Our official idiot’s guide to the 2017 Supercars season
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I’ll start with the bad news — it’s already the third month of 2017 …
Yep, two months have blown by in the blink of an eye. That’s what a non-stop stream of Donald Trump news and a botched Oscars presentation does to you I suppose.
However, we're also on the edge of the international motorsport season kicking into gear, and Australia’s big taxicab Supercars Championship is one of the first off the rank this weekend with the Clipsal 500.
Who’s going to win? Who’s going to suck? Who’s going to do neither and be somewhere in the middle? Let’s speculate wildly with abandon.
So, Red Bull HRT’s pretty much going to dominate aren’t they?
They might. The conservative bet is probably in their favour. Both drivers, Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen, are pretty much on top of their game.
The racecraft that they displayed last year, as well as at the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour just a few weeks ago, shows that they’re both difficult to beat on their day, and more than happy to spar without dumping the other into the wall.
Photo / Supercars
But who’s going to beat them?
Tricky question. We all thought it would be Prodrive Racing last year, but that didn’t really go well now did it.
Indeed Prodrive’s leading lights, Mark Winterbottom and Chaz Mostert, endured rather terrible years behind the wheel. After winning the 2015 title in dominant fashion, Frosty could only manage two race wins and a sixth-place overall — Mostert one spot behind with no wins at all.
Compare those numbers to 2015, where the pair won on 14 occasions (even though Mostert sat out the last five rounds due to injury).
It’s hard to see how they’re going to climb back into contention this year. I suppose on the bright side Mostert’s got his old engineer back, Adam De Borre — who returns from a stint at DJR Team Penske. Cameron Waters and new-but-also-quite-old recruit Jason Bright might give them a bit of a boost over last year too.
Photo / Shell V-Power Racing
In their absence, many are picking Penske to be RBR’s closest threat. And they’re probably right.
The team has made two key pick-ups during the off-season. Obviously the first of those is Kiwi Scott McLaughlin, who somehow dragged his Volvo S60 to third in the points last season. He pairs with Fabian Coulthard to create a very strong driver line-up — perhaps the strongest that team has had since they last won the championship seven years ago.
The other key off-season pick-up has been the genius mind of Ludo Lacroix (pronounced Lah-Crah for anyone who struggled through that one). The former Triple 8 man made the switch late last season; a move that reportedly left a few people at Triple 8 — particularly in Craig Lowndes’ pit — hurting.
Scott McLaughlin. Photo / Getty
Is the hype around them justified?
I dunno. Maybe? These are hard questions mate.
Look, sometimes things are just too close to call. Remember when Triple 8 swapped from Ford to Holden in 2010? You had a firm split down the middle of people who believed that they would tank having to adapt to a new car, then on the other side there were people who thought they’d be just fine.
And what did they do in the first race of the season? Well, they won of course.
All the ingredients are there for Penske to roar out of the gates lights ablaze and win races. But most of those same ingredients were there last year too, and even though they scored two pole positions in that opening round, by the end of the season neither of their two drivers didn’t make the top 10 in the points.
With a year under their belts now, the team should approach this season with a more confident set of goals. If there is internal pressure to be in the top five at every round of the year, then they’ll probably be there or thereabouts. Let’s hope that’s the case.
Is that it?
No! No no no, it’s not. There’s definitely a few more names on the grid to consider. And at the top of that list I’ll place my surprise of the year; Brad Jones Racing.
Their major new signing is former Bathurst champ Nick Percat. The reigning Clipsal 500 winner comes off a crash and bash year with LD Motorsport, but there’s definitely a silver lining there to pick at. A win at Clipsal and a podium finish at Bathurst with Cameron McConville are things that that car simply should not be capable of.
There’s no doubt that Percat’s a talent — something that was verified when he finished 12th overall in his debut season. He’ll win a race this year, maybe two.
Teammate Slade won two last year as well. With the pair of them bouncing ideas off each other, and Tim Blanchard quietly achieving in the background as always, that team might be in for their best season in a few years.
Photo / Garry Rogers Motorsport
Garry Rogers Motorsport might be, too. Yes, they’ve dropped their lead driver and the Volvo package. But in their place they now have some good old trusty VF Commodores, as well as the tried and true speed of Garth Tander.
The latter ruffled a few feathers last year to say the least, which probably didn’t do his reputation any huge favours. But many, myself included, still rank him as one of the most cut-throat racers in the field. If the car you hand him is only good enough for 20th, he’ll finish 16th. Paired with James Moffat, the whole GRM unit should move up the grid.
Where does that leave HRT … I mean, Mobil 1 HSV Racing
For a team that has undergone plenty of change behind the scenes, things look pretty much unchanged for Ryan Walkinshaw’s mob.
The cars are still bright red and black, the team still retains one of the biggest groups of fans in the sport, HSV and Mobil 1 are still on board, and James Courtney is still there front and centre.
Photo / Mobil 1 HSV Racing
Since JC joined the Holden team in 2011, his best overall championship finish has been sixth in 2014 (he probably would’ve bettered that in 2015, if it wasn’t for a helicopter blowing a gazebo into his ribs at Sydney Motorsport Park, in a saga that wouldn’t look out of place played to the Benny Hill theme song).
