Season 2020 is well and truly underway for the Supercars championship after the year kicked off at its traditional home in Adelaide.
The two 250-kilometre races around the city streets showcased the change in the cars from last year after a raft of off-season aerodynamic, suspension and engine tweaks; however, as always, the cream rose to the top.
Over the course of the 500 kilometres of racing, we saw only two Safety Cars but a myriad of incidents which have already set a form guide for the season, showing fans who the drivers and teams to watch are while also putting some of the inexperienced runners in the spotlight.
This is our Winners and Losers for the opening round of 2020 where we pick through who starred and who will be heading home from Adelaide with their heads low.
Who would have thought that the two-time defending series champion would be leading coming out of the opening round for the year? Well, if you go off the Kiwi’s qualifying form for the weekend, he was fortunate to snag two podiums and a victory around the parklands circuit after a less than stellar showing on Saturday by his standards.
While practice and qualifying was dominated by the Holden drivers, McLaughlin was able to yet again fight as the fastest Ford of the weekend. A genius strategy from the DJR Team Penske squad on Saturday dragged him from seventh in qualifying to second at the end of the race, holding up his old adversary Shane van Gisbergen in the closing stages of the 78-lap outing.
He was unfortunate to miss out on pole on Sunday but got a better launch than SVG, controlling the first stanza of the race before losing the lead thanks to a brain fade from his team in the pit stops. He inherited the lead again later in the race after a fumble from Triple Eight, taking his first win of the year with a big margin to Chaz Mostert behind. Although Saturday night was the first time he wasn’t in the lead of the championship since late 2018, he heads to the Melbourne 400 just 27 points clear of Jamie Whincup and with a swag full of knowledge from Adelaide.
The subject of questioning through a majority of 2019 about where he’d get a seat in 2020, Mostert seemed to drop into his new home at Walkinshaw Andretti United with ease, dragging the #25 Commodore from Clayton well up the order. Shocking just about everyone who is interested in the sport, Mostert smashed the practice lap record on Friday afternoon to top the final session of the day, giving WAU something to cheer about and reaffirming that their star signing was the right one to have onboard.
Even though he lost places in the opening race after starting fourth, a seventh-place finish after a scrap with ex-Tickford Racing teammates Cam Waters and Will Davison was one of the greatest moments of the race.
Sunday saw Mostert improve further, starting fifth but maximising his strategy of a long first pit stop to come out in front of his closest competitors after the final stops. Second would have felt like a win for the driver who endured a tough end to his tenure with Tickford Racing, somehow not crashing into Waters for the first time in what felt like forever. Now sitting third in the championship, Mostert proved he’s a genuine threat this year, even if the Ford faithful can’t support one of their favourite sons driving for another brand.
“Surprise, surprise. The King is back.” Conor McGregor’s famous line could’ve easily been played over and over after Whincup’s win to open the Supercars season. The seven-time champion wound back the clock to provide a clinical display of how he’s the sport’s most successful driver on Saturday.
Going from ninth to the pole in the opening Top 10 Shootout, the Triple Eight driver showed his might early and with a swift launch from the line, he was away. Just like that, he disappeared down the road, building an insurmountable gap to take his 119th Supercars victory. Vintage Whincup.
Sunday was a tougher affair, only managing seventh in qualifying and having his early stop strategy negated by the Tickford car of Lee Holdsworth getting in his way. A recovery drive to fifth means Whincup is second in the points standings and is worryingly just getting settling into this year’s Holden Commodore, looking to give the ZB its first championship as Holden winds back its operations. Bonus stat: 12 of the last 13 season openers have been won by Triple Eight cars; that doesn’t happen through luck.
The phrase ‘trial by fire’ is often overused but I think it’s not powerful enough for this particular situation.
Where do we start? Whether you look at Smith’s debut weekend as a main game Supercars driver in chronological or alphabetical order, it’s still a shambles.
