Both motivated and frustrated by a series of podium near misses, Rick Kelly is now confident his Nissan Altima is good enough to achieve top three finishes in the Virgin Australian Supercars Championship and even vie for the top step.
But he says the key to achieving that is getting the ‘one-percenters’ right.
“The exciting thing is we have got that potential,” Kelly told supercars.com. “But the frustrating thing is we haven’t yet put it together to be able to get the result that is possible.”
Making championship round start number 200 last weekend at the Woodstock Winton SuperSprint, the 33-year old qualified 5-7 and went 4-15 in the races, his Sunday hopes compromised by the timing of the safety car’s appearance.
He runs ninth in the championship and is the top Nissan driver, albeit only 18 points ahead of Nismo’s Michael Caruso in 10th, while brother Todd is 13th 98 points behind.
Kelly missed the podium in Perth by just under one second when he finished fifth in the Sunday 200km race. On Saturday at Winton he was less than 0.6sec behind third place in his Sengled Altima.
“The potential we have now is fantastic and really exciting, but it’s just the little things that are going wrong and costing us,” Kelly told supercars.com.
“So it’s up to us to go away and tidy those up and come back. Some of those things are unavoidable and some of those things we need to tidy up a little more.”
Under that heading Kelly included the engine issue on the last lap of Sunday’s Winton race that would have cost him positions if he had been running up front. In qualifying for the same race the car also had electrical issues. On Friday afternoon the factory Nissan lost practice time with a clutch issue.
“A lot of the stuff is just niggly things that happen from time to time in motorsport and they are things we need to focus a little bit more of our time and effort on,” Kelly said.
“On Sunday we finished fourth and everyone was ‘that’s great’. And I was ‘no not really, there was a podium a half-a-second in front of me’.
“So the closer you get the more you want it and the harder you try, and that’s the position we are at now. I am getting fitter and the guys are putting in more effort and I am putting in more effort because we are closer.
“So that’s when the momentum starts to roll and the results start to flow. And that’s what we are experiencing now. So the closer you get the more you care about it and the harder you try.”
Kelly shied away from saying his Altima was strong enough to win either of the races at Winton. That’s understandable caution given the pace shown by double winner Tim Slade in the Freightliner Racing Holden Commodore VF.
But if everything had gone right, Kelly was sure the car was good enough for the top three.
“It was definitely fast enough on Saturday to finish second, but I don’t know how much Slade had up his sleeve either day.
“So I reckon he would have had our measure but we certainly had the potential to finish better than we did on both days.
“But we didn’t, which is what it came down to. And there are probably other cars out there that had the same story, so there’s no point talking about whether we did or didn’t. We simply didn’t and it was down to us.”
Nissan Motorsport has put in a herculean effort to extract competitive pace from the Altima. It has been through a series of aerodynamic remakes since its 2013 championship debut, while a major cylinder head overhaul introduced late in 2015 has now closed the performance gap right up. Now the attention is on the details that make the difference in results at the front of the field.
“It’s nothing major and it’s the same for everyone up and down pitlane,” Kelly said. “It’s the one-percenters now in the field with how it is today.
“We tidy them up and we are there. It’s much easier than asking me that question two years ago when I said ‘we have got to fix this, and we have got to fix the straight line and fix this, that and the other.
“All that stuff is pretty much in the ballpark now.
“So when we do have all that we are capable of getting that result, so it’s up to us to extract it.”
The championship next heads to Darwin in a month in mid-June, where Kelly claimed an ARMOR ALL pole position last year. He says there will be no major upgrades to the Altimas between now and then.
“It would be stupid to try wholesale changes now, it’s all the one-percenters,” he reiterated.
“We are certainly in the ballpark of getting those (podium) results. We just have to get that consistency.
“Everyone struggles for that. There’s no escaping that. Look at the HRT guys, they are struggling with that, so are a lot of the others. It’s not easy to find.
“It’s harder now than ever, but it’s up to us to do it.”