We knew it was going to be close…but that was taking it a bit too literally, really, wasn’t it? Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that, as entertaining and exciting as it might be, motorsport at any level is dangerous, and, while things have moved on significantly in recent years to try and make it as safe as possible, there’s always an inherent risk that racing drivers (who, with the greatest of respect, are an entirely different breed) take whenever they go out on track, and sometimes…that risk can backfire in a pretty big way. I mean, thankfully, incidents like that don’t tend to happen too much these days (which is a real testament to just how much things have improved), and, while these are undoubtedly some of the most talented drivers around, it’d be harsh to say they should have been able to avoid something that was almost totally out of their control, and so the most important thing now is to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The battle for glory in the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship might still be in its early stages, but unfortunately…there’s only been one topic of conversation so far.
After several years where it felt like the identity of the champion was almost common knowledge even before a wheel had been turned, the past couple of seasons in Australia’s premier touring car series have seen the pendulum swing back and forth between arch-rivals Ford and Holden, with the once unstoppable pairing of six-time champion Jamie Whincup and the Red Bull-backed, Triple Eight-prepared Commodore finally being knocked off their perch by some of the series’ more consistent contenders. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, however, the man to discover that winning combination last season was on the other side of the same garage, with the ever-spectacular Shane Van Gisbergen – who had spent several years punching above his weight with the independent Tekno Autosports Holden before joining the factory operation last year – finally securing his maiden drivers’ title at the final round in Sydney, and, despite some questioning whether he would be able to back it up this time around, the Kiwi wasted no time in laying down a marker as he swept to a dominant double victory at the opening round on the streets of Adelaide to start his title defence in perfect fashion.
However, the early fight for supremacy was marred somewhat last time out when the series arrived at Symmons Plains in Tasmania as the third race of the year was red-flagged and later cancelled altogether following one of the biggest and most serious multi-car pile-ups in the championship’s recent history, with some typical early bumping and barging in tricky conditions in the mid-pack triggering a chain reaction that ended with no fewer than 12 of the 26 cars entered being taken out – four sustaining enough damage to rule them out of the following race as well – and Tekno Autosport’s current driver Will Davison being taken to hospital with a back injury after spearing into Rick Kelly’s #15 Sengled Nissan Altima that had been left stranded in the middle of the track. With only 2 of the scheduled 50 laps completed, the decision was taken not to award championship points and effectively annul the result (for the record, Van Gisbergen led home a Triple Eight 1-2-3 ahead of Whincup and the Team Vortex entry of Craig Lowndes), but the remaining runners made up for it with an excellent Race 4 that saw the Shell-sponsored Fords of DJR Team Penske – widely predicted to be the Red Bull cars’ biggest rivals in 2017 – finally start to show some form as Kiwi Fabian Coulthard led home compatriot and new stable-mate Scott McLaughlin in the team’s first 1-2 finish under their current guise, with Whincup securing the final spot on the podium in his Holden.
Despite only finishing ninth in Race 4 after picking up an early time penalty following contact at the hairpin, though, Van Gisbergen did enough to hang onto his early lead in the championship by 20 points over Coulthard (to put that in perspective, a regular race win is worth 150 points), with Whincup’s podium moving the former champion up into third ahead of McLaughlin as the leading quartet immediately installed themselves at the head of the pack. Behind, Prodrive Racing Australia youngster Cameron Waters continued his impressive start to 2017 with a third top 10 finish in as many races to remain effectively ‘best of the rest’ in fifth in the #6 Monster Energy-backed Ford, albeit just three points clear of stable-mate Chaz Mostert in his #55 Supercheap Auto-sponsored machine in sixth, with former champion Lowndes back in seventh in the #888 Commodore.
With the annual trip to Tasmania taken care of for another year, the championship moved back to mainland Australia and, more specifically, Victoria for the third round of the season as it arrived at another of the more historic venues in the sport, with the picturesque setting of the Phillip Island circuit (situated around 140km south of Melbourne) disguising one of the most technically demanding challenges of any track on the current calendar. First opened way back in 1956, the track – which is more generally known nowadays for hosting both the country’s MotoGP and World Superbike motorcycling races – first held a championship round in 1976 before becoming a more permanent presence from the early 1990s after a change of ownership and some significant changes to the track, with this year’s edition also seeing the SuperSprint format of recent seasons being replaced by a return to a two race format of 250 kilometres apiece that was last used for one of the series’ endurance rounds in 2011.
