This weekend’s V8 Supercars round took place at New South Wales’ premier permanent race track, Sydney Motorsport Park. Two sixty kilometre races and one two-hundred kilometre showdown helped to set the tone for the series until the paddock goes into endurance mode for the Pirtek Enduro Cup. As always, some familiar faces were at the top and some surprise results came for the drivers that have dropped off the radar.
Friday morning saw the Enduro Cup co-drivers have their last turns of the wheel before Sandown with Nissan’s Dean Fiore coming out on top. He was able to put Michael Caruso’s Altima to the top of the standings ahead of Dunlop Series leader Cam Waters, driving Chaz Mostert’s Falcon. Marcos Ambrose was able to silence his critics and inner demons by finishing up an astounding fifth place, gaining confidence in his final shakedown in the DJR Team Penske Falcon.
A freak accident sent a sombre mood through the paddock after James Courtney was injured during the break between practice one and two. The Royal Australian Navy was showing off one of its Seahawk choppers when the downdraft caused debris to fly around the pitlane, hitting Courtney in the chest. He was then sent to a nearby hospital for checks and was to be kept there as a precautionary measure. HRT later announced that Jack Perkins would fill in for him for the rest of the weekend with Courtney also being in serious doubt for Sandown.
Race twenty one’s qualifying session proved to be short but eventful. All cars initially headed out on installation laps then pitted without completing a full cycle. As the drivers attempted to leave the lane at the same time, Garth Tander’s HRT Commodore failed to fire up, blocking the pit lane. It was later diagnosed as a possible crank angle sensor issue, putting him out of the rest of the session. On the softs, Mostert was flying, taking his ninth pole position of the year ahead of Winterbottom, giving PRA another front-row lockout. However, their bitter rivals, Red Bull Racing Australia, weren’t far behind with Whincup in third and Lowndes in fifth. Reynolds snatched fourth while Heimgartner muscled his Falcon to sixth. Bright, Rick Kelly, McLaughlin and Pye rounded out the top ten, meaning all five Falcons made the first five rows of the grid. Van Gisbergen’s result was the shock of the session, only managing an appalling twenty first spot.
Qualifying for race twenty two proved to be much tighter and even faster. Yet again, most cars went out on used softs for installation laps and came in after their first rotation, though some stayed out to put in banker laps. While almost everyone left the Saturday pit traffic jam early, some elected to wait and get clean air. It was again Mostert who came out on top, giving him his tenth pole for the year, equalling Whincup and McLaughlin’s efforts last year. Whincup was able to sneak into second while Coulthard managed to put his BJR machine into third. Van Gisbergen improved massively on his previous qualifying effort, ending up in fourth. Reynolds, McLaughlin, Holdsworth, Winterbottom, Heimgartner and Davison completed the ten.
Race twenty one got off to an even start with Mostert and Winterbottom going side-by-side into the first turn, staying with each other until the #6 got an edge out of two. It looked like Reynolds would get by Whincup but was on the outside at turn two, relegating him to fourth. From there, it was Mostert that walked away from the pack, putting a comfortable game between him and his team-mate. The gaps between Whincup/Reynolds/Lowndes see-sawed throughout the race but no further moves were made. The only mentionable incident of the race occurred when Wood was spun by Percat at turn seven, leading to a post-race investigation. There was more racing at the back end of the top ten with Rick Kelly fighting off Kiwis Heimgartner and McLaughlin to the flag. Coming out of the last corner, Heimgartner got a run on Kelly’s Nissan and bumped him as he moved to the inside. This prompted Kelly to give him the “Schumacher squeeze”, nearly pushing him into the pit wall. However, at the front, Mostert was able to turn pole into a win for the first time this year, marginally closing the points gap to Winterbottom. Whincup returned to the podium for the first time since Barbagallo, showing that the fat lady hasn’t sung just yet. Reynolds, Lowndes, R.Kelly, Heimgartner, McLaughlin, Pye and Bright completed the top ten. Tander was only able to get up to eighteenth, one place ahead of Courtney’s stand-in Perkins. Van Gisbergen will be looking to scavenge whatever points he can in the afternoon race, crossing the line in a disappointing twentieth position.
The second race of the day got underway with a perfect start for Whincup who took the lead into turn one. Coulthard was able to take advantage of a slow-starting Mostert and took second on the opening lap. The real action began at turn five where Moffat was boxed in between team-mate Todd Kelly and Pye on the outside. The contact put one side of the Nissan into the air and pushed Pye out wide, focing him to put in a recovery drive. Things spiced up even more when Rick Kelly was nearly shot into the wall, managing to save his car. Another few seconds later, another incident with Tander spinning Bright around, nearly sending the BOC car into the inside wall. In what must be the save of the century, Bright managed to keep it off the concrete and rejoined the race. Coulthard constantly applied pressure to Whincup who seemed to be nursing his car with a broken exhaust header. Mostert dropped back, losing car speed but retained third. Van Gisbergen continued to struggle with his Tekno Commodore, letting McLaughlin by to fourth place. He then held up the angry pack of Reynolds, Holdsworth, Winterbottom, Davison and Lowndes behind him, though none of them were able to pass each other. Meanwhile at the front, Whincup was able to fend off Coulthard, securing his first victory since the Sunday race at Symmons Plains with Mostert coming third.
