A more cautious attitude is earning Mark Winterbottom big points and dragging him back into Championship contention, but the factory Ford driver says he is storing up his aggression not abandoning it.
Winterbottom’s star-crossed start to the year included various mechanical and tyre failures, a controversial run-in with arch-rival Jamie Whincup and a calamitous clash with Ford Performance Racing teammate David Reynolds.
He slipped as low as 11th (after the ITM 400 Auckland) in the V8 Supercars Championship chase, but after earning the biggest points hauls at both the Sucrogen Townsville 400 and Coates Hire Ipswich 360, he’s climbed back to fourth, narrowing the gap to Championship leader Whincup from over 400 points to 242 points.
He also trails Whincup’s teammate Craig Lowndes by 113 points and fellow Pepsi Max Falcon driver Will Davison by only 31 points.
Now in his eighth year with FPR, Winterbottom has finished second in the Championship once and third four times.
The consistency of his recent run is underlined by the fact he hasn’t won one of the five races conducted over those two events, although he did claim one second, two thirds and a fourth.
“I have toned the aggression down just a bit,” Winterbottom told v8supercars.com.au. “But I am surprised I have managed to claw so many points back.
“There will be a point where I will need to turn the aggression back on when I start to need points. But at the moment I am getting points back on the leaders so I am playing a strategic game.
“There are times where you need to definitely push and others where you need to conserve. Last weekend I was struggling a little for car speed so I think conserving was the smart approach and it ended up working out for me.”
Winterbottom predicts it will be the three-round PIRTEK Endurance Cup where the Drivers’ Championship is almost certain to shake out.
With the reliability of the new Car of the Future still to be proven over long distances and fresh tyre issues popping up last weekend, the Sandown 500, Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 and ARMOR ALL Gold Cost 600 pose some unknowns for the teams.
“The enduros will play the big role in it all, we’ll see where it stands after that,” the 32-year old said. “I now have a big sniff of the Championship, but one bad endurance round could definitely cost the Championship.”
While Winterbottom has re-discovered consistency, his rivals have lost it. Whincup, for instance, struggled in Townsville in his Red Bull Racing Australia Holden Commodore VF, managed a win and a second at Ipswich and then dumped to the back of the field with two punctures in Race 24.
“There are more competitive cars this year so on a bad day you finish 10th, whereas last year you finished fifth,” said Winterbottom. “That is the difference and that makes for big points swings.”
Ipswich was a perfect example of that with rookies Scott McLaughlin and FPR-contracted Chaz Mostert winning Races 23 and 24 for GRM and DJR respectively. There have now been 10 different race winners in 2013.
Winterbottom was third in Race 24, sitting behind Mostert and Davison and ahead of Reynolds in a Ford 1-2-3-4. Despite only having six Falcons in the 28 car field, the blue oval has won three of the last seven races.
“Seeing Chaz win there was awesome,” Winterbottom said. “They were tough conditions, I was struggling with them and I have been in the sport 10 years. He wasn’t handed that win … and to stand on the podium with him was that little bit more special.
“I have been helping him a bit at the workshop but when he beats me maybe I should heed some of my own advice and help myself!” he joked.