Podiums for Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup were welcomed, but the pair left NT with plenty of work to do as the Supercars season passes the halfway stage.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
Numbers – you can add them, subtract them, multiply or divide them. And you can spin them whichever way you like to paint whatever picture you want, with or without the appropriate context. Which leads us to Darwin for Races 15 and 16 of the Supercars season last weekend, where the Red Bull Holden Racing Team left the Territory with a pair of podiums, but facing a growing deficit to Team Penske’s series leader, Scott McLaughlin. Good? Sorta. Not-so good? Also, sorta.
The best-performed of the Triple Eight trio in the Top End was Shane van Gisbergen, the Kiwi consolidating his hold on second place in the title chase with a second place on Saturday preceding a fourth on Sunday, SVG leaving Darwin 161 points behind compatriot McLaughlin at the top of the standings. But the number to remember is 26; that’s the total number of places van Gisbergen has gained in the past four races across the weekends at Winton and Hidden Valley. Which is great on one hand, but a head-scratcher on (or with) the other.
Qualifying pace continues to be elusive for SVG, and turning fifth and 11th-place starts into second and fourth was as good as recoveries could have been in the circumstances. But Darwin was tough sledding after being further back from the front than he would have liked when the lights went out, and Sunday in particular saw one of his more amazing statistical streaks snapped. By missing the Top 10 Shootout for Race 16, SVG broke a remarkable run of participation in the one-lap run for pole that stretched back to Hamilton in 2012, and was left to rue his starting spot after moving up seven places in the race by running long in his second stint and being one of the last drivers to pit for the final time.
“I haven’t missed a Shootout for a few years straight, so that’s a real shame,” he said.
“Then in the race, we had good speed again but we were just too far back and got stuck behind people. Fourth position was the best we could do; we lost too much and got stuck in traffic.
“We just need to fix qualifying. We can’t make the tyre work as good as the other guys can. We need to put all of our resources and knowledge into making qualifying better, because our race cars are as good as any.”
Van Gisbergen was a little over five seconds away from the win in Sunday’s 70-lapper, but was right in McLaughlin’s wheeltracks 24 hours earlier, finishing just four-tenths of a second adrift of his countryman after 42 intriguing laps. It was SVG’s seventh podium of the year and third in succession, but he felt Darwin’s winter warmth cost him a chance of something better.
“We couldn’t quite get Scotty, everything just got hot and he was driving well, placing the car nicely,” he said.
“As soon as we caught up, the heat here just causes the tyres to overheat and everything got hot and I lost grip. We tried to have a tyre differential so we could have enough grip to pass him, but it wasn’t to be.”
After 16 races in the 31-race championship, SVG’s 1614 points sees him in a comfortable second place, 166 points ahead of Sunday’s race-winner David Reynolds (Erebus Penrite Racing), who took his second victory for 2018 after a brilliant start saw him jump into the lead at the first corner from fourth on the grid, the Commodore driver controlling the race from there to finish 1.6secs clear of McLaughlin.
There was a RBHRT car filling up McLaughlin’s mirrors on Sunday too, but this time it was reigning series champion Jamie Whincup, who broke an unusually long (for him) podium drought by finishing third, his first visit to the rostrum in eight races after he was third at Symmons Plains back in April.
J-Dub finished where he started on Sunday after a brief stall saw him emerge just behind McLaughlin after the pair stopped for the second and final time on lap 36, and while it looked like McLaughlin would be lucky to finish at all when oil smoke spewed from his Falcon as the pair resumed the race, the car hung on and Whincup had to be content with his seventh podium of 2018.
“It’s certainly nice to be back on the podium, it’s been a little while,” Whincup said after finishing six-tenths of a second from second place.
“We were schooled in the pits. We could have got another spot – my error. But the car was nicer than what it has been, so I’m looking forward to what we can do from here on in.”
Rewind to Saturday, and Whincup was a frustrated eighth from sixth on the grid, spending most of the 42-lap distance glued to the back of Rick Kelly’s Castrol Racing Nissan Altima without being able to find a way by.
“We had good car pace today, it was just strategy that got us,” he said.
“The strategy was to stop early, but it wasn’t the right one. I did my best to get past Rick, but he blocked well and we almost crashed at turn five. We were lucky to come away unscathed.”
After the weekend of his 450th race start, Whincup sits in fifth place overall, but the gap to 2017 title rival McLaughlin is widening, sitting at 433 points at the halfway stage of the championship.
The third member of our Triple Eight trio, Craig Lowndes, came to Darwin just one win away from drawing level with Mark Skaife for the most victories in Hidden Valley history (eight), but he too had qualifying to blame for not advancing further.
Seventh from 12th on the grid on Saturday, where he, like Whincup, couldn’t get by Kelly at the end was his better result, while Sunday saw ‘Lowndesy’ finish 10th from 14th on the grid, the Autobarn entry leaving NT in fourth place overall, 413 points behind McLaughlin but 20 ahead of stablemate Whincup.
Next up for the Supercars series? A brief hiatus before two race meetings in Triple Eight’s home state of Queensland in three weekends, Townsville (July 6-8) preceding Ipswich (July 20-22).