There are two events to go, NZ and Sydney Olympic Park. The championship is mathematically still open to more than the Red Bull duo, but it would take a miracle for anyone without the #97 or #88 on the window to take the trophy. We head to Pukekohe Park Raceway this weekend for the penultimate round of the championship, and anything can and will happen.
TRIPLE EIGHT RACE ENGINEERING:
I said in my GC 600 preview that Whincup and Dumbrell “will need to stay ahead of the #97 in the stops to avoid double stacking, but if they bring half the pace they had at Bathurst, they’ll be hard to catch…”
It appeared that #97 had the edge over this pairing, but he and Paul Dumbrell were always in the front bunch at Surfers. They were able to win in the Sunday race after finishing third on Saturday.
Whincup banked valuable championship points and has only missed the podium at three events this season (Winton, Sandown, Bathurst). Those last two were costly for his championship, however he remains within striking distance of Van Gisbergen. He and Dumbrell were solid throughout the enduros, however bad luck and decision-making cost them dearly. Whincup was in hot form last year at Pukekohe with two wins and a 2nd. Whilst there are four races for this year’s event in NZ, Whincup will be among the contenders and will take the championship fight to Sydney.
Hands up all of you Alex Premat doubters! What a superb effort shown through Sandown, Bathurst and GC by the Frenchman. Despite the penalty in race one at GC, he has been near faultless. A class act despite the doubters when he was signed. Now then, lets move on.
Shane Van Gisbergen is driving sublimely this season. His car control and relentless pace at times is staggering. His work over the enduro season paired with Alex Premat has been championship-winning material. They finished no lower than 2nd in the 3 events, which shows you how well it went. I have very impressed with Shane this year and how he has gelled with the RBRA squad. Last year in NZ, Shane finished with 3 top 10s, but with more consistent qualifying efforts this season I expect him to better it. He has only qualified outside the top 10 this season (both at Winton), so he will be the one to beat alongside the #88. I’d expect SVG to lift in front of his home crowd, but Whincup won’t make it easy for him.
The 2016 enduro season was unkind to the #888 Vortex car and leaves Lowndes vulnerable in third in the championship from the flying Kiwi, Scott McLaughlin. I said in my GC preview that “….To salvage a result at the GC would be vital for Lowndes to hold onto 3rd in the championship…” Lowndes and teammate Richards secured 6th and 4th at the GC, which was the pair’s two best results of the enduro campaign. I wouldn’t be a real hurry to re-sign Richards for 2017. While he is a reasonably safe pair of hands, he didn’t have the pace of many of the other co-drivers. I’d review this heavily before locking it in again.
Lowndes takes the car back full time for Pukekohe and had a 2nd, 4th, and a DNF last year due to a tyre failure. It’s hard to see Lowndes beating the other T8 cars home, but it would be very interesting to see what Roland and Ludo decide if this car splits the Bulls.
Championship: Whincup 2nd, Van Gisbergen 1st, Lowndes 3rd.
PRODRIVE RACING AUSTRALIA:
Mark Winterbottom will not have the #1 on the window of the PRA Falcon next year, but the GC was the best pace we’ve seen in a long time from last year’s champion. Winterbottom qualified in the top 10 twice, and used an alternate strategy in the Saturday that paid solid dividends with a 4th place. He and Canto trucked along well in the Sunday race to record a 5th place. After a disaster enduro campaign, it was some sugar for the PRA crew. Looking forward to NZ, he didn’t finish on the podium at Pukekohe last year and the lack of pace this season cools my enthusiasm for Winterbottom. Time till tell if GC was a blip on the radar of the sign of a turnaround in pace for the #1 Falcon.
I’d wait till after race one to see where this car is for the weekend.
Chaz Mostert and Steve Owen were solid across the enduros, but didn’t get the results of their pace at times. I was slightly disappointed in this pairing’s results over this period, but Steve Owen proved a good, reliable pair of hands alongside the speedy Mostert. The GC weekend came and went with two top 10 qualifying efforts and a 9th and 6th place finish. Mostert didn’t race in NZ last year due to his Bathurst crash, but had two thirds in the four races in 2014. Mostert looks to be the pacier of the two PRA stars, but I’d like to see race one, as per Frosty to see if PRA have their race pace issues sorted.
