Second place for Jamie Whincup and a rise in the standings for Shane van Gisbergen made for an improved weekend in Perth for RBHRT.
By Matthew Clayton on redbull.com
Sometimes, progress can’t be purely measured in points; Jamie Whincup came to the Perth SuperNight event at Barbagallo Raceway last weekend 379 points behind runaway series leader Scott McLaughlin, and left the West Australian capital another 30 points adrift after races 11 and 12 of the 2019 season. Was it a mathematical equation the seven-time Supercars champion was happy about? Not at all. Was the light at the end of the tunnel he saw genuine, or akin to an oncoming train? Absolutely the former.
After “one of the toughest weekends we’ve done” for Whincup per se and the Red Bull Holden Racing Team as a whole at Phillip Island last time out. J-Dub was, in part, pleased with a weekend in the west that saw him finish inside the top four twice, and snare a second place in Saturday night’s feature race that snapped a podium drought that went all the way back to the Australian GP meeting in March. Being best of the rest on a weekend where Team Penske generally and McLaughlin in particular continued with their winning ways was quite the turnaround for Whincup after the misery of the Island, and a positive sign for what’s yet to play out this season.
“We were very ordinary three weeks ago,” Whincup bluntly said, adding that he felt RBHRT would have won the “most improved award” (if there was one going) after the progress the team made after it headed west for a weekend.
Buoyed as Whincup was to finish second to McLaughlin on Sunday after leading the opening stint of the race following a superb start, he was less keen to celebrate the achievement than he was to use the result as a rallying call to turn those small steps into bigger ones.
“The next step isn’t a click of the dampers or click of a roll bar, it’s a lot more involved,” he explained.
“The team next door (Team Penske) has absolutely raised the game and they’re in another league at the moment. I feel that for the good of the sport, it’s up to us to do something and step up to the challenge. It’s fantastic to beat everyone else, but if we are serious, we need to make some big changes to beat car 17 at a consistent level.”
Whincup’s Saturday start was sublime, storming off the line as the lights went out (the starting lights, mercifully not the lights illuminating the undulating bullring that is Barbagallo Raceway) and leading for the first 25 laps of the 83-lap journey before pitting; problem was, McLaughlin had bided his time, boxing for new tyres eight laps earlier and using them decisively to ensure J-Dub was well in his rear-vision mirror when car 88 returned to the fray. Whincup harried McLaughlin all the way home, particularly after a safety car period on lap 50, but had to settle for second place, 1.9secs behind an in-control McLaughlin, for a welcome return to the rostrum.
Whincup was fourth in Friday’s first race of the night event ahead of Shane van Gisbergen, the RBHRT teammates engaging in an entertaining battle across the final laps that was settled in Whincup’s favour. On older rubber, Whincup found himself under siege from a fresh-tyred SVG late in the race, but with third-placed Chaz Mostert too far up the road in third place for SVG to catch with limited laps left, the team elected to reverse an earlier radio call for Whincup to let his teammate through for a belated push for the podium.
SVG was to finish fifth on Saturday too, and did so after a race that wasn’t straightforward as Whincup’s. Van Gisbergen was kicking himself when he finished seventh in qualifying – but just over a tenth of a second shy of Whincup in second – and that track position proved critical when he had to stack behind J-Dub in the pits during the safety car period. SVG then tangled with Rick Kelly at the re-start (which Kelly admitted was his error after spearing onto the infield grass and spectacularly taking out a polystyrene sign as the field thundered down the start-finish straight), and the Kiwi left Perth hopeful that a set-up tweak employed over the weekend has the potential to get his season back on track.
“The race was good, but I couldn’t quite get enough pace in the middle stint which hurt us in the end,” he said, moving to explain his side of the story on the incident with Kelly.
“Green flags came out as we turned into the last corner and overlapped on the exit, and he ran me to the white line. So I moved with him and then I stopped at the white line, and he spun himself out.
“You wouldn’t want to give up fifth place. (I) caught him napping there, and you never want to do that but I had the right of way and he tried to push the limit, but I was too far alongside.”
After Mostert was an early retiree from Saturday’s race with mechanical issues, SVG jumped to third in the championship, 322 points behind McLaughlin, who has now won eight of the 12 races this season. Whincup improved from ninth to sixth in the standings over the weekend, and is 409 points off top spot, a race win worth 150 points.
Next up comes Winton (May 24-26), where SVG is keen to see if the tack the team took in Perth can translate to country Victoria.
“It’s a different track; twisty and bumpy in comparison to smooth and flowing here in Perth,” he said of Winton
“The different set-up, will it work there? I’m not too sure, but after this weekend it looks like we’ve taken the step forward we needed to be more competitive.”