For all the challenges that 2020 has thrown at Supercars and its competitors, there have been few greater than the task of running four events in four weekends.
But in a year of unprecedented upheaval, the second Townsville event confirmed one thing hasn’t changed – the battle between the sport’s two biggest teams remains red hot.
After a break during the mad month, Supercars.com’s Debrief column returns to breakdown the state of play as the season heads into its home stretch.
McLaughlin on the march
Scott McLaughlin solidified his place at the top of the championship during the four-event swing, firmly establishing the Shell Ford driver as the favourite for the title.
Heading to Darwin with a 107-point lead over Jamie Whincup, six wins and a total of nine podiums helped him eek out another 36 points in his quest for a third straight crown.
There are now very much two clear contenders, with Whincup – who scored three wins and eight podiums over the stretch – the only man to consistently run with the #17 Mustang.
McLaughlin was largely the pacesetter up north, but his six poles also came with a few hiccups; three qualifying efforts of 10th or worse in Townsville proved he’s not infallible.
His recovery drives in those races though were very much what championships are made of and, with just three events left, he’s going to take plenty of catching.
But as McLaughlin well knows from his last head-to-head title fight with Whincup in 2017, a 143-point lead is nowhere near enough to be comfortable just yet.
The third wheel
Shane van Gisbergen’s chances of taking the title are almost zero, as he’s fifth in the standings and almost 500 points adrift of McLaughlin.
The rot started with a suspension failure back in Adelaide, but getting caught up in a crash at Townsville1 and a power steering issue at Townsville2 sealed his fate.
Regardless, van Gisbergen looks set to play a massive role in the championship fight, as the third race at Townsville2 proved.
Van Gisbergen’s ‘block-pass’ move on McLaughlin, which shifted the Ford wide enough for Whincup to follow him through, was the moment of the season to date.
It created all sorts of headlines, including a jab from Whincup at the Shell team which put the spotlight on the fact it’s a two-versus-one fight at the front.
Whether he likes it or not, it’s clear McLaughlin is going to have to beat two Red Bull Commodores to win a third straight title, no matter what the points scenario.
The fight for third is also going to be one to watch in the final stages of the season, with Chaz Mostert, Cameron Waters, van Gisbergen and Nick Percat just 109 points apart.
Mostert, Waters and Percat all deserve special mention for their performances so far this season, including during the four-event swing.
While yet to score a win, 2020 recruit Mostert has undoubtedly lifted Walkinshaw Andretti United. Qualifying form has been patchy, but the podiums are starting to flow.
Waters meanwhile has stepped up as Tickford’s team leader and would be ahead of Mostert if not for small but costly scrapes with the Red Bull cars at Darwin2 and Townsville2.
As for Percat, he’s showed his twin Sydney wins were no fluke. Poles for Percat and teammate Todd Hazelwood on Sunday at Townsville2 were simply outstanding.
Elsewhere, Team 18 has also been in hot form, particularly on race-pace. Scott Pye was the sixth-highest points scorer across the month and bagged three podiums in Darwin.
The other standout across Darwin and Townsville was James Courtney, who although a little inconsistent, was the ninth-highest points scorer as he settles in at Tickford.
Work to do
It’s hard to be too critical during this extraordinarily difficult, COVID-19-impacted season, particularly of the Melbourne-based teams who are on the road.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the biggest disappointment over the Darwin/Townsville stretch was Penrite Racing.
Without his engineer Alistair McVean, who stayed in a locked-down Melbourne for personal reasons, David Reynolds has been at sea, sinking from sixth to 10th in the championship.
A tyre strategy-based win at Darwin1 aside, teammate Anton De Pasquale has also found it tough going as the Penrite cars struggle for consistent pace.
Kelly Racing’s drivers Andre Heimgartner and Rick Kelly also went backwards – the former from 10th to 15th in the championship – amid a torrid run.
The team’s new Mustangs had arguably bettered expectations on debut in Adelaide and showed promise in Sydney, but speed and reliability have both caused headaches since.
To be fair, being away from its Melbourne based while developing a new package is an unenviable position, so just getting through this period is arguably an achievement.
The same cannot be said for Fabian Coulthard and the #12 side of the Shell garage, which continues to greatly underperform McLaughlin’s high benchmark.
Although gaining positions in the championship across the four events, the #12 car had some shocking qualifying results and must lift considerably to be any help to McLaughlin.
So, what comes next?
Firstly, a rest. While the Melbourne-based crews will remain on the road until after the Bathurst season finale on October 18, a weekend off will at least allow some R&R.
All teams were pushed like never before to race four weekends in a row and each should be commended for their efforts to get the sport through such a challenging time.
The personal sacrifice from crew members, as well as the logistical challenge to keep the whole show going, cannot be understated.
Some enjoyed long-awaited reunions with family members straight after Townsville, with the likes of Tickford Racing flying loved ones to Brisbane, following quarantine in Darwin.
After a weekend off, the home stretch will be upon us, with a doubleheader at The Bend and then the Grand Final of all Grand Finals – a championship decider at Bathurst.
Triple Eight dominated The Bend and won at Bathurst in 2018, while Shell V-Power Racing swept both venues last year. What happens next is anyone’s guess...