Supercars showdown: 10 things to look out for this weekend at Pukekohe
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This weekend the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship returns to Pukekohe Raceway for the ITM Auckland SuperSprint. With the championship on the edge of endurance season and silly season rumour-mill talk in full swing, drivers and teams are on edge.
The last two years have seen compelling battles between championship rivals make headlines (Shane van Gisbergen's 'bad parking' next to Scott McLaughlin last year ... remember that?). Will it happen again this year?
While we can't predict the future, we can take a look back in time at Pukekohe's rich Supercars history at some fast facts and curious trends. It should be a belter.
Four rounds of this year's championship have had their race wins swept by a single driver, but such feats are surprisingly rare at Pukekohe Raceway.
Yes, Greg Murphy did sweep the first championship round here back in 2001 and 2005 (as well as at the non-championship round in 1996), but it's never happened any other year at Pukekohe.
In fact, the last time anyone even managed to win two races in a row was 12 years ago in 2007 when Garth Tander won the first two races of the weekend. A Scott McLaughlin clean sweep, therefore, should not be the expectation if the history books are anything to go by.
Not Ford's happiest hunting ground
And this is the other thing to consider if you're plotting a Ford Mustang whitewash.
Pukekohe has long been considered a Holden circuit, with the likes of Murphy, Tander, Mark Skaife, Jason Bright, Jamie Whincup and more enjoying stints of regular New Zealand success while driving Holdens.
Since Pukekohe returned to the Supercars calendar in 2013, Ford has won just six races to Holden's 13. Go all the way back to year one, and things blow out to a total of 27 wins to Holden and seven to Ford. Ouch.
The Mustang should be competitive at Pukekohe. The final corner and the first corner in particular should suit its stability-based love of high-load corners and its ability to get on the power nice and early.
The Holdens will be aiming to pull things back somewhat, given that they will debut a newly tweaked aero package this weekend that features an extended front under-tray and Gurney flaps on the end plates of the rear wing.
And the Nissans? They too got a bit of an aero tweak recently. André Heimgartner should be somewhere in the mix.
Note the young blood
Two drivers in the Supercars Championship — Macauley Jones and Garry Jacobson — are new to Pukekohe Raceway. Although both have technically driven here before.
Just last week, Jones was at the venue having a steer in a V8-powered Toyota Camry from the BNT V8s. Jacobson meanwhile raced at Pukekohe during the V8 SuperTourer era as a co-driver to Geoff Emery.
On the age-based flip-side, this year will also mark the first year where nobody from the first points-paying 2001 even will be on the grid following the departure of Craig Lowndes and Garth Tander.
As we mentioned before, the PIRTEK Enduro Cup is just around the corner.
Pukekohe's Supercars event has traditionally happened following the endurance season, giving it an already inflated sense of significance. But this new September position (which it will only have for 2019 — next year the event moves back to April) feels like a raising of the stakes.
For the first time in the Supercars era, the Bathurst 1000 is set to take place before the Sandown 500. It's the very next round after this one. The 500 normally functions as a soft form guide for the 1000 — expect that role to now shift to Pukekohe.
When it rains it pours
It's somewhat natural that the New Zealand leg of the Supercars Championship has always been renowned for delivering unpredictable weather. Hell, the very first official Supercars race at Pukekohe was so wet that it was eventually red flagged.
While using Pukekohe as a form guide for Bathurst sounds more ridiculous the more you think about it, the two circuits do share one uncanny similarity — they tend to have a mind of their own when it comes to local weather systems. One second it'll be beautiful blue skies, the next it's raining cats and dogs.
Some rain is expected to hit the track tomorrow afternoon, possibly overlapping with the opening Supercars race. Should be fun.
Shunts and safety cars
Pukekohe is one of those simple, white-knuckle race tracks that drivers enjoy. The bumps on the front straight, the lack of run-off, the high speed and high commitment involved from Holden Hairpin to 'Castrol'.
But, as is often the case with those kinds of tracks, the mystique also means quite a lot of crashes occur. Think about Jason Richards' spectacular rollover in 2003, or the huge shunt on the front straight with Craig Baird and Paul Dumbrell in 2005. In more recent times there was Craig Lowndes' tyre blow-out on the front straight in 2015, and Fabian Coulthard's back-to-back smashes at the kink leading into the last corner.
It's no surprise with all these shunts that Pukekohe also tends to attract safety cars. In the last 27 races at the venue, the safety car has been summoned in 20 of them at least once.
Diving deeper, Pukekohe also has a knack for teammate-on-teammate violence. This goes quite some ways back.
In 2002 you had Paul Radisich and Steve Johnson crash into each other in their Dick Johnson Racing Ford AU Falcons. Four years later Murphy and Cameron McConville did it in their Supercheap Auto Holdens. In 2016 Whincup and van Gisbergen came to blows at the hairpin.
Some may even remember the verbal that went down in pit-lane between Ford Performance Racing teammates Mark Winterbottom and Alex Davison in 2013. And hey, we could go even further and talk about how Andrew Jones and Brad Jones got into each other in 2005, sending Brad sliding through the grass at the last corner, into the tyres, and onto his roof in an exchange of nephew-ly love.
Part of the reason why Pukekohe is a magnet for crashes is because it's a tight track with minimal genuine options for passing. Really, the main opportunities are at the end of the back straight, at the hairpin, and maybe on the inside of turn one if your rival has had a bad run over the hill.
But, Pukekohe is also a track that forces plenty of unforced errors through the way bumps and kerbs can unsettle the cars. What that makes for is a track that requires a lot of confidence and spurs on edge-of-your-seat moments.
We've seen this over the last three years, where the battles for the win were between championship contenders and paint was frequently swapped. The side-by-side moments at the last corner (illustrated best by van Gisbergen and McLaughlin above) are particularly nail-biting.
A numbers game
We can't not talk about what might be a big, momentous weekend for Scott McLaughlin. He hasn't quite gathered an insurmountable championship lead yet (the endurance season is yet to come, and anything can happen there), but he might knock off two significant records this weekend on what is his 100th round start in Supercars.
Sitting on 16 wins in the season, he's tied for the Supercars record of most wins in a season, as well as Penske's global record for most wins in a season. Given the longevity of both existing records, it would be testament to McLaughlin's infallible pace and consistency to knock off the two birds with one stone.
And in particular to do it in New Zealand. Home soil, and where he got his first Supercars win some six years ago as a pimply 19-year-old.
The Supercars hit the track for the first time at 12.05pm today for first practice, with qualifying to kick off tomorrow at 1.55pm and race 23 to follow at 4.10pm.