And then there were two. Six-time title winner Jamie Whincup has the odds stacked against him in his attempt to win his 7th title. Shane Van Gisbergen in the other Red Bull Racing Australia Commodore holds a 191-point lead over Whincup. We head to the final event at Sydney Olympic Park with 300 points up for grabs across the weekend.
Van Gisbergen will likely be champion, but there’s plenty of jostling for positions elsewhere in the championship that decides pit-lane position for 2017. There’s lots to play for, and two races to make it happen.
Let’s hope for a good weekend of racing in our final fling for 2016.
TRIPLE EIGHT RACE ENGINEERING:
Whincup continued his hot form at Pukekohe, but the collision with Van Gisbergen in race three cost him a realistic shot at the title.
He had three front row starts, but 25th in race three dented his points haul. Two wins and a second wasn’t enough to trim the points gap and now he has a 191-point deficit to recover. Unless SVG does not finish a race in Sydney, a Whincup championship isn’t going to happen.
Whincup has hot form in Sydney, winning four of the last six races and finishing on the podium in five of them. You’d be game to bet against him making the podium again at Sydney Olympic Park.
Shane Van Gisbergen heads into Sydney Olympic Park with a comfortable championship lead. He had a great weekend at NZ and took home the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy. SVG started all four races on the front row and never finished off the podium. His form really solidified in the second half of the season, and he has only had one finish outside the top 10 since Darwin. Ominous form indeed!
Looking forward to Sydney Olympic Park, SVG has to finish race one to seal Whincup out of mathematical contention. Whincup must remain at least 150pts or more behind for Shane to secure the title on Saturday.
Shane has reasonable form at Sydney Olympic Park, with four podiums out of the last six races at the venue. Shane won’t change his style to win the title and will be at maximum attack in the Sydney Olympic Park precinct.
Craig Lowndes has shown the least consistency of the T8 trio this season. While he remains third in the title, Scott McLaughlin remains in position to take third from Lowndes and deny a Triple 8 1-2-3 in the driver’s championship. He had an average weekend in New Zealand by his standards, and did not grace the podium once. Sunday was better than Saturday for the Vortex pilot, but he still remains vulnerable to McLaughlin. Looking forward to Sydney Olympic Park, Lowndes had a shocker last year at the circuit. He missed the top ten in all three races.
While it would be a shock to see that happen again, the loss of Ludo Lacroix and iffy qualifying speed at NZ makes me wonder about this car for Homebush.
Championship: Whincup 2nd, Van Gisbergen 1st, Lowndes 3rd.
PRODRIVE RACING AUSTRALIA:
Mark Winterbottom had an upturn in form at Pukekohe after what has been a tough season for the defending series champion. He qualified and finished in the top 6 in all four races, with a win in the third race being a real boon for the PRA pilot. He has shown when the car is good, that he can pull a result. I’ve been a little mystified to the lack of form PRA has shown in 2016, based on their successful 2015 season, however they and GRM have really been the best of the rest.
Looking forward to Sydney Olympic Park, Winterbottom had three top five placings last year on his champion-winning weekend.
This year, I’m not sure what to expect, but Winterbottom should qualify and finish in the top ten. He’s a podium chance, but I feel the McLaughlin Volvo has an edge in race pace to take it to the T8 cars.
Winterbottom has finished in the top 5 of the championship every year since 2006. This year he is sixth coming into the final round. Can he retain his top 5 streak?
Chaz Mostert’s season had a few more highs and lows added to it during the New Zealand round. He came away with three top six finishes from Pukekohe, which included a 3rd placing. A poor finish in race one hindered his chance of stealing 6th in the championship from teammate Winterbottom. Mostert has turned around what has been a tough season for the young gun, but if he continues winless at Sydney, it will be hard to mark this year as a pass. I’m sure his injuries last year have contributed, but he has missed too many opportunities from good starting positions to log a win. He did not compete at Sydney Olympic Park last year following his Bathurst crash, but in 2014 he had one top five finish from the three races. I suggest Mostert will be a top 10 lock, but needs to continue to build his race pace to ensure he remains closer to the podium.
Cam Waters gave the mid-pack plenty of company in NZ. While he had two solid 11th placings in qualifying, the best race finish he could manage was 12th in race one. He’s had only one top ten finish in his last 10 races, which is a concern. Looking forward to Sydney Olympic Park, Waters has not raced in the main game at the circuit. In last year’s development series, he recorded a best finish of second in the two races held. I have my doubts about whether Waters’ belongs in the car he has under him. I think he would have been better served with a less high profile team to learn the ropes of the main game before moving to a prime PRA seat. A pair of top 15 results would be a good result for Cam in Sydney.
Chris Pither returns to Sydney Olympic Park looking to impress with doubts over his place in the #111 Falcon. He had a shocker in Pukekohe and was qualifying and finishing in the 20s. His comments after the event raised eyebrows about whether Super Black would continue as a customer team of PRA in 2017. Last year, Pither had a best finish of 18th in the three races at SOP. Looking forward, I can’t see him improving much on that this weekend at Homebush.
