OK, so the final outcome wasn’t much of a surprise…but it wasn’t quite as many had expected either, was it? I mean, whichever way you look at it, the world of motorsport is difficult enough to succeed in at the best of times, particularly at a high level like this – after all, only one driver can win the title each year – and so, for those that fall short in their pursuit of championship glory, it can prove tricky for them to make a name for themselves in the sport. However, reputation only counts for so much in racing, and, while it must be satisfying for a driver to know they’ve delivered the goods in the past, titles aren’t decided on previous achievements – the standard of performances (and, ultimately, the quantity of points) in that season are what matter, and it’s hard to argue that whoever comes out on top will have earned their success, regardless of what they’ve achieved before. Put simply, anyone can beat anyone in the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, but there’s one combination they’re all trying to catch, and the question on many people’s lips this time is…can they do it again?
While the balance of power between the two main manufacturers of Australia’s premier racing series has shifted back and forth in recent years, you have to go some way back to find the last time the Triple Eight team wasn’t in contention for the championship title, and, in the most part, Roland Dane’s team have proven pretty much unbeatable – in fact, the last time they failed to pick up the teams’ championship crown was back in 2009, while Jamie Whincup has now established himself as perhaps the greatest driver the sport has ever seen, securing no fewer than six titles in seven years between 2008 and 2014. However, the all-conquering combination were beaten for the second year in succession last time around, and what made it so unusual was that the man that knocked him off his perch was, in fact, on the other side of the garage, – having proven himself to be a genuine threat in opposition, rapid Kiwi Shane Van Gisbergen soon ruffled a few feathers on his arrival in the second Red Bull-backed Holden Commodore on his way to opening up a sizeable points advantage, and, despite the former champ’s resurgence in the latter stages of the year, it wasn’t enough to deny his new team-mate a maiden series title.
However, while the two Triple Eight cars were the class of the field on the track, plenty of noises were being made off it as to the future of the series’ regulations, with the introduction of the new Gen2 technical blueprint – designed to open the championship up by allowing a greater variety of body styles and, most controversially, smaller engine sizes – having been delayed for a year at least after disagreement between the three current manufacturers. Despite production of the Commodore ending in Australia at the end of the year, Holden have committed to running the new-spec model from the start of 2018; arch-rivals Ford and “new kids on the block” Nissan have also confirmed their continued involvement, while several new manufacturers have also been mooted to join the fray, but, with so little having been announced so far, it remains to be seen exactly what form the championship will take in the years to come.
The opening event of the season saw the championship arrive in South Australia for its now traditional curtain-raiser around the parklands on the outskirts of Adelaide, with the semi-street, semi-permanent layout – measuring in at 3.2km (2.0 miles) and containing a mixture of 8 left-handers and 6 right-handers – presenting one of the most gruelling tests of any track on the calendar, as well as providing fans and commentators alike with their first chance of the year to see the entire field racing in anger. First opened in 1985, the circuit was originally the host venue for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, and hosted no fewer than eleven races before being dropped from the calendar a decade later, with the current configuration having been used since the track was reopened in 1999.
A typical lap of the track begins with a short run down the pit straight to the rollercoaster ride across the kerbs of Turns 1, 2 and 3 that make up the Senna chicane, before another short blast takes the cars along Wakefield Road to the 90-degree right-hander at Turn 4, where the bumpy braking zone can often lead to cars locking up and running down the escape road. From there, a series of right-angled turns between Turns 5 and 7 – known colloquially as ‘the staircase’ – leads out onto the long back straight, with the drivers getting a brief moment to relax and prepare themselves for the fearsome Turn 8 at the other end – as one of the fastest corners in the series at around 235km/h (nearly 150mph), and with concrete barriers lining the apex, there’s very little margin for error as the cars fly through the sweeping right-hander before slowing again for the tight hairpin at Turn 9.
The final section sees the track become more technical as it winds around the back of the pits, with two left-handers – the curving Turn 10 and the much sharper Turn 11, where more concrete walls wait to catch out the unwary – being followed by the fast sweeper of Turn 13, before the final hairpin at Turn 14 brings the cars back onto the start-finish straight. In terms of overtaking opportunities, while it’s generally considered more difficult to pass around street circuits, there are one or two areas where moves can be made, with the best often proving to be down the inside on the brakes into Turn 9 having carried the speed (and stayed out of the wall) through the preceding corner, while momentum through the first chicane can also set up a pass into Turn 4.
