The 2013 V8 Supercars championship is officially a two-bull race between Red Bull Racing Australia drivers Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes after an incident-packed return to the streets of Sydney today.
Having never finished on the podium in the Sydney 500 let alone on the top step in eight attempts, series leader and reigning champion Whincup broke his hoodoo to claim his maiden victory in the 250km epic that almost saw Lowndes’ claim on the title extinguished. And guess who by?
Yep, that man again, Mark Winterbottom. Just two weeks after Winterbottom ran Lowndes off the track on the final corner at Phillip Island, the FPR driver again found himself faced with a quandary – relent to a quicker Lowndes or risk contact?
He chose the latter and both cars ended up with significant damage, dropping back to fifth and seventh respectively after getting as close to leader Whincup as third and fourth.
Earlier in the day, Lowndes had a horror qualifying shoot-out to start the race from 10th with Whincup and Winterbottom on pole and second respectively.
That meant he’d have to opt for a different strategy to avoid being double-stacked in the pits on an unforgiving street circuit and after pitting on lap seven the strategy looked to pay dividends when a lap-11 safety car brought the leaders back the field.
That was no good for Whincup, but after the No.1 driver had staved off Winterbottom and then Jono Webb on the opening laps to establish himself as the quickest man on track, it was of little consequence.
Despite several more safety cars, Whincup was never challenged for the lead and was relentless on his opposition, setting fastest laps continuously to extend his lead after every stop.
Meanwhile, Lowndes wasn’t so lucky, and after being targeted by Winterbottom for the second time in as many rounds, again came off with the short end of the straw. Seemingly having escaped serious damage after the lap 15 incident, it wasn’t until Lowndes’ next fuel stop that the real scope of the damage was uncovered.
Having clawed his way back to fourth, the damage from the Winterbottom incident reared its ugly head and prevented the No.888 car being able to take on its full fuel load. It resulted in Lowndes having to make an extra pit-stop and effectively ending his chances of a podium, finish the race 15th.
The good news? Red Bull Racing Australia has one hand on the 2013 teams and driver championships.
Winterbottom needed to finish on the podium to keep his championship hopes alive and after coming together with Lowndes on lap 17 soon found himself the victim of undeserved contact. In an attempt to avoid Tony D’Alberto’s mistake, Winterbottom ended up in the wall and failed to finish the race. Jono Webb and Shane Van Gisbergen finished second and third respectively.
Whincup leads Lowndes by 110 points heading in to tomorrow’s final and deciding race of the 2013 championship, meaning for Lowndes to win the championship, his teammate would need to finish 18th or lower.
The race gets under way Sunday at 3pm AEDT.