Cam Waters and Jack LeBrocq ended their enduro campaign with a DNF and a 14th at the Surfers Paradise circuit. LeBrocq did his future no harm across these three events and the Bathurst top 5 also raised eyebrows. Waters last year raced in the #6 replacing the injured Chaz Mostert. He did a reasonable job, with a best finish of 12th in race two.
I would find it hard to recommend Waters’ matching that this year given the lack of pace this season compared to last with the PRA Falcons.
Chris Pither and Richie Stanaway were one of the pairings to watch after Sandown, but it never eventuated for them after Richie’s masterful run in Melbourne. They finished 10th in the Saturday race and after an incident with the #22 on the Sunday, they were a DNF. Mark Skaife reiterated on Inside Supercars after the GC600 event that Stanaway would be in high demand for future endurance drives. Looking forward to NZ, a home track for Pither, It’s hard to see anything better than mid pack for the #111.
Championship: Winterbottom 6th Mostert 7th, Waters 18th, Pither 19th.
HOLDEN RACING TEAM:
The crash that dominated the weekend overshadowed what was Garth Tander’s 250th round start in the main game. Tander was on for a solid top 5 before the incident with Coulthard that had a time penalty attached and a grid spot penalty the next day, which hurt their chances.
They finished in 15th on Saturday and finished 9th on Sunday. Luff fits well in the team and showed why he is one of the first picked enduro drivers. Despite a Sandown 500 win, a few results went begging for this duo, and you can’t help but think ‘what if’. Parking the peepers towards Puke, Tander had a consistent run last year at NZ, with three 10ths. He will be hoping for better this year, but qualifying will be king in these short races. See where the #2 ends up in qualy before deciding.
I said in my GC preview of Courtney and Perkins “…this pairing won last year, but it’s hard to see it happening again…” I strike again! They finished 5 laps down in the first race due to an issue, but rebounded to finish 10th in the Sunday race, albeit, 10 seconds behind 9th. Courtney has hovered around 10th in the standings for much of the year, but there are a few candidates in striking distance to take this off him. Last year in NZ, Courtney had a best finish of 6th in the three races. Courtney must assert himself over Tander before the end of the season, since they have signed him for next year and let Tander go. I think this will be an interesting battle between the teammates, but I’d look towards GT first.
Championship: Courtney: 10th, Tander 11th.
GARRY ROGERS MOTORSPORT:
Scott McLaughlin and David Wall were one of the more consistent duos across the enduros, despite the Bathurst debacle. McLaughlin qualified well and Wall did all the team asked of him across the GC weekend and they secured a 2nd and a 3rd. Scotty banked valuable points in his chase for third in the championship. The move in the Sunday race will be talked about for a long time and the banter with Jamie Whincup in the press conference was quite good. Scotty will be heading to NZ full of confidence in his performance and will be one to test the Red Bull cars at the front. Last season, he had one podium at Pukekohe, but I believe he is a better chance this year. Scotty is my driver to watch, as the home crowd will lift him. He is the best chance to upset the Red Bull stranglehold on the top step of the podium.
James Moffat’s championship position does not do him justice. He has been building some form nicely in the second half of the season but hasn’t been able to put the results on the board. He had two top ten starts at the GC, and despite a mixed strategy left them wounded behind McLaughlin, the pace was fairly evident. Despite early bashing, Golding did a good job at GC and will be better for the run. I love that GRM bloods new talent and their alumni say it all, but to put Golding in the main game full time next year would be too early in my opinion.
He and Moffat finished 5th and 12th; of which the 5th was Moffat’s best finish of the season. Last year in NZ, Moffat’s highest finish was 11th, but I think he is capable of a top 10 this year if the pace continues to build.
Championship: McLaughlin 4th, Moffat 23rd.
