The debrief: Resurgences, rookies and ZBs

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 10/03/2018
  • By Mitchell Adam

The Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is away for another year, with last weekend’s season opener in Adelaide.

Holden’s new ZB Commodore won both races with the Red Bull Holden Racing Team’s Shane van Gisbergen, as Jamie Whincup and Scott McLaughlin copped early points hits with a transmission failure and puncture respectively.

There was a lot to take in up and down pitlane, here’s some of the key talking points.


Jury’s out on Clayton Commodores

Everybody loves Adelaide and the start of a new Supercars season, but especially what’s now Walkinshaw Andretti United, and especially James Courtney.

Across the 2015, ’16 and ’17 seasons, five of Courtney’s 11 podiums and two of his three wins came on the street circuit, which remained a happy hunting ground despite the team’s struggles elsewhere.

On paper, and with new co-owner Michael Andretti on hand, it looked the perfect place to start a new era but few would have tipped the squad to leave Adelaide leading the teams’ championship.

Courtney lined up third and finished second on Saturday, and took sixth on Sunday after using a wheel from a previous brush with the Turn 8 wall in ARMOR ALL Qualifying left him 14th.

On the other side of the garage, Scott Pye opened his account with 10th and eighth, the team-mates even having what Courtney called a ‘wrestle’ in Race 2.

The question is whether the form is a one-off – as it essentially was in 2017 – or if it’s a sign of a genuine resurgence.

Courtney is encouraged, highlighting the influence of late-2017 recruit Carl Faux, and the first “tricky bits” from Andretti Autosport are set to arrive from the US in time for the Grand Prix.

If gains are also forthcoming at circuits like Albert Park, Symmons Plains and Phillip Island over the next month or so, the team’s bullish optimism will have been well placed.


Superteams didn’t have it all their own way

Walkinshaw Andretti United is one of the outfits looking to disprove the consensus that Supercars has three dominant outfits in DJR Team Penske, Triple Eight and Tickford Racing.

That triumvirate won all but one race in 2017, Erebus Motorsport at Bathurst the outlier, and started this year with its drivers among the title favourites.

The grid for Saturday’s opening race did not reflect that, though, with nine different teams in the top 10, even if a pair of red flags during the 20 minutes of running on Friday afternoon did shape that.

Van Gisbergen ultimately won both races, benefiting from Whincup’s Sunday DNF, even the podiums painted a more-open picture.

Five teams – Triple Eight, DJRTP, WAU, Erebus and Garry Rogers Motorsport – got a taste of champagne to start the season.

Erebus was particularly impressive, with David Reynolds fourth and second to leave Adelaide as van Gisbergen’s closest challenger in the points.

For its part, GRM and Garth Tander regrouped well after learning “exactly zero” about the new ZB Commodore in the pre-season test, due to front-splitter problems.


The ZB turned heads and sparked debate

Holden’s next-generation Commodore, the first hatchback in Supercars, could scarcely have had a better start to its racing life.

The ZB won both days from the front of the grid with van Gisbergen, who claimed a perfect 300 points in Adelaide for the second year in a row.

On Saturday, he led home Courtney in a one-two for the new model, before Holdens swept the podium with Reynolds and Tander second and third, having been in the lead fight in the final stint.

That success sparked plenty of talk about the weight of its panels, essentially around how the mass is distributed to shape its centre of gravity. 

Whatever your view on that, the timesheet had the first four cars in Friday qualifying – a Red Bull ZB, Shell FG X, Boost ZB and Bottle-O FG X – covered by half-a-tenth.

It was an impressive start for the Triple Eight-developed package, and the factory squad feels it hasn’t even started to scratch the surface of its potential.

We’ll all learn more about the ZB as we visit faster, more flowing and open racetracks that require different traits in the coming months, starting with the Australian Grand Prix in a fortnight.


Is Winterbottom back as a force?

Mark Winterbottom starts the 2018 season 10 years older than the next-youngest of his Tickford Racing team-mates, somewhat ironically rookie Richie Stanaway.

He’s also coming off his first winless campaign since joining the squad then known as Ford Performance Racing in 2006, and out of contract at the end of the year.

No matter how backwards he wears his hat at breakfast - as team boss Tim Edwards joked over the Adelaide weekend - Winterbottom is firmly in the spotlight in 2018.

After a tough 2017 he headed into summer “pretty angry”, and looks to have channeled that in a positive manner.

Across the Adelaide 500 weekend, Winterbottom set the fastest outright and race laps of any of the four Tickford Falcons, was its top qualifier both days and best finisher on Saturday in fifth.

He was set to lead the way again in fourth on Sunday before a contentious drive-through penalty for kerb-hopping but has started the year in good shape.


Rookie rumble in the concrete jungle

The nature of Supercars means all five rookies have plenty of learning to do this year, despite their various, well-credentialed backgrounds.

Saturday’s initiation was particularly brutal. Stanaway was involved in a pair of clashes with Fabian Coulthard, and then with James Golding and Todd Hazelwood at Turn 5 after a Safety Car restart.

Jack Le Brocq battled an overheating engine, with Anton De Pasquale the first of the group home in 19th and a lap down.

The Erebus driver backed that up with another composed race to 17th on Sunday, finishing less than two seconds behind 2017 title contender Coulthard.

Golding, Stanaway, Hazelwood and the twice-penalised Le Brocq then filled 19th through to 22nd.

Over the course of the weekend, Stanaway showed the most flashes of single-lap pace to lead the rookies in qualifying with 16th and 18th, feeling he could’ve made the top 10 on the grid for the opener.

They’ll all have their moments this year, and will be better for the Adelaide experience.

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