Five things we learned from the Clipsal 500
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Adelaide's Clipsal 500 is always one of the most interesting rounds of the Supercars Championship.
That's not just because of the challenging concrete labyrinth environment. It's also a case of finally being able to see who's pre-season big talking actually has substance. It's the first true indicator of who will swim to the top and who will sink to the bottom, and I love it.
As such, no race meeting in Australasia comes under more analysis than the Clipsal 500. Here are our thoughts from an eventful season opener.
Van Gisbergen is in a dangerous position
The reigning series champion was in mighty fine form all weekend. Every competitive session saw him on top; qualifying, shootouts, races — the lot. And yet at weekend's closing he still had complaints about the car, most of which centered around a vibration that had followed the Red Bull HRT car all weekend.
Assuming that there's still more to come from Shane van Gisbergen and that car of his, he could well be in a position to dominate the season ahead.
The last driver to really 'dominate' the series was his teammate Jamie Whincup during the final years of the 'Project Blueprint' era. Before him it was Marcos Ambrose, and before him Mark Skaife.
This is happy news to most Kiwi readers (save for those who prefer their four-door sedans with ovals blue in colour on the grill), but note that no Kiwi has ever really held this privileged position before.
It's impressive enough to sweep the wins of any Supercars race weekend. But to do it in the fashion that van Gisbergen did illustrates plenty about just how hard he will be to beat this year.
The Penske hype is real
Despite an arguably lackluster 2017, DJR Team Penske (or 'Shell V-Power Racing', as they're now meant to be referred to as) was in fine touch all weekend; helping vindicate a big part of the pre-season hype around the skip in their step and the signing of Scott McLaughlin.
Perhaps the most notable thing about their unit was the rise in performance from Fabian Coulthard. For a driver who was rarely in a position to win races last year to lead a big healthy slab of both race one and race two of 2017, it was very good to see. And his pass on van Gisbergen during lap one of the season showed that he can wheel out a bit of motorsport mongrel when required.
The other big thing to note is that the Shell Falcons have incredible mumbo in a straight line. Time and time again we would cut to an on-board of a chasing car on the back straight, and every single time you could clearly see the red and white car get smaller and smaller as the speeds got higher.
Shane van Gisbergen was quick to point out their performance early in the weekend, saying that they "look just like one of ours" — that is, just like a Red Bull HRT Holden. He credited that to the team's signing of Ludo Lacroix. He's probably right too.
After initially being a bit uncertain, I'm sold on the idea now — the V Power boys are going to be Red Bull's leading challengers for the crown in 2017.
De Silvestro and Rullo are going to be fine
Rookies come and go in Supercarsland, and usually the fanfare that follows them is limited to the occasional few precious seconds of coverage they'll get once or twice a year while circling at the back. Trying their very best to do the very most in what is one of the world's most competitive championships.
But the two rookies that joined the series this year aren't your usual. One's a woman, and the other is 16.
In a perfect and objective world neither of those elements would matter a damn, and the focus would be on whether either of them is good enough to be there. But Supercars know a story when they see it, and both Simona De Silvestro and Alex Rullo have had plenty of pre-season airplay in the media
This can be good, in that sponsors get plenty of bang for their buck. But it can also be bad, in the negative bite-back the category's received from people poo-pooing both drivers for getting there for reasons other than talent.
However, they were both positively fine over the weekend. During two of the very toughest races of the year on one of the most unforgiving circuits, they performed well. Their lap times weren't flash, but both closed the gap to the leaders productively over the course of three days. The only flies in the ointment were Rullo's minor crash in practice, and De Silvestro's spin in the last race after contact while she was slowing to enter pit lane.
They'll both improve as their experience grows, and Silvestro in particular is going to surprise a few people later this year. Just you watch.
... Whincup though I'm less sure about
It wasn't a disastrous weekend for six-time champion Jamie Whincup, by any measure. But, it certainly wasn't a 'Whincup' weekend. If that makes sense.
If it doesn't I'll try and explain. The common mantra that people make in regards to Whincup's ability to win championships is that his best skill is being able to salvage results on bad days where perhaps the car set-up isn't right or qualifying didn't go the plan.
However, he could only manage two sixth-place finishes on the weekend — putting him sixth in the standings.
During the races we didn't see the usual Whincup fare of beautifully articulated passing moves or impressive speed. Instead we watched as, for lap after lap on Sunday he sat underneath the rear wing of Nissan Motorsport's Michael Caruso, unable to concoct a valid passing move until eventually an unforced error from Caruso got him the position. His battling with Mark Winterbottom on the Saturday was a bit ropey too, though a controversial spin caused by contact between the pair was rightly deemed a racing incident in the end.
He will no doubt triumph this funk and win races again this season. But it better be soon before van Gisbergen, Shell, and whoever else wants the title puts on a huge points lead.
We should probably keep an eye on Cam Waters
The worry whenever someone talks about the need for a young driver to 'mature' and 'make better decisions' in their racecraft is that things will swing too far the other way and a driver that was once brilliant to watch for their risk-taking ability will morph into someone dull as dishwater.
But that hasn't really been the case for Cameron Waters; at least so far one round into his sophomore Supercars season.
After winning the Development Series in 2015, Waters joined Prodrive Racing last year. And he impressed too, scoring a pole position at Barbagallo, a fourth-place finish at the Bathurst 1000, and ultimately the award for rookie of the year. And he looked as feisty as ever over the weekend. The difference was that instead of fighting for 16th, he was fighting for fourth.
Waters looked nearly equal to his more fancied and experienced teammate Chaz Mostert, barring during the top-10 shootouts (a specialty of Mosterts). Both he and Mostert though outshone 2015 series champ and teammate Mark Winterbottom; who is mired in 13th in the points after a difficult weekend.
I forecast a good year for Waters. His co-driver for the enduros is Kiwi GT ace Richie Stanaway. Together, they might just be the best Prodrive pairing on the grid.
This year's going to be good.