Five drivers that could replace Supercars hero Craig Lowndes
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Ever since it was announced that Craig Lowndes would be retiring from the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship at the end of 2018, 'Supercarsland' has been rife with gossiping behind the bike sheds. Was he pushed? Who will be drive with next year for the enduros? Who will replace him?
It's that first question that's occupied most of the speculative vultures, with the likes of Bathurst 1000 winners past and present David Reynolds and John Bowe among those to suggest that the decision to leave wasn't "of his own doing."
A lot of that speculation stems from the unique set of circumstances surrounding Lowndes' departure. The retirement was announced midway through the season, while he was still a 'race winning driver', and while he still had another year left on his contract with Triple Eight. For what it's worth, Lowndes and the team have denied any form of 'push'.
“Let’s set the record straight. I told you when the time would come you’d hear it from me direct,” said Lowndes on social media. “As I said, it was a hard decision to make but it was MY decision. Let’s get on with it, to celebrate and finish the year on a high.”
But let's not dwell on that. Instead, let's try to answer that other question; who will replace Craig Lowndes at Triple Eight?
Driving for Triple Eight is undoubtedly a position most of the Supercars grid envies. So it should be expected that Triple Eight will have fielded plenty of emails and phone calls from curious racers. Team owner Roland Dane hasn't confirmed whether they'll even continue to run a third car, but nonetheless a selection of drivers have been linked to the team.
So, let's run through a few of them.
Since he returned to the series after breaking his leg at Bathurst in 2015, Mostert has done it tough. He's not been a championship threat over those subsequent seasons, and this season he's win-less (he was podium-less all season too, until he claimed third recently at Queensland Raceway). And that's a shame, because we all know that Mostert has bags and bags of what they call 'natural talent'.
Mostert was linked to the Lowndes seat early, but Tickford Racing team co-owner Rod Nash has reaffirmed that Mostert is locked into his deal to drive for Tickford next year.
That makes the Mostert move highly unlikely, although it's been referenced by other outlets that Mostert's contract could see a premature release based on poor results.
Shane van Gisbergen's 2017 co-driver might not have claimed any big results at last year's endurance series, but that's not to say that he's more than qualified to take on the Supercars circus. Aboard a Porsche few drivers are faster, and we saw glimpses of his pace at Sandown and the Gold Coast last year.
The problem for Campbell and many others chasing the sports-car racing dream is that the FIA World Endurance Championship is a shadow of its former self. Audi and Porsche are gone, and in their wake a category that was once lit with buzz has faded greatly.
For Campbell, who is well and truly part of the Porsche's 'junior' driver development programme, the Le Mans lure now comes with less factory opportunities, and a plum slot in Supercars might look tantalising.
Anton de Pasquale
Five rookies joined the Supercars full-time fold this year, and arguably Anton de Pasquale was the one who drew the least pre-season buzz.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. It means less pressure to perform because there's less eyeballs analysing every element of your performance. And perhaps that's helped, because with half the season down de Pasquale has arguably been the most impressive of the rookies.
I say 'arguably' because he's behind fellow rookie Jack Le Brocq in the points. But while Le Brocq has a solid fifth place to his name, Pasquale has shown the better qualifying pace — particularly at Hidden Valley where he almost landed on the front row.
In terms of young 'up and comers', Triple Eight have plenty on the boil. From Kurt Kostecki in Super2 to the aforementioned Campbell. But in these cars, de Pasquale is probably the most experienced of the lot.
Earl Bamber is a bona-fide sports-car legend. The guy is a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, and criminally underrated. So why slum it in Supercars?
In a nutshell, it's a similar case to Matt Campbell. The reasons to push on with Porsche's factory programme aren't what they used to be, and Bamber has impressed in his tests thus far with Triple Eight — which include an eighth-place performance in a wet practice in Winton against full-time drivers.
And remember, that deal to race with Red Bull was kicked off by Bamber (over WhatsApp, no less).
There's a significant counter-point to all of this, however. Bamber has said that he's not interested in racing full-time in Supercars — citing in interviews that he'd rather stick with Porsche as it re-evaluates its programme (which could soon include both Formula E and, if the rumours are to be believed, Formula 1).
Simona De Silvestro
But nobody has been more firmly linked with Lowndes' seat than 'The Swiss Miss' — Simona De Silvestro.
The current Nissan Motorsport driver has so far remained coy on all the fuss and bother, recently telling Speedcafe that "it's just rumours". But while the denial is strong and the move makes little sense on the surface, the deeper you go the more things start to fit in place.
Both Triple Eight and Holden have been focused on growing gender equality in their ranks, which can be read as either a good thing for the sport or mere 'identity politics' (or both!) depending on your outlook.
The other thing to consider is De Silvestro's contract. Yes, she's still signed on with Kelly Racing to continue with them into next season. But there's a reported potential loophole in her contract that could be summoned — Kelly Racing will cease to be a 'factory supported team' at the end of the season, and racing for a factory team is apparently a must in her terms.
Triple Eight, Tickford Racing, and DJR Team Penske are the only factory teams in the series as it stands, as of next year.
There's other things too, of course. De Silvestro has grown significantly as a driver over the last 12 months in particular, and a deal with her would very likely bring added funding from Harvey Norman.
Not to mention, some have said the deal is already done.
Either way, Lowndes' replacement is probably going to be the biggest story of the upcoming silly season. As to whether any of these drivers can be a 'spiritual' replacement to the most popular driver in the Supercars paddock, that's a different question.
Regardless, this is something that we'll be monitoring intently.