Supercars: BP Ultimate Sydney SuperSprint
Circuit: Sydney Motorsport Park/Eastern Creek
After a 3 month gap between events because of COVID-19, and now 4 months between races (Remembering that Adelaide was at the end of February), the Supercars Championship was BACK.
In physical form!
The eSeries was wild, and at times stupidly fun to watch watching cars get launched into space, but nothing beats being able to slot my arse on the couch on a Saturday & Sunday afternoon watching cars go around in circles.
In the COVID-era, the series needed to find a way to save money and keep things entertaining, and that came from a few rule changes:
The number of trackside personnel for teams was reduced, there was restrictions on how much data the teams could collect & use, no refueling during races, and the big one was that the teams only had 5 tyre sets (20 tyres) per car for the weekend, which meant there was more emphasis on forcing teams and drivers to find the ideal way to use tyres, and there were only six crew members allowed to work on the car in pit stops, which made for a greater variety of strategies to find success.
Some teams changed all four tyres, and some took two to save time at the cost of grip, and it all made for an interesting battle of strategies that lasted an entire weekend, especially on a circuit known for being brutal on tyres.
Another change – The Top 15 Shootout is back for the first time since Bathurst 2002, and honestly, I would’ve just had every driver in a one-lap shootout, just to make things really funky.
On the driver line-ups, the obvious disappointing loss of the pandemic is the departure of Will Davison in the fourth Tickford car, after 23Red Racing withdrew when title sponsor Milwaukee was forced to pull funding.
So, swooping in to take a pretty coveted seat, with backing from Boost Mobile, was 2010 Champion James Courtney, who abruptly left Tekno/Team Sydney after the Adelaide 500, and, in this crazy reality, only missed one round of the Championship…. but didn’t miss a race!
Race 7 Qualifying
Coming back like he’d been here the whole time, Scott McLaughlin set the fastest time in Qualifying ahead of Jamie Whincup by a healthy 0.18s, with Fabian Coulthard, Scott Pye and Todd Hazelwood rounding out the final 5 drivers for the shootout, while at the lower end, Macauley Jones smuggled his way in for his first shootout appearance in the main game, and Ricky Kelly managed to edge out his teammate Andre Heimgartner for the 15th and final spot…. BY 3-THOUSANDTHS (1.29.0678 vs a 1.29.0708).
Funnily enough, Kelly appeared in that 2002 Bathurst Top 15 Shootout, as a 19-year-old driving the #02 Holden Young Lions VX Commodore.
He qualified 13th, and improved to 6th in that shootout, before finishing 4th in the Great Race with Nathan Pretty.
Unfortunately it didn’t go as well on Saturday, because his time was deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 5, meaning Car 15 started 15th.
As the one lap dashers put in their times, Shane Van Gisbergen, who qualified 6th, set a new benchmark with a 1.28.17, but saving his best for last, McLaughlin proceeded to light up his Kiwi compatriot with three purple sectors and claim pole position with a 1.27.96, the first sub-88 second lap of the weekend.
Of all the drivers who took part in the revamped shootout, Cam Waters gained the most – He had qualified 14th, but despite having the pressure on going second-up, he set a 1.28.26, good enough to start 3rd ahead of Chaz Mostert and Whincup.
Some notable low starters – David Reynolds in 18th after he elected to conserve his tyres and not run again in Q2, and Courtney jumped from 21st on his Tickford debut, having never run in the car prior to Saturday morning.
Race 7* (32 Laps)
Oddly enough, because the Melbourne Grand Prix weekend began & qualifying was run, but races 3,4,5 & 6 of the Series never went ahead, this was classified as Race 7, despite being the 3rd race that actually went ahead.
As the lights went out and the 2020 season was back with a bang McLaughlin was able to edge out Van Gisbergen into Turn 1 using the inside line from pole, and immediately began putting a gap on the field, opening up a 3 second lead in the opening 4 laps, which was an early sign of tyre strategy, as Scotty willingly went through his front tyres to establish a gap.
Further back, Whincup had come out on top of Mostert for 3rd and 4th, with Mostert overtaking Nick Percat, who had both passed the slow-starting Waters, in a Top 6 tussle that would last most of race.
Alex Davison in the Tekno Commodore was the only retirement of the day, with his steering clevis failing on Lap 12.
Waters was the first of the early Top 10 stoppers on Lap 13, with Tickford only changing two tyres on the drivers side of the Mustang, while Whincup became the first of the leading cars to pit, stopping the very next lap as Triple 8 would change all four tyres, which was one of the best examples of the ‘new’ tyre change rules at work, as crews had to change tyres Endurance Championship style, without the safety blanket of refuel time.