A typical lap of the 4.4km (2.7 miles) configuration begins with a long, undulating run down to the fast, sweeping right-hander of Turn 1 – which is named after legendary former world motorcycle champion Mick Doohan – that feeds almost immediately into an endless left-hander known as Southern Loop, which forces drivers to run out wide mid-corner before picking up the late apex and getting the power down on the approach to another high-speed corner at Stoner – recently renamed after two-time MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner – before slamming on the brakes for the tricky right-hand hairpin known as Honda at Turn 4. From there, the track changes direction again through the more open left-hander of Siberia – which is slightly cambered towards the inside, thus allowing drivers to maintain more of their entry speed on the exit – before it starts to open out down the back straight, with the left-hand kink of Turn 7 being followed by yet another long right at Hayshed that in turn leads up to arguably the most iconic corner on the lap in the form of Lukey Heights, a blind, sweeping left-hander that takes the cars over the top of the hill and then plunges back down on exit to the tight hairpin at MG, with two more similarly fast lefts at Turns 11 and 12 bringing them back onto the pit straight.
In terms of overtaking opportunities, while the high-speed nature of many of the corners around the track can make it difficult to force a move on the brakes, the constant changes of direction often means an outside line at one corner can quickly turn into the ideal inside line for the next, with the best places to make a pass stick arguably being either down the pit straight into Turn 1 – which does require an overtaking car to be almost completely alongside in the braking zone in order to brake later and pick up the natural racing line on the apex – or, failing that, with a lunge down the inside into the hairpin at Honda. Elsewhere, a good run out of Turn 4 can sometimes open the door for a move into Siberia as the track switches back on itself, while, despite having one of the biggest braking zones around the lap, the blind approach over the top of Lukey Heights and the tricky downhill braking zone makes any potential pass into MG a risky one to attempt.
The corresponding set of races here last year saw perhaps one of the most dominant displays of the whole season, with youngster McLaughlin – who was then behind the wheel of a Garry Rogers Motorsport-run Volvo S60 – marking himself out as a potential championship contender by producing a flawless weekend that saw him take pole position for both races in qualifying (albeit only by a fraction in each session) before securing his first victory of the season ahead of Whincup after the former champion got the better of Mostert’s Ford during the mandatory pit stops, with the #55 driver’s misery then being compounded when he picked up a puncture within half a lap of the finish to allow a charging Coulthard to inherit the final spot on the rostrum in third. It was more of the same in the longer second race, with the Kiwi comfortably able to keep the field at bay (even despite the appearance of the safety car late on after Waters suffered a major tyre blow-out coming down the pit straight) on his way to the chequered flag ahead of 2015 champion Mark Winterbottom’s #1 Bottle-O Racing Falcon in second and an excellent third from DJR Team Penske’s Scott Pye, while fourth proved enough for Whincup to grab the championship lead by just 15 points over McLaughlin.
So, with all that in mind, could Van Gisbergen maintain his remarkable run of early season form in Victoria and start to pull clear of his nearest rivals, or would Whincup manage to get back onto the top step of the podium and show his team-mate that he wasn’t about to let him have it all his own way? Having finally delivered the performances in ‘Tassie’ that demonstrated they were well capable of mixing it with the Triple Eight boys, could the likes of McLaughlin, Coulthard and Mostert continue to deliver the same kind of race-winning performances on a regular basis, or would someone else emerge from the increasingly competitive chasing pack to provide yet another potential fly in the ointment for the leading contenders? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the third event of the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, the 2017 Phillip Island 500…
After numerous tyre failures in free practice, the opening 20 minute qualifying session immediately set the tone for what was to come as the battle for pole quickly boiled down to a straight head-to-head between the two DJR Falcons, with Coulthard initially grabbing the advantage as he produced a new lap record to eclipse the opening effort of compatriot McLaughlin before the younger Kiwi went even quicker in the final few minutes to grab his third successive pole position at Phillip Island by just over a tenth ahead of his team-mate as the Shell-sponsored Fords locked out the front row. Behind, reigning champion Van Gisbergen was the best of the Holdens – albeit nearly 0.3s off the pace – in third ahead of an improved showing from Winterbottom, who bounced back after suffering from problems with the balance of his car earlier in the weekend to grab fourth from under the nose of Prodrive stable-mate and practice pace-setter Mostert, leaving the #55 to settle for a spot on the third row alongside Whincup.
