Supercars 2017 – Season Preview

v8-supercars-2016
With such a high-class field of drivers on show, it’s no surprise that the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is one of the toughest touring car series in the world – this is the class of 2016 gathered ahead of the season-opening Clipsal 500 12 months ago – so who’s going to come out on top in 2017?

Right, so how’s this going to play out? I mean, clearly, national motorsport championships are unlikely to be able to establish the same broad appeal as one that travels around the world, but, every now and again, you do get certain exceptions that can develop a reputation outside of their home country, and, as far as I’m concerned…this is one of them. However, when you look at it on paper, it’s a bit of an odd combination – sure, they might be based on ordinary, road-going saloon cars (the backbone of any good touring car series), but the amount of power under the bonnet means they probably wouldn’t look out of place in GT or sports car racing either – and, despite numerous attempts to sort things out…well, the picture seems to get even more confusing, doesn’t it? As a result, the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is still having to field some pretty stiff questions about its future direction, and, as the 2017 season prepares to burst into life this weekend, I think it’s about time we started to get some answers.

THE BASICS
Before we go any further, however, I suspect many of you will be coming to Supercars (a name I’m still struggling to get to grips with even now after it changed from the long-standing V8 Supercars moniker midway through last season) for the first time, so, with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down of some of the general rules and regulations that you need to know…

1) The cars themselves (now known as the ‘Next Generation V8 Supercars’, having initially been labelled as the ‘Car of the Future’ when the current regulations were brought in in 2013) are rear-wheel-drive adaptations of standard four-door saloon cars, and are powered by normally aspirated, 5.0 litre V8 engines – mounted at the front – that produce in excess of 600bhp. New for 2017 is the introduction of a new construction of tyre from long-term supplier Dunlop, with the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ compound rubber from previous seasons being renamed as ‘soft’ and ‘super-soft’ respectively.
2) Each event, although run to slightly different formats, is included under one of two umbrella terms:
SuperSprint events (which make up the majority of the calendar) will generally contain two races over the course of a weekend, with a 120km ‘sprint’ race taking place on a Saturday before a 200km ‘main’ race’ on a Sunday, with each being preceded by a separate qualifying session (15 minutes for the first race, 20 minutes for the second) and, in certain cases, a ‘Top 10 Shootout’ to decide the first five rows of the grid.
SuperStreet events, meanwhile, contain either one 20 minute or two 10 minute qualifying sessions (some with a Top 10 Shootout) before either two 200km or 250km races.
3) As well as these, three events fall under the banner of the ‘Pirtek Enduro Cup’ – essentially, a championship within a championship, where the top points scorers are rewarded with the title – where teams have to nominate co-drivers to share driving duties because of the significantly longer race distances (between 500km and 1000km).
4) Each car has to make a mandatory pit stop at some point in every race, with certain requirements having to be fulfilled depending on the specific event – for instance, the shorter 120km races will require teams to change a minimum of two tyres as opposed to all four in previous years, while longer races are allocated a ‘Minimum Fuel Drop’ of either 120L or 140L, meaning a car has to make a certain number of stops in order to get the required amount of fuel in the car. ‘Enduro Cup’ events, meanwhile, operate under a system of ‘Compulsory Pit Stops’ (CPS), with the specific number for each event designed to allow an equal share of driving duties between the main driver and their co-driver.
5) The points system sees every classified finisher scoring points in every race, with 150 points going to the winner of each race down to 27 points for the driver finishing 26th and last (I’m not going to run through the entire system here, but what I will do in the standings at the end of each post is break down a driver’s overall score from the weekend into the points they scored in each individual race).

One other notable change, though, for 2017 comes in the form of ‘wildcard’ entries – traditionally reserved solely for the iconic Bathurst 1000, series organisers have relaxed the rules this year to allow teams from the feeder Dunlop Series (which has been renamed as Super2 this season to reflect the greater integration between the two championships) to join the main championship at four ‘regular’ rounds, with the aim being to provide young drivers with experience before graduating to a full-time seat in future.
Also new is the adoption of an F1-style ‘Super Licence’, which requires drivers to have amassed a certain number of points in other formulae before being allowed to compete in Supercars (although, as you’ll soon see, this has generated a fair amount of controversy already!)

