Weekend Wrap: ITM 500 Auckland

Jamie Whincup wins Jason Richards Memorial Trophy at Pukekohe
Jamie Whincup’s 94th V8 Supercars win clinched him the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy at Pukekohe. Photo: Rhys Vandersyde

The V8 Supercars championship packed up and headed across the ditch to New Zealand for the only international event of the year, held around the magnificent Pukekohe circuit in Auckland. The home race for the four Kiwi drivers, it’s always great to see the passion of the crowd, no matter who is at the front. Competing for the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy, all drivers were keen to put in strong performances to take home one of the most important trophies of the year.

Saturday Qualifying
For the first race of the weekend, it was the seemingly dominant Triple Eight and Prodrive squads that locked out the front row with Jamie Whincup taking pole over David Reynolds. The surprise of the session came when Scott Pye put his DJR Penske Falcon in third ahead of two of the ‘local’ drivers in the field Shane van Gisbergen and Scott mcLaughlin, despite still recovering from the fractured rib sustained in a heavy crash at the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000. Title rivals Craig Lowndes and Mark Winterbottom lined up sixth and seventh respectively, while Kiwi Fabian Coulthard, one of the most successful drivers at Pukekohe over the past couple of season, could only manage 15th in the Freightliner Racing entry.

Qualifying for race two saw the soft tyres used at Pukekohe for the first time and it was Reynolds pipping fellow Championship challenger Lowndes by a mere 0.02 seconds who took the top spot in the day’s second qualifying session. Wilson Security Racing’s McLaughlin and Red Bull Racing’s Whincup starred again to share the second row, while Winterbottom would line up behind Holden Racing Team’s James Courtney in sixth. Local star “the Giz” could only manage 13th in the Tekno Autosports Commodore on home turf.

Race One
From pole, Whincup got the best jump off the line in the day’s first 60km race, taking the lead into turn one ahead of Reynolds who, in turn was hotly pursued by van Gisbergen. Up to the back straight chicane, with the field congested, Erebus Motorsport’s Will Davsion was tipped into a spin and into the path of Fabian Coulthard, effectively taking the two out of the running. Debris on the road then saw the safety car deployed after the first few laps.

At the restart, Reynolds was closer to the back of Whincup but still under attack from the Tekno entry. At the hairpin, Whincup seemed to struggle in pulling his car up, nearly resulting in Reynolds’ Falcon in his door. Reynolds had to take evasive action, allowing van Gisbergen up in to second. While the defending series champion opened up his gap at the front, the main battle was for second between the Prodrive and Tekno entries. In the dying laps, Pye, running in fourth made a mistake on the back straight and had to go through the tyre bundles. Maintaining position ahead of a frustrated Lowndes, Pye was then asked to redress the position, but claimed Lowndes did not try to get past, and the DJR Team Penske Falcon remained in place. Post-race however, Lowndes was handed the spot. Meanwhile, Whincup marched away at the front, notching up his 93rd career victory ahead of local hero van Gisbergen and Reynolds. Lowndes, Pye, Michael Caruso, Winterbottom, Courtney, McLaughlin and Garth Tander completed the top ten.

Race Two
Lowndes got the better jump off the line going into the smooth first bend, forcing Reynolds to back off before the double-right section onto the back straight. Despite his best effort, Reynolds was unable to close the gap to Lowndes who seemed like he was going to break his duck of no wins at Pukekohe. Holding a strong lead, Lowndes stormed down the straight on lap 12 when his left-rear tyre suddenly exploded, tearing off pieces of bodywork and sending the Red Bull Commodore into a spin at more than 200km/h, before sizeable contact with the concrete barriers. Lowndes emerged from the car unharmed, but the incident brought out the safety car, and left Red Bull Racing Australia in a race against time to repair the #888 Holden Commodore for Sunday’s race.

When the safety car period ended, Reynolds struggled to bolt away from Whincup who was under increasing pressure from McLaughlin. On the penultimate lap, Reynolds left the door ajar, all the invitation that Whincup needed to make a move. Diving down the inside and drawing alongside Reynolds at the hairpin, the two cars clashed but Reynolds held his nerve and his ground getting the better drive out of the corner. Holding the lead to the flag, Reynolds took his second win of the year, with Whincup and McLaughlin joining him on the podium. The inherited win also moved Reynolds up to second place in the V8 Supercars Championship, 46 points ahead of Lowndes. Championship leader Winterbottom took fourth with van Gisbergen, Courtney, Tim Slade, Pye, Coulthard and Tander rounding out the top ten.

Sunday Qualifying
Scott McLaughlin always pulls something out of the hat at Pukekohe, the scene of his maiden victory in 2013. This time, it was no different as the Volvo young gun took pole for the weekend’s final race, edging out Whincup by just 0.0014s, to a huge roar from the watching faithful. Pye scored yet another third place grid position ahead of fellow Ford driver Reynolds, both within a tenth of McLaughlin’s pole time. Michael Caruso, Coulthard, Moffat, van Gisbergen, Winterbottom and Lowndes completed the top ten for the 200km race.