First up, the rookie missed the traditional start of season photo on the front straight and, unlike your yearly school photo, he incurred the wrath of the powers that be for doing so. A $2,000 fine and five hours of community service have been handed to the Brad Jones Racing driver, possibly taking away some of the money he could have spent on a minder which wouldn’t let him miss crucial appointments.
And then came the first race… in the process of being lapped by the field, he forgot what blue flags looked like and failed to move over for Shane van Gisbergen, ruining any chance of the Triple Eight driver attacking Scott McLaughlin for second. A drive-through penalty was given to the BJR driver in his first full-time start.
Things didn’t improve much on Sunday where he was the first true victim of the Turn 8 concrete wall, wiping himself out on his first flying qualifying lap. To complete the set of issues through the weekend, he had to double-stack under the first Safety Car period of the weekend, deciding to park in front of Rick Kelly rather than to the side, preventing the Kelly Racing driver from leaving his pit bay. With a 15-second time penalty over his head, Smith eventually finished 18th, leaving the weekend 19th in points but having to do a mountain of homework to get up to speed with everyone else.
Shane van Gisbergen
Perhaps the recipient of the most unjustified bad luck over the past 12 months, the 2016 series champion’s campaign for another title is off to a tricky start after a good result went begging in Sunday’s closing race.
Showing the speed of this year’s Triple Eight car, van Gisbergen went quickest in Practice 2 and qualifying before Saturday’s shootout, managing sixth on the grid for the race.
Another blitzing race from the Kiwi put him in the fight for second late in the race but unable to make a move on McLaughlin, settling for third.
Sunday saw a big improvement, highlighted by his pole position, completing a Triple Eight sweep at the circuit for the round. Although he lost the race lead at the start, when he got back in front McLaughlin couldn’t touch him even though a front anti-roll bar failure plagued the #97 machine.
A blunder in the pit stop meant he had to pit again, taking him out of the race lead and shifting the car back to fourth where he went on maximum attack in hot pursuit of Cam Waters.
Eventually, something had to give and with just three laps to run, the right front lower control arm snapped. From being in the box seat to win, van Gisbergen went to the dog house and left the day with no points. While hitching a ride back to the pits with Waters, he’d surely thinking about how to come back at McLaughlin who enjoys a 157-point advantage over his old rival in the title standings.
As one of the biggest stories in the break between 2019 and 2020, there was an air of expectation around the former Tekno squad in their first race since relocating to Australia’s most populous city in the off-season. With 2010 champion James Courtney heading up the driver line-up, 2018 Super2 victor Chris Pither in the second car and major backing from Boost Mobile and Coca-Cola, the team showed the makings of a big operation at the beginning of the round.
However, racing isn’t a beauty contest or decided on popularity and the on-track results were less than flattering.
Courtney found the Turn 8 wall three times before nightfall on Saturday, the biggest contact taking him out of the opening race after going in far too hot behind Andre Heimgartner.
He was lucky to avoid the opening lap melee on Sunday, ironically due to running off the road earlier in the lap which put him further away from the 20th place Grand Prix ahead of him. An altogether quiet race resulted in a finish of 15th – forced to pit for a third time when the team made his first pit stop before the pits were officially declared open – was less than ideal for such a highly publicised operation.
In Pither’s first full-time starts since 2016, the Kiwi was able to improve on his qualifying position of last on Saturday to end the race in 19th but was unable to find luck on Sunday, having his car locked in gear and running off at Turn 11. With both cars posting DNF results across the two races, the Team Sydney squad perhaps has more work than they expected to be fighting at the top end of town this season.
With Adelaide behind us for another year, we look ahead to the third championship instalment of the Melbourne 400, held as a sideshow to the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix.
Chaz Mostert is the defending event champion despite Scott McLaughlin taking three wins at the circuit last year, contributing to his 18 in total for 2019. The round will begin on March 12 and run to March 15 as a curtain-raiser to the headline Formula 1 action.
Images via DJR Team Penske, Motorsport Images, Red Bull Holden Racing Team, Supercars, Team Sydney Tekno