DJR TEAM PENSKE:
The pairing of Fabian Coulthard and Luke Youlden were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons on Saturday following a sickening crash on the main straight at the GC600. The team rebuilt the DJRTP overnight, which was a Herculean effort. They qualified better on the Sunday, and finished 15th. Considering the damage to the car Saturday, I was amazed they even made the grid for Sunday. Youlden proved a safe pair of hands in the #12, and continued his good relationship with Coulthard. Last year in NZ, Coulthard secured a best race finish of 7th. I find it hard to see him beating that marker this year across all four races, but a top 10 isn’t out of the question.
Scott Pye and Tony D’Alberto were one of the hidden cars on the GC despite the pink Hog’s Breath Café Livery. They started mid pack in both races and never really seemed on the pace or in the hunt at any stage. The clash coming out of the hairpin with a PRA Falcon raised eyebrows, but Tony D took to social media to explain it. Pye had a very solid NZ event last year with a third place in race three. I can’t see Pye replicating that this year, but a top 10 would be a good result for the 2017 Walkinshaw pilot.
Championship: Coulthard 12th, Pye 15th.
BRAD JONES RACING:
Tim Slade and Ash Walsh had been one of the ‘pacier’ combos coming into the GC600, but left perplexed after the pace eluded them for most of the weekend. Slade missed the top 10 twice in qualifying and had a best finish with Walsh of 8th in the Sunday race.
Last year at Puke, Slade had a best finish of 7th, but I’m not sure what he will serve up this year. He has really gelled at BJR this season and they had pace across the enduros, but the GC600 form worries me heading into NZ. Qualifying will determine a lot for the #14 in NZ.
Jason Bright and Andrew Jones had a miserable enduro season and were heavily outgunned by the #14 and at times, the #21. Bright qualified 19th twice in the BOC Commodore and their best finish across the weekend was a 12th in the Saturday race. After the event Bright announced he was leaving BJR after seven seasons with the team. Last year in NZ, Bright also had a torrid run and had a best finish of 18th. Looking forward to this year, it’s hard to see Bright replicating his Jason Richard’s trophy winning performance of 2013. Whilst he hinted in his BJR departure release, he will be on the grid next year, where is yet to be confirmed. I can’t see Bright cracking the top 10 at any stage in NZ.
Tim Blanchard and Macauley Jones teamed up in the Cooldrive Commodore, and after a dismal qualifying, were able to make headway through the two races in GC. They finished 14th on Saturday and 18th on Sunday, which followed on from their 10th place finish at Bathurst. Last year in New Zealand, Blanchard had a best finish of 12th in the final race. Blanchard would be pushing to beat that again this year, but I find it unlikely. A top 15 would be a good finish for Blanchard as the season heads towards a close.
Championship: Slade 8th, Bright 16th, Blanchard 23rd.
Rick Kelly and Russell Ingall’s enduro campaign would have to be one of the most disappointing of all. There was much hype put on this combo, and they never seemed to be on the pace or in the right spot.
A best finish of 10th at Sandown was as good as it got for the #15 Sengled Altima and many are wondering where has Kelly’s pace gone this year. Kelly hasn’t forgotten how to drive, but Caruso is now the main man at Nissan Motorsport Australia. Rick had an average weekend last year at Pukekohe with an 11th his best finish. Looking forward to this year, it’s hard to recommend a top 10 for this car judging on its form.
Caruso and Fiore had a solid weekend at the Gold Coast 600, without being a standout. Caruso put the Altima in the top 10 twice and they had a best finish of 9th in the Sunday race. Fiore proved to be a safe pair of hands and Caruso will be keen to have him riding shotgun next year. Looking back to last year, Caruso had two top 10 results at Pukekohe and would be keen to replicate that result this year. With four races at this year’s event, it’s easy to recommend the #23 as the Nissan to beat.
Todd Kelly and Matt Campbell were a good duo of youth and experience across the enduro campaign. Campbell did his future aspirations no disservice and was well mentored and matched by Todd and Rick. Two horrid qualifying sessions were only able to deliver one solid result, an 8th on the Saturday at the GC600. Last time on New Zealand shores, Todd Kelly had three top 20 finishes and I would expect more of the same this year.