THE CALENDAR
So, with that now taken care of, it’s time to look at the year ahead, starting with the schedule facing the teams and drivers during 2017, which, although remaining at 14 events that will ultimately count towards the final championship standings – the races at Albert Park in Melbourne that run as a support for the Formula One Australian Grand Prix will continue as a non-championship event, while the anticipated visit to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia as part of the series’ international expansion plans has been postponed for a second year – contains a couple of notable changes to keep the field on their toes.
Following the traditional curtain-raiser on the streets of Adelaide and the non-championship round at Melbourne, the teams head off for their sole visit of the year to Tasmania at Symmons Plains before hopping back across to the mainland and the picturesque Phillip Island circuit in Victoria. From there, a brief venture into Western Australia and to Perth is followed by trips to Winton (again in Victoria) and Darwin in the remote Northern Territory before the cars return to the streets of Townsville, which forms part of a double-header in Queensland alongside the event at the so-called ‘Paperclip’ circuit in Ipswich.
After a first visit of the season to New South Wales and the Sydney Motorsport Park at Eastern Creek – now the sole venue in the city on the calendar – the series then goes long-haul for the three ‘Enduro Cup’ events at Sandown, the so-called ‘Great Race’ at Bathurst and the double-header on the Gold Coast at Surfers’ Paradise before a trip to New Zealand for the only overseas race on the current calendar at Pukekohe near Auckland, with the season coming to its conclusion with an all-new event on the streets of Newcastle in New South Wales, which takes over from the similar Homebush circuit in Sydney after it was closed because of the high costs associated with organising and hosting such an event.

Here, then, is a look at the calendar in more detail, including dates, formats and the eligibility of Super2 series wildcard entries wherever necessary – I was going to add the race distances and specific details as well, but it just looked a mess, so I’ll save these for each race post…

  1. Clipsal 500 (Adelaide Street Circuit) – 4th-5th March
  2. Tasmania SuperSprint (Symmons Plains) – 8th-9th April
  3. Phillip Island SuperSprint (Phillip Island) – 22nd-23rd April
  4. Perth SuperSprint (Barbagallo) – 6th-7th May*
  5. Winton SuperSprint (Winton) – 20th-21st May*
  6. Darwin Triple Crown (Hidden Valley) – 17th-18th June*
  7. Townsville 400 (Townsville Street Circuit) – 8th-9th July
  8. Ipswich SuperSprint (Queensland Raceway) – 29th-30th July*
  9. Sydney SuperSprint (Sydney Motorsport Park) – 19th-20th August
  10. Sandown 500 (Sandown Raceway) – 17th September
  11. Bathurst 1000 (Mount Panorama Circuit) – 8th October*
  12. Gold Coast 600 (Surfers Paradise Street Circuit) – 21st-22nd October
  13. Auckland SuperSprint (Pukekohe Park Raceway) – 4th-5th November
  14. Newcastle 500 (Newcastle Street Circuit) – 25th-28th November

Notes
Asterisk after race dates = Dunlop Super2 series wildcard entries eligible
Events 1, 7 and 14 = SUPERSTREET
Events 10, 11 and 12 = PIRTEK ENDURO CUP
All other events = SUPERSPRINT

THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
With the number of Racing Entitlement Contracts, or RECs as they’re more commonly known – which are essentially licenses purchased by teams to allow them to compete in the series – remaining at the same level as 2016, it’s again going to be a 26 car field this time around (not including any of the wildcard entries, of course), but there’s a fair few changes to get to grips with, so, bearing that in mind, here’s a run-down of the runners and riders for the 2017 season…

holden-commodore
As the most populous manufacturer on the grid, it’s almost guaranteed that a Holden will be in the mix for the championship title…but, after stealing the show in his debut year with Triple Eight, will reigning champ Van Gisbergen be able to hang on to his crown?

HOLDEN (Commodore)
RED BULL HOLDEN RACING TEAM – Given their level of success last year, it’s no surprise to see the Red Bull-sponsored Commodores at the top of the pit lane this time around, but 2017 still marks a major step forward for the Triple Eight Racing team as they assume the factory Holden Racing Team status for the first time, giving them exclusive rights to develop the next generation Holden due to launch in 2018. On the driver front, though, it’s as you were, with reigning drivers’ champion Shane Van Gisbergen – the Kiwi choosing to stick with his familiar #97 rather than run with #1 on the side of his car, having finally got the monkey off his back by taking the title at Homebush last season – once again lining up alongside the #88 machine of former six-time title winner Jamie Whincup in the main team, with veteran Craig Lowndes returning as part of his own Team Vortex operation in the #888 car to complete the trio.
Also running Triple Eight-built equipment this year are the two single-car teams in the field – Tekno Autosports retain the services of the experienced Will Davison for a second campaign in the #19 car after an encouraging debut year with the team, while, after having his 2016 campaign somewhat derailed by injuries sustained in a nasty crash at Winton, Lee Holdsworth is also back in the striking-looking #18 Preston Hire Racing machine for Charlie Schwerkolt Racing.

