Encouraged by brother Rick’s pace at Symmons Plains and frustrated that he didn’t produce similar speed, Nissan Motorsport co-owner and driver Todd Kelly is convinced the Altimas can be front-runners at the WD-40 Phillip Island SuperSprint.
The Tassie track is traditionally Nissan’s worst in the V8 Supercars championship, but Rick showed with his top six qualifying and fourth place finish on Saturday that the engine issues that have held the Altimas back in the past have been addressed. He could have even left Tasmania with the drivers’ championship lead if not for the exploding disc that took him out of the 200km Sunday race.
The fast sweeping turns of Phillip Island have traditionally been much kinder to the Nissans. Last year Todd Kelly finished fifth in the 200km Sunday race and was the first of three Altimas to finish in the top 10. His team-mate Michael Caruso was on for a podium result until copping a pitlane drive-through penalty for spinning wheels at a fuel stop.
“We definitely go there aiming to be top 10 and even top five,” Kelly told v8supercars.com. “Now we know the equipment is capable of doing it, it all comes down to us getting the best out of what we have got.
“But it’s just so close now you only have to be a couple of millimetres out in the ride height or a couple of degrees of rear wing and that’s five grid spots now.”
While his brother and his crew nailed the Sengled Altima’s set-up and strategy to be mixing it up near the front of the field for most of the Tassie weekend, Kelly admitted the set-up of his carsales.com.au Altima was not right on Saturday.
It showed up in qualifying where Kelly was only 20th on the short track despite posting a lap less than 0.3sec slower than his brother. He went on to finish 19th. Erstwhile championship leader Michael Caruso had similar dramas in the Nismo Altima, qualifying 21st, but pushed further forward to 12th in the 120km race.
“That was probably the craziest weekend I have seen as far as the competitiveness of the category goes,” Kelly said. “The field was so close everyone was really focussed in qualifying on getting a tow up the back straight. It might only be worth a tenth, but that’s a lot of grid spots.”
On Sunday the other Nissans including newcomer Dale Wood (GB Galvanizing) moved closer to the Sengled Altima’s settings and were more competitive. Todd again qualified only 21st and Caruso 16th, but both displayed good race pace to drive through the field to 12th and 11th respectively.
“We didn’t do a good job of that in Tasmania, so we need to make sure we do a better job of that at Phillip Island,” Kelly said.
“If you have a good day there you can be top five, if you do one or two things that aren’t optimum you can be 18th or 20th without a problem at all.
“All you know is the potential you have is where it is and you make sure you come away from that weekend pretty close to that.”
Kelly admitted his inability to do that at Symmons Plains – where he recorded his last race win driving for Larry Perkins in 2008 – was adding fuel to his motivation to perform strongly at Phillip Island.
“We went to Tassie knowing we’d improved and I generally go well there,” he said. “I quite like driving there, so my expectations were a lot higher than what we came out of the event achieving.
“So I am pretty annoyed about our performance there. When you have a round knowing you could have potentially gone a lot better than what you did it generally leads you into the next round where you go better because you are a bit annoyed and a bit pissed off.
“When you make a lot of little mistakes the probability of doing that in the very next round is significantly reduced. So that coupled with a track we do normally go well at means we can hopefully claw back a little bit in the championship.”
Caruso dropped from first to ninth in the championship, Todd from eighth to 11th and Rick from 10th to 12th– after being third on Saturday night in Tasmania. But as Kelly ruefully reflects, it could have been very different.
“If Rick hadn’t had that brakes problem and DNF on the Sunday he would have been first or second in the championship so that’s a hell of a shame. It would have been a pretty unbelievable story for Nissan to be leading the championship for the first two rounds with different drivers.”