Well, talk about starting as you mean to go on…that simply couldn’t have gone any better, could it? I mean, it doesn’t take much to work out that success doesn’t come easily in the world of motorsport at any level, but strangely, whenever a new season rolls around, there seems to be even more pressure than usual on the defending champion of a particular series to prove that their triumph wasn’t just a fluke and simply carry on as before, and, as a result, it can sometimes take a while for the results to pick up…which, in many ways, was what made this even more impressive. OK, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected – particularly when you consider the previous record of the team and the superior performance of their car – but you can only beat what’s in front of you, and, while success in the past doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to happen again in the future, it certainly makes it a lot easier when the competition is this strong. The dominant force of recent times have started ominously in the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, and, even at this early stage…it looks like the competition don’t have any answers.
Despite having finally relinquished their iron-like grip on the championship silverware for the first time in many years in 2015, it was almost inevitable that the previously all-conquering Triple Eight Holden Commodores would be right back at the head of the field sooner rather than later, and, sure enough, last season saw the Red Bull-backed cars return to their irrepressible best as they swept aside all of their rivals on their way to yet another double of teams’ and drivers’ titles, but, if you were to dig a little deeper…you’d find it wasn’t quite as simple as that. After proving himself to be a regular contender with the privateer Tekno Autosports team in the past, rapid Kiwi Shane Van Gisbergen delivered an object lesson in leading from the front in his first campaign with the team by holding off the challenge of legendary team-mate and former six-time series winner Jamie Whincup to secure his maiden drivers’ title, and so the question many were asking ahead of the season opener was whether or not he could manage the pressure of being the one to catch for the first time and reproduce the same standard of results. The answer? Well…I think it was clear for all to see, wasn’t it?
Indeed, the reigning champion looked to be almost in a class of his own in his #97 Holden virtually from the moment the cars hit the track around the streets of Adelaide for the Clipsal 500 as he produced a phenomenal turn of speed to grab pole in the final top 10 shootout of qualifying from under the nose of compatriot Fabian Coulthard in his #12 DJR Team Penske Ford Falcon, and, despite losing out in the early stages of the race to the Shell-sponsored car, nothing was going to hold him back as he brilliantly picked his way through to retake the lead and then simply power away from the field to take a dominant first victory of the year ahead of Coulthard and the #22 Mobil 1 HSV Commodore of 2009 champion and former event winner James Courtney. However, it wasn’t quite so easy when it came to the second race as, despite again securing pole by a fraction of a second in qualifying, a poor start saw him slip behind DJR Team Penske new boy and Scott McLaughlin after the pit stops, but, after producing yet more stunning speed during the final stint, a mistake from the #17 Ford with just three laps to go handed the champion an advantage that he duly converted to complete a perfect weekend with a second victory, leaving McLaughlin to settle for second ahead of the #55 Supercheap Auto Racing Falcon of Chaz Mostert in third.
After the typically raucous curtain-raiser in Adelaide, there was a distinct change of scene for the second round of the season as the series made its sole visit to Tasmania, with the old-school venue at Symmons Plains providing a very different challenge from the street circuits of the previous two events. Situated around 30km south of the city of Launceston on the eastern side of the island, the track – which is one of the shortest on the calendar at just 2.4km (1.5 miles), and contains a mixture of 4 left-handers and 3 right-handers – first hosted a championship event way back in 1969, and, aside from a four-year period between 2000 and 2003 during which it underwent a significant amount of redevelopment, has been part of the calendar ever since, taking up its current position towards the start of the season in 2012 having previously been run later in the year.
A typical lap begins with a short run over the slight crest of Turn 1 that leads almost immediately into the tight 90-degree left-hander at Turn 2, where the narrow nature of the track on the apex essentially means only one car can make it through at a time, with anyone trying to go round the outside – particularly on the first lap when the field is still congested – likely to be forced out of line onto the grass. From there, the cars power through the fast right-hander of Turn 3 and run right up against the barriers on the run down the first main straight before braking for the slowest corner on the entire calendar in the form of the 50km/h left-hand hairpin at Turn 4, which is initially cambered quite steeply towards the inside of the track before levelling out, meaning drivers can experiment with a variety of lines in an attempt to find traction on the exit and then pick up the speed down the back straight. After another sweeping right-hander at Turn 5, the drivers then have to jump back on the brakes for the left-hander of Turn 6 – which is actually tighter than it looks, and can often catch out the unwary – before the final sweep through Turn 7 brings them back onto the pit straight to complete the short, busy lap.
