The era which began under lights in the desert

  • Repco Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 29/09/2021
  • By James Pavey

The return to night racing at Sydney Motorsport Park next month will see the continuation of two key legacies.

One, the return of night racing itself, which first debuted at Calder Park in 1980 before making a triumphant return in Sydney.

Two, Triple Eight Race Engineering’s Holden era, which began under lights at Abu Dhabi in 2010.

The Yas Marina Circuit had only recently staged its first major event in late 2009 with its maiden Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The footprint of V8 Supercars racing had previously been extended to New Zealand, China and Bahrain - and the United Arab Emirates was the latest to join the party.

The major change in 2010, though, was Triple Eight’s switch to Commodores, with the champion team and its drivers switching to the red side of the fence.

Between 2005 and 2009, Triple Eight won over 50 races - including three Bathursts - along with drivers’ and teams’ titles in 2008 and 2009.

Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes arrived at the Yas Marina Circuit armed with two new Commodores resplendent in Vodafone chrome and day-glo red.

Some 13 years had passed since a season opened with night racing, with Wayne Gardner the surprise winner at a floodlit Calder Park in 1997.

That year, Lowndes had departed for Europe after a stunning rookie ATCC campaign, while a 14-year-old Whincup was cutting his teeth in karting.

Come 2010, and Whincup was a two-time series champion and the category’s leading man - but the off-season switch to the red side loomed to bring Triple Eight back to the pack.

The new era deserved a new dawn, and the innovative Yas Marina venue was the perfect destination.

A new era begins under lights

All eyes were on V8 Supercars just months after F1’s successful debut at the circuit, and it was Whincup who dropped his #1 Team Vodafone Commodore on pole at the very first attempt.

Two 43-lap, 200km races stood between Whincup and a perfect start to his title defence - and in true Whincup style, he was near untouchable when it mattered most.

In Race 1 - the first championship race to feature night action since the 1997 Calder event - Whincup and Lowndes were simply too good for their rivals, even though the pair ran a race of different strategies.

Whincup stayed out longer before his two compulsory fuel stops, while Lowndes started the race light on fuel.

Whincup was a constant fixture in the lead

The team which pushed Triple Eight all the way in 2009, Holden Racing Team, had a shocker.

Garth Tander started last after a qualifying disqualification, and finished seven laps off the pace in 26th after an early-race altercation.

Teammate Will Davison saw a podium go begging midway through the race after an engine problem.

Mark Winterbottom was third despite copping a 10-second penalty for incorrectly lining his car up on the grid, with eventual 2010 champion James Courtney fourth.

Whincup leads Lowndes and Winterbottom across the line

"It’s a special day,” an elated Whincup said.

"We debuted a brand-new car, and to get on pole and to have a one-two in the first race, on a brand-new circuit, it’s an amazing feeling.

"It’s a huge reward for the guys and girls who have worked so hard.”

Come Sunday, and Winterbottom pipped Whincup to pole - but the Race 1 victor made it two from two after winning the start.

A perfect start to Triple Eight's Holden era Pic: AN1 Images

"I’m almost in shock in what’s been handed out this weekend,” Whincup said after Race 2.

"Brand-new car, brand-new circuit, and to almost have the perfect weekend is good enough.

"I got off to a great start. We pretty much controlled it. Strategy has changed - when you put it in and how much you put in, so we’re all on different strategies and that spiced it up a little.

"Our car was great. We made a change overnight and the car was much better today. The track was getting grippier as the run went on and, to be honest, we’re still learning the track.

Untouchable on Sunday

"I found a few little lines, which gave me a couple of tenths.”

Winterbottom was second and “pretty happy” with his weekend - but the biggest smile was reserved for a young Shane van Gisbergen, who claimed his maiden podium finish.

"The car was really strong all weekend,” the 20-year-old van Gisbergen said.

"All the boys have done good all weekend. Today, we qualified pretty strong, We were good in the first stint, pretty good in the middle stint, but in the last one we didn’t have enough to catch Mark.

"It’s my first podium, and I’m pretty happy. It’s a great way to start the season, and I hold the lap record, so that’s pretty cool as well.”

Abu Dhabi and night racing returned 12 months later and with it, another win for Whincup, who was smarting from missing out on the 2010 title to Courtney.

He went on to win an equal record five titles in Holdens (2011-14, 2017) and, to date, has won a record 90 races in Commodores.

Floodlit racing would wait until 2018 at Sydney Motorsport to make its return - and that night also featured a Triple Eight quinella, van Gisbergen leading Whincup.

Having claimed 12 wins from 19 starts already in 2021, will Triple Eight return to the top in Sydney when the season resumes next month?

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