For the second year in a row, Newcastle will play host to another gripping Supercars championship round, closing the season around the streets of one of Australia’s major port cities.
Taking over from Sydney’s Homebush round as the season closer last year, a spectacular weekend of racing around the tight street track saw Jamie Whincup crowned champion in dramatic circumstances.
This year, it’s the turn of his Red Bull Holden Racing teammate Shane van Gisbergen to take on his fellow Kiwi adversary Scott McLaughlin of DJR Team Penske as the two bring their season-long duel to what will be a fiery conclusion in the last 500 kilometres of racing for the year.
|Newcastle street circuit|
|Location||Newcastle, New South Wales||Circuit Length||2.652 km / 1.647 mi|
|Opened||2017||First Supercars Event||2017|
|Direction||Anticlockwise||Lap Record||1:10.6403 – David Reynolds (2017)|
Twisting its way around the city’s eastern streets, the 14-turn 2.6-kilometre circuit takes in Newcastle iconic beachfront and Nobbys Beach Reserve.
While the track layout has attracted criticism from local residents within its precinct, the Supercars Championship’s newest venue has been a hit with the drivers who have praised a layout that is both technical and surprisingly conducive to overtaking.
The starting grid on Wharf Road faces into the setting sun before it turns into a tight left-hander at Watt Street, climbing a 1:22 gradient before a hard-braking 90-degree left-hander onto Shortland Esplanade. The drivers follow the shoreline road before a sequence of 90-degree corners, nicknamed ‘The Staircase’. It then feeds onto Nobbys Road and heads northeast onto the fastest stretch of the circuit towards a left-hand hairpin, which is the primary overtaking point on the circuit. A bumpy track surface and frighteningly close barriers leave little margin for error.
|2018 Virgin Australian Supercars Championship – Coates Hire Newcastle 500|
|Event Dates||23-25 November 2018||Format||SuperStreet|
|Free Practice Session 1||Fri 11:40-12:20||Free Practice Session 2||Fri 15:15-15:55|
|Race 30 Qualifying||Sat 11:35-11:55||Race 30 (95 laps)
|Race 31 Qualifying||Sun 10:50-11:10||Race 31 Top-10 Shootout
|Race 31 (95 laps)||Sun 15:40-17:45|
Session times quoted in Australian Eastern Daylight Time (UTC/GMT + 11:00)
Rewind to 2017
No one knew what to expect when the 26 Supercars drivers and their teams rocked up to Newcastle for the first time and a year on, it’s still hard to believe what went down around the beachside streets.
Heading in to the season finale, Jamie Whincup had six championships and a 30-point advantage over Scott McLaughlin under his belt and went into the weekend’s two races as the favourite to win an unprecedented seventh title.
Carrying on from his impressive qualifying form through the rest of the year, McLaughlin put his car on pole for the first race of the weekend with the first five places separated by less than one-tenth of a second. Whincup ended up fifth-fastest.
McLaughlin converted pole to the lead off the line while further back, contact between Michael Caruso and Whincup on the opening lap saw the championship leader suffer a puncture, dropping to the rear of the pack early on.
Whincup was lucky to avoid a pile-up at the end of the lap between Dale Wood, Taz Douglas, Jason Bright and Tim Blanchard.
Shane van Gisbergen led the middle stint of the race but relegated the lead to David Reynolds after the second round of pit stops with McLaughlin resuming service as usual as the race leader shortly after thanks to a mistake from the Erebus Motorsport driver.
A mid-race Safety Car – caused by James Moffat and Mark Winterbottom making contact – saw the field bunched up with McLaughlin leading on the freshest tyres. Van Gisbergen made a move on Reynolds but couldn’t make it stick, sending the #9 car into the wall.
With the race starting to tick down into the final laps, Simona de Silvestro found herself at the sharp end of the pack, making passes where no one else would dare try. A top-five finish was on the cards until contact with Tim Slade saw her end up in the fence, dropping her to twentieth by the end of the race.
Out front, McLaughlin made the best of a bad day for Whincup by taking the full 150 points as his rival finished down in 21st place. The result gave McLaughlin the championship lead heading into Sunday’s deciding race as well as earning DJR Team Penske the award as Teams’ Champions for 2017.
Starting Sunday’s race on pole after out-qualifying van Gisbergen, McLaughlin went in to the race with a 78-point margin over Whincup. He only needed to finish eleventh to secure the championship while Whincup needed to finish in the top-ten at minimum to keep his hopes alive.
