The Supercars series lit up the night sky in Sydney, with Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup burning brightest in a perfect result for RBHRT.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
Sydney after dark on a Saturday night can be fun. Add 26 flame-spitting eardrum-splitting Supercars, have them tear around Sydney Motorsport Park for two hours and give them 300 championship points to fight for? Even more fun. And if you’re the Red Bull Holden Racing Team? Saturday in Sydney couldn’t have been much more enjoyable, after Shane van Gisbergen led teammate Jamie Whincup home in a RBHRT 1-2, the team’s third this year and a result that caused a big shift in the title chase.
Ask anyone up and down pit lane whether the move to a one-race night format at SMP was a success and you’d get a universal ‘yes’, but for SVG, those 300 precious points for his fifth win of the year were worth more than just a single victory. After SVG had a neck-and-neck fight over two races in Ipswich last month with Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, demoting the series leader to third on Saturday night saw McLaughlin’s championship lead slashed to 89 points, meaning it’s officially game on.
On Saturday, SVG made his move on McLaughlin with 10 laps left, scything past his title rival for the lead at Turn 4 after a late-race safety car bunched up the field. SVG and Whincup pitted when the race was neutralised with 20 laps to go when the rear wing of Todd Hazelwood’s Falcon came loose and fell onto the track at the first corner, while leader McLaughlin and Triple Eight’s Craig Lowndes stayed out. On much better rubber when the race resumed, SVG spied a chance to strike, and streaked away after his pass before pulling up to win by two-tenths of a second from Whincup in a RBHRT formation finish.
“I think in the end it turned out to be a great race,” an elated Van Gisbergen said.
“When the safety car came out the race really came alive and hopefully we put on a good show for the fans. The front five cars were all on good tyres and had a close battle and were able to put on a good show. Craig and Scotty pitted early and I think we still could’ve run them down without the safety car, it still would’ve all come together.
“The battle with Scotty was epic, he got a bit of pick up and ran a little wide so we got a free pass there. The 300 points wasn’t on my mind during the race but it definitely was in preparation for the weekend. We just knew that we had to do a good job with no mistakes and get a good result.”
Whincup added to his teammate’s pleasure when he nailed McLaughlin at Turn 7 with four laps left, capping off a perfect night for the RBHRT squad.
It wasn’t a night without its stresses though, as Whincup spent much of the pre-race wondering if he’d even get off the line after a last-minute battery change on the grid sent pulses sky-high.
“The car started which was very, very lucky,” J-Dub admitted.
“We had a flat battery at the start of the reconnaissance lap and I got push-started, got enough charge up so the car started when it came around to the grid.
“I was pitting after 97 (Van Gisbergen) which meant they (McLaughlin and Lowndes) were four seconds up the road, but we had good tyre life which meant we were able to come back. The good thing was that we didn’t race each other, we could’ve fought each other or short-filled, all sorts of stupid stuff like that. But … we got the ultimate team result, a 1-2.”
That tyre advantage we mentioned? All part of the plan for the team, even if when they actually utilised it (under safety car conditions) couldn’t have been scripted, or better timed.
All three Triple Eight entries had relatively underwhelming runs in free practice and had to contest all three periods of qualifying, but did the job when it counted, SVG starting third and J-Dub fifth. Van Gisbergen’s fresh tyres saved from Friday practice paid big-time dividends late in the race, and while Whincup sacrificed a couple of grid spots by sitting out the final stages of qualifying, his own ‘green’ tyres undoubtedly helped in his successful pursuit of McLaughlin late.
“It wasn’t just the tyre differential, the laps they’d done earlier, it was that we also had greens,” team manager Mark Dutton told supercars.com
“That wasn’t an accident. The engineers planned that and were prepared to pay a price, it’s pretty tough decision to make.”
What else was tough? Visibility at night, which Whincup felt after Friday practice had the potential to create a “crazy spectacle” on race day.
“The track would be nicer if it were lit up a bit more, but it is what it is,” he said.
“You don’t know where anyone else is, you just see headlights. Normally you can look around and see where all of the cars are and which car is which, but now you just don’t know who is who, so you’re out there just battling away.
“When you’re out on the track you don’t know what’s going on around you.”
How did J-Dub feel after 77 laps on Saturday?
“One hundred per cent I think Supercars did a fantastic job, the first-ever night event with lots going on, I thought they did a great job,” he said.
“Of course we can learn from it and make it better for next year or other events, but as I keep saying, while that’s important, we need to make sure we remember that the racing is the most important thing and all that other stuff should complement the racing. We had a great race today because we had two teams battling it out hard, we had fierce competition and that’s what the weekend is all about.”
With the 1-2 result, SVG sits 89 points adrift of McLaughlin in the championship, with Whincup third, the defending champion 433 points in arrears with 10 races left in 2018.
Lowndes made it a Triple Eight 1-2-4 result after starting from ninth, jumping to sixth in the early stages and pitting early to run third in the second phase of the race before leading with 30 laps to go as the fuel strategies shook out.
Second behind McLaughlin when the safety car came out, his old tyres were no match for Van Gisbergen and Whincup in the latter stages, but he was able to jump to fourth overall, 518 points behind McLaughlin after vaulting David Reynolds (Erebus Racing), who finished seventh.
The Sydney weekend was all about what was new, but that theme will carry through to the next round as well, the focus shifting to Tailem Bend in South Australia for the series’ first visit to a brand-new facility on August 24-26.