Round five of the 2022 Supercars championship is done and dusted, with an exciting return to regional Victoria and the historic Winton Motor Raceway…
Mark Winterbottom has played the role of bridesmaid for the last decade in V8 Supercars.
His career results include five third places and one runner-up finish in the championship standings, but this weekend he could shake that tag in the penultimate event of the 2015 season.
Winterbottom heads into Phillip Island with a 239-point lead over stablemate David Reynolds, with Holden rival Craig Lowndes one point further back in third place.
There are 300 points on offer across the three races at Phillip Island – 75 points for the win in Saturday’s two sprint races and 150 points in Sunday’s feature race – so a 61-point swing in Winterbottom’s favour wins it for the Ford driver before the season finale at Sydney Olympic Park.
Winterbottom looked to have the championship sown up after Bathurst, where closest championship rival and teammate Chaz Mostert crashed heavily in qualifying and broke his left wrist and leg. With the number one status in his team undoubtedly his, Winterbottom fought back in the race to consolidate second place and valuable points.
Since then, he has failed to finish on the podium across the Gold Coast and Pukekohe rounds. His Prodrive Racing Australia team let him down on the Gold Coast, releasing him into oncoming traffic in pitlane and inevitable contact. A lack of car pace and being turned around in the feature race at Pukekohe added to the wobbles.
Yet Winterbottom retained the more than 200-point buffer thanks to a tyre blowout suffered by Lowndes while he was leading in Pukekohe, which allowed the consistent Reynolds to sneak into second place.
Will we see a nervy Winterbottom consolidate his championship lead with a cautious approach at Phillip Island? Or will we see a return to the dominant displays from earlier in the season, where he won nine races in convincing fashion?
There’s no doubt Winterbottom will want the championship locked up before Sydney, as anything can happen on the punishing street circuit, often made even more challenging by inclement weather.
Winterbottom’s FG X Falcon should suit the fast and flowing Phillip Island circuit, given its dominant performance at the similar wide-open Albert Park grand prix circuit earlier in the year.
But the nerves must be contained for a driver and team who have waited more than a decade for that elusive championship. The absence of Mostert across the garage to help with car setup has made it even more of a challenge, especially given the resurgent form of the team’s rivals.
Reynolds has nothing to lose. Though he races under the same Prodrive Racing Australia banner as Winterbottom, he’s been pushed out of the team for next season and will head to customer AMG Mercedes-Benz outfit Erebus Motorsport in 2016.
Prodrive is desperate to win a title, and Reynolds won’t be around to share in the joy if Winterbottom carries the number one plate next season.
Lowndes is out to end a championship drought that stretches back to his last success in 1999. With teammate Jamie Whincup out of the running for a championship heading into the final two events for the first time since 2006, this season was Lowndes’ chance.
Only Winterbottom and the FG X stand in his way.
The 239-point buffer is big so disaster needs to befall Winterbottom for Reynolds and Lowndes to heap on the pressure heading into Sydney. There’s reward in risk if Winterbottom can go for it and rediscover his race-winning form to seal the deal with an event to spare.
Outside of the championship-contending trio, there are a number of potential race winners who could get in the mix at Phillip Island. These include Whincup, the Holden Racing Team’s James Courtney and Garth Tander, Volvo’s Scott McLaughlin and Holden’s Shane Van Gisbergen.
This could play into the hands of the Winterbottom, as it limits the ability of Lowndes and Reynolds to claim the big points haul they need to close in on the championship leader.
Winterbottom needs to keep it clean to avoid another poor result, which makes for an edge of your seat Phillip Island event that looks set to decide the 2015 V8 Supercars championship.