Another year of the Supercars Championship is in the books and after 31 races, a new champion was crowned in Newcastle.
As one of the biggest years in the category’s history, 2018 had it all going on right from the time the lights went out at the season-opening race in Adelaide.
Here are the highlights of the year as we look at the key moments, positive and negative, throughout the season:
It’s hard to argue that anyone other than Scott McLaughlin was the best driver of the year, putting his demons of 2017 behind him to win the championship with the biggest points haul in Supercars history.
While the season started inauspiciously for the young Kiwi, he hit his stride at Phillip Island by clean-sweeping the weekend, going on to do the same at Barbagallo in the next round. His win in Race 2 at the Perth track was career defining, coming from 19th on the grid to take the victory while avoiding all the opening lap nonsense.
Nine wins in total through the year coupled with a lowest result of 15th meant McLaughlin set himself up well to take the title, doing so in relatively commanding circumstances in the final round. A maiden Bathurst podium was enough to spur him on to round up the back end of the year after a slump in form around the middle of the season. One can only imagine how he will fare next year as the reigning champion and running a brand new Ford Mustang.
Just like it’s hard to imagine Peter Brock without the #05 and Dick Johnson without the #17 on his door, it was difficult to get used to DJR Team Penske operating out of the front garages in the pit lane this year.
However, after a stellar year which saw them win nearly every major trophy, Triple Eight Race Engineering will be resuming their post in the main garages next year after taking the Teams’ Championship this year, after their drivers came second, third and fourth in the title race.
Big wins at the Sandown 500 (which included a sweep of the podium) and the Bathurst 1000 meant the endurance races were a happy hunting ground for the team. Despite losing out on the Drivers’ Championship crown, the fact they placed so highly with a brand new car in the ZB Commodore shows the potential they will be carrying in to next year.
Race of the year
Fans are always spoilt for choice when watching the Supercars series as the closeness of the cars and drivers means there’s hardly ever a dud race. The Bathurst 1000 was another cracker which saw Craig Lowndes claim his seventh victory at the Mountain in record time. Barbagallo Race 2 was an exciting affair, as were both races across the ditch in Pukekohe. Although when all is said and done, the best race of the year sadly won’t be on the calendar next year after shocking punters this year.
The Sydney Supernight 300 round was prime-time, Saturday night viewing which squashed local rugby league attendance numbers in the football-loving city and did great things in TV land in terms of ratings. To see the field race for 300 kilometres under the lights and be greeted with fireworks at the finish line was a sight to behold which makes it all the more unfortunate that Sydney won’t host a race next year for the first time in over a decade, isolating the biggest consumer market in the country.
In such a closely contested field where every last position matters, there are often some good overtakes, some bad ones and many that Mark Skaife would label as “ugly”. While it didn’t turn out to be important, at the time David Reynolds’ pass around the outside of Scott McLaughlin and Rick Kelly at Turn 1 in Race 2 at Darwin meant a lot.
Reynolds had copped a lot of flack earlier in the season for not being aggressive enough but the 2017 Bathurst winner showed mongrel in the Hidden Valley heat, being the last of the late brakers into Turn 1 to round up the pair and take control of the race. He then went on to win the 200-kilometre showdown, his last appearance on the top step until the final race of the season in Newcastle.
Who to Watch
Every few years, some young stars enter the category and give it a fair shake up. Marcos Ambrose did it in 2001, Scott McLaughlin did too back in 2013 and this year, Jack Le Brocq and Anton De Pasquale gave the experienced campaigners something to worry about.
For Le Brocq, the Tekno driver shone early on in Tasmania, taking fifth in Race 2 before taking another two top-ten finishes throughout the year, going on to be the top rookie in the process.
De Pasquale came in to the year as a young gun to complement David Reynolds at Erebus, wanting to learn from his more experienced teammate, although in some rounds it was Reynolds doing the learning. With the #99 occasionally out-qualifying the #9, the young rookie showed what he was made of this year, with his best finish of seventh coming at Phillip Island. Both of these guys have the potential to be future stars if they play their cards right and keep their noses clean in the near future.
Most Crucial Error
In a category where a lot of parts are control or at least shared between cars, there’s a decreased chance in things going wrong or at least continually happening to one driver. Scott McLaughlin lost the championship by 21 points in 2017 after he was the first driver to retire from the 300-point race at Bathurst which would haunt him after Newcastle.
Likewise, this year’s championship was ultimately decided by two mistakes which hampered Shane van Gisbergen’s charge to a second title.
Despite being the top team of the year, Triple Eight’s two big errors on the #97 came at opposite ends of the year. The first was a pedal box issue in Tasmania which left the Kiwi with a sticking throttle that saw him eventually come home 25th after running in the top five before the problem arose. The second came in the penultimate race of the season when, after taking on fuel to the end under the Safety Car, van Gisbergen’s car was dropped on the ground too soon and before the fuel hose was removed. While not initially acted on or even noticed as he went on to take a last-gasp win over McLaughlin, he was penalised the morning after for the infringement. A 25 second penalty meant that instead of winning the race, setting up a winner-takes-all fight between he and his fellow Kiwi, he was classified in fifth and had an uphill battle going in to the last race.
McLaughlin ended up finishing in front anyway, van Gisbergen and Triple Eight claimed the penalty had taken the wind out of their sails going into the title deciding race. Would the championship result have been different if not for the penalty? We will never know.
Sadly, 2018 means it’s curtains for a few drivers who have called an end to their full-time racing careers. First, Tim Blanchard won’t be returning to the grid after five seasons of driving full-time, the last three coming at Brad Jones Racing. The 2007 Australian Formula Ford champion ends his career with a best finish in 2018 of 11th, handing the car over to Brad’s son Macaulay next year.
Craig Lowndes announced to the shock of all at Townsville that he would be ending his career driving the #888 a year early and stepping back into co-driver duties from next year. The seasoned campaigner notched up his final full-time win in style at the place which made him famous, Mount Panorama. Taking his seventh crown with Steven Richards (his fifth) was the fairytale ending to a great career everyone wanted. The strong result coupled with a third at Sandown and a strong fight from the pair at the Gold Coast from outside the top-twenty on the grid to the podium earned them the Enduro Cup.
Lowndes will be missed behind the wheel next year, but his next race will be at Bathurst, both in the 12 Hour GT race and the 1000-kilometre Supercars race. For the 12 Hour, he’ll be partnered with Triple Eight teammates Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen in a Mercedes AMG GT3 car, acting as a warm-up for the October when he will join one of them in the Supercars marquee event. With 667 race starts, 107 race wins and three championships (1996, 1998 and 1999), Lowndes’ absence will leave a big hole in the championship next year as Garth Tander steps up to the plate as the most experienced driver in the pack.
Images via Erebus Motorsport, Keith McInnes Photography, LAT, Red Bull Holden Racing Team, Supercars