Championship: Winterbottom 6th Mostert 7th, Waters 17th, Pither 19th.
HOLDEN RACING TEAM:
The first race and qualifying session was as good as it got for HRT’s Garth Tander as the team struggled for consistent race pace again.
While he finished in the top 10 in all four races, he remained some gap to the leading T8 and PRA car. Sydney Olympic Park this year marks the end of Tander’s time with the red squad ten years after his first drive for the team (Sandown 500, 2006). While his first two drives with HRT were due to a team swap for the enduros, he joined the red barons full time in 2008. Last year at SOP, Tander had a horror run and couldn’t make the ten in any of the three races. I don’t expect a repeat of that this year and he will be keen to go out on a high to prove the doubters wrong. I would be massively surprised if he is not on the grid full time in 2017, but stranger things have happened.
I said in my NZ column that… “I’d look towards GT first…” over Courtney and I was correct. GT beat him home in all four races at Pukekohe, and James never looked happy with the car or its pace. He has fond memories of the Sydney Olympic Park circuit as he collected his sole championship win at the track in 2010. Things have changed a lot since then for James however, and he hasn’t had a sniff of the title since. James has a reasonable record at SOP with two 4ths last year.
I can’t see him winning the team battle against Tander this weekend, but I could be wrong.
Championship: Courtney: 12th, Tander 10th.
GARRY ROGERS MOTORSPORT:
Scott McLaughlin would be happy with two podiums in his homeland of New Zealand, but it wasn’t enough to take 3rd place in the title race.
McLaughlin is trying to take 3rd place off Craig Lowndes and narrowed the gap to 21 points heading into Sydney Olympic Park. This will be Scott’s last weekend with Garry Rogers Motorsport before he heads to DJR Team Penske for 2017. Scott had a best finish of 5th last year in the three races, and I’d suggest he is a good chance to better that this weekend. Garry will be keen to send him off in style, so don’t be surprised to see the team up to some antics this weekend.
James Moffat’s 2016 season has to be one to forget. He remains 22nd in the championship despite three top 15’s in Pukekohe. He has logged only 5 top tens this season, whereas McLaughlin has 20.
While he was new to the team in 2016, there will be no such excuses for 2017. I have my doubts about whether he is ready to lead the team after Scott’s departure to DJRTP, but I hope he does succeed. He has shown flashes of speed at times, but a lack of consistency and issues have seen him struggle to climb the championship standings. Last year at Sydney Olympic Park, Moffat had a horror weekend in his final round for NISMO. His best finish was 16th in the final race on Sunday. Moffat must beat this to give him and the team confidence heading into an uncertain 2017.
Championship: McLaughlin 4th, Moffat 21st.
DJR TEAM PENSKE:
Fabian Coulthard remains a chance after an inconsistent season to hold 10th in the championship after Sydney. He is just 12 points behind Garth Tander who currently holds 10th, however he is just 15 points ahead of HRT’s other driver, James Courtney who sits 12th. Coulthard had a solid weekend in New Zealand and DJRTP would be pleased with the lift in form. He qualified and finished inside the top 10 in 3 of the four qualifying and race sessions across the weekend, which gave him a points boost. He will be hoping to transfer the form into the final round at Sydney Olympic Park. Last year Coulthard had two 10th placings at SOP, and should be able to manage similar results this weekend.
Scott Pye had a solid weekend in New Zealand and looks set to carry that form into Sydney. He had a front row start and converted it into a podium that was good to see. Scott managed to finish with a worst of 11th across the weekend with his other results top 10 finishes.
He will want to finish his DJRTP stint on a high, especially since they benched him for their last test day prior to the SOP season finale.
He had a reasonable event last year at Homebush and recorded two 9ths. I believe Scott can continue on his recent run of form and be around the back end of the top 10 if everything goes to plan.
Championship: Coulthard 11th, Pye 15th.
BRAD JONES RACING:
Tim Slade has had a shocking run after the speed they showed at Sandown and Bathurst. He barely got the car out of the 20s all weekend, which was a real shame. I have really been impressed with Slade this year and I’m sure he and the BJR crew wish to recapture some of their earlier form in the season finale. His best finish of 16th across the four races, which is uncharacteristic for results so far this season. Last year at Sydney Olympic Park, Slade had a best finish of 6th, before the sticky throttle put him in the fence in the final race last season. The form or lack thereof, they showed at NZ and GC concerns me, but I’d expect Slade to be in the top 15 all weekend, if not better.
Jason Bright’s New Zealand round was one to forget after the car crunching crash with Chris Pither. He enters his final round with the BJR squad, ending a partnership which begun in 2010. He is on the lookout for a full-time drive in 2017. Last year he had a shock 3rd place in the first race at Sydney Olympic Park. It declined significantly in the other two races for him. After his results this season, I can’t see him getting into the ten. He will be mid pack at best.
Tim Blanchard had another average weekend in the #21 Cooldrive Commodore. He had a best finish of 18th across all four races in New Zealand, and its hard not to expect the same going into Sydney Olympic Park. He had a 14th last year in the final race, but I find it difficult to see how he could replicate it based on current form.