With so few corners and a relatively high average speed of more than 160km/h (100mph), overtaking places are in short supply, with the best tending to be either up the inside on the brakes into the hairpin at Turn 4 or, failing that, using the wider line to either sweep right around the outside – although the natural racing line often means a following car can get squeezed up against the barrier on the apex, making this a risky pass to attempt – or cut back on the exit and then hold the line all the way back down the straight to complete the move into Turn 6. Elsewhere, the only other main passing point on the lap is on the brakes into Turn 2 with a run out of the final corner, although this does require a bit of co-operation from the car in front because of how narrow the track becomes, and, more often than not, the driver on the outside will find themselves having to yield.
The corresponding pair of races here 12 months ago produced more than its fair share of talking points, with reigning series champion Mark Winterbottom bouncing back strongly from a tough start to his title defence to take pole position for both races in qualifying (although the second was only inherited after the session after Tekno Autosports’ Will Davison – who actually posted the fastest time of the session – was hit with a grid penalty), but a slow pit stop for the #1 Bottle-O Racing Falcon in the first race allowed Van Gisbergen to go on and take both his first win for Triple Eight and the 500th victory for Holden in the championship’s history, with Whincup and Davison rounding out the podium. The second race proved to be more of a slow burner, with the #97 holding off the challenge of Winterbottom to build an advantage despite a couple of periods behind the safety car, but, within sight of the chequered flag, the Kiwi was caught out by oil dropped by Cameron Waters’ Ford and slid into the gravel, leaving Davison to inherit the victory ahead of Craig Lowndes’ Team Vortex Holden and Winterbottom’s Falcon to assume a somewhat surprise lead in the championship in the process.
So, after producing such a significant statement of intent last time out, could Van Gisbergen again show the remainder of the field a clean set of heels in Tassie and continue the perfect start to his championship defence; having produced flashes of speed in Adelaide that showed they were at least capable of matching the Red Bull Commodore, could the likes of Coulthard, Courtney or Mostert replicate their encouraging early performances to prevent the reigning champion from getting even further away in the points, or would the Kiwi be brought down a peg or two by another from the increasingly competitive chasing pack as the series began to get into its stride? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the second event of the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, the 2017 Tyrepower Tasmania Supersprint…
Persistent heavy drizzle greeted the cars onto the track for the first 15 minute qualifying session of the weekend, with the track remaining incredibly slippery after torrential rain during free practice, but, after a brief red-flag period caused by Davison slithering off the road and into the gravel at Turn 4, it was practice pace-setter McLaughlin who was again the class of the field with a remarkable turn of speed to secure his first pole for DJR Team Penske by a comfortable 0.38s ahead of Mostert, with the #55 improving at the death to make it an all-Ford front row for the first race. Despite looking rapid early on, points leader Van Gisbergen had to make do with third ahead of a terrific performance from David Reynolds in the Penrite-sponsored Erebus Motorsport Holden in fourth, while past masters Whincup and Lowndes ensured all three of the Triple Eight Commodores made it into the top six as they locked out the third row.
Behind, Dale Wood produced one of the best qualifying performances of his Supercars career to date with a superb seventh in the #99 Erebus Holden ahead of the distinctive #67 MEGA Racing Ford of veteran Jason Bright in eighth, with Todd Kelly the best of the Nissans in ninth and 2016 champion Winterbottom rounding out the top 10 in his Bottle-O Racing Falcon. However, it proved to be a difficult start to the weekend for some of the more-fancied runners, with Coulthard – having gambling on a fresh set of wet tyres for the final few minutes – unable to get anywhere near his team-mate as he failed to get the required temperature in the rubber in time and ultimately ended up down in 11th, a row ahead of Cameron Waters in his #6 Monster Energy Racing Ford Falcon in an equally disappointing 13th, while, after their competitive showing in Adelaide, a lack of pace from the #22 Mobil 1 HSV Racing Holden saw former champion Courtney languishing back in 21st on the grid.
With conditions deteriorating even further, the decision was taken by race control to delay the start of the second qualifying session on safety grounds, but, almost as soon as the cars hit the track, the red flags were deployed after teenager Alex Rullo lost control of his #62 Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport Holden on the back straight and then slithered across the grass at high speed – only narrowly missing collecting the cars ahead of him – before ploughing into the gravel at Turn 6. On the restart, Van Gisbergen again looked to be in a class of his own as he set the early pace by a sizeable margin, but, with the times rapidly improving as the rain began to ease off towards the end of the 20 minute session, it was Red Bull team-mate Whincup who ended up on pole when the chequered flag fell, with the six-time former champion securing a 74th career pole position in the championship by more than a quarter of a second ahead of McLaughlin’s Falcon, with Mostert again rapid in the #55 Supercheap Auto version to take third.
