Two races, two local winners, a million talking points – the annual Supercars trip across the ditch had it all …
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
Always intense, occasionally controversial, never dull – all appropriate two-word descriptors of a riveting weekend of Supercars action at Pukekohe in New Zealand, as Races 28 and 29 of the season were jam-packed with storylines. As are this trio of three-word summations: high-speed stalemate, as you were, one final round …
When the dust settled on Sunday night outside of Auckland, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin led Red Bull Holden Racing’s Shane van Gisbergen by 14 points in the championship, the same margin between the pair before they turned a single lap on the fast and frantic 2.9km layout across three days. But to treat this weekend of racing with a shrug of the shoulders would be grossly unfair and highly inappropriate. What didn’t the penultimate round of the season have?
Contact between the front-runners. Debatable post-race parking. Post-race stewards hearings. Protests to post-race stewards hearings. Post-race fines. A million other things we’ve probably forgotten about. This weekend had it all.
While the drivers’ title remains up for grabs, three podium finishes across the weekend secured a ninth teams’ title for Roland Dane’s squad, the best possible bounce-back after losing it to Team Penske a year ago.
But what about those drivers? Twenty-six of them took to the track over the weekend, but the eyes of the crowd were 99 per cent on two combative Kiwis at the top of the standings, and neither SVG nor McLaughlin disappointed, each taking a victory (SVG on Saturday, McLaughlin on Sunday) while finishing second in the race they didn’t win. Hence our 14-point series stalemate ahead of the final round of the season, in Newcastle on November 23-25. High, high stakes.
On Saturday, SVG made a robust move on McLaughlin at the hairpin with 10 laps of the 70-lap journey remaining, contact between the pair seeing car 97 given a five-second penalty for a driving infringement.
SVG pushed as hard as he could for the final five laps to win by 5.5secs, negating his sanction, and after a few exuberant post-race burnouts, parked a touch too close to his title rival on the main straight before the podium, much to McLaughlin’s annoyance.
— Red Bull Holden (@redbullholden) November 3, 2018
More controversy was to come when SVG’s lap 45 pit stop was investigated for the RBHRT driver spinning his rear wheels before the car was dropped off its jacks. The stewards deemed no penalty was appropriate, with Team Penske appealing that decision. As everyone went to bed on Saturday night, the Race 28 results were still provisional. After Sunday morning’s Shootout for Race 29 had been run and won, Race 28 finally became official. Which left SVG two points behind McLaughlin in the standings, and one place behind him on the grid in third, RBHRT teammate Jamie Whincup taking a brilliant pole.
The finishing positions of Saturday were reversed on Sunday, McLaughlin holding off huge pressure from Whincup late in the race, with SVG out of sequence after a lap 15 pit stop went awry, but charging hard as the laps ticked down.
When McLaughlin couldn’t be caught, Whincup slowed in sight of the chequered flag and let SVG through to second place, gifting him another nine points for the standings. Whincup then mistakenly returned to pit lane rather than the grid for the third-place finisher after his cool-down lap, which triggered a fine.
All of that (still) had SVG in a 14-point hole with two fewer races to close it up, but last year showed that anything is possible in the final round of the season. For those whose brains are overloaded after the Pukekohe weekend (and we wouldn’t blame you), Whincup arrived in Newcastle last year with a 30-point series lead over McLaughlin, finished last after contact in the penultimate race of the year and spotted McLaughlin a 78-point lead for the final race, and won that last race and the title on a manic Sunday to take his seventh Supercars crown.
There was a lot to take in for SVG on Sunday night, and he had plenty to say.
“This weekend has been one of the coolest experiences for me,” he said.
“Everyone was saying how bad the social media storm was overnight but I didn’t read any of it, I went to bed and then came in this morning and everyone was friendly and cheering for both Scotty and I. We had five Kiwis in the Top 10 Shootout today as well … the passion here is second-to-none, it almost rivals Bathurst, it’s so awesome.
“The controversy just adds to that, good and bad, I’m happy to be part of it and happy to be in the fight. Scotty and I always race super hard and give each other a car width, or a mirror, nothing more. The battles with him are always on edge, but always fair and awesome. I can’t wait to take the fight to him and enjoy the last couple of races.
“Although I’m pretty nervous about the championship battle, this is my life and my ambition to win the championship again. I’m more prepared and more experienced than last time. I’ll try to have some good preparation, come back here next week to relax and I’ll just try and enjoy myself.”
Someone who is officially out of that championship battle this season is Whincup, who fell 460 points behind with a maximum of 450 available after he qualified and finished in fifth place in Saturday’s Race 28, an early-race safety car seeing him stacked behind SVG in the pits.
If you thought that was going to see the defending champ slow down, think again: Whincup’s Shootout lap on Sunday was sublime for his fifth pole of the year, and he looked a good bet to hunt McLaughlin down for the win late before playing the team game for Van Gisbergen.
While he was disappointed to finally be mathematically eliminated from a championship that he was realistically out of after Bathurst, J-Dub was all for the on and off-track storylines that dominated the NZ weekend.
“There is a massive level of passion over here which is awesome, and we just need to embrace the events that transpired over the weekend,” he said.
“Those shenanigans that go on off the track are just as good as the on-track action, which is just fantastic. The day we’re not talking about this sport and the day there is no passion, and no controversy, is the day we have to worry – I think this weekend has been fantastic for the sport.
“It’s great that we’ve come down to the last round of the year with only a handful of points in the championship – it’s high stress for the drivers, the teams and all the families involved. There’s no need to be negative and getting on your keyboard to have a crack at someone, I think we should embrace all the drama that’s happened this weekend and no doubt it will continue.”
Whincup headed for the airport and home in third place in the championship, 481 points behind McLaughlin and 59 ahead of old mate Craig Lowndes, after the third member of the Triple Eight trio finished 11th and fourth in the weekend’s two races, his ZB sporting a decidedly different look across the weekend.
In his penultimate round as a full-time Supercars driver, Lowndes had a tough start to Saturday’s race when 18th on the grid became last before the first lap was over, his car tapped into a spin. Sunday’s race came to Lowndes after he just missed the Shootout and started from 11th, and he was right in Whincup’s (deliberately slow) wheeltracks at the flag as the T8 entries finished 2-3-4.
“We looked after the tyres and we just had to be patient and have a big race,” he said.
“To come from 11th on the starting board, and finish fourth on our final run here at Pukekohe, was really satisfying.”
Lowndes will surely have a hectic three-week build-up to his final race weekend as a full-timer in Newcastle, while the rest of us get to catch our collective breaths. After what happened in Newcastle a year ago, not to mention this weekend, nothing would surprise us in this Kiwi v Kiwi, Holden v Ford, head-to-head fight for the drivers’ title.