Championship: Slade 9th, Bright 16th, Blanchard 23rd.
Rick Kelly had two top 10 finishes in New Zealand, which was a return to form after a rough trot for the 2006 title winner. He remains 13th in the title and would have hoped for a lot more than what he has achieved this season. Last year at Sydney Olympic Park, he had three top tens with a podium in the final race of the season. While the upturn in form was welcomed, I can’t envisage how Rick could emulate his podium this year.
Caruso has been Nissan’s main man this season and showed that again at Pukekohe. He had a weekend around 10th and didn’t seem to be able to make much ground over the races. He was able to record an 8th last season at Sydney Motorsport Park and for me he remains Nissan’s #1 threat. It would take a game person to advocate a podium for the #23 Nissan, but if its wet and some of the main contenders are down the order, place your bets here.
Todd Kelly had an interesting weekend in Pukekohe with teammate Dale Wood providing friendly fire. It spilled into interviews with Wood throwing Todd under the bus. While it was announced after that Simona was replacing Wood for 2017, the writing was on the wall long before he crashed into Todd. Todd remains 14th in the championship, which he has held since Sydney Motorsport Park. Last year at Homebush, Todd had a best finish of 11th. He is capable of this again if the cards fall his way.
Dale Wood hasn’t fired a shot since his 7th place on the Gold Coast in race one. He remained at the back for the majority of qualifying and races in New Zealand. Dale ran into team boss Todd Kelly, which didn’t prove to be a wise career move. Nissan announced that he would not be with them for season 2017 the week after. He had two top 15 finishes last year at Sydney Olympic Park, and this year he will aim to replicate this. Dale has pedigree with a Dunlop Series championship win and is quite humorous, but hasn’t been able to pull enough results in the main game. If he’s not with LDM or Erebus, It is hard seeing Wood staying in the main game next year.
Championship: Caruso 8th, R Kelly 13th, T Kelly 14th, Wood 22nd
David Reynolds had a mixed weekend of results in New Zealand with an 8th place race finish the highlight. He plonked the #9 Penrite Commodore 10th in the second qualifying session, but was unable to replicate that form in the 2 sessions after. Last year at Sydney Olympic Park, Reynolds had three top ten finishes, including a 2nd in the second Saturday race. The difference in performance between the Erebus ex WR Commodore and the PRA Falcon he had last year means there is little chance of replicating last year’s trifecta of podiums. I’m hopeful he can snag at least one top 10 finish across the weekend and he can build Erebus around him in 2017.
Shae Davies won’t return to Erebus full time next year if you read the tea leaves like I do. By the time this is published, it will probably be announced anyway. Shae had another tough weekend in New Zealand following up from GC debacle. He qualified in the 20s and finished there, unable to make much of an impact or push forward. Looking forward to Sydney Olympic Park, he has not raced in the main game at the circuit before. Last season, he recorded a best finish of 7th in the development series races. I can’t see him moving that far away from the back in Sydney.
Championship: Reynolds 18th, Davies 41st
LUCAS DUMBRELL MOTORSPORT:
Nick Percat had a great result for the first qualifying and race in New Zealand, but his weekend ran out of steam as the weekend went on. He had a best finish of 14th and in the other races was around 20th. Sydney Olympic Park marks Percat’s last race for LDM before he joins Brad Jones Racing for 2017. Last year Percat did not race at Homebush due to foot and blood issues. His best result when he last competed at the circuit was an 11th in 2014. Percat could spring a surprise, but I’d expect nothing better than 15th.
Andre Heimgartner had a weekend of the low 20s in New Zealand in both qualifying and race modes. He never got on top of the car all weekend and Percat seemed to have the edge all weekend. I believe Andre should get a second season at LDM however. Looking forward to Sydney Olympic Park, Heimgartner did not race at SOP last season as Chris Pither replaced him for the final rounds. Heimgartner should aim to shadow Percat for the weekend, but anything better than 20th will be a good result.
Championship: Percat 21st, Heimgartner 25th.
In my NZ preview for the #19 STIX Commodore, I said “I’d back this car in to be amongst the top 10 if they can get the set-up nailed…”
It seems they did with three top 10 qualifying and race results in the land of the long white cloud. Davison holds onto 5th in the title race, which is a solid foundation his first season with the team. Last year at Sydney Olympic Park, Davison couldn’t make the ten in any of the three races however hovered in the low teens. His Tekno car is better than the Erebus car he had last season and I expect his results to show that.
Davison is one to watch if they can jump the #888 Vortex car for pit lane priority.
Championship: Davison 5th.
CHARLIE SCHWERKOLT RACING:
Lee Holdsworth had a mid-pack weekend in New Zealand and will be looking to push forward at the final round in Sydney. He had a best finish of 14th in NZ, and given the right circumstances, could do better in Sydney. He had two top 10 finishes last year at Sydney Olympic Park, with a best of 7th. Parking the peepers towards this year’s event, I’d like to see 12th or better to see some progress going into next season.
Championship: Holdsworth: 24th.