Behind the leading trio, an impressive effort from Brad Jones Racing saw the #14 Freightliner entry of Tim Slade secure an excellent fourth on the grid in front of the likes of Van Gisbergen – the defending champion more than half a second adrift of his stable-mate’s benchmark in fifth having failed to find the extra speed from his car in the closing stages – and Coulthard, while Todd Kelly again made sure there was also something for the Nissan team to shout about as he took a strong seventh in the #7 Carsales Altima. Having looked speedy in the really wet conditions at the start of the session, Lowndes gradually slipped back late on to finish eighth ahead of Reynolds’ #9 Erebus Holden, with Waters’ Ford rounding out the top 10, but it was again another poor session for some of the expected front-runners, with former champion Winterbottom back in a disappointing 12th and Pye only 15th in his Mobil 1 HSV Commodore having again struggled for outright speed, while Wood – who briefly challenged for the fastest time around the halfway stage – faded badly in the last few minutes to end up a lowly 18th.
Jason Bright – #56 Ford Falcon (MEGA Racing/Prodrive Racing Australia)
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10
Race 3: 1st – McLaughlin, 2nd – Mostert, 3rd – Van Gisbergen, 4th – Reynolds, 5th – Whincup, 6th – Lowndes, 7th – Wood, 8th – Bright, 9th – T. Kelly and 10th – Winterbottom
Race 4: 1st – Whincup, 2nd – McLaughlin, 3rd – Mostert, 4th – Slade, 5th – Van Gisbergen, 6th – Coulthard, 7th – T. Kelly, 8th – Lowndes, 9th – Reynolds and 10th – Waters
When the lights went out for the start of the first race of the weekend, pole man McLaughlin got far too much wheelspin on what was still an incredibly greasy track surface to allow Mostert – who was much better away from the outside of the front row, with initial suspicions of a potential jump-start proving unfounded – a free route through into the lead as the field streamed towards Turn 2 for the first time, with Van Gisbergen also capitalising on his compatriot’s poor start to sneak through into second, and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before the reigning champion assumed control after the #55 went in too deep on the brakes at virtually the same point a lap later and was perhaps fortunate to avoid further disaster as he slid off onto the grass, dropping back to sixth as a result.
However, before anything had chance to develop at the front, all hell soon began to break loose in the tightly congested mid-pack when contact between Coulthard and the #15 Sengled Nissan of Rick Kelly on the exit of Turn 3 delayed both cars and forced the rest of the field to back off, but, with visibility severely restricted due to the sheer amount of spray being kicked up, the unsighted Waters tagged the rear of the Garry Rogers Motorsport Commodore in the hands of Garth Tander as he tried to take evasive action, sending the #33 sliding across the road and into the slowing Kelly before both were collected by the rest of the pack as they were left with virtually nowhere to go. Of those involved, 2016 winner Davison sustained the biggest impact after ploughing into the #15 Altima – thankfully on the passenger side – at high speed, while, after initially looking as though he was going to make it through unscathed, Courtney’s car was also hit heavily in the back by the equally-unsighted Taz Douglas in his #3 Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport Commodore to become one of the 12 cars – nearly half the field – taken out of contention.
The drama, though, wasn’t over there as, even with the action understandably having to be suspended to allow the clean-up to take place safely, McLaughlin bizarrely came into the pits rather than forming up on the grid, meaning that the #17 Shell-sponsored Falcon was forced to rejoin at the back of the line once the field were eventually released behind the safety car, but, with fading light and a time-certain finish to meet, the cars were then brought back into the pit-lane to bring the “race” to a conclusion after just 4 of the scheduled 50 laps. In terms of a result, Van Gisbergen led the field across the line ahead of Triple Eight team-mates Whincup and Lowndes, with the #9 of Reynolds in fourth and Mostert the first Ford home to round out the top five, but, after much deliberation, and with the race failing to reach the necessary 50% duration to call a result, the decision was later made not to award any championship points.