His new dance partner this year is Scott Pye, the first new teammate Courtney’s had in seven years. Pye, a bit like Percat, has talent in buckets but just hasn’t had the plum opportunities come his way — until last year that is. Both should be aiming to finish in the top 10, but whether that’s enough to quench the thirst of Walkinshaw, Mobil, and their passionate fans is another question entirely.
And those aren’t the only Holdens either…
Don’t forget about the two other Triple 8 customers on the grid; Craig Lowndes and Will Davison.
Lowndes was pipped for third in the championship at the end of last year, and no doubt will be in that picture again this year. But at the age of 42, the question of retirement is as common now as it’s ever been. His mentor Peter Brock exited the game while he was somewhere near the top. Lowndes will be the same, though I don’t expect it to come this year or even next.
Davison meanwhile won flippin’ Bathurst last year.
It only took him five races to win in that Tekno Autosports Commodore. On that basis, with a year of experience and mountain glory on his side, he’ll do even better this year.
Photo / Holden Motorsport
Lee Holdsworth’s Charlie Schwerkolt Racing squad probably wish that they were Tekno Autosports. To call their first season in the game last year ‘tough’ would be the mother of all understatements. Crashes were as plentiful as results were scarce, which isn’t good to see when we all know how quick Holdsworth can be.
This year will be better, but continual qualifying in the mid-field will result in continual incident. They need to change that.
Are the Nissans just the token ‘foreign’ manufacturer team?
If you wanted to be an angry and bitter grump, then sure — Nissan haven’t really fired in their four seasons in the Supercars game.
And to be fair to you, starting the year with big promises probably doesn’t endear their cause. Still, they did score a race win last year with Michael Caruso, which I suppose counts for something.
Simona De Silvestro. Photo / Getty
With Rick Kelly, Todd Kelly, and Caruso staying on this year, the main question around the team is whether the newly signed Simona De Silvestro (yes, that’s a girl’s name) will strengthen or hinder their fight.
With the signing of any rookie to the sport you can expect a requisite amount of panel damage and DNFs, but of course De Silvestro isn’t most rookies. Former experience in IndyCar and Formula E shows that she knows racecraft, but touring cars remain a black hole on her CV; save for her two Bathurst 1000 appearances.
Don’t expect big things from her in the opening rounds, but as she gets used to the tyres and the racing, watch her climb the grid by mid-season.
And what of the dregs
Steady on there, friend. Dregs is a pretty harsh word. These days in Supercars land there are no real dregs at the bottom of the grid. Hell, Andre Heimgartner and Dale Wood are former series champions in Super2 and Formula Ford respectively, and they finished 22nd and 25th respectively last year.
Wood moves from Nissan Motorsport to Erebus Motorsport alongside David Reynolds. He’ll relish hopping back into a Holden again, and he’ll also relish having someone as decorated as Reynolds as a teammate.
For Reynolds, race wins will be the goal this year. After finishing almost dead on the middle of the pack last year, the top 10 and the odd sneak onto the podium for some pot-plant throwing silliness will be on his menu.
LD Motorsport round out the field, and it’s probably fair to say that their main hope this season will be to have as many quiet, crash-free races as possible.
The team appear to be in somewhat average shape entering this season. For one, they only confirmed their second driver, Taz Douglas, yesterday. Racing at Clipsal starts today people.
Their other driver, the one who's dominated the headlines, is Alex Rullo. At 16-years-old he’s the youngest ever pilot to attempt a full season in the series, and — like De Silvestro — don’t expect anything too flash from him early.
In just four years, he’s gone from racing Suzuki Swifts to being in Australasia’s premier motorsports category. His maiden season in the Development Series last year was a bit sketchy, but in the context of the fact that he was just 15 at the time, it was also solid — two top 10s underlined his potential.
He also took second in the Kumho V8 series a couple of years ago while aged just 14. Not bad. And Douglas is going to be a good driver to pair him with.
Yes, he’s on the grid because of financial factors. But so too are many other drivers, past present and future. He’ll be OK.
Anything else I need to know?
Tyres. Those round squishy black things are going to be pretty important this year.
The category debuts a wider new construction soft and super soft Dunlop tyre, both of which replace last year’s hards and softs.
This could in theory produce more regularly exciting racing, as drivers push cars harder with more confidence to pass one another. But on the flipside, reigning series champion van Gisbergen said that the new tyre more or less felt like the old one when he spoke to Motorsport.com about the matter.
Photo / Red Bull Holden Racing Team
“It was weird – the way they were talked about and the way they looked, I thought the difference would be quite radical. But when I drove out, if the team had said they’d just made a shock change or something I would have believed them,” he said.
“The car, surprisingly, wasn’t that different. The soft tyre was the same as the old hard tyre, really, and the super soft tyre was a little bit more grippy.”
A new tyre can provide a level playing field, but I doubt that's going to be the case in this instance.
So, who’s your pick to win it all?
Whincup. But just by a nose.