That also demonstrated how hard it was for crews to change the left hand side tyres versus the right, for the simple fact that they had to get around the crew member holding the air spike to keep the car in the place.
Whincup would emerge behind Waters, but he did have the massive advantage of fersh rubber.
Meanwhile, Van Gisbergen had caught up to McLaughlin by Lap 15, lapping well over half a second per lap faster, but the championship leader was called in by DJR Penske, who changed all four tyres on #17, which proved to be a successful undercut on Van Gisbergen, who stayed out until Lap 19 in a simultaneous overcut attempt, which would help decide the race.
Van Gisbergen emerged behind Whincup, Waters and Holdsworth, but the Kiwi took flight, and quickly reclaimed 2nd in part thanks to Jamie passing Waters on Lap 21, and set out after McLauglin, beginning the start of a gripping 10-lap chase that fans have waited months for.
All other squabbles on the field were forgotten, as Gizzy was biting chunks out of a McLaughlin lead that stood at 3.5 seconds at a rate of no worse than 4 tenths per lap, and unlike the eSeries, this fight for the lead was real, and it was spectacular.
Gizzy was all over the back of the Mustang on Lap 29, and it looked for all money like Triple 8 were going to pull off the win, alas, the disturbed air from the Mustang proved too tough to overcome (Which Gizzy definitely noticed), and McLaughlin, despite getting a bad sportsmanship flag for kerb overruse, had him covered every step of the way, winning Race 7, with Whincup coming home 3rd just ahead of Mostert, as Percat came home well to pass Waters for 5th.
The final margin between 1st and 2nd was 0.18 seconds – The smallest winning margin of the 21st century.
It was easy enough passing Scotty in the eSeries, but in real life, the 2-time Champ is still the one in charge.
The big mover of the race was Courtney, who went from 21st to 12th, in what was a fair effort in his Mustang debut.
In the back to back sessions for Races 8 & 9, McLaughlin looked set to claim another pole for Race 8 with 30 seconds remaining in the session, but both the Red Bull drivers would knock Scotty off his perch, with Jamie Whincup beating out Gizzy to take pole for the opening Sunday race, ahead of both DJR Penske drivers – Coulthard in 4th alongside McLaughlin.
But McLaughlin hit back minutes later, claiming Pole for Race 9, and bettering his own unofficial lap record from 2018, with a 1.27.91, his second lap of the weekend below 1.28 – He was the only driver to even do it once.
Race 8 (32 laps)
It was only three months overdue, but two Bathurst winners brought up milestones – Jamie Whincup became the eighth driver to appear in 500 ATCC races, having won a mere 119 of them, and Nick Percat celebrated his 200th race.
Funnily enough, Jamie would’ve been on pole if his original 500th race at Albert Park (Race 4) had gone ahead.
Anyway, they would both feature prominently in their milestone races.
At the start, Whincup held the lead into Turn 1, as McLaughlin fired up the inside of Van Gisbergen in to 2nd, Waters would demote the Red Bull to 4th at Turn 4, and Percat sent Gizzy to 5th by the end of Lap 1, and the apparent cause for Gizzy’s drop was a clutch issue.
Maybe it was the clutch, maybe it was his tyre strategy, but Gizzy was never really a threat in Race 8, neither was Fabian Coulthard, who joined his compatriot in falling into the lower reaches of the Top 10.
While Whincup led the entire opening half of the race, his greatest threat proved to be Percat, who passed Waters, then rounded up McLaughlin for 2nd, and was carving into Whincup’s lead by the time they got into the pit window.
Percat stopped on Lap 14 in a bid to undercut Whincup in front, but Jamie stayed in front when he pitted on Lap 15, as Percat took on four new tyres, whereas Triple 8 put on two for No.88.
It may have given him a short term gain, but Percat was red hot.
Further back in the field, there was action aplenty – Waters, Mostert, Reynolds and McLaughlin all found themselves fighting for the final podium spot, Courtney had found his way into the Top 10, alongside Frosty Winterbottom, thanks to making the most of a 3-way go into Turn 6 with teammate Scott Pye and Macauley Jones.
McLaughlin had dropped back to 6th from 3rd on the grid, the result of conserving tyre life during the opening stint, which worked out well in the final laps.
After whittling down the gap caused by the pit stop, Percat took the lead on Lap 22 with a dive at Turn 4, Whincup respected the dive and gave him room, and Nick was off and gone to a drought breaking victory.
However, the fight of the race proved to be the late battle for 3rd.
