Two poles, two wins and one series lead reclaimed – the Red Bull Holden Racing Team aced the inaugural event at The Bend Motorsport Park.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
First race in a new place. First place in that first race. First place in the second race. From second to first in the title chase. No, the Supercars series isn’t channelling Dr Seuss; that was the tale of the inaugural race weekend at Tailem Bend in South Australia, which ended with two wins for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team, three driver trophies to take home, and a number one next to the name of Shane van Gisbergen atop the championship standings.
The brand-new no-expense-spared Bend Motorsport Park facility an hour or so outside of Adelaide was met with acclaim and rave reviews from the drivers and teams, but it was RBHRT who were most on the money when it mattered, SVG taking Saturday’s 24-lap race after teammate Jamie Whincup snared pole, and J-Dub romping away from the rest in Sunday’s 41-lapper after a second pole in as many days, Van Gisbergen finishing second.
SVG’s near-perfect weekend, allied to a relatively quiet return (sixth and tenth) for Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, saw him vault his compatriot to take the championship lead, his relentless consistency of late seeing him earn a 19-point advantage with eight races left this year.
No wonder Van Gisbergen was stoked after such a successful two-day stint at the circuit he believes is now the series’ benchmark.
“Overall, it’s an awesome result,” he said.
“To have the 1-2 is a pretty dominant performance by the team and it’s awesome to be part of it. It also means we’re now the most-winning team in history which is a huge effort.”
SVG came to The Bend with wins in three of the preceding five races, and while he was beaten by 0.157secs to pole by Whincup on Saturday, he overtook his teammate on lap five of the opening race at the venue and controlled things from there. It was critical for his championship charge that he got ahead, as when a safety car was called two laps later for the Commodore of Garth Tander (Garry Rogers Motorsport) that had ground to a halt, the two RBHRT cars pitted in unison, Whincup forced to double-stack behind his teammate as the field looked to get their compulsory pit stops sorted while the race was neutralised.
The delay dropped Whincup six spots to eighth, and with tyre degradation on the billiard table-like new surface minimal, he needed speed more than strategy to get back to where he’d been. He didn’t quite manage it, getting up to fourth by the flag, but his disappointment was tempered for the team by SVG finishing over six seconds ahead of the Nissan of Rick Kelly (Castrol Racing) for his sixth win of 2018.
“It’s a shame that Jamie had to double stack – we did that on purpose hoping for a mid-race pit stop because we didn’t know what the tyres were like,” Van Gisbergen explained.
“We were so unsure, so we picked a mid-race stop which unfortunately led to a mid-race stack.
“There have been a couple of rounds on the hard tyre where we’ve been quite a bit slower – Grand Prix and Phillip Island – and the hard tyre on those sorts of tracks has been our weakness and that has been a bit of a worry this weekend. It’s great to see how fast our cars have come.”
For his part, Whincup blamed his early-race pace more than the lengthy pit visit for leaving him susceptible to outside influences affecting his result.
“We had an unlucky day, you make your own luck in this game and we just weren’t quick enough,” he said after his third pole of the year, and first in 16 races.
“I got a great start but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough pace which was the start of the snowball effect. To be honest, I feel disappointed to not get a podium today, I thought we fought hard and we deserved it. To be six seconds ahead of third and then come out P8 after the stops, I thought I was going to come out second, if not third.”
Fast-forward 24 hours, and it was an all-RBHRT front row again after qualifying, but this time, Whincup was a lot further up the road (0.401secs) than Van Gisbergen, which was a sign of what was to follow.
Come race time, J-Dub nailed the start from pole and simply cleared off, only losing the lead as the field cycled through its pit stops, and eventually won by a whopping 11 seconds, SVG fending off a late-charging David Reynolds (Erebus Racing) for second.
The dust and dirt blowing onto the track added a degree of difficulty that perhaps the tyre degradation (or lack thereof) didn’t, but when Whincup is in the groove like he was on Sunday, it’s hard to see anyone getting close, whatever the challenges any track can throw up.
It was the reigning champion’s fourth win of the year and 112th overall, but as ever, he was quick to dispense the credit elsewhere after the emphatic performance.
“I know it sounds cliché, but at the end of the day we did our homework behind the scenes to make sure that we came here strong and then worked really hard throughout the weekend,” Whincup said.
“The cars are so similar, they have the same power, it just comes down to what you do with it and our crew did a very good job today. You just have to keep getting better and better, there’s no limit in this game. I’ve had some tough starts recently, a few shockers … I haven’t had a bad start in two years, but recently I’ve had some poor ones, so it’s great to have two solid ones this weekend.”
SVG never likes to finish second in anything, but 138 points, combined with McLaughlin’s run to 10th, saw him overcome a 41-point championship deficit to take the series lead, which was denoted by the purple board indicating the identity of the championship leader as he returned to the pits for the podium ceremony.
“I got a bit excited,” he grinned.
“We need to keep our heads down, but credit to the team. The Red Bull Holden Racing Team has given us some rockets this weekend, a 1-2, that’s really special.
“But long way to go. We’ve got to keep focused, but we’re in a good spot.”
Someone who wasn’t in a good spot after qualifying for Saturday was Triple Eight stablemate Craig Lowndes, who was mired in 25th place and chasing car speed throughout. He found it alright; one of the highlights of the opening race of the weekend was Lowndes tearing through the field from the start, gaining 15 places by the flag to finish 10th.
Sunday’s start for Lowndes was even better, rocketing to the top four from sixth on the grid in the early laps, but he finished two places back from where he started in eighth to consolidate his hold on fourth place in the overall standings.
With 2778 points across the first 23 races, SVG’s advantage over McLaughlin is minimal but critical, while Whincup’s strong weekend sees the defending champ stay third overall, 362 points behind his teammate.
Next? Now things get really interesting, the endurance part of the season ramping up across the next two months. First up is Sandown (September 14-16), which the team hasn’t won in three years (Whincup and Paul Dumbrell took Triple Eight’s most recent win in 2014), and SVG has never won at all. Given his pace over the past four events, it’s hard to see how even that history won’t see him pegged as one of the favourites in three weeks’ time.