Further back, Waters produced yet another strong performance to line up seventh ahead of the ever-improving Penrite-sponsored Erebus Motorsport Holden of David Reynolds in eighth, with Courtney bouncing back in the newly-liveried #22 Mobil 1 Commodore to secure ninth and Tim Slade rounding out the top 10 in his #14 Brad Jones Racing-run, Freightliner-backed Holden, while, having had his car written off in Tasmania, Rick Kelly managed to steer his brand-new Nissan Altima to a solid 11th. However, it was a tough session for some of the other regular contenders, with Lowndes – who found himself on the back foot following a tyre failure that sent him heavily into the tyre barriers – only getting as far as 15th in the rebuilt #888 Team Vortex Holden and Davison (still struggling with pain in his back following the Symmons Plains shunt) a row behind in 17th, while, after finishing in the top 10 last time out, former champion Garth Tander was also well adrift on his way to a lowly 20th in the #33 Garry Rogers Motorsport Holden.
Qualifying for the second race of the weekend saw more of the same as the searing one-lap pace of the DJR Fords once more proved too much for anyone to match, and, once again, it was McLaughlin that produced a sensational turn of speed to lower his earlier track record by a scarcely believable 0.3s on his way to taking a scarcely believable fourth pole in four races at the venue, with team-mate Coulthard again ensuring an all Shell V-Power front row despite finishing over a quarter of a second adrift. In what turned out to be a difficult session for the Holden contingent, an improved showing from Whincup saw the factory Red Bull Holden slot into third ahead of the leading Prodrive Falcon of Winterbottom in fourth – the 2015 champion making it onto the second row despite ending up more than six-tenths off the fastest time – while Waters again managed to get himself amongst the more familiar front-runners to start from fifth in the #6 alongside team-mate Mostert as the Fords maintained their domination of the event.
Behind, Lowndes took seventh in the #888 Commodore as he looked to recover further following his practice smash ahead of a disappointed Van Gisbergen – the reigning champion complaining about a lack of grip compared to the previous session – in eighth, while a much-improved performance from Nissan saw Michael Caruso line up ninth in the #23 Nismo-sponsored machine alongside stable-mate Rick Kelly, with the latter squeezing into the top 10 by just 0.002s ahead of Reynolds and 0.005s in front of Slade as the two Holdens had to settle for a spot on the sixth row. However, after showing some promise earlier in the weekend, it turned out to be a tough 20 minutes for the pair of Mobil 1 Commodores, with Courtney being shuffled back to 13th and 2017 recruit Pye a lowly 18th – the latter finishing a place behind the crippled Davison – while there were yet more problems at Garry Rogers Motorsport as Tander was again unable to get any higher than 20th, with team-mate James Moffat even further back in 23rd on the grid.
Lee Holdsworth – #18 Holden Commodore (Preston Hire Racing)
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10
Race 5: 1st – McLaughlin, 2nd – Coulthard, 3rd – Van Gisbergen, 4th – Winterbottom, 5th – Mostert, 6th – Whincup, 7th – Waters, 8th – Reynolds, 9th – Courtney and 10th – Slade
Race 6: 1st – McLaughlin, 2nd – Coulthard, 3rd – Whincup, 4th – Winterbottom, 5th – Waters, 6th – Mostert, 7th – Lowndes, 8th – Van Gisbergen, 9th – Caruso and 10th – R. Kelly
When the lights went out for the start of the first race, however, Coulthard managed to get the jump from the outside of the front row to outdrag team-mate McLaughlin and immediately take the lead on the long run down towards Turn 1, with the pole-sitter then losing out even further on the brakes as Winterbottom – who had also made a cracking start – just about managed to sweep around the outside and move into second, but behind, there was chaos in the midfield as, after being shuffled wide on the exit of the first corner, both Reynolds and the #18 Preston Hire Commodore of Lee Holdsworth slithered across the grass before rejoining into the path of the field, with several cars – including the likes of Lowndes, Courtney and Rick Kelly – being forced to take to the gravel trap in avoidance. Up front, however, while Coulthard wasted no time at all in establishing a margin in the lead, Winterbottom soon found himself under pressure for second from a racy-looking McLaughlin, and it wasn’t long before the young Kiwi capitalised on a mistake from the Bottle-O Racing driver at Honda on lap 4 of 57 to retake second spot.