McLaughlin had passed Reynolds and Mostert (Who couldn’t find a way passed Waters) for 4th, and he had vastly superior tyre grip to Waters in 3rd, using it to full effect in the run to Turn 6 with 3 laps remaining, but Waters got a better corner exit and stayed alongside car #17, as McLaughlin eased off the throttle.
In a moment that could very easily have ended in carnage, Waters made enough contact to fold in the right rear guard of McLaughlin’s Mustang at the Turn 7 ‘Corporate Hill’, inviting Mostert back for another crack on the outside of Turn 8, allowing the WAU Commodore to take 4th from Waters, but McLaughlin avoided serious damage, and claimed the final podium spot.
After being on for a podium with 3 laps remaining, Waters was down to 6th after being passed by Reynolds a lap later.
But, out in front, Percat and Brad Jones Racing had played their tyres perfectly, and the Croweater claimed his first win since Adelaide 2016, with Whincup a clear 2nd, and McLaughlin 3rd after that epic scrap.
It was the first Supercars race not won by DJR Penske or Triple 8 since Mostert won Race 5 at Albert Park last year for Tickford…. and that was primarily thanks to McLaughlin getting taken out on the sighting lap.
The only disappointing part – Bradley wasn’t able to enjoy the win in person, as he was at home in Albury, due to the restrictions on the number of team personnel prevnting team principals from being trackside.
Race 9 (32 laps)
At the start, Whincup had his nose in front of McLaughlin on the run into Turn 1, but side by side, polesitter McLaughlin once again used the inside line to claim the lead, as the mid pack engaged in a mass bumping duel, with Holdsworth dropping from 4th to 7th, and it could’ve been worse, after he and Nick Percat briefly ended up on two wheels on the run to Turn 2.
Still, he didn’t cop it as badly as his teammate Waters, who was later mugged on Lap 10 in a fight for 6th with Percat, who passed him at Turn 8, which allowed Reynolds to sneak up the inside, and Waters thought he’d damaged his steering, which allowed Coulthard, Bryce Fullwood and Mark Winterbottom to fly past, putting him all the way down to 11th, although he pitted straight away, and faded out of sight to run 13th, with that apparent steering isue finishing him off.
After Percat’s success in the previous race, it was his BJR teammate Todd Hazelwood who was looking likely for a good result to end the weekend, qualifying 5th after conserving a tyre set for the final race, and he was up into the podium places after attacking Van Gisbergen at Gizzy’s favourite passing spot, the downhill run to Turn 4 on Lap 9.
Having closed up to Whincup, Hazelwood pitted on Lap 16 and emerged in 11th, ready to absolutely fly through the field on fresh tyres and have a crack at a potential podium & victory, but disaster struck for BJR, as the anti-roll bar had failed on Lap 14, which robbed Hazelwood of optimum car balance, and left him fighting with Percat for a spot in the Top 10.
Whincup had pitted on Lap 13, while McLaughlin pitted one lap later, with DJR Penske defeating Triple 8’s undercut attempt, and in hindsight, that was the race there and then, because Scotty on fresher tyres put #88 away.
Meanwhile, Holdsworth was able to stay out until Lap 18, rejoining the race in 12th (Just behind the ailing Hazelwood), but the big reason for staying out that late was that he’d managed to save 2 full sets of relatively fresh tyres for the race, and was about to use both to full effect.
While McLaughlin was on his way to victory, Holdworth began the charge of the race, as the No.5 Mustang spectacularly picked his way through to the podium within 6 laps, and he was all over the back of Whincup for 2nd, and starting Lap 26, Lee made the move for 2nd into Turn 2, and Whincup gave him the space.
But, from pole, McLaughlin scored his second win from three races, with Holdsworth finishing only 1.5 seconds behind, and Whincup joined Scotty in finishing every race on the podium to take 3rd.
A big shame for Hazlewood, who had a very real shot at a podium and a potential maiden victory before his rollbar failed.
Still, at least he finished – Fabian Coulthard in the other DJR Penske Mustang was only the second retirement of the weekend when he suffered a crown wheel failure on the penultimate lap, having to retire from 16th at the Turn 8 hairpin.
Thankfully, Nick Percat provided a lift back to the pits on the cooldown lap – Holden passenger comfort probably needs a bit of work, though.
In what was a sign of the new rules at play, 5 drivers finished on the podium in the 3 races, and in what may have been down to the quicker turnaround between sessions, the racing was relatively clean all weekend.
Heck, the only penalties I noticed were all aimed at Jack Smith.
In all, a good return to action!
Next Up: Winton in a fortnight