After a frustratingly long wait between rounds, the V8 Supercars Championship headed north to escape the winter at Darwin’s Hidden Valley Raceway. A recently resurfaced track promised quick lap times while the high temperatures led to some hot action. Familiar faces showed up at the front and history was made in this great weekend up in the top end.
The new track surface proved to be quick early in practice with The Bottle-O Racing Team’s David Reynolds topping the first session, and setting a new lap record in the progress. He then did the same thing in the second session on hard tyres, proving the pace of not only the track but the Ford customer team Prodrive Falcon. In Saturday’s qualifying, it was the turn of Holden and Nissan. First up, James Courtney put his Holden Racing Team Commodore on pole for race one, pipping Prodrive Racing’s Chaz Mostert to the top of the timesheets and denying the young Ford driver his fifth straight pole. Jamie Whincup, Fabian Coulthard, Shane van Gisbergen and Mark Winterbottom completed the first three rows. For race two, Rick Kelly broke a nearly four year long drought to claim pole in the burgeoning Nissan Motorsport Altima, edging out Coulthard by just 0.01 seconds. Whincup, meanwhile had a horrible session, lining his Red Bull Racing Holden up in 17th.
In Saturday’s opener, Mostert got the jump on Courtney off the line, but further back the race got away to a messy start when Whincup collided at turn one with Coulthard, ending the Kiwi’s race with a bent steering arm among other things. The action kept coming heading to the top of the circuit as Craig Lowndes was pushed onto the grass in a three-wide battle. Things only got worse at the hairpin when Scott McLaughlin took a dive on the inside of Lowndes and Tim Blanchard, sending both onto the grass as well as Erebus Motorsport’s Will Davison who was following the trio. McLaughlin’s car was retired due to damage. A few laps later, Dale Wood overshot his braking marker into turn one, ending up in the grass. The heat of the underside of his car combined with the dry grass caused a minor fire, bringing out the safety car for marshals to extinguish the flames. After the short break, racing resumed and Mostert bolted ahead of the pack while Winterbottom applied pressure to Courtney. The mid-pack kept changing as drivers skirmished for position like the championship depended on it. Courtney locked up into turn one and lost places, struggling to wrangle the Commodore. Lowndes made a costly mistake a few laps later at turn five, dropping on to the grey area of the track and setting the grass alight a second time. This forced race control again to deploy the safety car and condense the pack ahead of a two lap sprint to the flag. The drama didn’t stop when Tander (outside), Courtney (middle) and van Gisbergen (inside) went three-wide into the first corner which ended in tears when all three made contact, putting the HRT team-mates off the road. The two Pepsi Max Crew Falcon’s spearheaded the pack across the line, leading from the three Nissans of Rick Kelly, James Moffat and Michael Caruso. Recording his best result of the year, sixth place went to DJR Team Penske’s Scott Pye from a P20 start in the Shell Helix backed Falcon FG X.
The day’s second race got off to an equally fierce start. Pole sitter Rick Kelly lost the lead into turn one to Coulthard and then lost control of his Altima spearing into the Freightliner Racing entry and sending them both into the grass. Kelly was later handed a drive-through penalty for the accident. Capitalising on the incident, Lowndes swooped through on the inside of both Mostert and van Gisbergen to take the lead of the race. Further down the road at turn ten, Super Black Racing’s Andre Heimgartner was spun by Will Davison, causing a pile up between the pair, Whincup and LDM’s Nick Percat. Both Heimgartner and Percat were forced to retire due to damage to their cars, with the safety car deployed to recover the stricken SBR Ford. After the restart, the field again struggled to get into a groove with contact being made every lap. Going into turn five, GB Galvanizing Racing’s Dale Wood and Wilson Security Racing GRM’s David Wall made contact, forcing both onto the grass and to miss the hairpin section of the track. Trouble then struck the Erebus entries when Ash Walsh tagged and spun team-mate Will Davison going into the last corner, bringing both of them to a stop. Mostert applied pressure to second placed Tim Slade and attempted a pass at turn five but couldn’t get a good exit, giving the place back. Van Gisbergen then ran off the road further along the lap, giving away a place to Courtney. Pye was able to carve up the field and took fourth place off Courtney into the final turn. The rest of the race became a battle for fifth between Courtney, van Gisbergen and Winterbottom. However, all eyes were on Lowndes as ‘The Kid’ notched up a history making 100th win in the 888th V8 Supercars race in car 888. Emotions were high for both Lowndes and his team as he crossed the line on such a crazy day. Slade was able to hold off Mostert for second, while Pye remained in fourth, again exceeding expectations and improving on the team’s best result of the year set in the earlier race. Van Gisbergen, Courtney, Winterbottom, Tander, McLaughlin and Reynolds rounded out the top 10.
