Despite only three contenders left in the title chase, there was no let up for any of the drivers with action throughout the pack as the picturesque Phillip Island circuit played host to the penultimate round of the V8 Supercars championship. And after three tense encounters the title rivalry remains very much alive with the stage set for a thrilling season finale at Homebush.
For race one, it was the in-form, but outgoing champion Jamie Whincup who found pace to put his car on pole position with young gun Scott McLaughlin alongside him in the Volvo. Next up, and keeping the pressure on right from the start, the top three in the championship hunt Craig Lowndes, David Reynolds and Mark Winterbottom made up the top five, while Shane van Gisbergen, James Courtney, Scott Pye, and the Nissan duo of James Moffat and Rick Kelly completed the top ten.
Qualifying for race two saw McLaughlin and Whincup swap positions. While Whincup seemed to be pushing harder than McLaughlin, going off at Lukey Heights on his first lap, Mclaughlin was able to find a bit more from his car to grab another career pole. Lowndes claimed another third place but again it was the three title contenders who filled the top five with Winterbottom alongside the Red Bull on the second row, with row three an all-Ford affair with Reynolds getting the better of the in-form Pye. Michael Caruso and Rick Kelly made the fourth row the Nissan’s, while Courtney, Fabian Coulthard, van Gisbergen and Moffat rounded out the ten.
While Whincup and McLaughlin lined up on the front row for the first race of the weekend, it was Lowndes who got the perfect start flying past them both, and into turn one ahead of his Red Bull team-mate. Behind Reynolds and van Gisbergen went side-by-side around the first sweeper, ending up with the Kiwi in the grass. Having had a new engine fitted in the two-hour gap between qualifying and the opening race after a misfire, Winterbottom initially lost ground dropping from fifth to eighth, not wanting to take any risks when faced with the situation ahead. Out front, the Red Bull racers stretched a gap to the pack while being tailed by McLaughlin in the Volvo. On the second lap, van Gisbergen returned serve, spinning Reynolds after bumping the Ford driver on approach to the Hayshed. The spin dropped Reynolds to the back of the pack with a post-race investigation declared to review the incident which resulted in van Gisbergen penalised 25 points.
Whincup narrowed the gap to Lowndes over the closing laps, but he obeyed team orders, backing away on the last lap and giving Lowndes the win. McLaughlin grabbed another podium while van Gisbergen took fourth. After overtaking Winterbottom on the first lap Moffat and Courtney finished fifth and sixth respectively with Winterbottom, Tander, Waters and Slade completing the ten. Having finished last after his clash with van Gisbergen, Reynolds’ title hopes were all but over.
For the last race of the day, Whincup got the jump off the line and beat the pack into turn one. His start was later subject to investigation as he had crept in his box before the lights went out. As it turned out, he had stopped the car at the right moment and got a perfect start, almost as good as his team-mate’s in race one.
While race one had been full of incidents, the mid-pack madness was almost non-existent throughout the second race as a majority of the drivers decided to conserve their tyres for the Sunday race. McLaughlin was close to Whincup but unable to apply pressure, while there was daylight between Lowndes in third and Winterbottom in fourth. Cam Waters in for the injured Chaz Mostert, received yet more warm welcomes from the category, namely from Jason Bright who roughed up the development series leader at the MG hairpin.
An incident free race meant that the field remained relatively unchanged until the flag where Whincup secured his 95th career victory. McLaughlin’s podium finish meant that for the first time in 2015, he’d taken two podium finishes in the same event. Lowndes took a small chunk out of Winterbottom’s championship lead, finishing one place ahead of the championship leader in third, while Reynolds slipped further back in the points standings following Winterbottom home to fifth place. Pye, Caruso, Rick Kelly, van Gisbergen and Courtney made up the remainder of the top ten.
For the final race of the weekend, the grid couldn’t have been scripted better. After only one pole position previously this year, Winterbottom out-qualified Lowndes to secure Prodrive’s 12th pole of the year. McLaughlin managed third after setting the pace early in the session, Whincup lined up in fourth beside the Kiwi. Pye was up next in fifth with the Nissans of Caruso and Rick Kelly lining up sixth and seventh. Race one foes Reynolds and van Gisbergen qualified alongside each other in eighth and ninth with Todd Kelly the last in the top ten.
