Supercars: Truck Assist Sydney SuperSprint
Circuit: Eastern Creek/Sydney Motorsport Park
What an utterly wild 3 weeks – First came the early decision to move Winton for the 2020 edition of the Supernight at Sydney Motorsport Park, then came the rush to reach the Victorian border before the closure, which affected 5 teams (Tickford, Walkinshaw Andretti United, Team 18, Kelly Racing and Erebus) and several CAMS officials, including race director Tim Schenken.
Next, the Northern Territory government designated the Greater Sydney region as a COVID hotspot, so to keep the season going at the Darwin Triple Crown, it was agreed that after the weekend, Supercars would follow in the AFL’s footsteps…. AND FORM A QUEENSLAND HUB OF THEIR OWN.
Conveniently, Triple 8, DJR-Penske and Matt Stone Racing (Following on from the old Stone Brothers) have long been based in SEQ, so they don’t have to go anywhere, and just to show how far they’ll go to distance the Banana Benders from the Mexicans, all the Victorian teams now have their garages at the far end of the pit lane, while the Queenslanders are all up the top.
The former Winton round was also going to mark the return of Soft tyres to the ATCC, creating even more variation in weekend strategies, and in a convenient way to save money, Supercars decided to award the Snowboard trophies that would’ve been handed out at Winton to the weekend’s podium finishers.
Down straights, the Hard tyre was actually faster, but the Soft was far superior in corners, and with teams once again having a limited number of tyre sets, there was going to be plenty of variety in how drivers used their tyres throughout the weekend.
2 sets of Softs and 3 sets of Hard tyres, down from 5 Hard sets last time…. it was game on!
Race 10 (32 Laps)
Scott McLaughlin qualified a lowly (By his standards) 11th for the Top 15 shootout…. But Scotty being Scotty, he was the 5th car on track and with Soft tyres, set a new unofficial lap record 1:27.7428 to start on pole position.
In a familiar tale, Shane van Gisbergen ended up next to him after jumping from 10th to 2nd in the Shootout, and Cam Waters would jump from 15th to start 3rd.
Those Kiwis are the definition of magnets.
As the sky went dark and the lights took over Eastern Creek on Saturday evening, Van Gisbergen, Waters and Holdsworth all started on Soft tyres, and McLaughlin, Coulthard and Whincup were the leading drivers to start on Hard tyres.
At the start, Van Gisbergen used the superior grip to brake deep into Turn 2 and take the lead, Waters passed McLaughlin, as did Holdsworth and de Pasquale, as the Championship leader would settle into 5th as leading driver on Hard tyres.
As Gizzy led by a second to the Green-Eyed Monster Mustang, Whincup was the first major runner to pit on Lap 10, going on to Soft tyres, with McLaughlin ding the same the next Lap, and the strategic thinking was most likely that with clear track, they could pump out fast laps, undercut the leaders and get track position.
In a sense, it worked.
After stopping for fresh Softs on Lap 15, Holdsworth would emerge ahead of McLaughlin and de Pasquale, but on cold tyres, Holdsworth understeered out of Turn 3, and McLaughlin got ahead, and Anton claimed him at Turn 5 with some forceful persuasion, in what was the effective battle for the lead.
In a tactical error, Triple 8 kept van Gisbergen, whose first stint was well-managed, out until Lap 19/20 to pit from the lead for Softs, at which point he’d lost 8 seconds to McLaughlin in only 4 laps.
Instead of getting another great battle for the lead with Scotty, van Gisbergen emerged behind his own teammate, with whom he spent the rest of the race as they both had no chance of a podium, and that just about the summary of Triple 8’s weekend – They just couldn’t find the right tyre stratetgy.
Driving to a number, McLauglin was falling back into the clutches of a desperate Holdsworth, who had put all tyre ‘eggs’ into the Saturday night basket to try and win, but while that went on, the fight in the midpack made for some compelling viewing.
Down in 14th, Mostert was stalking the back of David Reynolds, and simultaneously Chaz had to hold off Todd Hazelwood, who made an audacious move at Turn 8, but had the door shut by Mostert when he ran out of room.
A couple of laps later, Hazelwood passed Mostert out of the final corner, then Mostert got him back down the pit straight after Hazelwood tried a move on Reynolds that left him a sitting duck down the hill.
