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Craig's Corner: The changing face of 2023 title fight

26 Jul
Craig Lowndes' exclusive Supercars.com Sydney column
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This is the seventh 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 Beaurepaires Sydney SuperNight.

Night racing is next on the horizon for Supercars, and it’s going to be a fantastic spectacle as the championship fight heats up.

I really enjoy racing at night, it brings a different level of theatre to our sport but it challenges drivers in a completely different way.

For fans, night racing highlights different elements in our cars that you don’t see during the day. Glowing brake disks really shows the extreme temperatures that our cars generate and the load that drivers put them under, which can be over 800 degrees!

Turns 2, 4, 6 and 8 are heavy braking areas, before you hit the long run down pit straight at over 260km/hr. If you’re after a photo opportunity of a glowing Supercar, that’s your place to grab it!

Then there’s the exhaust flames. Unburnt fuel with zero throttle heading into corners creates quite the spectacle. Again, if you’re after the money shot, then the inside of Turn 1 is the place to be.

From a driver's perspective, it’s such a unique challenge. Although we are under lights, your depth perception still changes. Everything feels like it’s going a million miles an hour, so seeing the apexes and hitting your brake markers feels like everything is going in fast forward.

So, it’s important to know the track — relying on muscle memory and concentration is critical to success at SMP.

Then there’s driver input to changing the configuration of the cabin. Things like choosing what buttons on the wheel to light up, and turning the brightness of the dash down so it doesn’t glare. You can’t afford any distractions, especially in a long race.

It’s also a unique format. Drivers won’t have prior opportunity to drive under lights with the new Gen3 cars until Saturday night’s race. It’s going to be a challenge for drivers to adapt to their surroundings when the sun goes down.

It’s also a big challenge for crews, with pit stops to be made under lights for the first time in the new Gen cars. That is difficult to simulate. It’s common place for teams to practice pitstops at test days and also at their home bases during the day. But the slightest of shadows creates a new challenge.

Saturday night sees refuelling and will test crews and their accuracy with the new fuel rig coupling system. We have seen in previous races during the day that teams are still perfecting this.

The new Gen3 cars also have new smaller wheel nuts, so making sure tyre changes are sharp and seamless will be key. You have to get the small details right, otherwise your strategy could unravel very quickly.

We know tyre wear at Sydney Motorsport Park is high, but it’s going to be a cold night, so 200km won’t be a major test to the rubber. However, don’t be surprised if teams pull out some strategy curveballs, such as two stops.

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This circuit is wind dependant and with the new aero package, it will be interesting to see how this affects how much the cars move around. Even the smallest change could make the difference between qualifying on pole, or qualifying down the field.

Teams will be looking at wind conditions come qualifying and if there’s a tailwind or headwind into Turn 1. Those differences ensure drivers must adjust their driving style and brake markers accordingly.

Given all the variables, I’ve been caught out trying to make the best of a lap in qualifying before, and I’m sure a big name or two might suffer a similar fate this weekend.

Add to that, the challenge of track limits where drivers can get cheeky especially at Turn 5. There is a large run-off apron on the exit of the corner, so carrying extra mid-corner speed and grabbing the apron on the way out is an advantage. But take it too far, and that’s the end of your lap. The same applies at Turn 8.

Tyre bank management is also key with only six new sets for the weekend after practice.

It’s such an important round in the context of the championship. The top four — Will Brown, Brodie Kostecki, Broc Feeney and Shane van Gisbergen — are covered by just 72 points. It’s crazy close, and with 150 points on offer for the winner, any slip-ups could prove extremely costly.

What is interesting about this weekend’s format is there are races of different lengths. We have 51 laps (200km) on Saturday night, and 36 laps (140km) on Sunday. So as a driver, do you go ultra aggressive at the start of the race to gain a lead or positions? Or, do you play the long game – being conservative with tyres to be aggressive at the end?

Saturday is about playing the long game, and given we’re past halfway in the season, the Erebus and Triple Eight boys will have to start thinking about accumulating points and making the best of bad situations.

There’s always plenty of contact at Turns 2, 3 and 4 on the first lap, and we’ve seen already how easy it is to pick up damage and ruin your race.

If the top guys start going conservative, it opens the door for others who aren’t as close to the championship lead to have a crack. Guys like Jack Le Brocq and Mark Winterbottom who are riding a confidence high off recent wins. Also Chaz Mostert, being a past winner at this track.

Don't discount DJR either, who won with Anton De Pasquale in Townsville. They’ve been very good in Sydney for a long time, and they know how to go fast there. Critically, the aero upgrades to the Mustang will be more pronounced, so expect more changes to the pecking order.

Lastly, it’s important to highlight Shane and Brodie’s upcoming NASCAR race at Indy. It was a perfect storm for Shane in Chicago — wet conditions at a new track, but he still did a fantastic job and got some well-deserved praise.

The Indy race will be a new challenge for Shane and Brodie, but it’s exciting for them to represent Australia and New Zealand and showcase how good our competition is in Supercars.

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