A record-breaking win puts Jamie Whincup within touching distance of the Supercars series lead after a weekend of ferocious racing in Sydney.
When Jamie Whincup came into the 2017 Supercars championship on 104 career victories, most keen observers figured it would be a matter of when – not if – the perennial powerhouse would add two more wins to his glittering CV to surpass Triple Eight stablemate Craig Lowndes as the most successful driver in the sport’s history.
But did anyone expect it to take until August for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team star to set a new benchmark? Surely not. But perhaps we should have.
The omens for Whincup’s magical mark happening at Sydney Motorsport Park were strong; after all, it was at the same circuit 12 months ago that Whincup joined Lowndes as the only drivers to rack up 100 career victories. Fast-forward 51 weeks, and in the same Sunday feature race format where he notched the ton last August, Whincup was imperious across 52 laps, taking his second race win of the season and – perhaps more importantly – vaulting himself right back into title contention after the Saturday race at Queensland Raceway went awry late last month.
Third in Saturday’s sprint race and first on Sunday, when mixed with a lean pair of results for Scott McLaughlin (21st and fourth), saw J-Dub slash the Kiwi’s championship lead from 129 points to just 12 ahead of the season of endurance at Sandown, Bathurst and Gold Coast over the next two months. Game on – and Whincup’s mind drifted to another game when trying to best describe what will be the key to success in his own sport.
“It’s like a round of golf – it doesn’t matter how many eagles you hit, you’ve just got to get around in the lowest score,” he said of this year’s up-and-down title chase.
“You’ve got to be the most consistent over the year, which is the hardest battle. You can’t easily get consistency, and it’s (about) the hard work and grind behind the scenes to make sure you don’t make any errors.”
Whincup was almost error-free on Sunday; after a superb start from third on the grid, he stormed to second behind early-race leader Chaz Mostert before pitting on lap 10, jumping the Supercheap Auto Racing driver after the field pitted a lap later following a safety car for debris scattered across the circuit from a tyre failure on Rick Kelly’s Sengled Racing entry. Needing to take on more fuel than teammate Shane van Gisbergen in his final stop, Whincup bolted at the re-start, and emerged just in front of his teammate after his lap 29 foray into the pits.
READ MORE: Jamie Whincup makes history
Then came the ‘almost’ bit: Whincup slithered wide at Turn 2 on cold tyres as he re-joined to hand position to his teammate, but with the chasing horde of McLaughlin, his teammate Fabian Coulthard and Mostert clearly faster, SVG eventually ceded the lead to Whincup with 10 laps left to ensure the two Bulls didn’t get charged down by their pursuers. Whincup’s inherent pace was prodigious as he simply disappeared to a win by close to 10 seconds, with Coulthard swallowing up Van Gisbergen for second with three laps to go, but SVG holding off McLaughlin to round out the podium.
“We’re a big team at Red Bull Racing, and he let me through,” Whincup said of Van Gisbergen after his milestone win.
“What goes around comes around in those situations, and we obviously have a massive team battle going with Team Penske. So it’s great to get a win because it’s been a pretty lean year.”
While Whincup was buoyed to close the gap to McLaughlin, he knows that RBHRT needs to unlock some extra one-lap pace in their Commodores after the Ford flyer took top spot in qualifying for both races in Sydney, extending his run of poles to seven straight.
“I hate hanging in there – we haven’t had the most pace and we haven’t been qualifying on pole – but we’re hanging in there,” Whincup said.
“It’s not a nice feeling, we want to be leading from the front. We’ll go away and work on car speed, but at the same time we haven’t had many mistakes and we’ve done well to be in there. The key is making the car faster, we can’t be giving away two to three-tenths (of a second) every qualifying session, that’s too much. But there’s a massive battle going on behind the scenes trying to find that extra pace, trying to find that holy grail.”
While Whincup had two visits to the podium in Sydney, SVG’s weekend was nowhere near as straightforward, and not without a dose of controversy either. In Saturday’s 31-lap race, Van Gisbergen was penalised for breaching the restart procedure after a safety car midway through the race when he and McLaughlin bumped as they prepared for the green flag, and McLaughlin was then penalised for spinning SVG at Turn 2 and dropping the Red Bull racer to the back of the field. Salvaging a podium on Sunday – and getting one over on McLaughlin – saw the reigning series champion stay in fourth in the standings, 258 points behind McLaughlin’s lead.
“I got Scotty at the restart, then he just drilled me into turn two,” SVG said on Saturday.
“That was a shame, it ruined our day, but he came straight down and apologised, so all good.
“(Sunday) was pretty good and very exciting with lots of good battles throughout the race, which were cool to be a part of. Jamie was quick, so we let him past and then battled to the end. It was pretty exciting trying to hold those guys out.”
Lowndes was quick to congratulate Whincup for passing his mark after Sunday’s race, which went from bad to worse for the TeamVortex veteran. ‘Lowndesy’ finished a strong seventh from 10th on the grid on Saturday, but Sunday’s 52-lapper saw him finish 13 laps down in 24th and last place after a pit stop drama and then a broken rocker that left him stranded in the garage.
“We were up against it when we pitted earlier than we expected – it looked like a tyre sensor was showing to the crew that a tyre was flat, and safety was obviously paramount to the boys,” Lowndes said.
“Every point in this championship counts and we picked up 33, so it was a disappointing day, but encouraging that we can get the car turned around and get it fixed.”
Lowndes stayed in seventh in the championship chase as the series prepared to shift gears for part one of the three-act Pirtek Enduro Cup, which comes at Sandown from September 15-17.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com