With Courtney, Rick Kelly, Douglas and Davison – who was taken to hospital as a precaution after complaining of back pain following the Race 3 pile-up – all being withdrawn because of the damage to their cars, the second race saw the field reduced from 26 to 22 cars, but, when the lights went out, pole-man Whincup made an excellent start to lead the field into Turn 2 for the first time, with McLaughlin just hanging onto second ahead of Mostert despite again bogging down slightly off the line. Behind, Van Gisbergen wasted little time in quickly grabbing fourth from the repaired Freightliner Commodore of Slade as the leading quartet immediately started to make a break in the early laps, but, as the track began to dry out, it wasn’t long before the majority of the field made the first of their mandatory pit stops – Whincup and McLaughlin continued to match each other when they came in on lap 7, but, having pitted a lap earlier, Van Gisbergen soon found himself in the wars after contact with Todd Kelly’s Nissan at Turn 4 on lap 9 of 84 sent the #7 Altima into a spin, earning the #97 Commodore a 15 second time penalty.
After an extended safety car period to recover Bright’s damaged Ford from the grass on the outside of the final corner, Mostert – who had taken on less fuel at his stop compared to those around him – led the way on the restart ahead of stable-mate Waters (the #6 having gained ground in the early laps after gambling on a set of slick tyres from the start), with McLaughlin finally moving into third at the expense of Whincup after capitalising on an aborted move for second by the former champion at the hairpin on lap 17 and then holding his nerve on the brakes into Turn 6 to grab the position. From then on, the race settled down for a while as the positions among the leading contenders remained the same, with the only major change prior to the second round of stops coming on lap 27 when Coulthard nosed his way inside the #5 of Winterbottom for fifth on the exit of the final corner before getting the job done at Turn 2, but ahead, the battle was intensifying for second as team-mate McLaughlin – once more chased by race rival Whincup – began to pile the pressure on Waters, with the crucial move coming on lap 37 after the Monster Energy Falcon ran deep at the hairpin.
Conditions then started to turn once again around half-distance as the rain returned, leading many of the field to make their second stops just after the #21 Cooldrive Brad Jones Racing Commodore of Tim Blanchard span into the gravel over the crest at Turn 1, forcing the deployment of the safety car for a second time, with Coulthard emerging as the real winner as he rejoined ahead of both McLaughlin – who was delayed at his stop while the team fixed earlier damage to the rear bodywork – and Whincup in a net second, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the rapid Mostert from retaining the lead. However, once the action got back underway, the Shell V-Power Ford was comfortably able to keep pace with the #55, and, after several laps of intense action, the pressure eventually tolled for the leader on lap 57 when he slithered wide and onto the grass on the exit of Turn 6, handing the advantage to Coulthard just as the safety car was deployed for a third time to recover the stranded #18 Preston Hire Racing Holden Commodore of Lee Holdsworth from the edge of the gravel at the penultimate bend.
By the time the action got back underway, the race had again reverted to time-certain conditions rather than running to its scheduled duration, but, even with the field bunched back together, no one was able to stop Coulthard as the Kiwi made enough of a break in the lead to click through the remaining laps to score a first victory for DJR Team Penske in their current guise, with team-mate McLaughin holding on for second to complete a fairytale race for the Shell cars, and the team formation continued behind as Whincup took the final spot on the podium ahead of the ever-feisty Lowndes in fourth. Behind, Reynolds completed a promising weekend for Erebus with fifth ahead of Waters and a disappointed Mostert – the #55 having to make do with only seventh in the end – with Slade rewarding the hard work from the Brad Jones Racing stable to bring his Freightliner Holden home in eighth ahead of a recovering Van Gisbergen in ninth (the reigning champion just hanging onto the series lead after a late charge on fresh rubber) and the repaired #33 GRM Commodore of Tander in tenth.
David Reynolds – #9 Holden Commodore (Erebus Penrite Racing)
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Race 3 (no points awarded): 1st – Van Gisbergen, 2nd – Whincup, 3rd – Lowndes, 4th – Reynolds, 5th – Mostert, 6th – Bright, 7th – Winterbottom, 8th – T. Kelly, 9th – Waters and 10th – Coulthard
Race 4: 1st – Coulthard, 2nd – McLaughlin, 3rd – Whincup, 4th – Lowndes, 5th – Reynolds, 6th – Waters, 7th – Mostert, 8th – Slade, 9th – Van Gisbergen and 10th – Tander
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Van Gisbergen (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) – 384pts
2. Coulthard (Shell V-Power Racing Team) – 364pts
3. Whincup (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) – 333pts
4. McLaughlin (Shell V-Power Racing Team) – 330pts
5. Waters (Monster Energy Racing/PRA) – 312pts
6. Mostert (Supercheap Auto Racing/PRA) – 309pts
7. Lowndes (Team Vortex) – 249pts
8. Courtney (Mobil 1 HSV Racing) – 249pts
9. Slade (Freightliner Racing/BJR) – 249pts
10. Reynolds (Erebus Motorsport) – 231pts