As with the day before, McLaughlin converted pole to the race lead early on, dragging van Gisbergen with him to form a big lead over the rest of the pack. Further back it was again de Silvestro making big progress, knocking on the door of a top ten finish.
At the first round of pit stops, disaster struck for McLaughlin who was handed a drive-through penalty for speeding at pit entry. The extra tour through the pit lane sent him way back in the order, having to make his way forwards as van Gisbergen led Whincup and Reynolds up front.
As McLaughlin attempted an overtake on de Silvestro for eleventh, the pair made contact which ended up with the Swiss driver spinning at Turn 3. This earned McLaughlin another penalty, undoing all the hard work in the previous stint.
After a safety car period to retrieve Taz Douglas’ LDM Commodore ended, Triple Eight ordered their drivers to switch positions with Whincup now leading the race. Further back in the pack, McLaughlin was lucky to survive tangling with Jason Bright who mounted the #17 Falcon at Turn 1, luckily not ending the championship leader’s race.
In the closing laps, the only thing standing between McLaughlin and a maiden championship was his friend James Moffat in front of him, driving for the Kiwi’s old team in Garry Rogers Motorsport. Behind McLaughlin however, the third Triple Eight Holden of Craig Lowndes was stalking on fresher tyres and looking to get in front of him to help teammate Whincup to the title.
With only three laps left, McLaughlin made his move on Moffat at the final hairpin, moving himself up to the all-important P11 but Lowndes followed him through. At Turn 1 on the next lap, McLaughlin ran wide and allowed Lowndes space to move to the inside.
Covering too hard and too late, McLaughlin put Lowndes in the wall, taking the #888 out of the race. As Whincup took the chequred flag, the wait began for McLaughlin who sat in eleventh but with an investigation over his head thanks to the Lowndes incident.
Rounding the last corner, McLaughlin was handed a 15-second time penalty for the crash, dropping him back to 18th in the order and giving the championship to Whincup. A disbelieving Whincup celebrated his seventh championship while McLaughlin slumped in his car after throwing away his first shot at the title.
The difference ended up at 21 points between Whincup and McLaughlin at the end of the day thanks to the two days of incidents for both drivers, while DJR Team Penske only won the Teams’ Championship by 57 points due to McLaughlin’s penalty and a DNF for Fabian Coulthard in the second race of the weekend.
The Form Guide
Last year’s weekend was one for the history books and the highlights reels for the next couple of decades. If this season has been anything to go by, 2018’s races will be no different as the margin heading into the last 500 kilometres of the season is even tighter.
McLaughlin currently leads the points standings with a slim margin of just 14 points over van Gisbergen, even though he has claimed eight wins so far this year. Last time around, he was the in-form man at Newcastle, taking both pole positions, the practice lap record and one win despite the fightback drive on Sunday. While McLaughlin dominated the early stages of this season, winning four races in a row between Phillip Island and Barbagallo, an eight-race winless streak haunted him until the last race at Pukekohe where he won in front of his home fans. If he wants to win his first title this weekend, he only needs to focus on finishing in front of van Gisbergen and keeping his nose clean in what will be the final races for the Ford Falcon.
For van Gisbergen, this is his second chance to win a title after securing his first back in 2016 at the final round held at the Homebush circuit. This season has been a strong one for the driver who is in his eleventh full-time season, taking seven wins so far but having a more consistent run than McLaughlin of late. In fact, van Gisbergen has only finished outside the top-five a mere four times this year, the worst result coming in the 200-kilometre race at Symmons Plains thanks to a pedal box issue which dropped him to 25th. It’s impossible to write off the #97 heading into this round given van Gisbergen’s ruthless driving style which was on show in Pukekohe. If he wins both races, he can win the title even if McLaughlin is his runner-up on both days.
After 650 races, Craig Lowndes will go to Newcastle with all eyes on him as he makes his final two full-time race starts after a 24-year career in the series. The three-time champion and seven-time Bathurst winner’s last race starts in the #888 will leave few dry eyes in the house as everyone bids farewell to the peoples’ champion. Even though a fourth title is out of reach, Lowndes is still in with a shot to take third in the standings, only sitting 58 points behind teammate Whincup. Although most of the attention late in Sunday’s race will be on the championship battle, no one would complain with a send-off win for the series veteran.
|2018 Vodafone Newcastle 500 Weather Forecast|
|Friday||14°C – 26°C||Saturday||15°C – 24°C||Sunday||15°C – 24°C|
Images via LAT Images