After an all-too-long summer break, the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship returned to the spiritual start of the season around Adelaide’s Parklands circuit for the 2017 Clipsal 500. Since 1999, the Supercars (and its predecessor, the Australian Touring Car Championship) have been roaring around the city streets that once played host to the Formula One giants in the 1980’s and early 90’s. While the speeds of our cars are a bit slower, the racing is just as good, as was yet again proven this weekend.
Coming in to the new year with a new and unknown Dunlop tyre compound, it was a case of who could dial in their setup first. Around a hot and bumpy street circuit, only the brave are rewarded and it was one familiar face at a very successful team that reaped the benefits.
1. Shane van Gisbergen proved he may not be a one-off championship driver by starting off his title defence in the best possible way by topping every competitive session in Adelaide. Qualifying in first on Friday, he converted that to pole in the opening top-ten shootout. After a near flawless drive, his day got even better as he won the first race of the 2017 season. That form was carried over to Sunday where again he topped qualifying and the top-ten shootout. Despite losing the run to turn one against the DJR Team Penske cars in race two, his ability to keep on the pressure meant another victory was snatched in the dying moments when race leader Scott McLaughlin locked up on turn nine with three laps to go. There’s not much more you can do to win a championship than keep your nose clean and take away the maximum amount of points, this young Kiwi doing just that.
2. Fabian Coulthard was the 2017 Clipsal 500 weekend’s quiet achiever for the DJR Team Penske which received much fanfare in the season lead-up. While a lot of focus in the pre-season and early weekend proceedings was on his new team-mate, it was Coulthard, in his second season with the team, that gained the upper hand by nabbing second place (the best of the rest) in race one. For race two, he started second best and did well to come home fifth, again coming home in a strong placing. Coulthard has the potential to achieve strong results and with the pace of his car, can be there to pick up the scraps when others falter.
3. Scott McLaughlin could have found himself in the losers category having made a crucial mistake in each race in Adelaide, but his Sunday performance was nearly enough to totally forget the errors. After losing out to van Gisbergen in Friday qualifying by 0.0001 seconds, his top-ten lap was only good enough for fifth on the grid. When the safety car was deployed around a quarter of the way through race one, he was still in a solid position. Just before the green flag came out, he was seen weaving as the safety car lights went out, earning him a drive through penalty. Game over, salvage and reset for the next day. Roll on Sunday and his third in qualifying translated to second after turn one. A strong drive to a near certain victory slipped as, being chased down by van Gisbergen, he locked his rears into turn nine, losing the lead. Still with a bit to learn about his new car, McLaughlin has proved that he has what it takes to race at the front this year.
1. Todd Kelly will be a little bit more cross than usual as he leaves Adelaide only 21st in the championship. Two punctures on Saturday were then followed by an impressive ninth in Sunday’s events. Though a top ten would often be something to write home about, the event was soured by receiving a 35 point penalty for Saturday’s race. On the opening lap, he failed to concede a place to Will Davison in the run up to turn eight, forcing the Tekno driver into the fence and out of the race. The veteran will look to make amends the next time they hit the track in a month’s time.
2. Jason Bright made his return to Prodrive after a ten-year absence, bringing his REC and new sponsorship from Mega Fuels with him. Despite the Fords looking quick all weekend, Bright was not among the best, finishing 21st and 15th in races one and two respectively. Getting used to the car may be a factor, but poor qualifying didn’t help matters and his lack of pace around the street circuit (as well as the form of his former team, BJR) could already put pay to any ambitions. While he may improve throughout the season, his young stable-mates have already decently showed his up, something that is hard to mentally recover from throughout the season.
3. Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport won the Clipsal 500 last year after a surprise victory thanks to the weather gods. This year, their prayers seemed to have been ignored as young debutante Alex Rullo and second-seat stand-in Taz Douglas had a weekend to forget. For Rullo, the trial by fire in his first Supercars round started in Friday practice when he found the turn five tyre barrier. In the races, he ran near the back, finishing 23rd and 25th. Douglas had a cool suit failure in race one, coming in to seemingly retire from the race (and hop into LDM’s garbage bin/ice bath solution) though after getting his core temperature down, he returned to finish the race. In both races he finished 24th. Without a strong driver like Nick Percat or someone with tested talent like Andre Heimgartner, the team may not stray far from finishing races in the 20’s throughout the year.
Next up is the short, sharp and super fast track of Symmons Plains in Tasmania. Will Davison and Shane van Gisbergen are the reigning winners of the race, both with something to prove this year.