The corresponding event here 12 months ago – run under a three-race format of two 125km sprint races and the 250km main event, but a lack of popularity with fans meant event organisers took the decision to switch back to a two-race format for the first time since 2013 – began as many had predicted, with Whincup leading home the Holden Racing Commodore of James Courtney and new team-mate Van Gisbergen in the opening encounter, but it didn’t take long for the #22 driver to fight back against the Triple Eight cars to take victory in Race 2 after an epic battle with Whincup saw the pair separated by just 0.6s at the chequered flag, with Chaz Mostert marking his return to the championship following a horror crash at Bathurst in 2015 by taking third in the #55 Supercheap Auto Ford Falcon.
However, all hell broke loose when rain arrived in time for the start of the main 250km race, first with a controversial safety car start that saw some drivers pit while it was out to take on the first amount of the mandatory 140 litre ‘fuel drop’, prompting furious discussions as to whether or not the race had actually started. After a brief dry spell, conditions quickly deteriorated to the point where the race was suspended on lap 42, and, when it resumed with just five minutes of its time allocation to go, local boy Nick Percat splashed his way to a stunning maiden victory in the category for Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport ahead of DJR Team Penske team-mates Fabian Coulthard and Scott Pye, but, with both Falcons being slapped with time penalties for failing to comply with the fuel regulations, it was Nissan’s Michael Caruso – who left Adelaide as a surprise series leader – and Van Gisbergen that were elevated onto the podium in second and third respectively.
So, bearing all that in mind, would it be more of the same at the front of the field, with Van Gisbergen and Triple Eight leading the way as they looked tomake a strong start to their respective title defences; after a barren spell (by his incredibly high standards) of two years without lifting the championship, could team-mate Whincup provide an immediate response to show the Kiwi he wasn’t about to let him have it all his own way this time around, or would the two Red Bull cars – now also running under the Holden Racing Team banner for the first time – have their noses put out of joint early on by the chasing pack? Well, it’s time to find out – this is the story of the first event of the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, the 2017 Clipsal 500…
The first chance to see exactly where everyone was in the pecking order came in the opening 20 minute qualifying session, and it could hardly have been closer, with just one ten-thousandth of a second (0.0001s) separating reigning champion Van Gisbergen from fellow Kiwi and DJR Team Penske new-boy Scott McLaughlin in the #17 Shell-sponsored Falcon when the chequered flag fell. However, it was all change when it came to the Top 10 Shootout that decided the first five rows of the grid as Coulthard – who was only sixth quickest in the main session – produced a stunning lap in the second of the DJR Team Penske Fords to put himself on course for pole, but Van Gisbergen found a fraction more speed on his lap to edge him out by just 0.044s and get his title defence off to the best possible start.
Behind the leading duo, Mostert grabbed third ahead of Courtney and 2015 champion Mark Winterbottom in his Bottle-O Racing Falcon, but, having looked on course to eclipse his team-mate’s benchmark, McLaughlin made a crucial mistake as he locked up on the brakes into the Turn 9 hairpin before missing the apex at the final corner, meaning he had to make do with the sixth fastest time. 2016 runner-up Whincup was seventh despite a scruffy lap in the second Red Bull Commodore ahead of Rick Kelly’s Sengled-backed Nissan Altima, with Cameron Waters taking ninth in his Monster Energy Falcon and David Reynolds rounding out the top 10 for Erebus Motorsport in his Penrite-sponsored Holden.
There was drama in the early stages of qualifying for the second race when Waters clouted the wall at Turn 8 and was fortunate to escape without significant damage, but it was more of the same at the front as Van Gisbergen lowered the benchmark further still to outpace nearest rival and Red Bull team-mate Whincup by a slightly bigger margin of 0.038s before – despite glancing the wall on the exit of Turn 11 – making it two poles out of two in the Top 10 Shootout, with Coulthard again getting closest to start on the outside of the front row just 0.027s adrift ahead of DJR stable-mate McLaughlin in third.
Behind the top three, Mostert was again quick as he took fourth – albeit nearly half a second shy of pole – ahead of Courtney and Percat, with the 2016 winner producing an impressive performance to round out the top six on his debut weekend for Brad Jones Racing in the #8 Clipsal-backed Commodore. Despite his earlier moment, Waters managed to post the seventh fastest time ahead of Garth Tander in eighth – the 2007 champion returning to Garry Rogers Motorsport (the team that launched his Supercars career back in 1998) for the first time in 13 years – while, despite locking up and running down the escape road at Turn 4, Tim Slade was promoted to ninth in the #14 Freightliner-sponsored Brad Jones Racing Holden after Whincup had his lap invalidated by putting all four wheels over the kerb at Turn 2, meaning the #88 was forced to start back in tenth.