Race Three
McLaughlin was unable to capitalise on his pole position as Whincup got the early lead into turn one. The madness then began at the back of the pack as the field hurried through the first sector. Cam Waters, standing in for the injured Chaz Mostert, was lucky to not cause a major accident after spearing through the grass and back onto the track. The two factory Nissans of James Moffat and Caruso nearly came together at the chicane with Caruso having to take the long way round. The first scalp of the day was claimed early on when Courtney made contact with championship leader Winterbottom at the hairpin on lap two, spinning the Falcon around and sending Winterbottom to the back of the field. Percat was taken out of the race on lap seven after making contact at the hairpin, resulting in major damage to the front left. Percat had tried to make a move on Todd Kelly but came out with the worst deal. The flurry of pit stops shuffled the field with Winterbottom able to jump up four places to 19th.

At the restart, Whincup found his groove with ease, stretching out his lead to just over three seconds after ten laps. Lowndes was left to do all he could, slicing through the pack to claw back as many points as possible on Winterbottom who was seemingly struggling at the back of the pack. The final round of pitstops further jumbled up the remaining cars. Lowndes was the major beneficiary, jumping Reynolds, McLaughlin and Pye. The DJR Team Penske crew were able to boost Pye’s chances of a career best finish, getting him out of the lane into third, just behind Lowndes. In first place, Whincup crossed the line with a large margin over team-mate Lowndes. After his spectacular tyre failure in race two, Lowndes was able to pull back some points to Winterbottom, a credit to the Triple Eight team. Meanwhile, Pye recorded his first podium finish, the first for the DJRTP partnership and breaking DJR’s 80-race streak without a podium in the process. Reynolds, Caruso, McLaughlin, Coulthard, Holdsworth, van Gisbergen and Tander completed the ten. Minimising the damage after his earlier incident, Winterbottom was able to salvage eleventh.

ITM 500 Auckland Winners and Losers

With the only international round occurring much later in the calendar than previous years, the racing certainly heated up in New Zealand. On a weekend where Winterbottom should’ve easily opened up his championship lead, he was unable to fully capitalise on the downfall of Lowndes in a round that could be pivotal for the championship. Reynolds now has a solitary point over Lowndes as he chases closure before departing Prodrive. Going into the final two rounds at Phillip Island and Sydney, the championship is surely going to tighten up as the three main contenders refuse to lift.

Winners

  1. Jamie Whincup may be out of championship contention but there’s no way that’s ever going to stop him from closing in on Lowndes’ all-time wins record. Reunited with 2014 engineer David Cauchie, the reigning champ put in three solid drives, reminiscent of his dominant form over the past few years. While many have criticised his lack of drive and composure late this season, it’s clear to see that this is his time of the year. Whincup was also able to secure the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy, with special meaning to him as he and the fallen Kiwi were team mates at Tasman Motorsport in 2005.
  2. David Reynolds has well and truly brought himself into the championship hunt after bringing his trademark consistency to the third last round of the year. Now in second, Reynolds has stopped being the joker in the pack and is proving that he can be the ace. While he hasn’t had the string of bad luck that team-mate Winterbottom has over the years, he is proving to be more composed than his Prodrive counterpart over the last few rounds of the season. With this form, we could well see the #1 on an Erebus car next year.
  3. Scott Pye may have only finished third but his result marks the best of his V8 Supercars career and will give a fresh breath of life into DJR Team Penske. After an up-and-down start to the season to an awful crash at Bathurst, Pye has proved that he deserved to get a call up for a full-time drive with the team this year when Marcos Ambrose decided to step down. With his team getting more and more accustomed to the car with each round, his form bodes well for the 2016 season.

Losers

  1. Brad Jones Racing and “lacklustre” have been going hand in hand recently and Pukekohe was no exception. Despite having the sentimental value of racing at the late Jason Richards’ home track, with all three cars adorning the “JR Star”, they failed to record a solid result all weekend. More than any other team, BJR seems to have inconsistent results at different types of tracks: on some they shine, on others they are nothing other than dull. With the loss of Coulthard next year, the team will be fighting to stay at the front without a star driver.
  2. Cam Waters needs to calm down before he potentially steps up to the main game full-time next year. While he has been composed all year in the Dunlop Series, his drives since making his debut at Bathurst in 2011 have always been on the edge. What he needs to remember that he isn’t driving for Mostert’s championship: he’s driving for himself and the team. The last thing he needs to do is take out or hinder his team-mates in their respective championship bids.
  3. Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport needs to either give Nick Percat a better car for next season or prepare him and whoever is joining the squad for more inconsistent results in 2016. Despite using a Triple Eight chassis, there are times when the team seems like it is driving completely different cars to the rest using the same build chassis. While some results throughout the year have been strong, the car doesn’t seem to suit the raw pace and talent of the young 2011 Bathurst 1000 winner.

Next up is the famous, flowing Phillip Island circuit in Victoria for the WD-40 Phillip Island SuperSprint, from 20 – 22 November.

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