The highest compliment that can be paid to Scott McLaughlin and Garry Rogers Motorsport is their performance at Phillip Island last weekend was akin to Jamie Whincup and Triple Eight at their best. At a circuit he clearly loves and where the S60 was working brilliantly, no-one could touch McLaughlin for outright speed and consistency of pace. That was backed up by a willingness to race tough when Whincup put the challenge to him, then concentrate and not put a tyre out of place the rest of the time. Just as importantly, McLaughlin’s on-track efforts were backed up by flawless pitwork and good strategy – two areas that have not always been GRM’s strengths.
2. Now the challenge
To continue the Triple Eight analogy, if McLaughlin and GRM are to become true championship contenders rather than just flash in and out of the frame, they must maximise on the good days like they did at Phillip Island and minimise the damage of the bad days. Just like T8 at its best. The next round of the championship at Barbagallo Raceway will be a great test. McLaughlin won there in 2014 – it was the program’s first points-paying win and Volvo’s first victory in a championship race since 1986 – but he and the S60 struggled on its coarse surface in 2015. McLaughlin runs second in the championship just 15 points behind Whincup so he is right in the battle, partially because no-one – not even T8 – has yet been able to gain consistent results. The worrying undercurrent for the Volvo is reliability. While it is better than at the same stage of 2015 McLaughlin would probably be leading the points if not for that engine butterfly failure on Saturday at Symmons.
3. Tough love
Turn one on Sunday was one of those epic moments that define V8 Supercars racing. Whincup desperately wanted to lead but there was no way McLaughlin was going to allow that to happen. Somehow they didn’t touch, the Volvo skidding as McLaughlin corrected to give Whincup a little space, albeit not enough for him to stay on the track. It was another chapter in the burgeoning highlights reel these two are putting together that began with their epic side-by-side run at Clipsal in 2014. The moment emphasised just how crucial racing in clean air is at the high-speed Phillip Island track and why passing is so tough.
We expected a Phillip Island bounce back from the six-time champ after his Tassie trauma and we got it. He chased McLaughlin to the chequered flag on Saturday, moving forward from fourth on the grid in the process. But that was just the warm-up act for Sunday where he made that laudable but unsuccessful lunge for the lead from the front row, then ran off late in the race after the safety car re-start trying to keep in the draft of the Volvo. He dropped from second to fourth in the race as a result, but in Whincup’s mind those two positions are interchangeable; he was going for the win because winning is what he’s there to do.
5. The Red Bull battle
With his PI performance Whincup redressed the balance against his new team-mate Shane van Gisbergen. At a place where he hasn’t starred in the past, the Kiwi was unable to get all the way to the front in his factory Holden, claiming fourth on Saturday without being a contender for the win. He then he battled with his car on Sunday, the team suspecting something was broken in the rear-end. SvG’s pace at times this year – the non-championship AGP and Tassie – has been stunning, but he is now more than 100 points behind Whincup in the driver’s championship. There’s a long way to go yet of course, but consistency of effort was one of the keys van Gisbergen was searching for when he shifted to T8 and he hasn’t achieved that yet. Next up is Barbagallo, one of his bogey tracks during his time at Tekno. It’s a great challenge just at a time when he needs to haul in a big bag of points. One thing above all else; we hoped for an epic battle between the Red Bull duo and that’s just what we are getting.
6. The giant is stirring
A podium each for Fabian Coulthard and Scott Pye and four top 10 qualifying positions highlighted by Coulthard’s fourth on Sunday showed that DJR Team Penske is continuing to learn and improve. Yes, there were issues too; Pye’s tyre failure on Saturday and Coulthard’s misfire on Sunday that cruelled their chances. But there is clearly speed in the cars and the drivers and that’s a great base to be working from. Pye’s performance was justifiably highlighted in v8supercars.com’s ‘top performers’ list from PI, but I would have stuck Coulthard in there too for his great drive to third from ninth on the grid on Saturday and then pushing forward in qualifying on Sunday. In fact, the feistiness and consistency of his driving has been outstanding all year. Coulthard was in the right place at the right time to become a ‘Penske driver’ and he has grasped the opportunity wholeheartedly. Good on him.
7. BJR struggling
How much impact has the departure of Coulthard and his engineer Phil Keed made at Brad Jones Racing? Three championship events have now been conducted and Coulthard’s replacement, Tim Slade, has managed two eighths as his best finishes. His best qualifying has been a 12th at Phillip Island. By comparison Coulthard started 2015 with a win and a second at Clipsal. However, he didn’t star last year at Symmons, or at Phillip Island, so maybe the results aren’t as lop-sided as at first glance. Nevertheless, for the likeable Slade, for his veteran team-mate Jason Bright and for the engineering crew led by Andrew Edwards there is an undoubted challenge to be met and dealt with because they are not front-running contenders. Barbagallo is a traditional happy hunting ground for BJR, could it kick start the 2016 season for them?
8. Winners and losers
James Moffat apparently left Phillip Island grumpy on Sunday night. But that’s James. Hopefully he will have surveyed the bigger picture and grudgingly allowed himself a little bit of satisfaction for his best weekend in the Volvo yet. Michael Caruso’s Sunday drive in the Nismo Nissan Altima was also full of credit, but where were the rest of the Nissans at a track they were expected to shine? The Prodrive Fords showed flashes of speed, but weren’t as good as they should be, the Holden Racing Team struggled for the second consecutive event and Tekno and Will Davison were back into the pack.
The ninth item
The driver ‘silly season’ speculation that blew up in the media last week had an unfortunate follow-up at Phillip Island when a team executive unsuccessfully tried to stifle questions on the issue at a press conference. His driver proved well and truly capable of handling himself when the inevitable queries were directed his way.