A topsy-turvy weekend in the west brought some joy for the Red Bull duo, but it was Craig Lowndes who best flew the Triple Eight flag with a stunning Sunday drive.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
Qualifying for the Supercars round at Barbagallo Raceway in Perth is critical, right? The shortest lap of the year, traffic everywhere, sand, pitfalls and trap doors waiting to catch you out at every turn – the way to win a race is surely start from P1 and control it from the front. Which was what happened on Saturday in WA, Scott McLaughlin (Shell V-Power Racing) taking his third victory on the bounce after starting from first and still being there 50 laps later.
Qualifying for the Supercars round at Barbagallo Raceway is a waste of time, right? At least it seemed that way 24 hours later on Sunday, when Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup gave the Red Bull Holden Racing Team a front-row lockout for Race 12 of the season … and came home fifth and sixth respectively as the race was won by – you guessed it – McLaughlin from – you’ll never guess this – 19th on the grid.
That’s four wins in a row for DJRTP’s flying Kiwi, and he took a sizeable 158-point lead in the championship over Van Gisbergen on a weekend that didn’t make a lot of sense, but (at least for SVG) ended up with some silverware and a degree of damage limitation. Van Gisbergen qualified just 12th on Saturday but fought his way through to the final spot on the podium by nabbing Tim Slade’s Freightliner Racing Holden on the last lap.
Sunday looked set to be even better when SVG took his first pole position in five races, but things went pear-shaped as soon as the lights went out, a tardy start seeing him bog the car off the line and get swamped into the first corner. It was a critical error with severe consequences – when a safety car was called to extract James Golding’s Wilson Security Racing GRM Commodore from the first-corner sand trap on lap four, SVG had to stack behind teammate Whincup in the pits – and came out 18th, his chances of a win shot to bits.
SVG would ride a four-stop strategy to finish strongly and advance to fifth, and while he stayed second in the title chase, it was a frustrating weekend that could have produced much more at a circuit he admitted “isn’t my favourite track”.
“It’s alright, it’s my worst track and I finished with a third and a fifth so that’s good,” he said, looking for the silver lining rather than at the clouds that threatened (but never delivered) rain on Sunday.
“I had a rubbish start in the race, and then we had to stack in the pit stop which was no good. We had a heap of fuel on board while we were out the back and we were just stuck in traffic, so we decided to be aggressive, we had the tyres.
“The last stop was good, we had better tyres than the others and we were able to come through but again, the stacking killed us.”
One of SVG’s late-race victims on Sunday was Whincup, who had a forgettable weekend in the west that saw him stay fifth overall in the standings, but fall to 268 points behind last year’s title rival McLaughlin.
Whincup hadn’t qualified lower than fifth in the first 10 races of the year, which made Saturday’s starting position of 14th quite a shock. He was one of the first to pit in the race and edged his way up the order, but ran out of tyre life late, and a slow final pit stop on lap 39 didn’t help. He crossed the line sixth, but then came the realisation that he was to cop a five-second time penalty for contact with Chaz Mostert (Supercheap Auto Racing) on lap 33 when Mostert had slowed to make the pit-lane entry on the inside of the final corner, a sanction that saw him fall to 11th.
Sunday looked like it would be much better when J-Dub capitalised on SVG’s sluggish getaway to lead into the first corner, but that track position was relinquished with the early stop under the safety car, and from then on in it was a real struggle. In the end, he finished in his teammate’s wheeltracks in sixth, but was 18 seconds behind McLaughlin after an afternoon he was struggling to get his head around afterwards.
“(We) had absolutely nowhere near the pace needed today, I was just hanging on to the thing,” he admitted.
“It had no tyre life and we just had to keep creeping back through the field. To win these races you have got to be quick, and we were far from that today.”
Remember what we said about qualifying (the ‘it didn’t seem to matter” bit)? Craig Lowndes would surely concur after the third member of our Triple Eight trio put the full stop on a weekend at one of his strongest circuits with a barely believable third on Sunday from 25th (no mis-print) on the grid.
Lowndes, who’d finished fifth on Saturday after starting eighth, was on the back row of the grid on Sunday when the lights went out, and his charge to his third podium of 2018 was a slow burn; he worked his way into the top 10 as the pit stops played out on lap 23, made his final stop with 23 laps left, and was both relentless and inch-perfect from there as he picked off his rivals one by one, nailing James Courtney (Mobil 1 Boost Mobile Racing) on the second-last lap to score a very unlikely podium.
“The car was really good, for me to be able to do the long stints in the middle was really important to close the gap to the guys in front,” he said.
Next up for Lowndesy, not to mention J-Dub and SVG, is Winton for races 13 and 14 of the championship (May 18-20). It’s tight, twisty, a bit one-line and somewhere where qualifying can be … um, we’re not going there.