But out in front, thanks to good old conservative tyre management of going from Hard to Soft, McLaughlin was way too good under the bright lights, claiming his 47th ATCC victory, one win away from equaling Peter Brock, with Holdsworth scoring another 2nd placing, de Pasquale enjoyed his first podium of 2020, then the Red Bulls of van Gisbergen and Whincup came home in 4th and 5th.
Brad Jones Racing achieved success by extremes – Macauley Jones finished 8th, albeit by using 2 Soft tyre sets, and Nick Percat finished 9th using both Hard tyre sets, setting up very nicely.
Let’s just say things went back to normal after that.
Race 11 (32 Laps)
While Gizzy started on Softs again, McLaughlin claimed another Pole Position, once again starting on the Hard tyre, and he almost started in front of the white line on his grid slot, which would’ve been a slam dunk penalty.
In a repeat of Saturday evening, McLaughlin jumped well and held the lead on the inside, but Van Gisbergen once again used the superior grip to brake deeper into Turn 2 and take the lead, as the Soft tyre gang of Percat, Fabian Coulthard and Rick Kelly would pass McLaughlin, who was basically driving to a number.
In a noteworthy struggle, Jamie Whincup qualified on the hard tyre and started 21st, but was stuck down in 22nd in a fight with Bryce Fullwood.
In a repeat of the previous Sydney round, Percat and BJR had focused their tyres on the first Sunday race, and the Croweater went on the offensive against van Gisbergen from Lap 5, almost making contact on at least 3 occasions.
After 6 laps, the only drivers on Hard tyres in the Top 10 were McLaughlin and Mostert in 6th and 7th, and Andre Heimgartner in 10th, at the head of a dozen drivers on the same compound.
Percat pitted on Lap 12 and went on to another pair of Softs, as BJR realised they had another very realistic chance for victory.
With the tyre variance, we had the rare situation of Jack Smith having the honour of dueling Scott McLaughlin for track position, albeit briefly, because McLaughlin pitted on Lap 14 for a full set of Softs.
Van Gisbergen was once again getting good life out of his Softs, going 22 laps from the lead, better than his performance from Saturday, but he was losing chunks of time to Percat in 2nd, and Red Bull’s decision to go on to a used hard tyre was an indication that they were going to save a set for the final race.
The factory Holden team also put Whincup on another set of Hard tyres, which left him battling with Le Brocq, Pither and Holdsworth just to finish in the Top 20.
So Gizzy’s stop put Percat into a clear lead ahead of Coulthard with 10 laps to go, as Van Gisbergen emerged in 7th behind McLaughlin and Garry Jacobson, and the Red Bull was thereafter consigned to 8th when Mostert swept by.
In the fight for the last podium spot, McLaughlin was making up good ground on Rick Kelly and James Courtney, but he found himself unable to pass “The Modern Day John Bowe” in Kelly, who had everyone crapping themselves by always pulling a big slide into Turn 1 to hold position into Turn 2.
With Courtney losing even more pace in 3rd, it formed a 4-way fight between the Mustangs and Mostert’s fast-finishing Commodore, and on the penultimate lap, McLaughlin got alongside Kelly at the Turn 8 hairpin, but simply ran out of road, almost inviting Mostert for a pass.
As the last lap ticked over, McLaughlin finally saw on opening on Kelly at Corporate Hill/Turn 7, and took 4th by using all the space available, to the point that Kelly was halfway in the grass.
While all that went on, Percat and BJR scored their second win in Sydney in as many rounds (Brad Jones was actually on hand to see this win), Coulthard finished 2nd for his first podium of 2020, and completing the epic 4-way fight for 3rd, McLaughlin got a run on a shot Courtney out of the last corner, and with the far better grip going down the hill, the Shell Mustang out-dragged the Boost Mobile Mustang and claimed 3rd, putting both DJR-Penske drivers on the podium.
If you want to see how close it was, check out this photo:
You can also see in the background that Mostert got Kelly for 5th, with Garry Jacobson in 7th.
A repeat of the finish to Race 8 – A 4-way fight for 3rd, and it was McLaughlin who prevailed.
Also, good job to Jack Smith – He finished in the Top 10 for the first time in 2020.
With Whincup struggling down in 17th, the Championship gap was already out to 125 points in favour of McLaughlin.
