A return to the Top End saw the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship paddock escape the southern states’ winter chill, but the on-track action stayed as hot as ever. With only a fistful of points separating the top four in the points standings, the leading drivers pushed to get the upper hand on each other across the Darwin Triple Crown weekend. A few wildcard inclusions spiced up the action further down the pack, while a few incidents couldn’t detract from what was a great round of racing.
- Scott McLaughlin came to Darwin third in the Championship standings, but two podium finishes and two front row starts later, he left second only to his DJR Team Penske team-mate. Starting second on Saturday, his race was almost thrown away on lap two after running off the road at turn one, and dropping from second to sixth. Despite stalling his car during his mandatory pit stop, McLaughlin’s determined recovery drive put him second on the podium. Sunday’s 200km race saw the young Kiwi go one better, adding another pole position to his tally and going on to take the race win. After the early niggles which saw him drop points in the opening rounds of the season, he has re-emerged as a genuine Championship contender.
- Fabian Coulthard retained his Supercars Championship points lead after two consistent races, staying out of trouble and bringing home a solid haul of points. Winning the opening race of the weekend despite being on a compromised strategy shows the driving skill and management needed to win a title. While fourth was the best he could do in the second race of the weekend thanks to worn tyres, he still leads the Championship and has pace to burn at a time in the season where he has previously faded away. Given the team is now one-two in the Teams’ Championship, they’ll be looking to keep that lead for the rest of the season.
- Jamie Whincup really is proving to be this year’s Mr Consistent, grabbing points where vital, but still without a race win. Only one win away from matching the record for race victories, the series’ most successful driver is still in contention to score his seventh title but must be getting frustrated at not yet winning a race in 2017. While he kept close to the bumpers of the DJR Team Penske cars on Saturday, coming home third, he had to watch McLaughlin run away to the win on Sunday, before coming home second ahead of his Red Bull team-mate. Despite the lack of a win obviously annoying Whincup, his consistency so far means he is not too far off the cars which have arguably been the dominant force this year.
- The wildcard entries of Macaulay Jones and Jack Le Brocq had a hard time in their first Virgin Australia Supercars solo races. Saturday was the main cause of headaches for both drivers with Jones becoming involved in multiple incidents throughout the opening laps, first turning around Michael Caruso then being spun by James Courtney. Le Brocq’s day wasn’t much better, fighting for the lower positions and making contact with his quasi team-mate Simona De Silvestro. So far this season, the wildcard drivers have seemed more desperate than determined to get a good finish and prove their worth; a trap for young players.
- It’s hard to put someone who stood on the podium as a loser but Shane van Gisbergen would’ve felt down in the dumps. While leading the race, the defending champion suffered a puncture at the start of lap 18, taking a long time to limp home for fresh rubber. A fightback through the field then came to an abrupt end. Contact with Garth Tander and Jason Bright breaking the steering on the Triple Eight Commodore. A great drive on Sunday saw van Gisbergen stand on the last step on the podium, but a loss of 150 points to Championship leader Coulthard due to the DNF in race one means he’ll have to fight back hard for the rest of the year.
- Rick Kelly has been left to rue what might have been after a potential best result of the season for him slipped out of his reach, thanks to a stuck throttle. The 2006 series champion scored pole for the opening race of the weekend (two years since his last pole at the same venue), but the Nissan Motorsport driver suffered a stuck throttle on lap 18, sending him in to the barriers and out of the race. The second race netted a top ten finish which was far from what he would have hoped for given his team’s speed at the circuit. As the team is in its fifth year with only two race wins, small issues can cause big headaches as they look ahead to the Gen2 regulations.
It was close, but the hunt for the elusive Darwin Triple Crown trophy goes on. Next up, the series stays north, moving east to Townsville for a blast around the Reid Park circuit. The stakes will be high as the top drivers have everything to lose while everyone else has seemingly everything to gain.