Qualifying on Sunday saw Reynolds find his Friday practice pace and grab his first pole position since the Gold Coast round in 2013. Coulthard again had to settle for second ahead of van Gisbergen, Mostert and Wood. Whincup had yet another dismal session with a time only good enough to get 12th spot.
Sunday’s headline race got underway cleanly with Coulthard pipping Reynolds into the first turn. Everyone got around the first lap with no major contact for the first time in the weekend, Coulthard leading the way from Reynolds, Mostert, van Gisbergen and Winterbottom. Coulthard seemed to be comfortably leading until lap 12 when he was baulked by a lap-down Heimgartner, forcing the BJR driver to the dirty side off the race, losing grip and running off the road. From this mistake, Reynolds retook the lead ahead of Mostert. After the initial pit stops, Reynolds only spent 11 laps on the hard compound tyre after developing a puncture, forcing him to pit ahead of schedule, but with the ability to fill up enough to get home. A handful of laps later, Mostert and Coulthard pitted, rejoining in second and fourth respectively. Lowndes slotted in between the pair, coping with pressure from Coulthard on better tyres while still maintaining the gap to Mostert. Whincup was punching away in the mid-pack but was forced to pit as his front-right tyre started to delaminate. Lowndes soon suffered the same fate as his Red Bull team-mate, unexpectedly pitting to slap on a new set of tyres to get to the finish. Following Michael Caruso, Reynolds had a heart-stopping moment into turn five as he locked up, having to go onto the grass and rejoin at turn seven to miss the Nissan. Race stewards concluded that he had lost enough time to not have to give up a place to Mostert. Despite the scare, Reynolds took the flag ahead of Mostert and Coulthard for his second career win. Van Gisbergen held off Winterbottom for fourth, while Percat, Courtney, Bright, Slade and Wood completed the top ten.
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It wasn’t only the temperatures that were high at Hidden Valley, but the on-track drama too. Mostert showed he’s a championship contender, Lowndes proved he is one of the best there ever was, and Reynolds showed that he still has some fight left in him. We will need some time to get our heart rates down and must wait until the series heads to tropical Townsville for the next round.
- Chaz Mostert was the only driver of the weekend to finish on the podium in every race, helping him to make up ground in the championship but also regain his confidence after his blunder at Winton. Consistently finishing ahead of team-mate and championship leader Winterbottom suggests that Mostert is comfortable in the FG-X Falcon. His speed and consistency as well as a strong performance at his bogey tracks means that he will surely be in contention for the championship this year.
- Fabian Coulthard may have had two terrible races on Saturday but it was through no fault of his own. His new chassis has pace to burn and, as shown in Sunday’s race, is good on its tyres. If he hadn’t been caught up in the first corner dramas in both races one and two, Coulthard would’ve easily been in contention for a top five finish. He’ll be looking for a win when the circus moves on to Townsville.
- Mark Winterbottom snagged a good haul of points over the weekend and capitalised on the dramas that rivals Red Bull Racing Australia faced to extend his championship lead. Consistency is something that he has struggled with in previous years so his results in previous rounds bodes well for his championship ambitions. Darwin was where he scored his last win of 2014, which will have Frosty pushing to keep up the pace for the rest of the season.
- Jamie Whincup must be hoping that whatever is going wrong with his team can be sorted out quickly. Not only is he losing ground in the championship through poor results, but also through his own mistakes. He was penalised for his amateur attempt of a pass on Coulthard in race one and finished a dismal 22nd in Sunday’s race. Now sitting eighth in the championship, Whincup needs to find his blinding speed of years previous to be in the hunt for the title this year.
- James Courtney needs to learn to let his racing do the talking after causing yet another crash with team-mate Garth Tander. After claiming that Prodrive wouldn’t keep up their unbeatable pace, Courtney failed to finish ahead of them in any of the races and was left to apologise to his team after his horrible blunder. As Townsville has been good to him in recent years, he’ll be hoping that things start to turn around for him.
- Erebus Motorsport had a relatively lacklustre weekend, one that they’d rather forget at the end of the year. In race two, its cars made contact, losing spaces and no doubt making things tense in the garage. In race three, Ash Walsh was the only non-finisher and Will Davison was the last placed finisher. After a successful Barbagallo, they’ll be wanting forget their Darwin result and focus on Townsville.