MOBIL 1 HSV RACING – Having lost their Holden Racing Team status for the first time in God knows how long after a couple of relatively lean years by their standards, the Walkinshaw Performance team are out to show that they’re still a force to be reckoned with in 2017, and, on paper at least, seem to have the drivers capable of doing just that – despite finishing outside of the top 10 in the overall standings, ex-champion James Courtney was a race winner last season in the #22, while, after being somewhat unfortunately jettisoned by DJR Team Penske during the off-season, new team-mate Scott Pye will be looking to join the winners’ circle for the first time and prove that he deserves a front-running seat in the championship as he switches back from Ford to pilot the #2 Commodore.

BRAD JONES RACING – Another of the stalwart teams in the paddock, there wasn’t often much to shout out for Brad Jones Racing in 2016 as they were often forced to try something different on strategy to pull a result out of the bag, but, with a solid trio of drivers on board this time around, they look as though they should be at least half competitive once again. After going more than 200 V8 Supercars without a victory, two came along at once for Tim Slade at Winton last year, and the New South Welshman returns to lead the team in the #14 alongside new arrival Nick Percat – who somehow managed to splash his way to a maiden solo victory in the crazy feature race at the Clipsal 500 last year – in the #8 machine, with the team’s line-up being completed by the #21 Cooldrive-sponsored car of Tim Blanchard.

GARRY ROGERS MOTORSPORT – After a tumultuous off-season that saw them lose the service of both their lead driver and, after a protracted legal battle, the Volvo S60s that had brought them such success in the recent past, 2017 sees GRM return to running a pair of Holdens for the first time since 2013, but, despite such upheaval away from the track, don’t expect them to be far off the pace. On the driver front, James Moffat continues for a second season in the #34 car after a 2016 campaign that never really seemed to get going, while, having been unceremoniously dumped by the former Holden Racing Team just after winning the Sandown 500 with co-driver Warren Luff, the experienced Garth Tander makes his return to the team that gave him his V8 Supercar debut way back in 1998 in the #33 machine.

EREBUS MOTORSPORT – It’s hard to look beyond the word ‘difficult’ to describe last season for the Erebus team, with mid-season driver replacements and problems away from the track seemingly affecting their results on it, but, with a year of experience now under their belt with the Holden (having switched from their ill-fated Mercedes-Benz effort at the start of last season) and two solid drivers on board, 2017 should mark an improvement – David Reynolds, who was third overall in 2015, continues for a second season in the #9 machine, with Dale Wood moving in from Nissan to fill the vacant second seat in car #99.

LUCAS DUMBRELL MOTORSPORT – Somebody has to finish last in motorsport, and, although the team are highly though of in the paddock, the off-season has been nothing short of chaotic for LDM, and it shows in the driver line-up they’ve gone with – despite not having earned enough points to qualify for a Super Licence, and after just one campaign in the Dunlop Series, 16 year-old Alex Rullo steps up to make his debut in the series in the #62 car, with the #3 car eventually being filled at the last minute for the season-opener by the experienced Taz Douglas after series organisers CAMS refused dispensation to allow first-choice Matt Chadha to take up the seat (and, if you type into Google or YouTube ‘Matt Chadha Sandown crash’, it’s not exactly hard to understand why).

Ford Falcon
Having lost their grip on the championship titles they earned so impressively in 2015, the Fords are again going to be stern competition when it comes to overall honours…but can the likes of Winterbottom respond and show that his previous success wasn’t merely a flash in the pan?

