Craig's Corner: The challenges of Hidden Valley

15 Jun
Craig Lowndes details deadly Darwin in latest column
5 mins by James Pavey

This is the fifth exclusive Supercars.com column by Supercars Hall of Famer Craig Lowndes. Seven-time Bathurst winner Lowndes will preview each round of the 2023 Repco Supercars Championship from his own perspective, continuing with this weekend’s betr Darwin Triple Crown.

Hidden Valley Raceway is a circuit we all love, and Darwin puts on a show every year — and with the new Gen3 cars, everything steps up a notch.

I’m really looking forward to this weekend. We arrive in the Top End with 26 new cars — all with stunning Indigenous Round liveries — and the fans will be out in force, with the sun shining.

Speaking of that sun, the first thing that comes to mind about racing in Darwin is the heat. Already this year, a lot of drivers have been complaining about cabin temperatures. Darwin is always a major test of your fitness, but also your mental strength.

But it’s also the first time that drivers will put the new Gen3 cars through their paces in a hot environment. Even by the time you get to the start line before the race, everything is already very warm.

While we normally spend time getting the engine, brake and tyre temperatures up, being too hot over the evolution of the race has its negative effects, including robbing your engine of horsepower.

There are many things to consider before the race start. On the formation lap, you need to keep temperatures down. You don’t get to build up to it — you’re running hot from the get-go.

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Even by the time you get to the start line before the race, everything is already at cooking temperature. Maintaining body temperature is absolutely vital so you don't suffer fatigue late in the races, and make mistakes.

Equally crucial is recovery for the drivers overnight. They will need to be doing all the right things like ice baths, rehydration, refuelling and getting a good night's sleep to make sure make sure they are as fresh as possible to do it all again the next day.

It’s a place where qualifying up the front has its pros and cons. A front row start anywhere is essential, but at Hidden Valley it’s a long wait before the last car lines up on the grid. Which means heat soak. But on the positive, you are starting the race running in clean and cooler air which is better for speed.

Hidden Valley, compared to other circuits we go to, has a long run from the start line to Turn 1. As is the case with other circuits, pole is on the inside — but the dirty side of the circuit can play into the hands of drivers starting on the other side.

Grid spot No. 2 is on the race line — no one tries to qualify second, but it definitely has a grip advantage. It’s a long run down to Turn 1, there’s always a lot of carnage — cold brakes, people trying to brake deep and late.

If you do get it right, you can get around the outside at Turn 1, which sets you up for Turn 5. There a lot of things going on — track position is key early on.

There are several standout characteristics of the circuit, none more significant than the 1.1km-long straight. It’s crucial to have an aerodynamically-sound car that is slippery through the air, so you get to Turn 1 as quickly as possible.

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Turn 1 itself is very tricky. It’s a long, loading left-hander that seems to go forever, and over the years, drivers have tried several different lines.

One of my favourite parts of the circuit is the Turn 6 hairpin. It’s a natural amphitheatre — it’s almost like a stadium — and is always a hotspot for drama.

There are also a number of different lines you can take, and you can make a lot of time here. It's a corner where you need to rotate the car quickly and get the power down, and one I used to hook the inside front tyre to the kerb.

The final sector is all about flow, and ensuring you have a car that can ride the kerbs and bumps. You need a car that is strong on direction change, but can also ride the kerb, settle when it lands and get the power down to the final corner.

It’s such an important part of the lap, and if you are close enough, you can make a dive down the inside at Turn 14. But as ever, if you get it wrong, the driver ahead may end up facing the wrong direction!

Yes, it is a low deg circuit, but it’s easy to pinch the front left at Turn 1. It’s an anti-clockwise circuit, and the right front and right rear tyres will cop a pounding.

Keep in mind that drivers don’t have adjustable roll bars with these new cars. Given the lack of adjustment, driving styles and tyre pressures will play a part in how you control your tyre deg.

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Four rounds in, and the championship picture continues to evolve. Erebus Motorsport has been the most consistent team, and Brodie Kostecki and Will Brown have been very impressive.

Will in particular has come on strong, winning three of the last five races. He is only 87 points behind Brodie, and any slip-up could see the orange numbers head elsewhere.

Having spoken to Shane van Gisbergen, his sights are set on consistency. That has been his Achilles heel this season — winning races is one thing, but that becomes difficult when you’re starting down the order.

The quiet achiever is Chaz Mostert, who despite not taking a pole or winning a race, is still third in the championship. Hidden Valley is a circuit that Chaz likes, and he has been consistent this season. Should Walkinshaw Andretti United get their cars up the front in qualifying, he’ll be one to watch.

Don’t discount the likes of Tickford Racing and Dick Johnson Racing, either. Cam Waters and James Courtney like this circuit too; don't forget, Cam won from pole position here 12 months ago. I expect them to have a strong weekend.

Then, there’s DJR. I expected them to bounce back in Tassie, but while their race pace was impressive, they need to improve in qualifying to fight for wins. They know how to do it — Will Davison has taken four of the last five poles in Darwin, and Anton De Pasquale won the first race last year.

In my opinion, it’s anyone’s game as drivers chase the Triple Crown. It’s only been won twice before, and I’m excited to see how it plays out this weekend!

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