Dale Wood and David Russell surprised on the Saturday race at the Gold Coast 600. This duo finished 7th after starting from 20th. It was a good result for Wood following their top 10 at Bathurst. It was a hard crash back to reality for the #96 on the Sunday with the car being in the way of others and lacking the pace it had on Saturday. Last year in NZ, Wood recorded a best finish of 19th across the three races. I’m thinking a top 15 is possible for Wood if they get the Altima on pace and qualify better. If they can’t, it will be a hard slog in four races to make the top 20.
Championship: Caruso 9th, R Kelly 13th, T Kelly 14th, Wood 20th
David Reynolds deserves a better car than the Erebus car he has. He showed his talent last year with 3rd in the championship before being dumped by PRA. He recorded the fastest race lap at Bathurst, and on the GC put the #9 Erebus Holden in the top 10 shootout to line up 3rd.
The incident between Reynolds’ enduro partner Baird and the #3 of Heimgartner and Russell was regrettable and cost them any chance of a solid finish. They were in front of the PRA #1 and #55 at that stage of the race. They weren’t able to take much away from the weekend bar Reynolds’ pace as the big points went begging. Looking forward to NZ, it’s hard to compare year on year with the big difference between the Erebus Holden and PRA Falcon’s of 2015, but I see Davey being able to put the car in the mid teens. A top 10 would reward the hard work that he has been putting in this year.
Shae Davies and Chris Van Der Drift never were a factor across the enduros and didn’t even make the start on Sunday. They finished 19th on the Saturday, but a crash in qualifying ruled the #4 out for the Sunday race. Davies is under pressure to keep his seat for 2017, with Jack LeBrocq the favourite to take it. Davies will need to deliver in NZ to have any hope of extending his stay in the main game.
Championship: Reynolds 19th, Davies 47th
LUCAS DUMBRELL MOTORSPORT:
Nick Percat and Cam McConville were the feel-good story of Bathurst and Sandown with two solid finishes, but it all fell apart on the GC.
They did not finish the first race on the GC and toiled home on Sunday in 16th after starting from 24th. McConville did a solid job across the enduros, and despite lacking a little on the GC; I can see him making the grid as a co-driver for next season. Percat announced his signing for BJR for 2017 and will be keen to deliver in his final few races for LDM.
I can’t see him cracking the top 10 in the LDM car, but a top 15 would be a good result for the minnow team.
Andre Heimgartner and Aaren Russell had a good finish in race 22 with a well-earned 13th place. Their fortune ended quickly as they were a DNF in the Sunday race. Heimgartner is negotiating with LDM for another season, and if I were LDM I would give him another go.
Looking forward to NZ, I would like to see at least one finish inside the top 20 for Heimgartner.
Championship: Percat 21st, Heimgartner 24th.
In my GC preview for the Tekno #19 STIX Commodore, I said, “…It’s hard to discount them again, but the GC is a different beast to Bathurst…” Judging by the results of the Tekno car, I wasn’t too far off with my different beast analogy as the pace that the #19 had at Sandown and Bathurst all but evaporated. While they started in the top 10 twice, the boom sharing with Vortex didn’t help. They didn’t finish in the top 10 in either of the races, which pushed Davison down to 5th in the championship. Davison should easily eclipse the results he had last year for Erebus in the Tekno Commodore, but the big question is by how much. I’d back this car in to be amongst the top 10 if they can get the set-up nailed.
Championship: Davison 5th.
CHARLIE SCHWERKOLT RACING:
Lee Holdsworth and Karl Reindler’s enduro season from hell looked to continue after the first race on the GC. Reindler clipped the fence and took the #18 out of contention on Saturday. After an overnight fix, Holdsworth put the car 12th in qualifying and they had a well-earned finish of 7th on Sunday. It was as good as a win for this team who have had a challenging first season as an independent operation. Lee recently signed on again for 2017 along with title sponsor Preston Hire.
Lee’s best finish last year at Pukekohe was 8th and he will be trying to replicate that this year. Qualifying will be key at NZ this year, and if he can get this car in the top 10, he will be hard to move.
Championship: Holdsworth: 23rd.
Photo: Matt Smith