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10
Race 1: 1st – Van Gisbergen, 2nd – Coulthard, 3rd – Mostert, 4th – Courtney, 5th – Winterbottom, 6th – McLaughlin, 7th – Whincup, 8th – R. Kelly, 9th – Waters and 10th – Reynolds
Race 2: 1st – Van Gisbergen, 2nd – Coulthard, 3rd – McLaughlin, 4th – Mostert, 5th – Courtney, 6th – Percat, 7th – Waters, 8th – Tander, 9th – Slade and 10th – Whincup
Alex Rullo – #62 Holden Commodore (Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport)
As the lights went out to get the first race of the season underway, pole-man Van Gisbergen made a decent enough start to just about edge out Coulthard as the field streamed through the tight first chicane, with Courtney – who was perhaps quickest away from fourth – forced across the kerbs as he tried to go around the outside before slotting back in line in third, but ahead, it wasn’t long before there was a change of lead as Coulthard got the drive out of Turn 7 to move alongside the defending champion down the back straight before completing the pass into Turn 8. Further back in the pack, there was drama when Will Davison in the #19 Tekno Woodstock Holden made significant contact with the wall after finding himself on the outside of both the #7 Nissan of Todd Kelly and James Moffat in the second Garry Rogers Motorsport Commodore and was forced into retirement, while Whincup was first to come in for fuel at the end of the opening lap to try and gain track position against those around him.
The opening stages saw the leading trio start to open up a gap, with Coulthard able to keep both Van Gisbergen and the hard-charging Courtney at bay through the first few laps, but it wasn’t proving so easy for his team-mate as, having been unable to find a way past Winterbottom’s Falcon for fourth, McLaughlin was first of the leading runners to pit at the end of lap 6, but, in an attempt to gain track position and then use his fresh rubber to gain ground, emerged behind Whincup towards the rear of the field. At the front, however, the battle for the lead was soon on as Van Gisbergen gradually started to eat into Coulthard’s advantage, and, after several laps hounding the leader, the #97 Commodore regained the advantage when the DJR Falcon came in on lap 17 along with third-placed Courtney, with the pair rejoining just ahead of Whincup and McLaughlin, before Van Gisbergen made his first stop at the end of lap 20 just as the safety car was deployed to clear debris from the back straight.
On the restart, Coulthard and Courtney both leapt clear once more, with Van Gisbergen quickly responding by taking third from Whincup on lap 25 of 78, but there was disaster for fifth-placed McLaughlin as the #17 Falcon received a drive through penalty for breaching restart procedures by weaving after the safety car lights had gone out, dropping the young Kiwi out of fifth place and almost to the rear of the field. Back at the front, though, the reigning champion was on the march as Van Gisbergen almost got the job done on second-placed Courtney at Turn 9 on lap 38 before backing out of potential contact, but it wasn’t long before pit strategies began to have an influence, with the #22 Mobil 1 Commodore the first to blink at the end of lap 41 before Coulthard responded a lap later, but, having taken on more fuel at his first stop, it was Van Gisbergen that was able to retake the net lead when he pitted on lap 43. Further back, though, there was drama as Winterbottom – who was jumped by stable-mate Waters as he rejoined after his second stop – was turned around by Whincup at Turn 5 on lap 45, but, despite complaints from PRA team boss Tim Edwards, no action was taken against the #88 Holden when the incident was reviewed post-race.
Following the end of the pit stop phase, the positions remained fairly static among the leaders, with Van Gisbergen simply walking off into the distance in the closing stages to take victory by a remarkable 14.7s, while Coulthard fended off some stiff attention late on from Courtney to secure second for DJR Team Penske, forcing the #22 Holden to settle for third. Behind, Waters took an impressive fourth ahead of the Sengled Nissan of Rick Kelly in fifth, while Whincup and Percat both gained positions at the death at the expense of veteran Craig Lowndes – who had worked his way through into the top six from 13th on the grid – to take sixth and seventh respectively, with the #888 Team Vortex Commodore having to make do with eighth ahead of the recovering Mostert in ninth and Moffat in tenth.
At the start of the second race, though, Coulthard made a beautiful getaway to grab the lead on the run towards the first chicane, with team-mate McLaughlin also capitalising on a decidedly average start for pole-sitter Van Gisbergen to sweep around the outside – bouncing his way over the kerbs in the process – and make it a DJR Team Penske 1-2 in the opening moments, while, further back, the infamous Turn 8 claimed another victim on the first lap when Percat slid wide and into the concrete to drop out of an encouraging sixth. Up front, however, having gradually built a margin over the field in the early laps, the two Shell-sponsored Falcons began to battle amongst themselves for the lead, with McLaughlin initially piling the pressure on Coulthard, but, despite running behind his team-mate, the #17 was the first to pit on lap 7 as the leader dropped back into the clutches of both Van Gisbergen and Mostert, with the Ford diving in on lap 13.
