The Debrief: Snakes and ladders in Sydney

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 24/07/2020
  • By Stefan Bartholomaeus

It was action-packed and at times chaotic. The Truck Assist Sydney SuperSprint delivered no shortage of talking points.

In the latest Debrief column, Supercars.com looks at the fallout from the 2020 season's second trip to Western Sydney.

Fresh faces, tired tyres

Supercars’ return from its COVID-19 hiatus in Sydney in late June was spiced up by the tyre allocation, with just five sets of soft compound tyres per car spread across three pitstop races.

While the need to ration tyres helped Nick Percat to a breakthrough win, the category went a step further for Sydney 2.0, making just two of those sets softs and three the hard.

On a flowing track that accentuates the initial performance and subsequent lifespan differences between the two compounds, tyre strategy was always going to dominate the weekend.

The intention was to mix up the results, and it sure did that. There were three winners - Scott McLaughlin, Percat and Jack Le Brocq - and eight drivers on the podium across the three races, representing five teams.

On Sunday afternoon, Le Brocq and Todd Hazelwood scored career-first podiums. Joined by Andre Heimgartner, it was the first podium in nearly three years without either DJR Team Penske or Triple Eight.

There was significant uncertainty and intrigue around how every part of the weekend would play out and thrilling finishes to the two Sunday races, particularly the finale. They are all big ticks for the format.

However, some argued it’d gone too far. The TV broadcasters couldn’t help but talk constantly about tyres and each race was effectively a series of class battles, depending on who was running what rubber.

The whole weekend was a high-speed game of snakes and ladders, with true performance of both car and driver often difficult to judge.

While round winners haven’t been formally recognised by Supercars for more than a decade, one had to look at the weekend points to make any real sense of what happened.

The top four for the weekend – McLaughlin, Percat, Fabian Coulthard and Shane van Gisbergen – had all finished outside the top 10 in the final race, having used the best of their tyres in the earlier heats.

For better or worse, it was certainly a very different way to go motor racing.

Road warriors

For all the talk about tyres, the biggest story in Supercars right now isn’t about grip, grunt or anything else mechanical. It’s very much about people.

By the time the cars hit the track in Sydney, the Melbourne teams had already been away from home for nearly two weeks, thanks to the impending border closure-induced exodus on July 6.

With plans to head from Sydney to a hub on the Gold Coast, and then the next events in Darwin and Townsville, crews had left their family and friends with no fixed return date.

Their commitment has kept the sport going through a very tough period and deserves significant praise and respect from all who earn their living from, or simply enjoy watching, the sport of Supercars.

However, the only accolades that truly matter to these teams are results, and having a spread of podium getters topped by a win for Tickford Racing in the finale seemed more than fitting.

In addition to being Le Brocq’s first victory, it was easy to gloss over the fact Tickford hadn’t won since Chaz Mostert’s triumph at Albert Park in March 2019.

That was an enormous drought for a team that has been among the front-runners for nearly 15 years and one they’ll be very pleased has been broken, regardless of who was on what tyres.

Tickford is one of six different teams represented in the top six in the drivers’ championship, with eight in the top 10, giving the bulk of the paddock plenty of reason to be optimistic about 2020.

RBHRT MIA

Having dominated the second half of 2019, the Red Bull Holden Racing Team came out firing this season, setting the pace in Adelaide and scoring both poles at Albert Park before the event was abandoned.

On a run of eight wins from the previous nine races and seven straight poles to that point, it was a surprise that the factory Holden team didn’t take a single win from six attempts in the two trips to Sydney.

They were very close on the first visit, but didn’t even reach the podium during last weekend’s event, where the team appeared to take a step backwards in car speed and made some unusual strategic decisions.

It wasn’t a total disaster, with van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup fourth and eighth on points for the weekend respectively, but their strategy of starting SVG on softs in two races and running long stints fell flat.

They also went down a different road to most by each doing a qualifying session on the hard compound on Sunday, resulting in near rear-of-grid starts.

While the details of all that will be poured over by the team this week, few would bet against this team being back on the podium in Darwin.

But the big picture is the championship and, in a shortened season, van Gisbergen’s 263-point deficit to leader McLaughlin is already looking like a big mountain to climb.

Shining bright

In 2018, Sydney hosted Supercars’ first night race on Australian soil in over 20 years. Much effort was put into the temporary lighting, but it was in places patchy for drivers and television viewers alike.

That event was dubbed a “proof of concept” and the circuit was subsequently rewarded with state government funding for permanent lighting.

While the full project won’t be completed until later this year, the mix of new permanent lights and revised temporary structures in place last weekend made for a significant improvement, drawing praise from drivers.

The cars look truly spectacular under lights and the primetime television slot is a real winner. The promise of more night racing in future is a tantalising one.

Super2 super, too

The Dunlop Super2 Series returned after a five-month layoff with a packed grid, thanks to the inclusion of the Super3 cars, and didn’t disappoint.

Supercars’ stars of tomorrow shone in the twilight on Saturday evening, where an ever-changing skyline proved just as spectacular as the night did for the main game.

Most importantly, Sydney’s Super2 action underscored the belief that the category’s 20th season boasts a great mix of talent already primed for main game chances and very promising rookies.

Thomas Randle, Will Brown and Brodie Kostecki have now all won at least one race this season and are the top three in the standings, separated by 73 points.

Rookies Jayden Ojeda and Broc Feeney are also starring, while Triple Eight’s Angelo Mouzouris isn’t far behind. Throw in Jordan Boys – who had a quiet Sydney weekend – and you’ve got a fine vintage of Super2 talent.

What’s more, the inclusion of the Super3 Series brings the next wave of youngsters into the spotlight, led by rookie Jaylyn Robotham, who dominated the weekend. At just 17, the Victorian is clearly one to watch.

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