Another trip across the ditch to New Zealand for the Supercars championship saw the local heroes rise to the challenge in this weekend’s SuperSprint, cleaning up the pair of 200km races to give the Kiwi fans something to cheer about.
Moving from its recent November slot in the calendar to replacing the traditional Sandown 500 weekend, the round at Auckland’s Pukekohe Park provided some big talking points heading in to the season of endurance.
Though the familiar faces featured at the front, incidents across the two races meant this was no ordinary round abroad as the category has to assess their processes moving in to the future.
- Shane van Gisbergen was able to showcase his skills as one of the best drivers in the Supercars category by taking full advantage of parity changes to his Triple Eight Holden Commodore, winning the round at his home race in New Zealand. The 2016 series champion was able to secure his second Jason Richards Memorial trophy thanks to a win and second place across the two 200km races, asserting his dominance on Saturday with pole and a controlling victory before backing it up to take the fight to Scott McLaughlin on Sunday. van Gisbergen was arguably the fastest Holden driver to get his head around the tweaks to the Commodore which included a large rear wing Gurney flap, helping immensely around the high-speed and flowing Pukekohe track. His consistency throughout the past few rounds has elevated the #97 up to second in the driver’s championship, a spot he’ll want to retain as the season draws to a close.
- Scott McLaughlin may not have had the most exciting start to his home race but the defending champion and reigning Jason Richards trophy winner put up a fight to close the weekend. With an engine issue delaying running in practice, McLaughlin couldn’t find pace in qualifying for the first race, recording a season-lowest effort of sixth on the grid. That’s where he finished on the road but was promoted to fourth after penalties were applied to Jamie Whincup and Will Davison. Sunday’s qualifying provided a heart-stopping 360 degree spin on to the front straight and fifth in the top ten shootout but McLaughlin was one of the beneficiaries of the safety car debacle, inheriting the lead where he stayed until the end. Recording the win in front of his native New Zealand fans, McLaughlin broke two season records with his 17th win of the year; the Supercars win record which had stood at 16 in Craig Lowndes’ maiden championship campaign and the Team Penske record of 16, set by Mark Donohue back in 1968. Rolling in to Bathurst and with only four rounds left, McLaughlin enjoys a healthy 598 point lead in the title race over van Gisbergen.
- Tickford Racing showed their one-lap pace has improved dramatically in the late part of the season as all four of their drivers featured in the top ten for qualifying in both races, as well as taking home two trophies from the podium for their efforts. A sweep in the pre-qualifying sessions saw Lee Holdsworth, Will Davison and Chaz Mostert go fastest in Practice 1, 2 and 3 respectively, all carrying that over to qualifying where they featured on the first four rows. While contact in the race between Mostert and Cam Waters wasn’t in the script, Davison finished third and dropped to ninth after a penalty for speeding in the pit lane, elevating Waters to second and Holdsworth to fifth. Qualifying on the front row, Holdsworth held on to a strong second in Sunday’s race until he fell victim of the safety car shuffle incident, eventually coming home 15th while Mostert recorded a podium finish in third. While the results may not have been as strong as Tickford wanted, they have at least shown their car pace is not lacking which will help going into the final rounds of the year.
- Jamie Whincup was the undeniable biggest loser in Auckland after two self-inflicted mistakes across the weekend’s races robbed the Triple Eight driver of two potential podium finishes. While he is arguably the greatest driver in Supercars history, the seven-time series champion has made a handful of costly errors in the past, doubling down in New Zealand which his team were less than impressed with. After qualifying 12th for race one, Whincup was on a charge early on but misjudged a pass on Scott Pye going into the hairpin, making contact with Nick Percat and spinning the Brad Jones Racing Commodore around. A post race investigation saw Whincup get hit with a 15 second penalty, stripping him of a second placed finish and winding up seixth in the final order. Sunday was a mess of a race and arguably the issues were triggered by Whincup who passed the safety car while being told not to. He had been picked up as the race leader while officials tried to figure out who was really in the lead as the rest of the pack pitted, though Whincup thought there was a mistake so went around. This then triggered Supercars to let those behind him through, ruining their races as Whincup took the lead, only to be handed a drive-through penalty. Two potentially great drives netted nothing bar a few headlines for the most successful driver in the category, now having to refocus on the next task; tacking the Bathurst 1000 with his old sparring partner, Craig Lowndes.
- Kelly Racing has every right to feel aggrieved after being seemingly forgotten in the lastest round of Supercars parity adjustments, having to yet again fight with a disadvantage which was only highlighted around Pukekohe Park. Although the Altimas had aerodynamic tweaks going into The Bend, a change this round for the Holden Commodore meant it was a case of one step forwards, two steps back for the Nissan team. With none of the four drivers making the top ten in qualifying for race one, Auckland local Andre Heimgarter put in one of the drives of the season to drag the #7 car to eighth place, a whole eight spots ahead of team-mate Simona De Silvestro as Garry Jacobson and Rick Kelly finished 18th and 19th respectively. Again missing out on the top five rows on the grid for Sunday’s race, the safety car dramas arguably helped the Kelly Racing cars as De Silvestro recorded her best ever Supercars finish in seventh place as Kelly went from 20th on the grid to 11th at the flag. While the race pace may have been strong, the one lap speed in qualifying is the biggest indication that something is fundamentally not right with the Altimas, proving the Nissan entries will be an outdated model if they’re kept heading into 2020.
- James Courtney isn’t doing himself any favours on the front of securing a seat for 2020 as two finishes outside the top 15 made this trip to New Zealand one to forget for the 2010 Supercars champion. After a lacklustre season, Courtney announced he would be leaving Walkinshaw Andretti United at the end of the year, hoping to find a home to provide him a win after a long dry spell. Though he has the history to back up his desire for a good seat at the top end of town, two 17th place finishes off the back of his departure announcement were not what he needed. In fact, the finishes came off the back of qualifying 19th and 18th for races one and two respectively, arguably showing that if there hadn’t been some incidents and DNF’s, he would’ve gone backwards. With only six races left in the year, Courtney is running out of time to prove that he deserves to be on the grid next year through talent alone.
Next race is the big one for the year; the Bathurst 1000. Now as the opening round of the Enduro Cup, this year’s pilgrimage to Mount Panorama will be the biggest test yet for teams and co-drivers who will be jumping into the most important race of the year with little seat time. Action kicks off at the iconic circuit with practice on Thurday the 10th of October, culminating in the 1000km classic on Sunday the 13th at 11:30am.