Russell Ingall found it tough to name his final team in his top five contenders, but settled on new kids on the block DJR Team Penske.
Amalgamating last year and expanding to two cars for 2016, performance improved dramatically as last year went on, with Scott Pye behind the wheel and taking his first V8 Supercars podium in New Zealand.
Two-time Bathurst winner and 2005 champion Russell Ingall believes DJR Team Penske will be one to watch this season and rates new pick-up Fabian Coulthard an excellent choice. Though his old team Brad Jones Racing, was not far away from getting Ingall's fifth choice for contenders, behind Triple Eight, Prodrive, Holden Racing Team and Garry Rogers Motorsport.
“It has been a tough call picking number five – the other four have been picked on team performance, car performance and drivers, so the fifth was the hardest one of the whole lot because quite a few are level pegging,” Ingall said, mentioning BJR and Nissan as well.
“But my decision for the five is DJR Team Penske for three reasons.
“I think they’ve got a very, very strong driver line-up – this should be Pye’s best year. He’s starting to get in the groove and get some experience – and Fabian Coulthard is probably the hungriest he’s ever been because he knows time is ticking. He’s got to perform.
“The second reason is the resources Penske brings along with the deal … and the third is cubic dollars. Let’s not beat around the bush – there’s plenty on tap if need be. Plenty. Forget everything else – money buys speed.”
Given the way DJR Team Penske came on at the end of last year, Ingall believes placing it as the fifth contender may not be giving it enough credit – but all he has to go on is previous results.
“Their potential could be well higher,” he said.
“The people in the team are established, the facilities they’re working out of … rank up there with the best in the country.
“I think it’s got all the ingredients to do it, and is building fast.”
The speed of the team’s improvement has really impressed Ingall, too.
“That’s one of the things that shocked me – how quickly they’ve moved to bring the standard of the presentation, the team itself and the mechanic base, the whole deal,” he said.
“It shouldn’t surprise me though, because we are talking about someone who’s been heavily involved in a lot of categories over a lot of years … they know how to do it right, and make no mistake, someone like Roger Penske doesn’t like finishing second.”
Ingall believes the team will feel the pressure representing a name synonymous with success.
“It’s strange because you’re not looking at pressure because of sponsors – at the end of the day money’s not going to be the problem. Their pressure is different – it’s not pressure to perform to keep the team running and keep the sponsorship – their pressure will be to perform to keep the owner happy.”
Friend and former teammate of Marcos Ambrose, Ingall said there was no point revisiting that piece of history and ultimately supported Ambrose’s decision to step back.
“I’ve spoken to Marcos about that – and Marcos did the right thing, the best for the team and for Scott it worked out well. “
DJR Team Penske topped the times at the Queensland test day last week, which Ingall sees as a sign of things to come. He said he would have been disappointed if the team hadn’t expanded to two cars this year.
“From what I’ve seen testing wise, the cars are very quick – at that Ipswich test that was a very quick time considering it was super hot conditions. So they’re on the money – absolutely on the money.
“So watch this space on that one. At the end of the day they’re in fifth spot, they’re going to be dark horses.”
Ingall could tell the podium result in New Zealand last year was a big relief for Pye, who held a trophy for the first time in three years in the category.
From here on in, he has to aim for results.
“They had to use last year as a testing year, as well as Scott finding his feet – but I think now he’s had those races under his belt, he knows what he wants to do.”
Having seen the 26-year old’s data, Ingall is impressed with Pye’s driving style and his Triple Eight pedigree, managed by pit lane heavyweight Roland Dane.
“He has a unique style the way he drives the car – once they’ve moulded the car to him it will work. He does everything right in the car,” Ingall said.
“Remember, he’s had tuition from Triple Eight … he’s got a very good background on how to pedal the thing. I like what I see with the data.”
Ingall would like to see Pye stay out of trouble this year and use his judgement on when to go for the big moves. “I think he gets tangled up in a lot of things, he needs to sort his racing out a little as well.
“Sometimes he gets a little bit anxious and probably dives in holes he shouldn’t and all of a sudden there’s bits hanging off the car.
“But again, that’s just racing experience and miles. Once you start getting that under control, I think he’ll be good.”
It will be a big internal battle though, in Ingall’s opinion.
“Scott is going to have his hands full with his teammate – no doubt about that – but that’s good.
“It means he’s got someone who’s going to be super fast, he can lean on his data, find out what he does to go quicker. Fabian’s a good qualifier – Scott’s a bit inconsistent in qualifying – so he can lean on that.
“I think Fabian will be on top of him a bit overall, but once he picks up a little bit I think from half season onwards it could be neck and neck.”
There’s plenty of promise for the driver, who finished second in the Dunlop Series in 2012.
“I think Scotty will have his best year in V8 Supercars, definitely. Will he be a championship contender – no I think he’s a little bit away. But he’ll be very competitive. He’ll be a top five finisher.”
“Big expectations,” was Ingall’s first thought.
Though he has won races and racked up pole positions, Coulthard has fallen short in final championship stakes in recent years. But that could change, according to The Enforcer.
“Fabian did a really good job in the BJR car last year and again there were inconsistencies that cost him from challenging for the championship. But I don’t think those inconsistencies were all him … that’s why I didn’t put BJR in fifth place over Penske.”
Coulthard achieved his first V8 Supercars podium in a Falcon with Paul Cruikshank Racing back in 2009, which bodes well for his Ford switch this year.
“He knows the Falcon and people forget he was actually quite quick in that Falcon. He knows how to drive it. From the test results he was right on the mark for the first test day,” Ingall said.
“Then you’ve got the fact – this is it. He’s got to do something.
“There’s no more excuses now, got a good car, got a good team, he made the jump – he could’ve made himself a good home at BJR but … I think his choices were spot on.
“The team can build around him but he can’t afford to hang around anymore because this is it – he’s got to nail it.”
Ingall believes Coulthard’s racing has improved a lot over the years and he was measured about taking risks.
“A risky crash win compared to ‘I’ll settle for a podium’ – he knows how to do that now and that’s how you win championships. So I think he’s going to be really strong.”
Is he a title contender?
“I wouldn’t count him out for a championship win – the only thing holding back is the team making mistakes. But you’ve got to remember it’s only their second year as an amalgamated team….
“It could be the year of the Fabs. So let’s wait and see.
“Again, another Kiwi… he’s been on the shores long enough, so we can claim him as a part Aussie – he has less of an accent than Murph!”