The Debrief: Redemption, showdowns and send-offs

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 01/12/2018
  • By Mitchell Adam

The 2018 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship concluded with a second visit to Newcastle, and another drama-filled finale.

Scott McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen entered the weekend split by 14 points, but the Shell V-Power Racing driver prevailed by 71.

That margin does little justice to what happened over the two days.

Van Gisbergen charged down his out-of-fuel rival to take a last-lap win on Saturday, but was then handed a divisive penalty for a pitstop infringement.

It put the ball in McLaughlin's court and he duly converted to draw a line through his tumultuous end to 2017 at the seaside street circuit.

Beyond the title fight, we witnessed repeat clashes between the top two teams, several send offs and a victory that sums up an impressive campaign.

McLaughlin buries 2017 demons

McLaughlin would have amassed a small fortune over the last 12 months, if he received a dollar for every time someone brought up the events of the 2017 Coates Hire Newcastle 500.

But from discussing it with media immediately after that horrific conclusion through to the 2018 event, he never shied away from wanting to learn and grow from it.

And on the evidence of last weekend's season finale, that's what he's done.

The Sunday Pukekohe win would have provided a significant boost, but there was plenty that could have thrown McLaughlin off course.

That included being passed by van Gisbergen on the final lap of the Saturday race, losing a win and seeing his points lead shrink from 14 points to two.

Outwardly at least, he stayed composed and later said van Gisbergen's penalty – which turned his points lead into 53 – meant more pressure, not less.

Still, when it came to the crunch on Sunday afternoon, McLaughlin outqualified and outraced van Gisbergen.

That's what the 25-year-old had to do anyway, based on Saturday's original results.

While he relinquished the win to David Reynolds, in part at Roger Penske's instruction, it was the sort of performance you'd want to see from a new champion.

Deflated van Gisbergen falls short

Van Gisbergen and his Red Bull Holden Racing Team would not have been alone in licking their lips with anticipation about the title rivals starting Sunday split by two points.

The stage was set for a winner-takes-all battle, but that's not quite what we got.

A penalty for a refuelling infringement on Saturday dropped van Gisbergen to fifth, and meant McLaughlin could seal the championship with a top six finish.

Van Gisbergen ultimately didn't fire a shot in the race, spending the second stint bottled up behind James Courtney and then jumping him for the final, only for tyre build-up to hinder his race from there.

He finished fourth, and later said: "I was still giving it everything on track, but not only in the garage, the whole place felt like the buzz was gone".

Triple Eight had sought a sanction against the team rather than van Gisbergen for the Saturday pit mishap, but were unsuccessful in their argument.

While van Gisbergen's 2018 title bid ultimately fell short, the big trophy would not have looked out of place in his hands.

Van Gisbergen and McLaughlin have fought hard for it, in the right spirit and with plenty of respect.

Elsewhere in the red and blue corners

There did end up being clashes between a Shell Ford and a Red Bull Holden in each race – just not matching pre-event talk that team-mates could shape the title fight.

Rather than Fabian Coulthard, Jamie Whincup or Craig Lowndes taking points off - or even unsettling - the key protagonists, it was Coulthard and Whincup getting stuck into each other.

Both incidents occurred at Turn 12, but with the roles effectively reversed each day.

On Saturday, Whincup on fresher tyres looked down the inside of Coulthard's Ford at Turn 11, but could not get clear, which put him on the outside at Turn 12.

Contact between the pair resulted in Whincup nosing the tyre barriers, remarkably sustaining only minor damage and finishing fourth, which became third with van Gisbergen's penalty.

Coulthard later crashed heavily at Turn 1, ending his race.

It was his repaired Falcon on the outside at Turn 12 on Sunday afternoon, and he lost out in this stoush, spinning rearwards into the fence and losing his rear wing.

Stewards took no further action on either incident, Whincup taking third again and Coulthard classified 26th.

No fairytale finishes

Much of the spotlight was on Lowndes during his last weekend as a full-time Supercars driver.

His Autobarn Commodore sporting a special golden livery, Lowndes was warmly celebrated during a parade lap and guard of honour by teams and drivers down pitlane on Sunday afternoon.

Lowndes led the field out for the last race, which he started 12th and finished 11th, signing off feeling "numb" and with a flurry of burnouts.

That followed Saturday's rare outburst after tagging the rear of Scott Pye's Commodore in pitlane and sustaining steering damage.

It left Lowndes seven laps down and the last classified driver, while Pye ultimately finished fourth.

Mark Winterbottom is now an ex-Tickford Racing driver but also had a farewell without one last taste of success.

He went from 22nd to sixth on Saturday and was then a frustrated 13th on Sunday.

Lee Holdsworth and Michael Caruso both have uncertain futures; Holdsworth losing his Team 18 seat to Winterbottom and Caruso out of contract with what reverts to Kelly Racing following Nissan's exit.

Holdsworth showed plenty of speed to qualify fifth each day but had to settle for 12th and ninth after pitstop problems.

Caruso was only 15th and 19th, while Nissan did at least record career-best results of sixth for Andre Heimgartner and 10th for Simona De Silvestro.

Rick Kelly's eighth in the championship was also the highest for an Altima driver in the sixth and last year of Nissan's financial backing.

Tim Blanchard, like Lowndes, stepped back from full-time driving but had to settle for a best result of 22nd on Sunday, following incidents each day.

Erebus' perfect sign-off

How much higher Erebus Motorsport and David Reynolds could climb after winning Bathurst in 2017 was an interesting question to consider pre-season.

The answer, basically, was 'much', and the Holden squad is showing no signs of backing off.

Reynolds was routinely the best of the rest behind McLaughlin and the Triple Eight trio this year, and often beat members of that quartet on his way to fifth in the championship.

While back-to-back Bathurst wins went begging, Reynolds claimed three victories, 10 podiums and five ARMOR ALL Poles – up from his 2017 haul of one win and four podiums.

He capped an impressive campaign for Erebus with pole and a win on Sunday; a championship-minded McLaughlin opting against a fight in the closing laps and moving aside.

Erebus also secured a new best of fourth in the teams' championship, one place higher than where it finished 2017.

It was helped in part by a frustrating event for Brad Jones Racing, which had speed beyond a weekend-best of 12th for Nick Percat on Sunday.

Pitlane problems – and Percat being wiped out by Coulthard's Saturday crash – ultimately proved costly and BJR fell from fourth to sixth in the teams' standings.

In addition to dropping behind Erebus, it was passed by Walkinshaw Andretti United, which had Pye and Courtney in the top 10 both days.

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