After relatively little action in the opening stages, however, the race suddenly burst into life with a spate of tyre problems in quick succession, with Waters first to suffer as he picked up a right-rear puncture on lap 9 before team-mate Mostert also dropped out of fifth with a similar problem on the following tour, while Moffat was somewhat fortunate to get away with his right front letting go coming down the pit straight into Turn 1 on lap 11, although the #34 Holden was forced into the pits after running across the grass on the outside and collecting mud in his car’s radiator. Back at the front, however, it wasn’t long before the various ideas on strategy began to have an influence among the front-runners, with Whincup first to pit for fuel and a set of tyres at the end of lap 14, but the key point came five laps later when McLaughlin – who had been closing the lead gap prior to his stop – came in along with Winterbottom and Van Gisbergen just as team-mate Coulthard joined the growing list of drivers to suffer failures when the #12’s right front blew on the exit of Turn 1 heading onto lap 20, leaving the remaining DJR Ford out in front at the end of the first round of stops.
The mayhem continued into the second stint of the race as, with the safety car ultimately being called for on lap 23 after another blow out on the pit straight left debris strewn across the track, both Van Gisbergen and Winterbottom elected to make their second stop in an attempt to take on the required amount of fuel to get to the end of the race, leaving McLaughlin ahead of Whincup and Slade on the restart, but there was soon disaster for the #17 when he, along with Van Gisbergen and Winterbottom, were all hit with a 15 second time penalty for violating the rules relating to their entry into the pits. Having effectively inherited the lead as a result, Whincup and Slade both then came in to make their second and final stop on lap 38 just as the safety car was deployed to recover Courtney’s stranded car from the gravel at Turn 11 after the #22 was turned around by a tap from Waters (the Monster Energy Falcon being handed a drive through penalty as a result), which left Tander – the #33 sporting damage to the right front – as a surprise leader ahead of Mostert on the resumption.
However, even with the numerous disruptions that meant the race became time-certain rather than running to its scheduled number of laps, the man on the charge in the closing stages was Coulthard, with the Kiwi – having been handily placed on the restart – capitalising on fresher rubber to scythe his way through before benefitting from a time penalty for Lowndes (who actually took the chequered flag) to take his second win of the season, with the race ultimately finishing behind the safety car after contact between Nick Percat’s Brad Jones Racing Holden and the Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport version of teenager Alex Rullo at Honda. Behind, Whincup produced a bold move at MG to snatch second away from Tander just before the safety car, forcing the GRM driver to settle for what was still an impressive run to third, with Van Gisbergen taking more solid points in fourth ahead of Nissan pair Michael Caruso and Todd Kelly and the MEGA Racing Prodrive Ford of Jason Bright, while Winterbottom recovered to finish eighth in front of Davison – the Tekno driver also receiving a penalty for an over-ambitious move on Slade at MG that sent the #14 sliding off the road – and a disgruntled McLaughlin in tenth.
The start of the second race again saw Coulthard make a scorching start from the outside of the front row to outdrag McLaughlin on the run down towards Turn 1, with the #17 this time managing to move across ahead of Winterbottom and secure second before Whincup dived down the inside on the brakes to snatch third away from the Bottle-O Falcon, but, just a couple of corners later, there was drama at the back as contact between Percat and Bright at Turn 3 ended with the luckless Davison – who had found himself on the outside – being turned around and out of the race, meaning the safety car had to be called for before the end of the opening lap, with the whole field aside from McLaughlin electing to make a free stop and take on their first amount of fuel during the interruption. On the restart, however, the young Kiwi immediately started to build his advantage as team-mate Coulthard started to drop back into the clutches of the chasing group led by Whincup, while further down the order, Van Gisbergen – who had lost ground after being forced to ‘double-stack’ behind his Red Bull stable-mate in the pits – was struggling to make much progress, with the reigning champion eventually sliding past Holdsworth on the exit of Southern Loop on lap 9 for 13th place.
