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It was the penultimate round of the 2018 Supercars championship and with the title itself still dangling by a thread, the trip across the Ditch was a pivotal one in the two-horse race between the two Kiwi protagonists.
So little is the points differential between Scott McLaughlin and Shane Van Gisbergen that, every move now will have an impact and controversies such as the pit-lane wheel-spinning on Saturday – which was one of many talking points from the Auckland SuperSprint.
McLaughlin wins the Jason Richards Trophy
In what could be a championship-defining drive on Sunday, the victory for Scott McLaughlin also secured him his maiden Jason Richards Memorial Trophy, for being the overall round winner at the Auckland SuperSprint.
Second during that heated Race 28 behind Van Gisbergen and then winning the battle of the pit-stops against Jamie Whincup in Race 29 for the win, was what took the 25-year old to win the trophy – which was introduced to honour the late Kiwi racer in Richards.
Having not had the pace to win on Saturday, McLaughlin’s Shell V-Power Falcon was dialled in on Sunday and this was seen when he qualified on the front-row during the Top-10 Shootout and then the start which saw him immediately cover the threat of Van Gisbergen in third.
The second round of pit-stops is where DJR Team Penske brought their driver in, after the Whincup stop, who found himself a lap down on the very short circuit. In and out quickly, McLaughlin had fresh tyres and fuel for the final stint and popped out just ahead of the reigning champion.
Victory for McLaughlin and then a last lap positional change between the Red Bull teammates in Whincup and Van Gisbergen was crucial in gifting some extra points to the latter, with a 14-point gap between the two protagonists heading to Newcastle.
Tight is the battle between the two Kiwis for the championship that there is no margin for error and it was a lucky escape for Van Gisbergen in Race 28, having avoided any penalties for spinning his wheel in the pit-lane.
Such was the furore, that DJR Team Penske even protested the stewards’ eventual post-race decision of no penalty for the #97 Red Bull Holden – to which there was no successful outcome for the Ford team.
A lack of evidence was cited, for there being a full rotation of the wheel, which in the regulations states is required for the penalty to be applied – though contentiously it was because there was no television footage of the crime being committed.
Erebus driver David Reynolds even took to Twitter in the aftermath to share his views on it, considering he ultimately lost a podium opportunity at the Bathurst 1000 last month because he copped a drive-through penalty for spinning a wheel during his last pit-stop.
Reynolds highlighted on Twitter from the Supercars rulebook that ‘for the sake of clarity, the wheels must not be rotating while the car is being lowered to the ground.’
In terms of the championship, had Van Gisbergen been stripped of his Race 28 win, McLaughlin would have taken a 95-point advantage into the Sunday race – which having won too, would’ve only extended his lead further going into the Newcastle finale.
Dual-rebuilds for DJR Team Penske
The Shell V-Power team have had a busy weekend on the tools, as well as on the track, following a couple of incidents involving both their cars between practice and the opening race.
Championship leader McLaughlin wrecked his Ford Falcon FG X during practice, which required the Queensland based team to repair the car overnight to have it ready for qualifying ahead of the Saturday race.
With McLaughlin’s car all good for Race 28, during which it battled with Van Gisbergen and finished second, it was his teammate Fabian Coulthard’s turn to be involved in some carnage – with a nasty shunt with the wall at the final corner on Lap 8.
Qualifying a lowly 19th, Coulthard tangled with Lee Holdsworth and Richie Stanaway early in the race, only to be on the receiving end of a hit from Holdsworth – instigated by compatriot Stanaway.
Having been involved in a Saturday race accident for two years consecutively now at Pukekohe, Coulthard’s Falcon required a repair job that went into the early hours of Sunday morning and a seventh-place result in Race 29 to serve as vindication.
Winterbottom’s Tickford departure
It was one of the most heavily discussed silly season rumours in Supercars this year and at last the future of Mark Winterbottom has been confirmed, with the Ford faithful electing to part ways with Tickford at season’s end.
A 13-year relationship with the Campbellfield based outfit in Victoria concludes, amid no terms being agreed upon for a new deal for 2019, when the Ford team introduces the Mustang chassis.
Yielding a Bathurst 1000 victory in 2013 and then the Supercars championship itself in 2015, the 37-year old has endured a luckless spell since that title winning campaign – in line with Tickford’s own lack of competitiveness.
Such has been Frosty’s fate at Tickford, that he has been unable to win a race since Perth in 2016 and even his podium appearances since 2017 can be counted on one hand.
All the conjecture is that the former face of Ford in Supercars will be making the tough switch to Holden in 2019, with a potential berth at Charlie Schwerkolt’s Team 18, where he would replace the outgoing Lee Holdsworth.
Winterbottom’s Tickford departure has lit the fire of the silly season for the 2019 grid, though there have been subtle movements in the build-up to the Auckland SuperSprint.
The grid itself will shrink for next season, with RECs (Racing Entitlements Contract) being handed back to Supercars by the likes of Triple Eight with the Lowndes retirement and even Tickford – who are rumoured to hand back a REC, with the 23 Red Racing Team set to join their stable.
Stanaway in his home race weekend at Pukekohe had his future thrown into the spotlight, with the potential that he may lose his seat on the back of a horror rookie season. Despite having another year on his contract, a performance clause could be what sees the Kiwi sensation cut.
Holdsworth already declared himself on the market during a tough Bathurst weekend, with it expected that Winterbottom takes his seat. The likes of Jack Le Brocq and the two Nissan drivers in Michael Caruso and Andre Heimgartner also yet to confirm their futures.