FORD (Falcon FG-X)
PRODRIVE RACING AUSTRALIA – After such a dominant season in 2015 that saw them have pretty much the entire field in their pockets, whether in qualifying or race trim, and ultimately saw them wrestle both the drivers’ and teams’ titles away from arch-rivals Holden, the loss of manufacturer support definitely hurt PRA last season as they never really managed to get on terms with the front-runners, but, despite this, they’ve still got a competitive line-up, and it’d be a major surprise if they weren’t in the championship picture.
On the driver front, former champion Mark Winterbottom – who, after finally grabbing that elusive drivers’ title in 2015, was perhaps the pick of the bunch for the team last time around despite only finishing sixth overall – once again leads their attack in the #5 Bottle-O sponsored Falcon, with former Dunlop Series champion Cameron Waters continuing in the Monster-backed #6 machine. After gradually working his way back to fitness through last season following his sickening Bathurst shunt in 2015, Chaz Mostert will be looking to come out all guns blazing this time around in the distinctive Supercheap Auto-backed #55 car, while, after the departure of Super Black Racing from the PRA stable, the fourth seat this year is filled by veteran Jason Bright, who returns to a Ford for the first time since 2009 in his #56 car after leaving Brad Jones Racing at the end of 2016.

DJR TEAM PENSKE – Having promised much without really delivering in the two years since their partnership began back at the end of 2014, many people are expecting big things from the Shell-sponsored cars in 2017, and, when you consider the amount of success that joint team principals Dick Johnson and Roger Penske have enjoyed in their long and distinguished careers in motorsport (albeit in different styles of racing), it’s surely only a matter of time before they start to produce the goods. After a sold if unspectacular first season with the team last year, consistent Kiwi Fabian Coulthard continues behind the wheel of the #12 car, but he’s going to have to keep an eye on his new team-mate and compatriot, with the talented Scott McLaughlin switching across from Garry Rogers Motorsport to take the #17 drive having finished third overall in a Volvo in 2016.

Nissan Altima
Even though they’ve been around for a few seasons now, it’s still easy to label Nissan as a bit of an unknown quantity, but, while they might not quite be in a position to challenge for the championship…could the likes of Rick Kelly upset the apple cart and grab a win or two?

NISSAN (Altima)
NISSAN MOTORSPORT – Ever since they joined the party at the start of the Next Generation V8 Supercar era back in 2013, success has been at something of a premium for the Japanese marque, but there have occasionally been flashes of what the Altima is capable of, and so don’t be surprised if one of their cars manages to break up the Holden-Ford domination at some point. Having been with the project from the start, former champion Rick Kelly remains at the wheel of the #15 Sengled-sponsored car, with older brother Todd Kelly again driving the #7 Carsales machine and Michael Caruso – the only man to win for Nissan in 2016 at Darwin – once more piloting the #23 Nismo-inspired car, but all the talk has been of the addition to their roster, with former IndyCar and Sauber F1 development driver Simona De Silvestro from Switzerland becoming the first full-time female racer in the series since 1998 in the #78 machine after two wildcard appearances at Bathurst over the last two seasons.

MY THOUGHTS
In the recent past, it didn’t seem like there was much point asking who was going to come away with the title at season’s end – not least because one driver seemed to have such an advantage compared to the rest of the field – but, over the last few of years, the competition have upped their game significantly, and so, without a wheel having been turned in anger, it’s actually really difficult to pick out one outright favourite. Form would suggest that the Red Bull Holdens are going to be the ones to catch – Van Gisbergen now knows he’s capable of leading a title fight from the front, which will only fill him with confidence, while, having not won the championship since 2014, Whincup will be out to show his team-mate he’s not going to have it all his own way – and, on balance, I would go with momentum ahead of reputation and side with the reigning champ to defend his crown.
Of the rest, the likely challengers to the Triple Eight boys are probably going to be from the Blue Oval of Ford – Winterbottom is another who knows it takes to win the championship, and will be looking to hit back after a slightly lacklustre title defence last year, while a fully-recovered Mostert is also going to be a real threat, but perhaps the strongest challenger of all is going to be McLaughlin once he gets a handle on the DJR Falcon. The likes of Lowndes, Coulthard, Courtney and Davison all have the series know-how, if not the outright front-running pace of some of their rivals, and will almost certainly be in the mix at the sharp end along with young chargers like Pye and Waters, while a couple of dark horses (for me, at least) could well be Tander at GRM and the two BJR Commodores of Slade and Percat, and it’s going to be interesting to see how or, indeed, if rookies De Silvestro and Rullo can cope with the scrutiny and progress through the field as the season goes on.

So, you’ve had my thoughts, but now it’s over to you to tell me who you think is going to emerge with the drivers’ title come the end of the season – do you think that the cream is once again going to rise to the top, with the familiar names battling it out for supremacy, or do you believe there might be a real surprise in store from one of those further back down the field? Either comment with your opinions here, on my Facebook page or vote in the poll below, but, for now, all roads lead to Adelaide – the start of the season is just around the corner…

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