The fight between the two Kiwis continued to ebb and flow for a few more laps, with the defending champion producing a peach of an overtake into Turn 9 on lap 14 to retake the lead even before Coulthard eventually came in at the end of lap 17, with the Red Bull team responding on the following tour by putting more fuel in Van Gisbergen’s car, meaning he would be stationary for less time at his second stop. This left McLaughlin out in the effective race lead ahead of the shorter-fuelled #22 Commodore of Courtney, with Van Gisbergen coming back out behind Coulthard and the slightly out-of-sequence Waters – the #6 having also taken on less fuel – in fifth, but it was proving a tough day for team-mate Whincup as, having got stuck behind Rick Kelly’s Nissan, the six-time champion brushed the wall at Turn 8 and was fortunate to get away without significant damage. Despite having lost out on track position, though, Van Gisbergen was soon back on the march as he pulled near-identical moves on both Waters and Coulthard in quick succession at Turn 9 before finally finding a way past Courtney’s stubborn defences at an unorthodox point into Turn 5 on lap 35, leaving him free to start whittling away at the increased gap to leader McLaughlin.
Entering the second round of stops, the story of the shorter-fuelled runners saw Courtney emerge in front of Waters when they pitted a lap apart on laps 39 and 40 – the #6 Falcon also needing repairs to a loose rear door – before, despite the Prodrive youngster’s efforts to capitalise on his warmer rubber, Coulthard slotted in between the pair when he rejoined, but all three lost out to the #55 Ford of Mostert that had taken on significantly more fuel at its first stop. The battle to watch, however, was between the two leaders – McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske were first to blink on lap 43 of 78, with Van Gisbergen and Triple Eight coming in a lap later, but the speed of the #17 Falcon was enough for the leader to maintain his advantage as the #97 emerged just ahead of the charging Mostert. Amongst the chasing pack, meanwhile, there was more drama when Courtney tripped over the back of Swiss female driver Simona De Silvestro as she tried to get into the pit lane, sending the #78 Harvey Norman-backed Nissan into a spin, but the Holden man avoided a penalty when it was investigated post-race.
Up front, though, the battle was on for the win as, having been warned for overusing the kerbs at the chicane, McLaughlin’s pace soon began to drop off, allowing Van Gisbergen to gradually reel him in, and the pressure eventually tolled on the leader with just three and a half laps to go as he locked up into Turn 9 and ran deep to hand the defending champion a free route through into the lead, which he extended out to more than 10s on his way to completing a perfect weekend by making it two victories out of two ahead of his understandably disappointed compatriot in second, with Mostert completing the podium in third after a solid drive. Behind, Courtney scored more useful points in fourth ahead of Coulthard – who was nearly half a minute adrift at the flag – and Whincup, while Slade also found a way past the fuel-saving Waters in the closing laps to snatch seventh, although the Monster Energy driver was happy to complete an impressive weekend in eighth ahead of Todd Kelly’s Nissan and the #888 Commodore of Lowndes.
Shane Van Gisbergen – #97 Holden Commodore (Red Bull Holden Racing Team)
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Race 1: 1st – Van Gisbergen, 2nd – Coulthard, 3rd – Courtney, 4th – Waters, 5th – R. Kelly, 6th – Whincup, 7th – Percat, 8th – Lowndes, 9th – Mostert and 10th – Moffat
Race 2: 1st – Van Gisbergen, 2nd – McLaughlin, 3rd – Mostert, 4th – Courtney, 5th – Coulthard, 6th – Whincup, 7th – Slade, 8th – Waters, 9th – T. Kelly and 10th – Lowndes
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Van Gisbergen (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) – 300pts
2. Coulthard (Shell V-Power Racing Team) – 249pts
3. Courtney (Mobil 1 HSV Racing) – 249pts
4. Mostert (Supercheap Auto Racing/PRA) – 213pts
5. Waters (Monster Energy Racing/PRA) – 210pts
6. Whincup (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) – 204pts
7. McLaughlin (Shell V-Power Racing Team) – 192pts
8. Lowndes (Team Vortex) – 168pts
9. R. Kelly (Nissan Motorsport) – 165pts
10. Slade (Freightliner Racing/BJR) – 159pts