The five remaining contenders for the 2017 Supercars Championship crown endured mixed fortunes in the opening race of the ITM Auckland SuperSprint round.
Local driver Shane van Gisbergen triumphed in an eventful, rain-affected race at Pukekohe Park to win ahead of Mark Winterbottom and Scott McLaughlin.
There was major drama for McLaughlin’s championship-challenging teammate Fabian Coulthard, who ended the race on his roof as the victim of a multi-car incident late in the race.
Race 23’s planned qualifying session was washed out thanks to torrential rain, and so the grid for the 70-lap race was decided by aggregate results of Friday’s practice sessions. Sandown 500 winner Cam Waters was therefore awarded pole ahead of championship leader Jamie Whincup, with Winterbottom and McLaughlin locking out an all-Ford second row of the grid.
The field started with slick tyres on a drying track, but it was Whincup who made the better launch from the clean side of the track to take the lead from Waters, while van Gisbergen slotted into third place from sixth on the grid ahead of Winterbottom and a slow-starting McLaughlin.
With the field required to take on 120 litres of fuel over the course of two planned pit stops, the race’s outcome hinged on getting the right strategy to play out. The unknown factor was the unpredictable weather hovering over the circuit, which threatened to deliver a downpour at any minute.
The race ran without major drama until Lap 32, when James Courtney beached his Mobil1 HSV Commodore in the gravel between Turns 3 and 4.
The Safety Car was called so the former champion’s car could be towed back onto the track. Race leader Whincup and Winterbottom both pitted in response, with van Gisbergen peeling into the pits a lap later and emerging comfortably ahead after the pair was slowed on their put lap behind the Safety Car.
With the field bottled up, van Gisbergen was able to launch away at the green flag and left Winterbottom to fend off a tense Whincup/McLaughlin battle, in which the local driver was able to triumph with a cunning move at Turn 8. Worryingly for McLaughlin, his Ford Falcon was starting to emit puffs of oil smoke.
Coulthard – who came into the race just 17 points behind championship-leader Whincup – was buried midfield after a slow pit stop cycle and steadily chipped his way forward to get inside the top ten.
The New Zealander’s championship hopes then took a major dent when he was tipped into a spin by Erebus Motorsport’s David Reynolds at the penultimate corner on Lap 57.
The incident was triggered by contact between Reynolds and Prodrive’s Chaz Mostert thanks to a bold lunge by the latter on the former at the hairpin while they disputed fifth place.
Mostert pushed Reynolds off-track and in the melee he managed to engage neutral. While fishing for a gear and appearing to allow Reynolds back on track ahead of him, the pair was swamped by the chasing pack which included Coulthard who sought to profit from the event and gain extra places.
An unsighted Reynolds tagged Coulthard, spinning the pair into the tyre wall. Reynolds impacted side-on, but Coulthard went backwards into the barriers and landed up on his roof. Fortunately he was able to emerge unassisted, but the damage to the car was symbolic of the hit his championship challenge had taken.
The race would resume with a three-lap dash to a time-certain finish, van Gisbergen was able to cruise to take the chequered flag ahead of Winterbottom, McLaughlin and Whincup.
The result means Whincup now holds an 18-point lead over McLaughlin, with Coulthard’s DNF dropping him to third, 137 points adrift. Van Gisbergen moves up to fourth, 159 points off his Red Bull Holden Racing Team stablemate.
Mostert – who was fourth overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings coming into this weekend – was hit with a pit lane drive-through penalty for causing the multi-car crash, dropping him to the tail of the field and down to fifth in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
Prodrive’s Jason Bright benefited from the multi-car shunt to finish a fine fifth ahead of Tim Slade (Brad Jones Racing) and Garth Tander (Garry Rogers Motorsport).
Craig Lowndes recovered from being tipped into a spin by Bright midway through the race to finish eighth ahead of pole-sitter Waters, who lost valuable positions with a wet-weather assisted slide onto the grass at Turn 4. Lee Holdsworth rounded out the top ten finishers.
|2017 Australian Supercars ITM Auckland SuperSprint – Race 23 Top-10 Finishers (66 laps)|
|Pos||Driver||Team / Entry||Result|
|1.||Shane van Gisbergen||Red Bull Holden Racing Team||1:23:58.811|
|2.||Mark Winterbottom||The Bottle-O Racing Team||+ 0.817|
|3.||Scott McLaughlin||Shell V-Power DJR Team Penske||+ 1.425|
|4.||Jamie Whincup||Red Bull Holden Racing Team||+ 1.880|
|5.||Jason Bright||MEGA Racing||+ 2.553|
|6.||Tim Slade||Freightliner Racing||+ 3.160|
|7.||Garth Tander||Wilson Security Racing GRM||+ 3.951|
|8.||Craig Lowndes||TeamVortex||+ 4.315|
|9.||Cameron Waters||Monster Energy Racing||+ 4.758|
|10.||Lee Holdsworth||Preston Hire Racing||+ 5.280|
Images via LAT Images