RED Bull Racing Australia drivers Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup’s battle for the V8 Supercars championship lead heated up in Townsville on Sunday with three-times champion Lowndes gaining momentum on the reigning champion in a chaotic final race.
In an odd-ball weekend where Lowndes and Whincup both finished off the podium for the first time this year, the best the pair could salvage on Sunday were seventh and 12th respectively as Holden Racing Team duo Garth Tander and James Courtney secured a one-two from Shane Van Gisbergen.
Starting from fourth and 15th on the grid, early race drama saw Lowndes and Whincup suffer two different fates. As Whincup soared through the field, Lowndes dropped positions at a rapid rate and by lap nine the latter found himself in the pits and opting for softs under safety car while Whincup had taken sixth.
But then it all took an extraordinary turn. The safety car didn’t just see Lowndes pit, half the field followed suit and re-emerged on softs, turning the race into a relative shemozzle. It set the platform for a chaotic finish as those who opted for softs early were in a race against the clock on a forced two-stop strategy with dying rubber while those on the preferred one-stop attempted to weave through the backmarkers and make up ground. But with a second safety car and the race leader 14th on track came the reckoning, the backmarkers pitted and the real running order soon emerged. It left many scratching their heads.
The FPR cars and Whincup were nowhere in sight as Tander, Courtney and Van Gisbergen – on re-used soft tyres by this stage – seized the race lead and the eventual honours.
“It was a bit of a weird race,” said Lowndes, who finished fourth from 12th in race one.
“We struggled a bit on the hard and with that early safety car we had to come in and to do 60 odd laps on the softs was going to be quite incredible. The boys did a great job to dig me out of a hole when I lost that rear left early and we ended up with some good points. We’ll obviously analyse because all weekend we had trouble on the hard tyre for pace. So it’s obviously disappointing given where we started but that’s racing and we’ll get on with it.”
Whincup could only watch on in wonder as the leaders passed him and extended their leads on soft tyres that had no right to still be holding together.
“We spent a lot of time to get the car right and the set-up but we probably didn’t focus enough on strategy in the end,” said Whincup, who finished seventh in race one.
“But we get it right nine times out of 10 so that’s just how it goes. We had our challenges this weekend and overcame a lot of them but there’s a lot more to a race than set-up and today we just didn’t quite get it right.
“We’ve got our first test day in a very long time before the next race so we’ll have a look at it then and hopefully be back to our best for our home race at Queensland Raceway.”
Whincup now leads Lowndes in the championship by 111 points, with Ford’s Will Davison another 104 points adrift of Lowndes.
Meanwhile, Casey Stoner made an impressive return to Reid Park on Sunday by setting the sixth quickest time in race three and making up 10 positions to finish 16th.
“The car was fantastic, we had really good pace but stuck back there and trying to clear traffic and stop them from dive-bombing you back up the inside was a little bit tricky,” the 27-year-old said.
“But in general, we again had really good pace in this race – better than we have all year. And we could have done something with it. It was a matter of staying out of the accidents. But we’re getting there slowly and I’m looking forward to Queensland Raceway.”
The next round of V8 Supercars and Dunlop Development Series will be in three weeks’ time at Queensland Raceway.