Expert Eye: Picking the dark horse

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 26/02/2018
  • By Supercars.com

There’s no doubt that Shell V-Power Racing, Triple Eight and Tickford Racing enter 2018 as the heavyweight fighters.

Collectively they won all bar one race last year and filled the top six spots in the final championship standings.

While that battle will rage again this year, the list of challengers is long and equally tantalising.

We asked our assembled experts who they think will be the real dark horse threat in 2018.

John Bowe – Supercars legend, Touring Car Masters competitor

Tim Slade/Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing

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I reckon Tim Slade and Nick Percat will give it a good shake. They have the potential to really shake-up the establishment.

I obviously have a fondness for Brad Jones Racing, having driven there before, and I’ve known the two boys since they were little fellas.

But both of those guys have got serious race-winning potential and they’ve shown they can do it on the occasions when they’ve had the right package to do so.

Now that the Jones boys have got KRE engines, they could truly surprise this year.

Having the potential and actually executing it is different, because this is as hard as any motor racing in the world.

The team has had spurts of success before, as have the drivers, it just hasn’t been sustainable.

But they know they can win, which is important.

Mark Skaife - Supercars legend, Fox Sports commentator

David Reynolds, Erebus Motorsport

Practice 3

I think David Reynolds will be the biggest threat to those top three teams. Certainly you’d have to say he’s driving as well as he’s ever driven.

There’s a little question mark around how fast each of the Holden teams can get their heads around the new Commodore, but with that team, when you put Alistair McVean together with Dave, the rapport between the two is one of the best driver-engineer tie-ups in the lane.

They’ve got good stability in that group as well with very little change over the off-season.

Alistair will have worked hard over the break to improve some of those weekends that caught them out last year, where consistency let them down.

But there were lots of times where Dave was the fastest Commodore, particularly at Bathurst.

When you sit down and have a rational look at the pitlane, I think he’s the next best outside of those top three teams.

Stefan Bartholomaeus – Supercars.com editor

Garth Tander, Garry Rogers Motorsport

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The performance of this driver and team last year was a bit underrated.

At the end of 2016 GRM lost its manufacturer, Volvo, its star driver, Scott McLaughlin, and team manager, Dean Cowling.

Tander, meanwhile, was dumped by Walkinshaw, placed on the scrapheap after 12 years of loyal service.

For Tander and GRM to reunite, run in the championship’s top 10 practically all year and end up ninth – the second-highest driver outside the big three teams – was a strong effort.

Tander ended the year only 27 points behind David Reynolds and, had Bathurst gone slightly differently, would have been in front.

This year the challenge for all the Holden teams is to get on top of a new aero package as quickly as possible; a task GRM has gone through twice since 2014.

It's hard to think of a combination better qualified to understand and develop a car than Tander and engineer Richard Hollway.

Qualifying of course is the big question mark. Garth started just five races inside the top 10 last year for a qualifying average of 15.12, leaving a big hill to climb in the races.

Comparing those 2017 numbers with that of Reynolds – who had 17 top 10 qualifying slots and an 8.96 average – emphasises how well Tander raced.

With so many quality cars this year, poor qualifying could kill Tander’s season. But going in, they're looking a real threat to keep the big teams honest.

Mitchell Adam – Supercars.com senior writer

Michael Caruso, Nissan Motorsport

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However you package it, Nissan Motorsport was one of the biggest disappointments in the 2017 Supercars season.

It failed to land any of its four drivers on the podium, with Michael Caruso ultimately its highest finisher in the championship in 13th.

There will be a lot of eyeballs on the Altimas this year. And not just in how the team responds on-track, for it is also in its final season of the Japanese manufacturer’s contract. If the Altimas are quick, those conversations about the future get easier. 

Development continues on both the engine and chassis, and new technical director Nick Ollila arrived from the US just before Christmas with plenty of experience.

Ollila fills a newly-created role at a tough time, and there’s no reason to think the package is a lost cause, as the pace of the Nissans in Newcastle last November showed.

Engine performance wasn't the key that weekend, but if gains are made on that front it would be a massive boost, allied to getting back on the 2016-construction Dunlops. 

Caruso qualified fourth on the Saturday in Newcastle, and was notably stronger over the second half of the season. 

At the end of the Townsville weekend, he was 17th in the points, having only been the top Nissan in qualifying in three of first 14 races. He led the way on six of the remaining 12, and picked up four championship places.

He is the recipient of the team's new chassis and put it to good use to set the third-fastest time in the pre-season test. 

Wins and routine podiums might be too far a stretch, but there's little reason why Caruso can't be a regular in the top 10.

Jack Perkins – Mobil 1 Boost Mobile Racing co-driver, Network Ten presenter/commentator

Tim Slade, Brad Jones Racing

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It’s a great question and it’s more about which team can rise to the occasion and provide their driver with equipment good enough to take it to Penske, Red Bull and Tickford week in, week out.

Personally, I hope it’s Walkinshaw Andretti United for obvious reasons, but I’m going to say Tim Slade is the dark horse and BJR for that matter.

They have been punching above their weight for a long time now and this year with the new aero package and the new engine deal with KRE, I think Tim can run in the top three-to-five on a more regular basis.

It’s a chance for them to re-baseline their technical package in some respects.

The Holden teams are on a level playing field with this new aero package on the ZB, and having the same engines as Triple Eight gives them equal performance under the bonnet to that of the championship winner from last year.

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