It may not be everyone’s favourite Supercars event on the calendar, but the Australian Grand Prix support round is a crucial one in setting up the championship narrative ahead.
That is what in fact the last two seasons have produced through those non-championship races at Albert Park.
Prodrive Racing’s Mark Winterbottom swept the event in 2015, spring-boarding him into the campaign that saw the Ford driver clinch his maiden title. That was following a less than average outing at the season opening Clipsal 500.
Similarly in 2016, the Triple Eight juggernaut asserted itself onto the competition, setting up an exclusive Red Bull Racing championship battle between teammates Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup – in which the former eventually triumphed.
With no points on the table for the four extremely brutal 12 lap races, there is little incentive for teams to attack the event with, especially with the short turnaround to the next championship round in Tasmania.
However, there is much to be gleaned from these races which could be seen as glorified test sessions, as testing is ostensibly restricted throughout the season.
The fast and flowing nature of the 5.8km Albert Park circuit is really demanding on the colossuses that are the modern Australian touring cars, as well as their tyres in the heavy braking zones.
Albert Park’s layout is more indicative too of proceeding circuits, as supposed to the urban jungle of Adelaide. The high-speed corners for example, offer more information for teams to take to other events.
2017 sees the introduction of redesigned Dunlop rubber for the category, with the hard tyre being ousted in favour of soft and supersoft compounds. Only a single test day was permitted pre-season, for the teams to get to grips with the new tyres – thus vital data can be accumulated across the non-championship event.
Establishing a rough form guide is also a key function of the support round and using the previous two winners from the past two years, it becomes clear in seeing who has the edge moving deeper into the championship.
Reigning series champion in van Gisbergen has already, authoritatively staked his claim on wanting to defend his own, following that supreme display in Adelaide – winning back-to-back races.
It is DJR Team Penske however, who could solidify their status as the Red Bull Holden Racing Team’s title rivals, if they enjoy a successful run at the Grand Prix round.
Even someone like Whincup who was peculiarly underwhelming at the opening round of the championship, Albert Park could be the kick-start his side of the garage needs to establish himself as a threat to his teammate.
While ultimately there is ardent desire for the Supercars Challenge to become a championship event, with longer and more gruelling races – for the time being there is plenty to garner from the product on display.
If by the fall of the chequered flag in November at the inaugural Newcastle event, the results of the championship correlate with those of the non-championship Australian Grand Prix –perhaps then there’ll be some respite for the short-term future of this particular foray.