Frosty's championship, van Gisbergen's future, and strategy: five points to extract from last weekend's Gold Coast 600
As the 2015 V8 Supercar championship edges closer and closer to its finishing point at Sydney Olympic Park, the fun and games of the silly season are starting to finally sort themselves out. October isn’t just a critical month for its historical ties to the Bathurst 1000, but also for the tendency for any forthcoming driver swaps and team movements to start being chiseled into place.
In the midst of this interesting month is the Gold Coast 600, renowned as the biggest car-breaker and driver tester of the season. Here are five take-aways from last weekend's edition.
James Moffat will be one to watch in 2016
James Moffat monsters the Gold Coast circuit's notorious kerbs. Photo / Getty Images
One of the bigger off-track stories to take place on the weekend was James Moffat’s transfer from Nissan Motorsport, which he’s called home for the past three seasons, to Polestar Racing next to Kiwi Scott McLaughlin — a move formally confirmed on Monday evening.
‘The Moff’ was a man on a mission all weekend behind the wheel of his Nissan Altima, a package that has struggled to be competitive all season long. After setting the fastest lap out of Friday's practice sessions, he converted the pace into a berth in the top ten shootout — where he would improve to a fifth-place starting spot for race one.
While neither race went to plan — Moffat and co-driver Taz Douglas scraping together a 10th and an 8th-place finish across the two races. But Moffat in particular drove with plenty of mongrel and gusto, especially in race one, where he and Douglas were able to recover from a spin early in the race to 10th. Aboard a more competitive Volvo — a marque that appear to be turning a corner for pace and reliability — he will more often than not be challenging McLaughlin for pace and position.
Frosty isn’t yet a champion elect
The Prodrive Ford squad faced some of their poorest results of 2015, at a crucial time in the season. Photo / V8 Supercars
Prodrive Racing Australia are still to shake off their past reputation as fragile under pressure if race one of the Gold Coast weekend is anything to go by. Poised in a comfortable position in the top ten, Prodrive’s car controller released series leader Mark Winterbottom from his pit stop while the fast lane was still clogged with cars. A subsequent and surprisingly potent bonk into the side of Garth Tander was enough to damage the steering aboard the Falcon, ruling Frosty out a decent points haul. Adding injury to the insult was the 50-point penalty the team later incurred for the dangerous release.
After the Saturday dramas, Sunday seemed much more hesitant — as if the stern word had been delivered to simply bring the car home in one piece. He and co-driver Steve Owen finished the race in 11th, while their chief championship rival Craig Lowndes finished fourth.
If they do slip from the top of the points, it wouldn’t be the first time the team have tossed away a prime opportunity at championship glory. Winterbottom looked a firm bet to win the 2008 season at its mid-way point, only for his charge to crumble as mistakes crept in. Prodrive and Frosty have made it much further this time around, but the expectation and the pressure is arguably greater now than ever before.
Alternative pit strategy is still worth the risk
After leading early in race two, Craig Lowndes and co-driver Steve Richards ended up fourth after being pipped by strategy. Photo / V8 Supercars
The ‘follow the leader’ approach to pit strategy has been prevalent in the championship’s recent times, many teams preferring to follow the choices of their peers instead of rolling the dice on an alternative strategy.
But when a caution period came at an awkward time during Sunday’s enthralling race, it was refreshing to see multiple different strategies unfold. There were teams that pitted and decided to dump the clutch and floor it, expecting to make another quick splash-and-dash for fuel at their discretion; while other teams would try and stretch their fuel to get to the chequered flag without making another stop. Just like the old days!
Ultimately, James Courtney and an ecstatic Jack Perkins took the win, able to conserve fuel effectively. Rick Kelly and David Russell came second in their Jack Daniel’s Nissan — Kelly crossing the line at a snail’s pace, with the second-slowest fastest lap of those to finish on the lead lap to his credit. Rounding out the podium was Garth Tander and Warren Luff, Tander having spent the second half of the race driving the HRT Commodore as if he had overheard it saying terrible things about his family.
The air of strategic mystery was something many have craved for a long time, and it was wonderful to watch.
People are still a few years away from caring about the Pirtek Enduro Cup
Photo / Getty Images
If the leader of the Labour Party was a V8 Supercar trophy, they would be the Pirtek Enduro Cup.
In its second year of existence the (admittedly beautiful) award was once again a forgotten element among the punters, despite the commentators and the graphics team working overtime to pump the telecast with references to the Pirtek points table.
It probably doesn’t help that, for the second year on the trot, the award was won by a car that had not won a single race across any of the three endurance events — Garth Tander (left) and Warren Luff (right) claiming it after a consistent and clean run through Sandown, Bathurst, and the Gold Coast. Perhaps some of the lack of interest can be attributed to its winners not actually ‘winning’ anything en route to having their names engraved onto its side.
Credit to the category for creating the award, but at this current stage it seems like a token edition to a product that didn’t necessarily ask for it.
van Gisbergen could be the number one at Triple 8 (eventually ... )
Shane van Gisbergen's loud-looking Stix livery will be replaced with a more corporate Red Bull look in 2016. Photo / Getty Images
Now, before you hurl your cup of coffee through the screen you’re reading this from (if you’re reading from a mobile, please don’t dunk your phone in said coffee), hear me out.
Jamie Whincup will need a series of miracles to fall his way if he wants to defend his crown and win the 2015 V8 Supercar championship. It would be his sixth title in seven years. But Whincup appeared flustered and out of favour with team Principal Roland Dane at Bathurst after yet another instance of going against instruction, costing himself a shot at a podium finish. At the Gold Coast's concrete canyon, he could only manage a best of seventh in race two. I don't doubt that he'll bounce back, but I do wonder about how harmonious it really is behind the curtain.
Craig Lowndes meanwhile, who sits second in the championship standings, will be driving the only car in the Triple 8 stable to not sport Red Bull decoration in 2016 — instead running Caltex colours. Lowndes has been quick to talk down any thoughts that he will now be the team’s third wheel, but discussions about retirement from full-time involvement in the sport continue to linger. He’s still fast, potent, and a championship threat, but alongside Whincup and van Gisbergen combined, the next two years of his contract could be his last.
In contrast, Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen looks to approach the team as a relatively blank canvas with talent to burn, and his drive to victory in Saturday’s race was as professional as any. If SVG’s lack of consistency can be harnessed, Triple 8 are the squad capable of giving him a car to do it. It's time to step up to the plate.