Race 12 (32 Laps)
In a welcome change, during the second of the morning qualifying sessions, it was Andre Heimgartner in the #7 Ned Mustang who claimed his maiden Supercars pole position, and a great unexpected result for Kelly Racing, who had to set up a temporary factory at the Kelly family farm north of Mildura, and they’ve only been using the Mustang for 7 months.
At the start, Whincup slightly headed Andre off the front row, but the Mustang used the inside line to maintain the lead, as the Soft tyre gang of Reynolds and Winterbottom took Whincup, who had started on Hard tyres, while McLaughlin had started the race on Softs from 3rd, which by this point in the weekend had absolutely nothing left, and as he fell down the order, his race was seemingly ruined by contact on the left rear guard, which rubbed on the tyre and forced an early stop on Lap 8, but DJR-Penske never bothered rectifying the body work, and he would have to fight it out in the unfamiliar confines of the midfield.
The Top 10 were all cars/drivers who had saved up their best tyre set for the end of the weekend, while a driver like McLaughlin was now paying the price for using his good sets as he struggled in 13th, which was probably how this format intended to work.
The big surprise of the race would turn out to be Jack Le Brocq in the Supercheap Auto Tickford Mustang, who started from 7th with his best set of tyres still to come, ensuring he’d finally get the chance to drive more like Peter Le Brock.
Le Brocq would spend most of the first stint in 3rd behind Heimgartner and Reynolds, but the moment that changed the race was Tickford’s superb pit work, which got him back out ahead of Dave, and after Heimgartner’s stop, Le Brocq used the momentum to claim the effective race lead.
Further down, there was a hairy moment between McLaughlin and Holdsworth in their scrap for 14th, which came after Coulthard had passed his teammate and the Tickford.
At Turn 8, McLaughlin tried to go down the outside, and recognising Lee would run him out space, eased out of the throttle, but McLaughlin wiped Holdsworth’s rear bumper and almost recreated the Skaife-Ingall crash of 2003 as Lee went in the grass, but Race Control apparently decided it was play on because it was overlap and McLaughlin had the pace.
Le Brocq led Heimgartner and Reynolds by just on a second, in a tense fight between the exiled Victorian teams, with Todd Hazelwood showing tremendous pace in 4th, charging at them at a second per lap, but there was the obvious problem of having to pass 3 cars once he reached them.
It was good racing in the sense that 3 out of the Top 4 cars had a chance to score their first win – Reynolds being the odd one out.
As the last lap began, Le Brocq was doing just enough, while Reynolds eyed up Heimgartner at Turn 5, leaving himself vulnerable to Hazelwood, who got a great run out of Turn 6, and with a Snowboard on the line, made the move on Reynolds at Corporate Hill, and with that pass Le Brocq was in the clear to CLAIM HIS FIRST-EVER WIN, as Heimgartner finished a career-best 2nd, and Hazelwood at least claimed his first podium.
Jack became the 72nd driver to win an ATCC/V8 Supercar/Supercars race, and it was Tickford’s first win since Chaz Mostert at Albert Park last year.
The Top 3 points scorers for the weekend were McLaughlin on 228, Percat on 204 and Coulthard on 200.
In that last race, they finished 14th, 11th and 13th, and van Gisbergen in 4th overall finished the race 12th.
The Sunday results brought the type of variation that Supercars were hoping with the tyre rule changes – Two races won by drivers who would otherwise struggle to crack it for a podium, let alone a race win.
I say that with the greatest respect to Nick Percat, who is a Top 10 driver, but he is in a car that under normal circumstances, just doesn’t have the speed to match Triple 8 or DJR-Penske.
Some fans probably got sick of seeing the same 3 drivers winning every race, and from that standpoint, the 5 set rule has spiced things up for the better.
The only problem is how much longer will it last before the teams crack the shits, given Scott McLaughlin said it had “Too much influence” on the on-track action, Barry Ryan from Erebus called it “Fake racing”, and the general mood from the pit lane (Based on McLaughlin’s comments) is that there’s plenty of teams who aren’t enjoying the change.
I do agree on the influence part – Some drivers going around just to save tyres for another race doesn’t really lend itself to seeing drivers & cars race at their absolute maximum, which is what revheads crave above all else.
Interestingly, Triple 8/Red Bull didn’t get a single podium this weekend.
As a result, McLaughlin’s lead is now 107 points.