The final two-hundred kilometre race of the year started with a drag race to the first corner between Winterbottom and Lowndes with the series leader getting the better jump and leading the first lap. McLaughlin then got past Lowndes, splitting the two championship contenders. In typical Sunday racing fashion, the mid-pack was full of battles and rub-ups on the opening lap. At the Southern Loop, contact between Dale Wood and Lee Holdsworth took the Walkinshaw Performance driver out of the race, making it a weekend of uncertainty for those at Charlie Schwerkolt Racing, after the news the team will split from Walkinshaw Racing at the end of the current season. Cam Waters was also caught up in the first lap stupidity, on the inside of Rick Kelly at the Hayshed when they made contact, giving the rookie’s Falcon a puncture.
A number of cars came in on the first lap, taking different strategies for the race to avoid incidents in the pit lane due to the possibility of a safety car. McLaughlin took the lead at the first round of pit stops, entering the lane two laps before Winterbottom and Lowndes. Unfortunately for Winterbottom he then dropped behind Lowndes in the second pit cycle. On pit exit, Lowndes beat McLaughlin to turn one, getting vital track position. While McLaughlin remained close, Lowndes pulled away to a comfortable lead. Winterbottom was unable to reel in the top two and was quickly hunted down by Whincup who had managed to close in on his former adversary at the rate of over half a second per lap. On the final lap, Winterbottom left the door open at MG, tempting Whincup into a dive down the inside. With the gap closing Whincup ended up with two wheels on the grass, but made the bold move stick to take third place. At the front, Lowndes took the race victory, his 11th career win at the coastal circuit while McLaughlin added another trophy to his collection. Todd and Rick Kelly brought their Nissans home in fifth and sixth, while van Gisbergen, Moffat, Tander and Reynolds rounded out the top ten. Finishing in tenth place dropped Reynolds out of championship contention, falling over three-hundred points behind Winterbottom.
WD-40 Phillip Island Super Sprint Winners and Losers
The penultimate round of series was built up as the weekend that Winterbottom could have secured his first championship yet Lowndes and his Red Bull Racing team proved that they are the best in the business. While Reynolds was taken out of contention for the championship trophy, Whincup showed that even if you’re not in the hunt, you can still fight at the front.
- Craig Lowndes did the best he could to reel in Winterbottom’s championship lead, beating the series leader in each race of the weekend. Two wins, especially in the all-important Sunday race, means that he has closed the points gap down to just one hundred and seventy-nine. Even though he will need Winterbottom to have horrible bad luck in the final two races of the weekend, history has showed that anything can happen around the streets of Sydney.
- Jamie Whincup may not be able to defend his championship crown but he has shown that his mid-season misfortune hasn’t slowed him down, notching up three podiums including one victory at Phillip Island. This shows that he and his team are on track for a stellar 2016, though the year isn’t over yet. While he won’t notch up his century of wins this year, it won’t be too long into next season until he joins his team-mate in the centurion club.
- Scott McLaughlin has had a year to forget but his form at the season’s flowing circuits bodes well for the future of his career and Garry Rogers Motorsport. In only his third season, the Kiwi has shown maturity of drivers with years more experience than him. His raw speed and talent were on show over the weekend, giving him confidence going to the track where he secured his 2012 development series title and debut solo drive.
- Lee Holdsworth had a weekend to forget after finishing 16th, 18th and scoring a DNF over the three races. This, coupled with the news that Charlie Schwerkolt will move on from Walkinshaw Racing, means that his future in the series is uncertain. Being caught in the mid-pack didn’t help his cause and was a contributing factor as to why he was involved in the final race incident. No pace, no drive and no hope sum up Leethal’s weekend.
- Brad Jones Racing last year showed that Phillip Island is the team’s bogey track and reconfirmed that theory after a dismal outing over the weekend. In the three races, two 11th place finishes from Coulthard were the best results the team could muster. The team is losing the Kiwi to DJR next year while Bright remains the ailing veteran of the team and Wood departs for Nissan. Once the team that punched above its weight, BJR is now struggling for top ten results consistently.
- Mark Winterbottom may still have the championship lead but questions over his ability to seal the deal are growing louder. While his early season pace made many think he would have the title wrapped up by now, he’s slipped from having a comfortable lead to defending his lead going into the finale around the streets of his hometown. Unable to convert his pole position to a win as well as qualifying in a compromised position this weekend showed that he’s not in a risk taking mentality. Without Chaz Mostert by his side Winterbottom seems to be struggling at the time of year where that can have dramatic consequences.
The season finale will begin on 4 December in two weeks’ time around the Homebush streets. Will we see a new champion or one that’s been waiting for sixteen years to claim another title?