The five co-drivers to watch for at this weekend's Sandown 500
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It's Supercars enduro time!
This is the most exciting bit of the annual touring-car calendar, and not just because of the retro-round status. Apart from these next three events representing three of the most challenging and fascinating of the season, they also represent a clear opportunity for some of the 'lesser' teams in the series to cause upsets, as unforced errors creep in among the leaders. This weekend's Sandown 500 is pretty good for such things, with last year's race being won by the (at the time) hapless Holden Racing Team.
A big piece of the puzzle to success is the co-driver in each car. This weekend represents their first enduro hit-out, and in some cases represents their first race of the year period. Here are the five top names to keep tabs on as the weekend unfolds.
Photo / Matt Campbell, Digital Realism
Few drivers on the co-driver grid are under more pressure to perform than young Matt Campbell.
The 22-year-old is paired with defending series champion and defending PIRTEK Enduro Cup champion Shane van Gisbergen, and enters Sandown with just four previous Supercars starts to his name (having only debuted as a co-driver last year with Todd Kelly).
But, Campbell is the real deal. The former Carrera Cup Australia champ is currently taking Europe by storm in his debut season in Supercup Porsche competition, and all of the Red Bull Holden Racing Team's build-up reports have said that he's shown great speed and confidence in testing. Not bad for someone who hasn't raced a Supercar since last November, and someone who hasn't raced in Australia since February.
He'll be quick, of that there's little doubt. He just needs to stay cool and stay out of trouble.
Photo / Simon Chapman
While most of the spotlight from this side of the Tasman will be shining bright on van Gisbergen, Scott McLaughlin, and Fabian Coulthard, there is a growing amount of hype surrounding GT ace Richie Stanaway.
The Kiwi was a revelation at last year's event, as perhaps the only driver in the field who looked natural and fast with slick tyres during a wet phase of the race. Piloting Super Black Racing's Ford Falcon FG-X with Chris Pither, he briefly held the race lead until the team faded. But, the drive was enough to get tongues wagging. And when Stanaway pledged earlier this year that he wanted to secure a full-time seat in the series, the hype train started to chugalug out of the station.
In preparation for the enduro cup, Stanaway put down a stellar one-off performance in the Super2 Development Series at Sydney Motorsport Park, winning one of the category's races and staying at the pointy end of the grid all weekend.
Here is a driver towards at the top of his game, who has the confidence to take risks and make passes that some of the 'older' and more reserved co-drivers on the grid will never touch. If their car is good in early testing, Stanaway, lead driver Cameron Waters, and their Monster Energy Ford could be Prodrive's best hope.
Photo / Getty Images
If there's anyone under similar pressure to Campbell, it'll be this guy.
The Red Bull mob poached the former DTM regular last year and paired him with van Gisbergen to good effect. At the time people questioned the move, saying that Premat might be rusty having not raced in anything since he left the Supercars Championship at the end of 2013. But, he proved them wrong, and ultimately helped van Gisbergen win the title.
Earlier this year, Premat was poached once again, and he'll now join his former teammate and co-driver Scott McLaughlin at Shell V-Power Racing. And those questions being asked of him last year are back; can he be quick enough despite being on the sidelines since November?
It doesn't help matters that he's hopping into the championship leader's car either. But, if last year was anything to go by, he will be one of the best out there.
Photo / Garry Rogers Motorsport, Daniel Kalisz
Let's just take a moment to appreciate everything in the photo above. The retro livery, the retro pose, the retro glasses, and perhaps the most glorious mullet you'll see this afternoon.
Young James Golding endured a tough 2016 endurance campaign — a campaign kicked off by a monster crash at last year's Sandown 500 that many thought to be his fault. His woes were then compounded a few months later when Garry Rogers' set of musical chairs stopped and saw him out of a Super2 drive.
To soften the blow, the team reaffirmed their faith in his abilities and confirmed very early on that he would be paired with reigning Sandown champion Garth Tander in the team's lead car. And though he's spent most of the year in the team's garage as one of their top shelf mechanics, Golding still showed that he knows how to steer a Supercar through two very promising wildcard performances at Winton Raceway and Queensland Raceway (recording the strongest finish of any of the wildcard racers at Winton; a 16th).
Out of the car he's shy and restrained, in the car he can get a bit wild, and that makes him an exciting prospect. Him and Garth are one of the true dark horses.
Photo / Cooldrive Racing, Daniel Kalisz
After finishing third in last year's Super2 Championship chase through consistency and quiet achievement, 21-year-old Todd Hazelwood has attacked this year's season with both hands and an aggressive edge that we have never seen from him in Supercars before.
And that pace has translated nicely to the test sessions he's had in Brad Jones Racing's third car, which he will share with regular pilot Tim Blanchard. Hazelwood has been a regular fixture in the Supercars Championship co-driver test sessions dotted throughout the season, and his name has always popped up towards the top of the timesheets.
This car isn't expected to fight for victory, but nonetheless it will be more than worth tracking the pace and lap-times of Hazelwood throughout the race weekend. His short-term reward could be a top 10, his long-term reward could be a full-time seat in Supercars.