For the first time this year, the V8 Supercars championship went bush and headed to Winton Raceway in country Victoria after a two week break. It proved to be a pivotal weekend, with yet another championship leader emerging. Signs also emerged of a possible changing of the guard within one of the series’ biggest teams.
After a productive Friday where all teams were given a fresh set of soft tyres from Dunlop, Saturday qualifying got underway and showed ominous signs. The first session was slightly delayed after an earlier incident in the Touring Car Masters support race left oil on the road. McLaughlin soon fell victim, losing control and ending up in the turn 3 gravel trap, bringing out the red flag. At the end of the session it was Chaz Mostert who came out on top, lining up beside Nissan’s Michael Caruso. Prodrive Racing locked out the second row with David Reynolds putting his Falcon in third with Mark Winterbottom fourth. In the second session, it was again Mostert who ended up on top, out-qualifying Winterbottom by just 0.1 seconds. Reynolds again lined up third, while Rick Kelly put his Nissan Motorsport Altima in fourth. Brad Jones Racing team-mates Dale Wood and Fabian Coulthard made contact as Wood, who was on a hot lap, attempted a pass on the inside as they entered turn 7. Neither driver accepted fault, leaving tensions high in the BJR bunker.
The first race of the weekend got underway with Winterbottom making a blistering start, beating Caruso to turn 1 and making it a Prodrive 1-2 by the end of the first lap. After the first lap, there were no position changes within the top 16, allowing the pack to conserve tyres for the rest of the weekend. McLaughlin found himself in a feisty battle for last place, getting caught up in a battle between Wood and Tim Blanchard, resulting in the former spinning the young Kiwi. At the end of the race, Mostert was able to come home three seconds ahead of Winterbottom who stayed in front of Caruso.
Saturday’s second race began with action as Winterbottom was able to get by Mostert into the turn 1-2 chicane. Rick Kelly followed, putting himself into second place. However, the real drama was in the mid-pack where James Courtney lost control under braking, barrelling into Walkinshaw stablemates Garth Tander and Lee Holdsworth. Tander couldn’t get his car running again while Holdsworth limped back to the pits, retiring for the day. Courtney was given a pit lane drive-through penalty and came back in a lap later, putting wet tyres on his car to save his softs for Sunday. Out in front, Kelly continued to hound Winterbottom but to no avail, crossing the line 0.8 seconds behind the Ford. Reynolds again came home fourth while Shane van Gisbergen was able to hold off Jamie Whincup for fifth. The win was the fiftieth for FPR/PRA
Sunday’s qualifying action proved the pace of the new Falcon FG-X with Mostert, Winterbottom and Reynolds putting their cars in positions 1, 2 and 3 for the race. The result means that Mostert now has 5 poles for this season, more than any other driver. The shock of the session came when Whincup only managed a lowly twenty-second place, having to put in a strong drive in the 200km long race to regain position to the championship leaders.
At the start of the weekend’s final race, it was Mostert who was able to outrun Winterbottom into turn 1. Both started on hard tyres but were vulnerable to Craig Lowndes who was on soft tyres and able to get up to first from eighth within the first two laps. In the second stint, Mostert on softs enjoyed a spirited battle with Lowndes on hards, allowing Coulthard to catch up and join the battle. After a few failed attempts, Mostert was able to get past, taking Coulthard with him and in to the effective race lead. He was able to control the race up until lap 33 when he dropped a wheel in the dirt on entry to turn 4, spinning into the tyre barrier and ending up stuck on top of it. The safety car was deployed, triggering a raft of activity in the pit lane. Winterbottom was able to get away with a short fuel stop, coming out ahead of Coulthard but behind Lowndes who had bolted on the soft tyres from his first stint. Winterbottom and Coulthard put on sticker tyres, giving them better edge and tyre life. After the restart, Winterbottom was able to get past Lowndes with Coulthard following suit. Caruso was able to bring his Altima home in fourth after being tenth at the restart. Despite hanging on to the back of the Prodrive Ford for most of the last stint, Coulthard’s tyres went away, giving Winterbottom room to breathe. This meant that Prodrive was able to complete a clean sweep of the weekend, getting all race wins and pole positions. Coulthard and Lowndes joined him on the podium, Caruso and Tander completed the top five. Reynolds was able to finish sixth and Scott Pye recorded DJR Team Penske’s best result so far, taking the chequered flag in eighth place. Van Gisbergen, Will Davison and Mostert were the final three across the line, all rueing mistakes and strategy errors.
If the past is any indicator of the future, 2015 is the best chance for Prodrive to finally win a championship. In years gone by, the Fords have struggled with qualifying pace but been good in the races. Now, it is evident that not only do they have race pace but speed to burn in one lap duels. Coupled with the slump in form for Red Bull Racing Australia, the increase in pace means that if they’re going to win the title, it’s going to be this year.
Winton SuperSprint Winners and Losers
- Mark Winterbottom can go in to the five week break between now and Darwin with the confidence that he is now driving a potentially championship winning car. He’s now able to start on the front row and get off the line quickly, maintaining that pace through the races with good tyre wear. In two race meetings, he’s won four out of six races and has started in the top five for each one. This is one man that won’t crack under pressure.
- Chaz Mostert may have made a major unforced error in Sunday’s 200km race but he proved that while he may be young, that doesn’t mean he’s inexperienced. After signing a two-year contract with Prodrive during the week, he arrived at Winton with a spring in his step which translated into results. Three poles in a row, first win since Bathurst last year and the knowledge that his team-mate won’t run him off the road must surely mean Chaz has confidence in abundance.
- Nissan Motorsport has bounced back from a brief drop in form to have two podium finishes and a top five finish in each race at Winton. While Rick Kelly may have had their best result with second, Caruso’s performance was the most indicative of their pace as he stayed with the Prodrive Falcons on an identical tyre strategy. Despite Todd Kelly and James Moffat struggling to get out of the mid-pack, Nissan have now showed that they can stick it at the pointy end of the field.
- James Courtney must be feeling pretty red faced at the moment. After calling out Will Davison in the media for being a sook, he was beaten by the Erebus driver in Barbagallo. At Winton, he may have topped some practice sessions but didn’t convert that to qualifying pace. Then, to cap it all off, he takes off two of his team-mates in a first lap mistake. In race 3, he was penalised post-race for contact with Rick Kelly. He’ll be using the five week break to take some time out and getting his mind back on track to winning another title.
- Dale Wood’s podium performance of 2014 couldn’t be repeated at Winton this time around. At his team’s “local” track, he could only manage a best of seventeenth in race 2 and failed to get out of the bottom five in the other races. While his team-mates Coulthard and Jason Bright have been performing well and regularly feature at the front of the pack, Wood struggles to even compete in the mid-pack. He must be worried for the safety of his seat as he fails to fire in his second year with BJR.
- V8 Supercars and Dunlop need to get their act together on the increasingly worrying tyre conservation issue. While the fresh set of tyres that teams were given out on Friday gave a better indicator of pace, it would’ve made more sense to let teams keep those tyres for the rest of the weekend. James Courtney proved that there’s a major problem when on a clear, warm day, he opted to put on wet tyres to save his soft set for the next day. Sure cost cutting is a big issue but so is the fact that drivers can no longer go hell for leather all weekend.