Another year of the Supercars championship is in the books and what a season it was! More tracks, a hatchback debut and a new champion.
It’s hard to believe when you look back to the opening round of the season in Adelaide that the top two finishers in the championship would accrue only four finishes outside of the top ten throughout the year between them, demonstrating the new levels of consistency required to win the title.
The past two years of the Supercars championship have been among the tightest ever with less than 100 points separating first and second if you combine 2017 and 2018. For the margin to be that close two years in a row, and between two drivers racing for two different manufacturers, is a testament to just how close the series is.
After 31 races, we crowned a first-time champion, said goodbye to a legend of the sport and worked out who the stars of the future will be. Here we have a look at who shone and who struggled throughout the year that was.
- Scott McLaughlin entered 2018 with the ambition of putting his demons behind him after losing the 2017 championship by just 21 points in controversial circumstances. From the outset, it was clear McLaughlin was wiser after being denied a maiden title the year before.Starting his tally of nine wins for the season in the first championship race at Albert Park, he hit his stride at Phillip Island where he clean-swept the weekend, going toe-to-toe with his rivals on consecutive days. This form carried across to the next round at Perth where he again took the top step of the Barbagallo podium on Saturday and Sunday, despite starting from 19th on the grid. The back half of the season saw his winning ways slip away, not taking victory from race 19 at Queensland Raceway until race 29 at Pukekohe Park in front of his home fans, setting up a title fight in Newcastle.
With all the talk remaining about what had occurred the year before and a slim 14-point lead, the pressure was on but a near clean sweep of the round saw him take the championship. He became the 25th different title winner in Australian Touring Car Championship/Supercars history, giving the Ford Falcon a fitting send-off with championship number 17 in car #17 and the first win for Dick Johnson Racing since 2010 with James Courtney.
The title win capped off a good week for Roger Penske who won the NASCAR title in Miami with Joey Logano, also in a Shell-sponsored Ford. With the weight of the world now off his shoulders, McLaughlin will be looking to defend his title in the new Ford Mustang next year when everyone hits the track in Adelaide.
- Triple Eight can hold their heads up high for the effort they put in to 2018. Despite not winning the drivers’ title, they seemed to win everything else; the Bathurst 1000 and the teams’ championship as well as having their drivers finish second, third and fourth in the championship.
Shane van Gisbergen, Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes put in a team effort, winning 14 of the 31 contested races between them, seven of those coming through the efforts of van Gisbergen.
For two years in a row the factory Holden team has had a massive workload; last year developing the new ZB Commodore, the now canned V6 Twin Turbo engine which was meant to feature this year and dealing with their customer teams.
Frustratingly, a teething problem with van Gisbergen’s pedal box in Tasmania saw the eventual runner up to the championship finish 25th, his worst result of the year which might have seen him holding the championship trophy had it not happened. Whincup and co-driver Paul Dumbrell won the Sandown 500 in convincing fashion, leading a Triple Eight podium lockout, but the wheels literally fell off their wagon at Bathurst, going a lap down thanks to a wheel departing the car while fighting for the lead. Bathurst was to be a good race for Lowndes though, taking his seventh victory in the 1000km classic in his last start as a main driver.
While it’s likely he will win more races in the future as a co-driver, the fact that his last full-time win was at Mount Panorama only adds to his legend. Reducing themselves to two cars next year, Triple Eight will be all hands on deck to take back the drivers crown and retain the teams’ championship.
- Erebus Motorsport have every reason to look forward to next season with the knowledge they have two gun drivers onboard who will carry the team in the near future. After their underdog success at Bathurst in 2017 where David Reynolds and Luke Youlden won in tricky conditions, 2018 was always going to be a year of expectation for the small Melbourne outfit.
Reynolds nearly got the year off to a flying start when he led the closing stages of the Sunday Adelaide race until he relinquished the lead to the more aggressive van Gisbergen. What no one could have expected going into the year was the effect of rookie driver Anton de Pasquale’s presence in the team, occasionally out-qualifying his more experienced team-mate and often doing it by a considerable margin. While Reynolds got his win tally started at Albert Park, de Pasquale was always watching and learning from his team-mate. Reynolds pulled off the overtake of the year when he went around the outside of two cars at turn one in the Darwin round to take the lead and eventually the victory, though he had to wait until the last race of the season to stand on the top step of the podium again.