With the gaps gradually continuing to open out at the front, the battles to watch through the early stages were for the minor placings in the top 10, with Lowndes finally getting the job done against a resilient Winterbottom to grab fifth at MG on lap 10 before Reynolds aggressively muscled his way past Courtney to take seventh at Honda a few laps later, but the rate of progress for Van Gisbergen continued to be much slower as he tried to battle his way back through the pack, with the Kiwi having to wait until lap 17 before passing the #34 Holden of Moffat at the same corner and then Caruso’s Nissan with a bold pass around the outside at Haysheds to move up to 11th. Up front, having built a lead of more than 10 seconds, McLaughlin finally made his first stop at the end of lap 18 to take on a sizeable chunk of fuel, leaving team-mate Coulthard to take over in the lead with a narrow advantage over Whincup and Mostert as the leading trio began to move away, but it wasn’t long before the tyres began to suffer once again as, after Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport’s Taz Douglas flew off the road at Turn 1, Caruso, the recovering Van Gisbergen and then team-mate Whincup all suffered right-rear punctures on consecutive laps to drop back down the order.
Eventually, the safety car had to be deployed again to clear up the debris left on track by the spate of tyre failures, allowing the leading runners a chance to make a ‘free’ second stop of the race and take on their remaining fuel allocation – Lowndes pitting twice in successive laps to get his out of the way – but there was disaster for Coulthard when he ignored the red light at the end of the pit lane as he rejoined and was duly slapped with a drive-through penalty once the race got back underway. This left the out-of-sync McLaughlin back at the front for the restart, and once again, the young Kiwi cleared off on the resumption as he looked to rebuild his advantage over Mostert, with Prodrive stable-mate Winterbottom up to third, but the men on the charge amongst the chasing group were Reynolds- the #9 Commodore first taking fifth off Slade at Honda before taking advantage of a late stop from Courtney to move up to fourth – and Lowndes, with the Team Vortex machine producing several late lunges down the inside at Turn 4 to move back into the top 10 before McLaughlin(sporting damage to the rear bumper) finally made his second and final stop of the race at the end of lap 41.
This left Mostert clear in the lead, and, from then on, the #55 driver clicked his way through the remaining laps to record a long-overdue first race victory – excluding his win at the non-championship round in support of the Australian Grand Prix – since before his monstrous crash at Bathurst in 2015, with team-mate Winterbottom securing a Prodrive 1-2 ahead of Reynolds, who closed to within just 0.6s at the chequered flag on his way to a hugely popular first podium of the year in third. Behind, however, a dramatic late puncture for Lowndes handed the #34 of Moffat an impressive fourth from 23rd on the grid ahead of an equally strong fifth for Holdsworth in the #18 and the recovering Waters, who put a late move on Tander at Honda to round out the top six, with Dale Wood taking eighth in his GB Galvanizing Erebus Commodore ahead of the leading Nissans of Rick Kelly and Caruso – the latter only grabbing the position after some robust battling with stable-mate Todd Kelly towards the end – while, in the battle of the championship contenders, McLaughlin fought back up to 14th while Van Gisbergen fended off both Coulthard and Whincup to take 16th across the line.
Fabian Coulthard – #12 Ford Falcon (Shell V-Power Racing Team)
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Race 5: 1st – Coulthard, 2nd – Whincup, 3rd – Tander, 4th – Van Gisbergen, 5th – Caruso, 6th – T. Kelly, 7th – Bright, 8th – Winterbottom, 9th – Davison and 10th – McLaughlin
Race 6: 1st – Mostert, 2nd – Winterbottom, 3rd – Reynolds, 4th – Moffat, 5th – Holdsworth, 6th – Waters, 7th – Tander, 8th – Wood, 9th – R. Kelly and 10th – Caruso
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Coulthard (Shell V-Power Racing Team) – 568pts
2. Van Gisbergen (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) – 561pts
3. Mostert (Supercheap Auto Racing/PRA) – 531pts
4. Whincup (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) – 522pts
5. McLaughlin (Shell V-Power Racing Team) – 471pts
6. Tander (Garry Rogers Motorsport) – 444pts
7. Waters (Monster Energy Racing/PRA) – 427pts
8. Winterbottom (Bottle-O Racing Team/PRA) – 417pts
9. Lowndes (Team Vortex) – 378pts
10. Moffat (Garry Rogers Motorsport) – 366pts