The Debrief: Risk, reward, junk and a new winner

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 30/03/2018
  • By Stefan Bartholomaeus

After a 23-year wait, Supercars’ first-ever championship round at Albert Park delivered a bit of everything.

There were four winners from four races, highlighted by a first-timer in Scott Pye, who took a memorable victory in a dramatic dry-wet contest on Saturday evening.

The varied results, unique format – two 13-lap sprints and two 25-lap pitstop affairs – and changing weather left no shortage of talking points.

Supercars.com looks at the key takeaways from Albert Park.

Championship status – risk and reward

So what was real impact of Albert Park finally gaining championship status?

There’s no doubt there was a greater feeling of purpose and intensity in the paddock this year.

There were more people around, too, with increased promotion including little touches like featuring Supercars drivers in the ‘Melbourne Walk’ fan experience.

On track, teams and drivers spoke of being less aggressive with set-up experiments, knowing that with only two short sessions before qualifying, a wrong turn would hurt badly.

Although there was no shortage of door-to-door racing, others suggested a few of the usual ambitious passing moves had been toned down.

That school of thought was strengthened by the fact the Safety Car was only called once across the four races, and that was following a mechanical problem, not an incident.

While the fact Sunday’s SC meant the race went time-certain was a disappointing outcome, overall, championship status appeared – as Roland Dane put it – to be “worth the wait”.

As for the real impact? That won’t be known until the final points are tallied in Newcastle...

Pye, finally

2018 Supercars Championship Round 2. Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Wednesday 21st March to Sunday 25th March 2018. World Copyright: Daniel Kalisz Photographer Ref: Digital Image DSC_7978.NEF

Few stories can come out of a Supercars weekend with as much feel-good factor as a first-time win.

In the case of Pye, the emotion of the occasion – coming after a rollercoaster career to date, including 165 starts across four teams – made it truly special.

The way Pye won – holding off Jamie Whincup in immensely difficult conditions – was very impressive.

Not many surprise wins are as convincing as Pye’s. The #2 Holden had been the pacesetter in dry conditions at the start of the race, and the team played its strategy beautifully.

While Walkinshaw Andretti United will still no doubt have its ups and downs over the season, the result was also a major validation of the new alliance.

The last time Walkinshaw’s team won was Sandown 2016, days before Pye was announced as one of the team’s drivers for the following year.

New co-owner Zak Brown was a major presence in the paddock across the weekend, even bringing fellow McLaren F1 chief Eric Boullier down for a visit on Thursday.

The only downside for this squad was the struggles of James Courtney who, aside from a fine fifth in the dry-wet race, fell sharply from his usual Adelaide heroics.

With the team pushing hard on development under new leader Carl Faux, one can hope it was a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ for the 2010 champion.

Charge of the ZBs

Craig Lowndes races during the second stop of the Supercars Championship in Melbourne, Australia on March 24, 2018.

Fears that Triple Eight would be a long way ahead of its customers in unlocking speed from the ZB Commodore at the start of the season have been quashed.

Yes, Shane van Gisbergen won in Adelaide and Jamie Whincup top-scored at Albert Park, but two other Holden squads – Erebus and WAU – have now won races.

To put that in context, prior to Albert Park, Erebus’ 2017 Bathurst win was the only victory for a Holden without a Red Bull livery since September '16.

A further two Holden teams have scored podiums already this year – Brad Jones Racing and Garry Rogers Motorsport – the latter equalling its entire 2017 podium tally.

The ZB is clearly a very good package and the pressure is on the Ford and Nissan squads to lift their game.

Shell V-Power Racing is well and truly in the fight, scoring two poles, a win and four podiums across the weekend.

Tickford Racing and Nissan Motorsport are the only multi-car teams yet to visit the podium and, while the former isn’t far away, the challenge is clearly ahead of them.

Van Gisbergen’s struggle

2018 Supercars Championship Round 2. Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Wednesday 21st March to Sunday 25th March 2018. World Copyright: Daniel Kalisz Photographer Ref: Digital Image DSC_2565.NEF

For the second straight year, van Gisbergen came crashing back to earth after proving unstoppable in Adelaide.

The Kiwi was bitterly unhappy with his car across practice and qualifying, describing it as “junk” after fighting to stay on track in the Friday afternoon sessions, based on suspension issues.

For a driver with such a good record at Albert Park, winning seven times across three different teams, and with a team-mate shining as brightly as Whincup, it was perplexing.

Some major set-up changes brought better fortunes from Saturday afternoon onwards, although starting “from the car park” on Sunday meant 13th was a good result.

Still, van Gisbergen actually extended his points advantage over David Reynolds, who briefly lost second to Scott McLaughlin before gaining it back on Sunday.

Whincup though took a big chunk out of the deficit to his team-mate that had opened thanks to his gearbox failure in Adelaide.

After a slow-start in 2017, the seven-time champion has blasted out of the blocks, despite also complaining of a few “new-car niggles” on Thursday.

Rookie roulette

2018 Supercars Championship Round 2. Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Wednesday 21st March to Sunday 25th March 2018. World Copyright: Daniel Kalisz Photographer Ref: Digital Image DSC_7055.NEF

Anton De Pasquale started the year as the only one of the five rookies with a completely clean sheet, having not even done the enduros prior to his full-time debut.

Regardless, the Super2 graduate has shone, using Erebus’ clearly strong package to good effect, highlighted by a top 10 qualifying performance at Albert Park.

Sitting 17th in points, De Pasquale has been the first rookie home in four of the opening six races, and the top qualifier on four occasions.

Richie Stanaway had been the top-qualifying rookie on both days in Adelaide, but sits at the foot of the championship after a shocking Albert Park.

As well as struggling for speed, a litany of disasters – including a bungled pitstop, failed rain light and a pitlane speeding penalty – tested the Kiwi’s patience.

Todd Hazelwood, Jack Le Brocq and James Golding found themselves in incidents at least once over the weekend as they continue their learning experiences.

They ended up tightly bunched towards the bottom of the weekend’s points standings, with the GRM driver’s efforts hindered by a mechanical failure in the final.

Each will be hoping for a cleaner run at Symmons Plains, where the gap between the front and the back promises to be tighter than ever.

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