Through Darwin and Townsville Red Bull Racing has qualified on pole three out of four times and won three out of four races. There’s a clear message in that; the dominant player in the last decade of Supercars racing is starting to gap what has been – so far in 2016 – a very even field. We’ll know soon if that is a trend or not.
What’s all the more interesting is new recruit Shane van Gisbergen has scored more wins (three to two) and ARMOR ALL Pole Positions (two to one) than traditional team leader Jamie Whincup. The latter, of course, has the championship lead and became the first driver to retain it for more than one event when he emerged from the Castrol Edge Townsville 400 with a 53-point margin over SVG.
Mind you, Van Gisbergen was the highest points scorer for the round and so jumped from fifth to second in the title chase, taking 18 points from Whincup’s lead over him in the process. He also won the burnout/drifting comp hands down.
In fact, SVG’s post-race in-car antics are a reason to always look forward to his wins – even when he gets it wrong, like in Darwin when he backed into a drain.
On Saturday, after a day in which he had claimed pole and dominated the 200km race, Whincup explained how he had copped the raw end of the deal on strategy so far this year because several first lap safety cars had combined with SVG out-qualifying him, so he had to stack and compromise his race.
Now, he was leading on the road and still copped the lesser strategy and all because his team-mate had made a driving error and needed to be protected. Then Van Gisbergen went on and won the race!
Surely there is no way Whincup would be equanimously accepting such a call. He wouldn’t be the hyper-competitive animal he is if he did.
One thing in all this is you’d have to say the decision is consistent, emphasising yet again for T8 the Team’s Championship is the priority rather than the Driver’s Championship.
The increased pace of the Red Bull Holden Commodores certainly exposed cracks amongst their Championship rivals, with only Mark Winterbottom really able to hold up under the pressure. A pole and two third places were a worthy fightback from his Darwin disasters and kept him in the title fight.
He and Van Gisbergen again spent a significant amount of time testing each other at Reid Park and the message from the Prodrive Falcon driver is clear; he will fight this thing out to the end.
Lowndes is a long way from out of the running, but he needs the next outing at Ipswich to be a cracker. Thankfully, he has an excellent record at the circuit, with more wins and poles than any one else.
Recently, he hasn’t been the dominant winning force he once was at Queensland Raceway, but he has still podiumed regularly.
Scott McLaughlin and Volvo will also be looking for redemption at QR after a poor to middling outing at Townsville, that at least finished on a reasonably high note with fifth on Sunday.
Courtney and HRT
Speaking of finishing on a high, James Courtney enlivened the end of Sunday’s 200km race with a bold charge from ninth to second on fresh tyres, just pipping Winterbottom for the second spot on the podium in the drag to the line.
The Holden Racing Team celebrated the result like a win, a sure sign of the pressure that’s been on the factory team as it battles for competitiveness in a year when both its deal with Holden and its two drivers are up for renewal.
Courtney did a great job to maximise the returns from a brave call by his veteran engineer Robbie Starr, who only returned to work with the 2010 Supercars Champion after an engineering reshuffle at the team two events ago.
No-one at the team, least of all MD Adrian Burgess, was hailing the result as proof the team was over its ills. The reality was this result came on the back of opportunistic and bold strategy, an attribute HRT has consistently displayed. The challenge continues to find the consistent car speed to go with that.
In that regard Courtney’s third in Saturday qualifying boded well, as did the welcome sight of Garth Tander in the top shoot-out on Sunday. Now it’s on to Ipswich to see whether the progress continues or Townsville was simply the HRT cars showing their usual Reid Park promise.
Saturday’s extended battle for second between Shane van Gisbergen and Chaz Mostert was a highlight of the weekend. Sure there is a speed advantage to being at the head of the queue in cooler air, but these two also also seemed to be trying to get the better of each other because it was fun. We certainly enjoyed it.
Often in this category, passes happen as cars intersect on different pace trajectories; someone going forward on fresh rubber moves past someone whose tyres are degrading. There is a brief squabble then both continue on their separate paths. But this battle went on for many laps, the two cars were relatively even and both drivers had goes at leading before SVG finally exerted his authority.
It would be great if there was more of this type of racing at the front of the field, but long runs and different strategies mean the circumstances don’t align that often.
Reynolds and Betty
Seen by few on Sunday night out by the Erebus transporter, team owner Betty Klimenko gave her driver David Reynolds a short, positive, pep talk and heartfelt hug. The message was simple; “We played with the big boys all weekend,” she told him. She was spot-on.
Sunday’s final result was 14th but that didn’t reflect the high quality of the performance Reynolds put on all weekend. If not for the late-race safety car, Reynolds would have gained a top six finish and further evidence that the reconstructed team under Barry Ryan’s leadership is going places.
The team’s best result remains the fortunate fifth in the Clipsal 500 Adelaide monsoon, but the Sunday sixth at Winton was evidence of bonafide improvement and in Townsville Reynolds was on the pace from Friday’s first practice onwards.
It’s really impressive to think these results are being achieved by an under-manned rookie team with no data and an old Commodore that is part Walkinshaw and part Erebus.
Also, plaudits for Dale Wood, who was fastest Nissan qualifier on Sunday in Townsville in a respectable 11th and ran in the 10 for much of the race before being shaken out in the bedlam at the end.
Consistently inconsistent DJR Team Penske
Having attracted lots of attention since Darwin with the announcement it had signed Scott McLaughlin for 2017, the budding superteam put in another inconsistent performance in Townsville, with both Fabian Coulthard and the departing (at the end of the season) Scott Pye managing one top 10 qualifying and race finish each on different days.
It’s this inability to put it all together that is bedevilling the team as it strives to bring its engineering and strategical operations up to elite level. At Winton Coulthard said he felt the team was ahead of where it was expected to be when the season kicked off. Around the Reid Park pitlane, however, there was more than one rival and observer suggesting the team’s progress was not where it should be, especially considering how well it had performed at the Clipsal 500 Adelaide street circuit early in the year.
We’ll all watch for progress at the next event on its Ipswich test track.
The ninth item…
There was more media presence at the ‘battler’ end of pitlane in Townsville than had been seen in years thanks to the sponsor dramas revolving around the Russell family entry and Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport. The issues were a reminder that Supercars racing is an expensive business that throws some interesting and contrasting people into a melting pot together. Unsurprisingly that stew often bubbles over.