Sunday’s late-morning qualifying session began in mixed conditions. An overnight shower and light morning rain meant the track was damp but not wet enough for full wet tyres. Teams then had to make the choice to either risk spinning on slicks or burn out their wets. The answer soon came when all cars bar Wood and Todd Kelly headed out on the hard slick compound. Everyone went out on roaded tyres, getting a feel for the track’s grip levels before throwing on ‘green’ tyres. On a greasy track, van Gisbergen stepped up his game and led the timesheets for the first half of the session. With just five minutes left, all cars left the pit lane, causing yet another traffic jam. The lap times started to tumble and the lead as if everyone was driving through a turnstile. However, in the end, it was McLaughlin that bounced back to nab the first position. Reynolds was just 0.165 seconds behind the Kiwi while his team mate Mostert nabbed third. Van Gisbergen, Pye, Holdsworth, Heimgartner, Whincup, Moffat and Coulthard completed the ten. Championship leader Winterbottom only managed twelfth while rival Lowndes ended in a poor nineteenth position.
Despite strong threats of rain and thunderstorms, the last race of the weekend got underway in cool but dry conditions. The race start was tight at the top, with McLaughlin only just holding off Reynolds. An incident between Wall and Todd Kelly made race control react and bring out safety car by the end of the lap. The leaders dived into the pits, causing a conundrum in the lane. Everyone took different loads of fuel onboard, making it unclear whose stop was the best between the teams. After the restart, despite being on hard tyres, Mostert and Reynolds were able to bolt away from the pack who were being held up by Walsh and Perkins on hards. McLaughlin showed speed by powering past countryman van Gisbergen though they were on different tyre compounds. The positions changed over the next bunch of laps as everyone got up to speed with their different fuel loads and tyres. Van Gisbergen on hard tyres held up the train of soft runner behind him, all eager to get past. Mostert was able to extend his lead over Reynolds and the rest of the field, playing into their hands for the later stints. McLaughlin was able to get past Walsh for third, aiming to hunt the PRA Falcons. Many drivers came in for stops, putting on the soft tyres to get pace. Just as many had come out, the heavens opened and the track became very wet, very quickly. Dale Wood spun at the first corner, forcing the safety car to come out. Not even two laps after the runners came in for wets, the shower stopped, confusing the paddock. AS the action started again, Bright showed that his BJR Commodore is a jet in the wet, moving up to second within two laps. The mid-pack became bunched up with different levels of confidence all within a few car lengths. Mostert soon found his groove, just edging ahead. Winterbottom was dropped down the order after a touch-up from Lowndes. Coulthard further proved the wet pace of the BJR machines by getting past Reynolds for third. The battle between McLaughlin and van Gisbergen heated up, going head-to-dead for a couple of laps. At the front, Mostert still kept making ground, debating whether to pit for slicks or not. Whincup was evidently struggling, sliding all over the track and being passed constantly, as well as having Winterbottom on his tail. Coulthard was able to get by team-mate Bright as it was confirmed the race would come to a time-certain finish. Van Gisbergen began to close up to Bright but nearly ended up in the barriers twice over two laps after trying to find water to cool off his tyres, running onto the grass. As the #97 attempted a pass at turn four, he understeered into the Bright car, forcing him onto the grass and to short-cut the track. However, it was Mostert that proved to be the star, staying on track to claim his second victory and third podium of the weekend, enabling him to gain more ground on Winterbottom in the championship. Coulthard and Bright rounded out the podium while van Gisbergen, McLaughlin, Reynolds, Caruso, Slade, Percat and Lowndes were the ten. Whincup came home fourteenth while Winterbottom could only manage fourteenth.
Sydney Motorsport Park SuperSprint Winners and Losers
When you’ve got a pack of twenty five cars all going around within a few seconds of each other, the action is always going to be high. This weekend was no different. While Mostert and Whincup enjoyed success and Coulthard returned to the podium, twice, it was a tough few days for championship leader Winterbottom. The wet conditions on Sunday gave a showcase as to just how cool V8 Supercars can be when the drivers are on the limit.
- Chaz Mostert was right when he claimed on Friday that the battle would go down to the wire, now right up behind his team-mate and championship leader Winterbottom. He’s now more than proved that he’s not just fast in sprint races but also in the longer races, no matter what Mother Nature throws at him. With all the focus on his team-mate, Chaz could mount a late season charge for the championship after cutting the championship lead from 292 points to 174.
- Fabian Coulthard has begun to fight back against his championship rivals and critics. While everyone has been asking if Whincup can claim another title, Coulthard is not only ahead of him in the standings but has also been posting more consistent results. With the BJR team now starting to make improvements, Coulthard remains the sole Kiwi in the championship hunt.
- Scott McLaughlin may have had a horrible start to the season but it’s evident that it hasn’t put a damper on his spirit or speed. Claiming yet another pole position in greasy conditions, the young Kiwi still has great one-lap speed and consistency in the races. These recent strong results mean that he’ll be more eager to fight for the title next season.
- Craig Lowndes may not have had a disaster weekend but it’s definitely not one to remember for the centurion. The gap to Winterbottom has extended, he’s slipped to third in the points and not enjoying the same results as his team-mate. Even though the next part of the season is his favourite, it may be too late for ‘The Kid’ to mount a challenge to the Prodrive cars.
- Nick Percat had a lacklustre weekend where his most exciting moments came off the track. Despite having a strong 888 built chassis, the 2011 Bathurst winner just can’t get out of the mid-pack. This, combined with the fact that he presents himself as a battler but acts like a private schoolboy, must be frustrating for his team who would’ve hoped for more when he was signed at the start of the year.
- James Courtney must be feeling pain in his head as well as his chest after being sidelined for this weekend’s racing. After his injuries were confirmed on Friday night, it became clear that this is one title that he won’t win. With the possibility of also being out for the Sandown 500, James’ and HRT’s focus will now be on making sure the 2010 series champion is fight for Bathurst
Next up is the first of the Pirtek Enduro Cup races: the Sandown 500.