the long distance race but a problem with a wheel nut in a later pit stop cost the pair, which went on to finish sixth.
Eventual winner Jamie Whincup also had pit dramas early on when Red Bull Racing Australia called a late driver change – the kerfuffle resulted in spinning wheels during the pit stop, automatically met with a drive through penalty. But again, served early, it meant there was enough time in the race to recover and in Whincup and Paul Dumbrell’s case, take the win.
Winterbottom agreed longer races meant an early issue could be resolved and a souring race could be rescued. But he also felt the newly introduced mandatory pit stop rule contributed.
“I think the four pit stops ... that lets people get back in the game. If there’s an issue, you can strategise around it.
“I think it definitely shows a problem early means you can bounce back, but a problem late can be very tough.
“They’re longer races – the 60/60, 120km compared to a 500km race, or 1000km – you forget how long they are!
“Whincup had a drive through and won, we stalled car 5 and led the race, so you can definitely strategise your way out of it.
“(You need) a smart crew to be on top of its game – James (Small) my engineer and Jase (Jason Gray) on data are incredible at what they do.
“Coming into these you need a guy who really reads the play well. Having a good guy can get you out of trouble and hopefully at Bathurst if we get into trouble, they can get us out of it!”
Winterbottom, who was the beneficiary in the double stacking scenario that has lit up the media since the Wilson Security Sandown 500, didn’t seem to think much of it. Teammate Will Davison was scathing after the race, while team boss Tim Edwards dismissed the issue last week.
“That’s the downside to having two quick cars, you’re stacking,” Winterbottom said.
“Lowndes and Whincup do it all the time, they did at Sandown and finished 1-2. It’s part of having two good cars really, sometimes you get the raw end, sometimes the good end.
“It’s something that’s unavoidable – one of those things, really, that’s unfortunately in the sport. Changing the rules to stop it is really the only way around it.”
A trouble free run for #5 at Bathurst would mean a win, Winterbottom believed.
“That goes for about 10 blokes – a trouble free run will win the race. The other nine will have a little slip. A perfect race is near impossible, but if you have one slip up, how you recover is important.”
Winterbottom felt Richards was in career best form and his crew showed their smarts at the last event.
“If we get everything right at Bathurst, there’s no reason we can’t win it,” he said.
“There are not too many teams that can say that.”