Scott McLaughlin surrendered victory in the season-ending Supercars Championship race on the streets of Newcastle, but had more than enough in hand to claim his maiden Drivers’ Championship title on an emotional day for many in the sport.
Sunday morning began with the news that the race stewards had issued Shane van Gisbergen, the original winner of Saturday’s 250-kilometre race, with a 25-second time penalty for a pit lane infringement. This dropped the New Zealander to fifth place and promoted McLaughlin to victory, extending the latter’s lead in the Drivers’ Championship fight with van Gisbergen from 2 to 53 points.
The 25-year-old – who famously snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in last year’s championship showdown when all he needed in the final race was an eleventh-placed finish – now needed a top-six finish at the end of the 95-lap race to win the title.
The stewards’ ruling was as controversial as it was correct, although many fans were left frustrated that the championship outcome could hinge on backroom meetings rather than on-track action. Van Gisbergen simply expressed the feelings of many, describing the penalty as “shit”.
The pressure was on both McLaughlin and van Gisbergen by the morning’s preliminary qualifying session and both made it through to the afternoon’s one-lap Top 10 Shootout for pole position, with McLaughlin clocking an excellent 1:10.306 effort to edge van Gisbergen by one-tenth of a second and give himself the final lap in the Shootout.
The duo would both be upstaged by David Reynolds, who continued his traditionally excellent street circuit form to claim pole position in the Shootout. Van Gisbergen fell almost a quarter of a second short, while McLaughlin missed out by a whisker – just 0.02 seconds – but still secured a front-row start alongside the Erebus Motorsport driver.
It was an emotional pre-race builup as a number of driver / team combinations bade farewell to each other. The most touching moment of all came just before the reconnaissance lap to the starting grid when Craig Lowndes – the 24-year veteran of the series – was given a guard of honour by the entire Supercars pit lane. There was barely a dry eye in the area.
The start saw pole-sitter Reynolds comfortably control the early pace and kept McLaughlin at bay to prevent the DJR Team Penske driver from mounting any serious challenge in the opening laps.
Van Gisbergen, meanwhile, found himself boxed in behind GRM Holden driver Garth Tander who managed to leapfrog him off the starting grid. When van Gisbergen showed his nose on the approach to Turn 8, Tander sensibly let him through into third place.
The championship contenders ran in second and third places for the race’s first 20 laps until the green-flag running was interrupted by a Safety Car.
Once again, it was their respective teammates, Fabian Coulthard and Jamie Whincup, who were to blame. The pair had clashed at Turn 12 in Saturday’s race and with the dust barely settled from 24 hours before, they reprised their squabble at the same corner. This time it was Coulthard who came off worse after being tipped into a backwards spin into the tyre wall which plucked the rear wing off the #12 Ford Falcon and sent the New Zealander into the pits for lengthy repairs.
McLaughlin proved the winner in the frontrunners’ dash to the pit lane, with DJR Team Penske using its pit bay position at the end of pit lane to ensure it could give the youngster as much fuel as possible before releasing him ahead of Reynolds, Whincup, James Courtney and van Gisbergen.
Van Gisbergen was the biggest loser in the shuffle, rejoining the race in fifth place behind Whincup and Courtney who had both pitted before the Safety Car.
When the race resumed he was unable to find a way past Courtney. That allowed McLaughlin to build a 13-second margin over his rival before he made his second and final pit stop, with engineer Ludo Lacroix smartly calling him into the pits on Lap 47 before he became held up by lapped traffic.
Reynolds followed him into the pit lane, but with McLaughlin needing to take on less fuel than the Erebus driver, he kept his lead intact. Van Gisbergen was finally able to jump Courtney in the second cycle of pit stops to move into fourth place behind Whincup, but with McLaughlin still up front it was a forlorn chase and he lacked any real pace to mount a threat.
With 20 laps to go, his left-front inside wheel guard worked its way loose, with the right-hand side counterpart doing likewise just ten laps later to give the #97 Holden an unsightly piece of unwanted front downforce.
With the lessons of last year perhaps still in his mind, McLaughlin took a cautious approach in the final laps as his title glory approached.
With second-placed Reynolds closing in, he opted to let the Erebus Motorsport driver into the lead with four laps to go. With so much on the line, McLaughlin kept his eye on the bigger prize that had so cruelly slipped through his fingers a year ago.
Just as importantly, he secured his championship this weekend on superior pace and results – the 71-point margin to van Gisbergen ensured that his controversial Saturday penalty played no hard and fast part in the final equation.
As the tears and champagne flowed in the pit lane, the result was a redemption for McLaughlin and a story of an amazing comeback for DJR Team Penske. The sport’s oldest surviving team was rescued from the brink of shutdown in 2014 by Roger Penske – perhaps one of the greatest team owners in world motorsport – who graciously insisted that its original Dick Johnson Racing moniker remained at the forefront. In a year where Penske’s teams had won the Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Cup crowns, this was another achievement for a praiseworthy man.
Whincup and van Gisbergen finished third and fourth respectively, with Courtney fifth ahead of Andre Heimgartner, Chaz Mostert, Lee Holdsworth and Scott Pye. Craig Lowndes rounded out his solo Supercars Championship career in eleventh place.
|2018 Australian Supercars Newcastle 500 – Race 31 Final Classification (95 laps)|
|Pos||Driver||Team / Entry||Result|
|1.||David Reynolds||Erebus Penrite Racing||1:57:05.115|
|2.||Scott McLaughlin||Shell V-Power Racing Team||+ 4.681|
|3.||Jamie Whincup||Red Bull Holden Racing Team||+ 17.159|
|4.||Shane van Gisbergen||Red Bull Holden Racing Team||+ 42.839|
|5.||James Courtney||Mobil 1 Boost Mobile Racing||+ 44.386|
|6.||Andre Heimgartner||Plus Fitness Racing||+ 45.209|
|7.||Chaz Mostert||Supercheap Auto Racing Team||+ 45.424|
|8.||Garth Tander||Wilson Security Racing GRM||+ 46.704|
|9.||Lee Holdsworth||Preston Hire Racing||+ 47.170|
|10.||Scott Pye||Mobil 1 Boost Mobile Racing||+ 48.503|
|11.||Craig Lowndes||Autobarn Lowndes Racing||+ 49.893|
|12.||Nick Percat||Timken Racing||+ 56.535|
|13.||Mark Winterbottom||The Bottle-O Racing Team||+ 1:08.238|
|14.||Cameron Waters||Monster Energy Racing||1 lap behind|
|15.||Tim Slade||Freightliner Racing||1 lap behind|
|16.||Anton de Pasquale||Erebus Penrite Racing||1 lap behind|
|17.||Rick Kelly||Castrol Racing||1 lap behind|
|18.||Jack Le Brocq||TEKNO Autosport||1 lap behind|
|19.||Michael Caruso||Drive Racing||1 lap behind|
|20.||Will Davison||Milwaukee Racing||1 lap behind|
|21.||Todd Hazelwood||Bigmate Racing||1 lap behind|
|22.||Tim Blanchard||Team CoolDrive||1 lap behind|
|23.||Simona de Silvestro||Team Harvey Norman||1 lap behind|
|24.||Richie Stanaway||RABBLE.club Racing||1 lap behind|
|25.||James Golding||Wilson Security Racing GRM||8 laps behind|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Reason|
|DNF.||Fabian Coulthard||Shell V-Power Racing Team||Damage|
Images via LAT