The low point of the season for the team came a day after one of their greatest triumphs. Locking out the front row at Bathurst with Reynolds/ Youlden on pole and de Pasquale/ young gun Will Brown in second, it looked like a day where the world was their oyster. On the contrary, Erebus proved the higher you climb, the harder you fall when the #99 car had a door which couldn’t close, causing out of sequence pit stops, eventually ending up in the fence at the top of the Mountain in the final stint of the race. Up front, it looked like Reynolds was going to cruise to victory until cramps got the better of him, losing the lead to Lowndes as the team elected to keep him in the car for the final stint. The combination of spinning his wheels in the pit stop and extreme exhaustion meant by the end of the race, car #9 crossed the line in 13th.
Erebus can be genuine contenders for the title next year, proving as much this year as Reynolds took fifth in the championship, but all the small errors must be eradicated if they want to compete with Triple Eight and DJR Team Penske.
- Tickford Racing couldn’t be suffering a bigger fall from grace if you pushed the team out of a plane, going through one of their toughest seasons in the team’s history. As three of their full-time drivers this year won two of the endurance races last year, it would be reasonable to expect the team to keep that form going into 2018. However, this was far from the case as only one race win throughout the season attests to, coming courtesy of Chaz Mostert and co-driver James Moffat in race one on the Gold Coast. Apart from this victory, results were few and far between; Mostert seemed to have lost the fire in his belly, 2015 champion Mark Winterbottom only had one podium finish, Cam Waters only had eight top ten finishes all year and new recruit Richie Stanaway, touted as being the best thing since sliced bread, came home inside the top 20 only eight times with one top ten.
The result was that the drivers finished sixth, 12th, 16th and 25th in the standings respectively; far from the form which is indicative of a team which held factory status and the championship trophy only a few years ago.
The Mustang may provide them new hope next year but with Winterbottom leaving and Stanaway resigned to giving the dream up, it’ll be a hard summer for the team.
- Simona De Silvestro continues to suffer through the curse of European drivers after enduring another tough season in Supercars. While many hailed her performance around the streets of Newcastle last year as a preview of the form she would show in 2018, the Swiss national still struggled this year despite now knowing all of the tracks on the calendar.
Though it can be argued the car wasn’t up to scratch, her team mates in Rick Kelly, Andre Heimgartner and Michael Caruso all finished higher up in the championship standings (eighth, 17th and 18th respectively) as De Silvestro finished the year in 23rd, behind three rookies and ahead of only one experienced racer, Tim Blanchard. Decent 14th place finishes at Sydney Motorsport Park and Bathurst (with Alex Rullo) were going to be the highlights of her year until the fuel-determined race 30 in Newcastle saw her cross the line in tenth, breaking through for her first top ten result which went largely unnoticed. Despite it looking like she’d end up in the third Triple Eight car for next year, that option has now closed up and she will need to prove her worth in 2019 to silence the growing critics.
- Fabian Coulthard cemented his status as a tail gunner this year after failing to replicate the results of prior seasons in a team which had been the teams’ champions only one year before. Straight off the bat, 21st in race one at Adelaide was not what the Kiwi needed, wanting to keep fighting at the front of the pack after finishing third in the 2017 championship. A pair of podiums in the Australian Grand Prix support races boosted him up early on but it wasn’t until race 14 at Winton that he would stand on the top step of the podium, so far notching up six finishes outside of the top ten in 2018. This was to be Coulthard’s last time on the dais for the year as he suffered through the rest of the season, only finishing in the top five twice more which dropped him to ninth in the drivers standings. While a change of engineer has been attributed as a cause of his struggles, finishing eight places behind your championship winning team-mate in the same car doesn’t look great, especially when it means the team loses their championship.
Perhaps Coulthard’s best moments of the season from a team’s perspective were his three incidents in Newcastle, all of which aided McLaughlin indirectly to win the championship. First was running Jamie Whincup wide into the fence, followed by Coulthard crashing himself out of the race on Saturday and then Whincup returning serve on Sunday which brought out the safety car.
Coulthard will need to up his game next year if he wants to be seen as anything other than a one-hit wonder and a number two driver as many strong drivers are off contract at the end of next year and will be looking to take the second best seat in the game.
Next year is a season of big change. The Ford Mustang will make its debut as the first coupe in Supercars history; we will be without the evergreen Craig Lowndes (and the #888) until the enduros; and, for the second time in three years, the #1 won’t be present with McLaughlin and Dick Johnson electing to run the #17.
With some seismic calendar changes, which include Sandown being the last endurance event of the Enduro Cup and Sydney yet again being dropped from the schedule, it will be interesting to see how the Supercars community reacts to the change as the series gears up for a big shift in the next few years.
As there are under 100 days to go until the Adelaide 500, the attention will now be on who finds themselves in which seat next year as one of the busiest off-seasons in years begins.