The Supercars leave Australia this weekend for the only international race on the calendar, the Auckland SuperSprint at Pukekohe Park in New Zealand. Now hosting New Zealand’s Supercars race for the 14th time, this year will be the sixth time that drivers will compete for the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy, honouring the likable driver who passed away in 2011.
Rewind to 2017
A rained out Saturday qualifying session meant the starting grid was determined from Friday’s practice times, putting Tickford Racing’s Cam Waters on pole position next to the championship leader, Jamie Whincup.
Whincup jumped to the lead off the line as Scott McLaughlin followed him in the opening laps, the pair being involved in a tight exchange. Contact between the pair saw Whincup gain the upper hand but earn himself a bad sportsmanship flag for pushing McLaughlin wide, making it a cautious run to the flag.
After a safety car for James Courtney at turn three, McLaughlin returned serve with Whincup, checking up his title rival and gaining a spot while van Gisbergen gained the lead.
The big incident of the weekend occurred after Chaz Mostert bumped David Reynolds wide at the hairpin, slowing to let Reynolds back past which baulked Fabian Coulthard. Coulthard and Reynolds made contact which sent the Erebus car into the gravel while the DJR Team Penske Falcon hit the wall and rolled.
van Gisbergen ended up leading until the finish flag while Mark Winterbottom came home in second, just ahead of McLaughlin who only just outscored Whincup to move closer to the championship lead.
For Sunday’s race, the championship protagonists of Whincup and McLaughlin lined up in spots one and two on the grid, setting up a big fight for the 200km race. Whincup got the jump off the line and opened up a gap on the first lap while chaos ensued behind him.
At the hairpin on the opening tour, Waters went to the inside of team-mates Winterbottom and Mostert. Contact saw Mostert spin while Winterbottom was held up by him as the pack went flying past until Lee Holdsworth came around the corner unsighted, hitting the Falcon.
Satuday’s winner van Gisbergen effectively took himself out of the race coming in for his first pit stop, misjudging his brake marker into the lane and running up the back of Tim Slade. The incident crumpled the back of the BJR car but destroyed the front of van Gisbergen’s #97, forcing him into the garage for extended repairs.
Whincup went on to win, earning himself the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy in the process, honouring his ex-team mate who he had raced with at Tasman Motorsport in 2005. McLaughlin finished the race and the round in second, meaning he went into the final round in Newcastle on the back foot.
Race two last time out at the Gold Coast will be remembered as a non-event after torrential rain robbed us of what was going to be a cracking race in tricky conditions. As it stands, Scott McLaughlin leads the driver’s championship by just 14 points over countryman Shane van Gisbergen.
This round is always a big weekend for the Kiwis as the only round in their home country and wanting to win the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy. The trophy is one of the accolades McLaughlin has not yet picked up in his career despite winning his first Supercars race at Pukekohe way back in 2013. While results have been hard to come by in the years since, a strong result this year will set him up well for a championship charge in Newcastle.
On the other hand, van Gisbergen has shown he has the upper hand this year after coming back from a significant points deficit early on to be leading the championship up until the end of race one in Newcastle. The Giz knows what it takes to win at Pukekohe Park, winning the round en route to his maiden and so far only championship back in 2016. Triple Eight has gotten their heads around the ZB Commodore in the second half of this season and while he is behind on points, the form he carries into Auckland means he’s in with a good chance to retake the championship lead.
Now in the twilight of his farewell tour, Craig Lowndes has only one more chance at erasing one of the only black marks on his impressive list of career achievements. Unbelievably, the veteran and three time series champion has never won a race at Pukekohe. Those with a good memory will remember he was leading the Saturday race in 2015 while in a championship battle with Mark Winterbottom until a blown tyre put an end to his charge, putting the #888 into the fence. With only four more races until Lowndes says goodbye to Supercars racing full-time, he’ll be looking to go out on a high after winning this year’s Bathurst 1000.
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