Crashes, fireballs and controversy: Townsville's 'craziest' race

  • Repco Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 06/07/2021
  • By James Pavey, Main Pic by Ross Gibb

Of its 29 championship races since its 2009, Townsville’s Sunday thriller in 2019 remains the event’s most dramatic, chaotic and controversial.

The venue of this weekend’s NTI Townsville 500 was thrust into darkness and rain two years ago, with Shane van Gisbergen emerging the victor in a shortened race.

For a time, Anton De Pasquale firmed to claim a shock victory for Erebus Motorsport, which was reduced to one challenger after David Reynolds clashed with series leader Scott McLaughlin.

Allcomers battled in the tricky conditions; it was the first race in Townsville’s Supercars history, after 23 dry affairs, to feature wet weather.

Notably, Jamie Whincup, the doyen of the Reid Park Street Circuit, crashed heavily in the slippery conditions, while there were two fires in two cars, one lighting up pit lane.

The 18th race of the season began on a wet track; with all cars on slicks, the field crawled off the line behind ARMOR ALL Pole man Cameron Waters.

A racy Reynolds rode up on McLaughlin’s right-rear corner as they braked for Turn 2; the left-front steering arm on Reynolds’s car was broken, with McLaughlin suffering a puncture and dropping a lap.

Through the drama, Waters enjoyed a near-three-second lead on Todd Hazelwood, who was demoted on lap 2 by Fabian Coulthard.

Waters was an early leader

Waters was assured in the lead, and had built a five-second gap on Coulthard, whose teammate McLaughlin had joined the train on fresh tyres.

By lap 10, Waters led Coulthard, Chaz Mostert, van Gisbergen, Whincup and Hazelwood. By this stage, De Pasquale was 12th.

Whincup pitted on lap 16 and took on another set of slick tyres. On the following lap, the Reid Park precinct was left in shock when Whincup lost the rear of his car and clouted the inside wall exiting Turn 6.

With his car heavily damaged and a loss of oil pressure detected, Whincup pulled over near the pit entry, triggering a Safety Car.

Whincup limps back to the lane after his crash

All the while, Coulthard had reeled in Waters and took the effective lead when they pitted on lap 18.

The first pit cycle was completed under yellow, with Coulthard leading Waters, van Gisbergen, Mostert, Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth.

De Pasquale was 16th, but Erebus had opted for wet tyres; it would prove an initial masterstroke as the rain increased from a mere tinkle to a deluge.

Van Gisbergen dropped below Mostert, Percat and Holdsworth before he was brought in on lap 29 for wet tyres.

Stopping for wets proved key for van Gisbergen

The field began to pit for wets, leaving De Pasquale with a massive margin in the lead over Waters, van Gisbergen, Coulthard, Mostert and Percat.

However, only Waters, van Gisbergen and Coulthard had met the 120-litre fuel requirement.

Clear in the lead, De Pasquale made errors at Turns 2 and 11, with Waters dropping to fourth after an error of his own at Turn 2.

Mostert showed strong pace, but required more fuel. He stopped on lap 60, a lap before another Safety Car was called when Garry Jacobson parked his car at Turn 10, fire and smoke billowing from the back of the #3 Nissan Altima.

The Safety Car saw Erebus play its hand and brought De Pasquale in; he initially slotted into the train in fifth position, behind van Gisbergen, Coulthard, Waters, and Mostert.

Waters had dropped behind van Gisbergen and Coulthard after being hit by Percat at Turn 3 on lap 54.

Drama would later strike Percat in dramatic fashion; an issue with Brad Jones Racing’s fuel rig during Percat’s final stop led to a large fuel spill.

The spill ignited when Percat accelerated away, with the car halted at the end of pit lane, the rear of the #8 entry on fire.

The BJR crew bravely tried to stop fuel leaking from the rig and extinguished the fireball in the pit box.

All the while, teams at the head of the lane extinguished the flames on Percat’s car, with the driver getting out safely.

Afterwards, Percat, who hopped back in and finished 19th, recounted that he could feel the heat from the fire.

"I saw when I dropped and went that there was fire, but you never know if it's on the car, if it's going to go out as you drive," he said.

"I didn't realise the extent of it [the pitlane fire] until I walked in [to the garage afterwards].

"My seat was real hot and I thought to myself, this must be bigger than I can see.

"Then I got to the end of pit lane and saw the light was red, which was probably a good thing, because I would've gone onto the track and hoped that it went out with speed.

"I could definitely feel it was hot and then when the smoke started when I stopped, I was trying to get out as quick as I could and let the guys extinguish it."

Drama for Percat Pic: Ross Gibb

Under fading light, and with the field under the control of the Safety Car, van Gisbergen took the chequered flag under yellow in the time-certain finish.

It was a lap 32 pass on Coulthard which aided van Gisbergen’s charge to his second win of the season, which helped him move into third in the standings.

De Pasquale was fourth behind Waters, with Mostert fifth ahead of Rick Kelly, James Golding, Holdsworth, Michael Caruso and and Simona De Silvestro.

McLaughlin was 11th, with Reynolds classified as a finisher in 20th, four laps down.

Van Gisbergen takes the chequered flag

"It was one of the craziest races I've had for a while," said van Gisbergen, who joked about following the Mustang Safety Car across the line, a poke at McLaughlin’s 2019 dominance.

"It was a race where I tried to just do my job and stay on the track but that was won in the pits.

"Strategy from Shippy [engineer Grant McPherson] and the guys there, great pitstops, but also keeping me calm.

"We had no way the fastest car but they kept getting good info to me and I just made no mistakes, stayed on the track, which was the main thing.

'It was one of the craziest races I've had for a while'

"It was awesome, a lot of action but pretty cool."

The call to pit for wets was critical for van Gisbergen, having restarted the race with "zero grip".

"The racing was hard," the 2016 champion explained.

"The first bit wasn't too bad, it was the bit after the Safety Car, I was 50-50 whether to change [to wets] then.

The top three celebrate

"It probably wasn't wet enough but under the Safety Car all the temp went out of the track and our tyres and when we went back green it was proper slippery and I had no pace.

"I let myself get bullied and put myself in the wrong places and dropped a long way back."

The 2021 Repco Supercars Championship season will resume this weekend at the NTI Townsville 500. Tickets are available here.

The event will be broadcast live on Foxtel and will be streamed on Kayo, and will be broadcast live and free on Seven.

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