Phillip Island in the sun painted a pretty picture, but the results didn’t match the view for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team at the fifth event of the Supercars season.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
Sometimes, the best thing about a race weekend is when it’s over, so you can sit back, exhale, debrief and work out where things went awry. That was certainly the case for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team at Phillip Island last weekend, where seven-time Supercars champ Jamie Whincup came into the event holding the series lead, and crossed the bridge at San Remo back to the mainland as the third of the three Triple Eight entries in the championship standings.
“A tough weekend all round,” was Whincup’s succinct summation of the two races at the Island, which, when combined with the stronghold Shell V-Power Racing’s Scott McLaughlin seemingly has over the picturesque coastal circuit, made for grisly reading for anyone in the T8 camp. While McLaughlin was sailing to his sixth-straight Island pole and back-to-back wins to escape to a 60-point lead atop the standings, Whincup had a 14th-place finish on Saturday (don’t worry, we’ll get to why in a second) followed by ninth on Sunday to slip to fifth overall, 142 points off the series lead.
“Between myself and the engineers we just didn’t get it right this weekend, in particular today,” said J-Dub after his muted ninth on Sunday afternoon, four positions back from where he’d qualified that morning.
“We’re not sure why at the moment, but that’s what all the data’s for. We’ll go over that next week to try and work out what went wrong.
“We missed the mark by a fair bit, but we’ll move on and try and be stronger next time.”
There wasn’t much to talk about on Sunday for Whincup, but plenty happened on Saturday despite, as he admitted, the car not quite being on the mark. While 26 drivers took the start of the 57-lap outing on Saturday afternoon, this was really only a race in two, McLaughlin harrying Whincup for 40 laps after being ambushed by the RBHRT driver in the first few corners, the Kiwi eventually finding a way past at the Southern Loop on lap 41 and taking the win by just under a second.
Second place looked to be Whincup’s seventh straight podium finish, and relinquishing the series lead – by one point – looked to be where things sat ahead of Sunday. But then came a twist: after the race, Whincup was deemed to have deactivated his pit lane speed limiter at his first stop on lap 17 before the merge cone at the exit of pit lane, and a 38-second penalty – the equivalent of a drive-through – was added to his race time. Second became 14th, and an almost non-existent championship gap became a chasm, one that only widened with Sunday’s result.
Triple Eight team manager Mark Dutton said Whincup’s error was “an honest mistake”.
“Rules are rules,” Dutton told supercars.com, adding “(Jamie) saw the wrong cone, turned it (the pit-lane speed limiter) off, realised his mistake, turned it back on. You’re not allowed to, it’s as simple as that. It has to be on. He’s made a mistake, he’s human.”
While the Island was a weekend to be learned from and rapidly discarded from the memory banks for J-Dub, his Triple Eight stablemates Shane van Gisbergen and Craig Lowndes had a comparatively better time of things, jumping past Whincup into third (SVG) and fourth (Lowndesy) overall in the standings without ever setting the circuit alight.
SVG inherited a podium for third on Saturday with Whincup’s demotion, which was reward for effort after he’d battled a power steering problem for the majority of the 57-lap distance, no joke on a circuit with as many fast and flowing corners as the Island has.
Some set-up changes overnight for Sunday saw SVG take what he called “a backwards step” in qualifying, starting Race 10 from ninth on the grid. A decision to run a long second stint and pit for new tyres 20 laps from home saw him back in 11th place but with a chance to push, and the Kiwi managed to get up to sixth by the flag, running out of laps to challenge Michael Caruso (Drive Racing) for fourth after a little love-tap with stablemate Lowndes on the third-last lap prompted him to back out of the throttle to let the Autobarn entry regain its position.
“In the race my car didn’t start out very good at all, but it just got better and better as the race went on,” SVG said on Sunday.
“It still wasn’t quite perfect, but I think we played the strategy pretty good by running the second set of tyres longer and we came home with new tyres and made some passes.”
Ten races into the season, Van Gisbergen sits third overall, 98 points behind compatriot McLaughlin.
An event after his drought-breaking win at Symmons Plains, Lowndes was back at the sharper end of the grid all weekend at the Island, finishing fourth from the same spot on the grid on Saturday, and recovering to seventh on Sunday after qualifying just 13th. Championship-wise, CL is now the meat in the RBHRT sandwich, in fourth place overall, 36 points behind Van Gisbergen and eight ahead of Whincup.
What’s next? The long trip across the Nullarbor for the Perth SuperSprint at Barbagallo Raceway in a fortnight’s time (May 4-6), where there’s a chance to make amends. After that reclining, expulsion of breath and lengthy chat we mentioned off the top …