A trip to the Territory comes at the right time for Supercars champ Jamie Whincup, who’s dreaming of more Darwin success after an up-and-down 2018 so far.
One thing seven championships in the Supercars game has taught Jamie Whincup; there’s no shortcuts to success, no silver bullets or magic potions that can prove to be a panacea to your on-track ills. “I’ve stopped looking for them,” the Red Bull Holden Racing Team star shrugs. “I figure if I haven’t found one yet, they probably don’t exist …”.
Whincup can afford to laugh, despite coming to this weekend’s eighth round of the season in Darwin spotting series leader Scott McLaughlin (Team Penske) a 364-point lead at the top of the standings after the year’s first 14 races. A strong start to the season as the team (seemingly quickly) came to grips with the brand-new ZB Commodore raised hopes that title number eight might be coming J-Dub’s way this year, but despite a more barren run since, the 35-year-old remains optimistic.
Why? Last week’s test day at Queensland Raceway where Whincup, along with Triple Eight stablemates Shane van Gisbergen and Craig Lowndes, worked through a lengthy job sheet as they attempt to peg McLaughlin’s advantage across two races in the Top End this weekend. J-Dub, in particular, says the timing of the test couldn’t have been better.
“We only get three test days in total each year and that’s two down already, but last Monday was an important day for us,” he says.
“We haven’t been all that happy with the balance of the car so far, so when you’re trying to fix balance issues, a smooth test day where you can run through a long list of things is what you need, and we got that. The hard bit is taking all of that information and turning it into speed, but that’s what we’ll try to do for the next few weeks.”
Whincup’s latest title defence has been a curious case of feast or famine across those 14 races, a run of six straight podiums across the Australian Grand Prix weekend and Symmons Plains preceding a six-race slide at Phillip Island, Perth and Winton where he never surveyed the view from the rostrum once. He has more wins (two to one) than at the same stage of last year’s championship, and a near 50 per cent strike rate when it comes to podiums, so it’s not all bad despite sitting fifth overall. How does he – and how can we – make sense of the hot or not form?
“We had those six (podiums) in a row and then nothing since, so the reality is that, right now, we sit somewhere in the middle of the two extremes,” he reasons.
“All the things that got us six podiums in a row are still there, but perhaps we lost our way a little bit. That was why the test day was so well timed for us. Maybe we’ve taken our step backwards so we can move forwards.
“We’ve taken a hit trying a few different things, but I’m confident we’ll be back on track now. I’m not saying we’re about to knock over six podiums in a row – I’d take that if it happened though. But we should be much better from here on in.”
Part of the reason for that skid has been, in Whincup’s eyes, the nature of this year’s calendar, which has made the chance to gain ground and cure problems all the more difficult in its first half. Albert Park in late March kicked off a run of five race meetings in three states in 10 weeks, meaning that you’re back on the road again almost as soon as you’re off it. As Whincup says, the schedule has been the same for everyone, but when you’re looking for solutions, a compressed calendar isn’t what you need.
“Five (race meetings) in 10 weeks doesn’t sound like much until you look at where we went – Melbourne for the Queensland-based teams, down to Tassie, over to Perth, two more trips to Victoria … it was pretty busy,” he says.
“For me, I found I needed a break from the racing side afterwards just to take a bit of a bird’s-eye view of where we’re at, which is hard to do when you’re going to a race every second weekend and then travelling back.
“When you do five in 10 weeks, you’re very tunnel-visioned and almost a little bit fatigued. You’re more in the moment, and that makes progress hard to make. Even identifying what needs to change can be hard in that situation. Sometimes the simple things are hard to see. Once you catch your breath, things start to become more clear and make more sense.”
Introducing a new car in such a compressed schedule only added to Triple Eight’s to-do list this season, but Whincup plays that down as a factor in his patchy results.
“Trying to balance a new car isn’t new to us, so I don’t think we can say the new ZB is the reason we’ve maybe not done as well as we would have liked while we’re getting on top of it,” he says.
“It’s not an excuse. The car’s good and all of the ingredients are there, and even if we still had last year’s car, we’d probably be in the same position as we are now. We’ve hit the reset button and we’ll see what that brings for us. It’s obvious to us why we haven’t had any pace the last few months, and we’ll be a stronger combo moving forward.”
J-Dub has been keeping himself typically busy as the calendar shifts gears, with Darwin this weekend the only event in a seven-week period. Breath caught and lessons learned, he’s keen to get out on track at Hidden Valley to see what translates from test track to race weekend at a circuit where he’s enjoyed plenty of prior success (truth be told, where hasn’t he?), but not for some time.
“It seems more recent than 2014 since I won there, as it’s generally been a happy hunting ground for me,” he says of the 2.870km layout.
“The last three years have been not so flash, so we have a bit to prove. The start-finish straight is the key there, it’s a long chute to get down, but the last section before the start is fast and flowing and really important.
“I’m pretty optimistic that we can go well there and start to get things back to where we want them. Hopefully some of what we found at the test makes it to a race weekend.”
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com