Supercars.com editor Stefan Bartholomaeus takes a closer look at Shell V-Power Racing's Clipsal 500.
First box ticked
Put simply, Roger Penske’s Shell V-Power Racing had to perform at the Clipsal 500 Adelaide.
After kicking off 2016 with two poles before failing to deliver a win all season, anything less than another fast start would have spelt failure.
The team fell short of a pole or a race win, but two front-row starts and two podiums against the Red Bull Holden Racing Team's red hot Shane van Gisbergen was still a job well done.
It was a far cry from Penske's lacklustre form at the 2016 season finale, where it debuted its first in-house designed front-end after two years evolving customer Prodrive uprights.
The Adelaide results were enough to give the team enormous encouragement after a big off season, but not so much as to trigger complacency.
With all the hype pre-Adelaide focussed on new signing Scott McLaughlin, team-mate Fabian Coulthard needed to draw a line in the sand in Adelaide. And he did.
McLaughlin has adapted remarkably quickly to the car and still took the headlines on Sunday, but Coulthard twice out-qualified his team-mate and led during both races.
Put bluntly, that sort of competition is something that McLaughlin never faced during his four years at Garry Rogers Motorsport.
Having the two sides of the garage pushing each other is essential if the team is going to get the better of the van Gisbergen/Jamie Whincup combination at Red Bull.
It’s no secret that one of DJR Team Penske’s downfalls last year was that it had been effectively operating as two teams in one.
Having one driver/engineer combination arrive from Brad Jones Racing and another engineer from Prodrive was always going to result in, as one team insider put it, a ‘pick and use’ approach to development.
Competition director Ludo Lacroix has been brought in to make sure that the team follows, in Ludo-speak, “one line together” with its development direction.
While major conclusions cannot be drawn after one race meeting, the rapport between close friends Lacroix (engineering McLaughlin's car) and Phil Keed (working with Coulthard) was obvious in Adelaide.
How often do you see one race engineer bear hug another after being eclipsed in a Top 10 Shootout?
Processes take time
On the negative side, throwing any combination of new engineers, drivers and crew together for a new season inevitably means not everything runs smoothly.
That was a big take out from last year’s Clipsal 500, where pitlane errors, poor communication and strategic faux pas cost Penske podiums, if not a win.
Again, communication let the team down on Saturday where McLaughlin warmed his tyres unaware that the safety car lights had been extinguished, earning a penalty.
Well-oiled race engineer, data engineer and driver partnerships have a clear protocol for relaying information from race control to the driver. New ones can easily come unstuck.
The sight of Shell Fords pulling away from their rivals on the back straight during various points of the two races raised eyebrows in Adelaide.
With power very even across the Supercars field thanks to the parity system, the speed discrepancy appeared to be a combination of other factors.
The low-speed traction of the Penske cars off Turn 7 was undoubtedly good, at least when the tyres were new.
They were also running notably less rear wing than the Holdens – a move said to be dictated by the need to balance the Falcons through the high-speed Turn 8.
With Lacroix having a reputation for devising ‘slippery’ set-ups, tracking straightline speed circuit to circuit will be one of the many fascinating aspects of the battle with Triple Eight.
Bigger tests ahead
Speed in Adelaide was expected and, with Coulthard having scored podiums at Albert Park last year, anything less than that later this month will also be a step backwards.
The big test for this squad will however come in the next championship event at Symmons Plains, where long races on the super soft tyre will really show how far the team has progressed.
Tyre life was where Penske struggled most last year and there were certainly signs in Adelaide that the issue remains a factor, even on the harder of the two compounds.
McLaughlin also remarked in Adelaide that he’s not entirely comfortable with the team’s brake package – another element that the Symmons layout will put under the spotlight.
In short, Adelaide showed that Penske will win races in 2017. Whether they can beat Triple Eight over a whole season remains a watch this space.