Having equalled his previous highest result of the season with fifth place in the 200km mini-marathon at the WD-40 Phillip Island SuperSprint last Sunday, Todd Kelly has declared he is “happy and excited” about the prospects for himself and the rest of the Nissan squad in 2016.
And he’s also pleased that he beat his younger brother Rick home in an epic dice that lasted much of the race!
Kelly was the highest placed of three Nissans in the top 10 in Race 33, with Rick finishing sixth in the Jack Daniel’s Altima and James Moffat eight in the Faresin Industries entry.
But it could have been even better with Michael Caruso on for a shot at the podium in the Nismo Altima until he was pinged at a pit stop for spinning wheels caused by a clutch issue. He was given a pitlane drive-through penalty as a result and ended up finishing 22nd.
“I have no doubt Phillip Island was sign of things to come for Nissan Motorsport rather than a flash in the pan,” Kelly said in his column for sponsor carsales.com.au. “The cars were competitive in New Zealand where we had really good pace and the Gold Coast was good too.
“Our operating window within the field is moving forward and all of our statistics are getting better. We were 10th to 20th, then eighth to 18th and now we are slowly moving our way forward from 10th to fifth, which is the right direction.
“Our objective is to be in that window all of next year because when you start qualifying fourth or fifth that’s when you win a race. We have been just a little out of reach of that, but we are getting pretty close to it now.
“The good news is there is still a lot of work to do over summer to develop the speed of the cars even further. There is enough development potential there to be pretty happy and excited about next year.”
The factory-backed Nissan Altimas have been subject of a long and sometimes tortuous development program since their 2013 debut, with the aerodynamic package for the cars being twice reworked.
But it has been the V56DE engine which has occupied an immense of time and money with a new cylinder head design being developed and making its way into all four cars since the Wilson Security Sandown 500.
Kelly said outright power wasn’t as important at Phillip Island as having a good handling and well balanced car, which has always been an Altima attribute, and the willingness to be brave in the big and fast corners.
“Having said that our engine has improved a lot this year, so combine that with our good chassis and we were able to run at the pointy end, which was nice,” Kelly said.
“It was good to have the guys who ended up winning the race and on the podium around me and pass me, because it really helps evaluate where our weaknesses are.
“I had a good look at both race winner Craig Lowndes’ Red Bull Holden Commodore and later his teammate Jamie Whincup, who ended up third. They had better exit drive than me, but it was only a little bit and maybe only because I pitted earlier and my tyres were a bit older than theirs. But entry to mid-corner we were really good.”
But the car he was most interested in the performance of was his brother’s Nissan.
“I reckon I spent at least half the time looking backwards at him. I’d try and push for a few laps to get a gap and be using the tyres to get that. Meanwhile, he was in clean air back there and after a while we’d come back together again because I would drop back and he would come up.
“But then he would get the dirty air from me while I recovered and he hurt his tyres and I was good to go. So I would gap him again and he would drop back.
“So it was a matter of just managing that for the whole race and a few times I thought ‘bugger, unless I get the tyres back on this thing he is going to have me’. But luckily the pace was so similar between the cars I was safe.”
Despite the strong result Kelly remains 18th in the championship. He had sat as high as 10th on points but a shocking run of outs that started at Queensland Raceway and continued on through Sydney Motorsport Park and the Pirtek Enduro Cup cruelled his chances of his first top 10 championship finish since 2007, when he finished sixth in his final year driving for the Holden Racing Team.
Kelly says results like Sunday simply reinforces his belief in himself as a driver.
“When the car is good and it’s good to drive I go well just like any driver,” the 36-year old said. “When it’s not quite there that now means you are 20th. In the old days not quite there still meant you could qualify in the top 10.
“At Phillip Island I had a very long stint on old tyres and didn’t make a single mistake so that was pleasing from a driving perspective.”