Eight things we learned in Darwin

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 21/06/2016
  • By Bruce Newton

1. Van Gisbergen emerges

Race 13

Sort your way through the debris, look past the impressive speed of the Nissans and Shane van Gisbergen emerges as the key player in Darwin. Two poles and one race win speak of a level of consistent front-running pace no-one else could muster. If not for his mistake at the Saturday safety car restart the New Zealander might have had a clean sweep and been the first ever winner of the Triple Crown. By the way can any one tell me what the Triple Crown winner actually wins? In this highly unpredictable season this was the first time any driver has displayed a speed advantage at two separate events. SvG was previously on top in Tassie, but it was Scott McLaughlin who ruled the roost at Phillip Island and Tim Slade at Winton, while at the Clipsal and in WA the advantage ebbed and flowed through different teams and drivers at different times. Clearly, Triple Eight’s recent test has yielded positives for SvG, who had never previously claimed a pole at Hidden Valley and last claimed a win there in 2011, driving a Stone Brothers Falcon. So is this the start of a championship-defining run from van Gisbergen? Remember, the deeper into a season he goes the stronger he usually gets. 

2. Championship

Speaking of consistency, the drivers’ championship top five are separated by just 71 points after Darwin. Compare that to 12 months ago when Mark Winterbottom had a 195-point lead over Craig Lowndes and the top five were separated by 225 points. If someone can get on a winning roll – or even a podium roll, consistently finishing in the top three – he is going to put a clamp on the championship. Not that we want that to happen do we? More unpredictable and exciting racing please with as many drivers and teams as possible in with a shot at the silverware come Sydney Olympic Park in December.

3. No carnage required 

In what will surely be remembered as stellar year of Supercars racing let’s hope there’s not too many more wipe-outs like the opening lap at Hidden Valley on Sunday. Lee Holdsworth in hospital and out of racing at least until after Townsville and three strong cars badly damaged is a result that simply sucks. Maybe the big crashes were the talking points that punctuated processional racing in years gone by, but the intensity and quality of the action is way past that now. Accidents – and sometimes big ones – happen in a category where speed is high, the cars so close and sheep stations are at stake. But hopefully it will be on-track action and not DNFs that determine the 2016 title.

4. Holdsworth

Racing teams don’t spend a lot of time talking about luck, they tend to believe you make your own. If so then Lee Holdsworth needs to come up with a new recipe. It’s been a tough few years for Lee, who had two big crashes when he was with Erebus – neither of which were his fault – and another less harmful but still dramatic roll-over in Perth while driving the fourth Walkinshaw Racing Commodore last year. And now this. It looked harmless enough initially when he got spat out of the pack by Jason Bright, but the car rushed across the grass and smacked the concrete wall hard enough to fracture his pelvis. He is a definite to miss Townsville and hopefully that will be all. No accident comes at a good time, but it will be a particularly tough challenge for Charlie Schwerkolt’s small team, which has only come into existence in the last few months.

5. Caruso

Race 12

Michael Caruso’s drive to victory on Saturday was a fantastic result richly deserved by the entire Nissan Motorsport team. Unlike the Winton 2013 victory there are no question marks or controversies this time out. The car was fast, the driver flawless, the pitwork spot-on. Caruso was also the top overall points scorer in Darwin, replicating the feat he achieved at the bedlamic Clipsal 500. After that he led the championship, but then quickly dropped back into the pack with a series of inconsistent results. His strong Darwin run means he has bounced back to seventh on the ladder, 240 points off the pace. His passion, fiery nature and talent mean Caruso would be a fascinating and disruptive presence in the championship fight if he could keep pushing forward.

6. Todd

Just how much the drivers rely on competitive machinery along with their skill to get them to the front of the grid was underlined by Todd Kelly’s Sunday performance. Todd has languished toward the rear of the grid the last few years, his racing focus disrupted by his role as team owner, technical director and test driver. But as the Altimas and the team have become more competitive, so Kelly has been able to focus more on his driving. Who knows what might have happened if there hadn’t been a first lap bingle, a safety car and then the re-start mistake by Mark Winterbottom, which shoved the carsales.com.au Nissan off the road and out of contention. Kelly has copped plenty from the media and fans over the last few years and speculation over his retirement has been omnipresent. A few more outings like Sunday in Darwin will shut that down.

7. Winterbottom and Whincup

The only thing arch-foes Mark Winterbottom and Jamie Whincup have in common this year is one win apiece. The Red Bull Commodore driver hasn’t found the pace to win again since the Clipsal 500 opener, but his reasonable consistency since then – while his rivals have yo-yoed – in a car he has complained hasn’t always had good speed has got him to the top of the drivers’ championship. The six-time champ says a recent test has improved his Red Bull Commodore significantly, so where he now really needs to prove that is in qualifying, as he hasn’t qualified on pole this year. Do that and he gains track position and strategy choice over team-mate Shane van Gisbergen and avoids the stacking that compromised him on Sunday in Darwin. Winterbottom has shown qualifying and race pace but has interspersed good results with a 22nd in Perth and a 20th in Darwin, both times blaming himself for making some dumb mistakes. The defending champion certainly gave his new Falcon a good beating in Darwin and he now knows the pitlane extra well, thanks to his two drive-throughs on Sunday. What must he make of Darwin? He took out then team-mate David Reynolds there in 2013 and then staged one of the drives of his career in 2014. Last year was okay, but it’s back in the bad books after this year.

8. HRT

Practice 3

James Courtney’s fifth place on Sunday was the result HRT needed after a torrid weekend. Courtney benefitted from the carnage to move forward from his 20th qualifying spot and also got a good run through the pitlane craziness, but once up in the front group he showed he deserved to be there. It’s still unclear if the changes to the engineering line-up made for Darwin were a step in the right direction. Townsville, where the factory Holden team traditionally performs well, will reveal more. Speaking of revealing, the depth of Courtney’s current frustration was there for all to see in his interview with Russell Ingall.

And the ninth item…

Back in the pack there were some promising Darwin performance; David Reynolds and James Moffat in the 10 on Sunday while Tim Blanchard was set for his best Darwin result until a puncture cruelled his chances. Andre Heimgartner showed instant improvement with the arrival of Campbell Little at LDM.

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