Ahead of next weekend’s trip to the Top End, J-Dub is itching to get back on the Supercars top step.
Seven podium finishes in 10 races, a pole position and just four points off the championship lead – offer that set of stats to most Supercar drivers before the 2017 season started, and they would have likely snapped it up. But Jamie Whincup isn’t like most Supercars drivers – six titles and 104 race wins are a testament to that – which is why the Red Bull Holden Racing Team star isn’t exactly doing cartwheels five rounds into the season.
“I don’t want this to come out the wrong way …,” Whincup cautiously starts before laughing, realising what he’s about to say will almost certainly come out the wrong way.
“It is a little bit frustrating, I have to admit. This part of the year is about going out there and going hard and going for wins, so to be this far into the year with one pole position – and even that was in the rain – and no wins is a bit frustrating. But I know how that might sound, and I’m definitely not complaining! I’ve had a heap of podiums, I’m right there in the championship, so it’s hardly all bad. But I would have liked to have won a few races by now, that’s more our style.”
Whincup has a point. In 10 races, he has that wet-weather pole at Symmons Plains in Tasmania to his credit, along with three third places and four seconds. But it was the most recent of those seconds – to teammate Shane van Gisbergen in race two at Winton last time out – that grated most.
Whincup played it perfectly on Sunday at Winton, jumping pole-sitter Scott McLaughlin into the first corner and seemingly having the race in his keeping until running wide after a late-race safety car restart, gifting Van Gisbergen the lead and briefly falling behind Fabian Coulthard’s Ford before trailing his teammate home in a RBHRT 1-2 finish. At a circuit that has been little short of a graveyard for Triple Eight in recent years, it was a welcome result for the team. Searching for a happy snap of J-Dub on the Winton podium looking stoked to be runner-up? Good luck.
“I woke up Sunday morning at Winton and had a good feeling that we’d have a good day, and I was absolutely ready to win that race,” he says now.
“I got myself in a good position to do that, and then it didn’t happen. So yes, I probably looked a bit grumpy on the podium there!
“Winton has been a tough one for us since Car of the Future came in, so to get a 1-2 there was satisfying for the team because a lot of hard work had gone on behind the scenes for that one. We’ve tried a heap of stuff on the car to move forwards, and we were finally able to do that.”
Tussles with his teammate defined Whincup’s 2016 season, but this year, SVG and J-Dub face a fight on a different front with the Shell V-Power Racing Team. Coulthard’s two wins and sheer consistency have the Kiwi in the series lead, while McLaughlin has won three races and sits third in the title chase, just ahead of last year’s champ Van Gisbergen. For Whincup, last year’s internal battle was more the exception than the rule.
“Compared to last year, this year’s championship feels different because we’re fighting with another big team, where last year at the end it was Shane and I,” he says.
“But we’ve had our challenges over the years, and this year with Penske feels like that. With FPR in the past, they had massive car speed compared to us at times. This year is shaping up a bit like some others rather than 2016.
“The Penske guys do have more pace than us at the moment and they have a better car, but we have continuity, a family of guys who have been doing this for a long time, and that’s our strength. So we’ll keep our teamwork and that advantage and work on the car speed, and then hopefully that puts us in a good position.”
It’s a rare quiet time in the Supercars season – there’s just one race weekend between Winton in May and Townsville in July – but the event next weekend in Darwin (June 16-18) has become a Whincup favourite. Dust off the shorts, pack the fishing rod, and get set for a track that’s a matter of striking a balance, while enjoying an event the whole community embraces.
“It’s a real compromise as a circuit, because you need good straight-line handling – let’s call that horsepower! – down the long front straight, but the rest of the circuit is very different,” he says of the Hidden Valley layout.
“There’s always compromises to make. But Darwin’s always enjoyable, it’s great for us all to get out there, feel some sun … it’s one of those weekends where everyone is in a good mood.
“The best part of racing at Hidden Valley is that they have a lot of pride in their race meetings there, the local government is right behind it, and every year we go there the place is immaculate. They just put on a really good event year after year there, so it’s even better if you get a good result – and then throw the fishing rod in on Monday and try to catch a barra before you go home.”