The script for the 2018 Supercars championship was always going to feature Scott McLaughlin’s attempt at redemption for his heartbreaking title loss the year before. What then followed across 31 races was a much more enthralling narrative.
An intense battle between two Kiwis, representing the factory Ford and Holden teams, could not have been a better race for the championship, with the 25-year-old McLaughlin ultimately achieving what he could not in 2017.
Casting back to the curtain-raising Adelaide 500, the outlook was very much different given the strength with which the Red Bull Holden Racing Team dominated the event with the all-new ZB Commodore.
Shane van Gisbergen, ever the street-circuit specialist, immediately staked his claim at a second title with back-to-back wins, sending shivers down spines inside Ford camps.
DJR Team Penske protested the use of certain composite panels on the ZB Commodore which had been thought to give the Holden teams an advantage. The theory was easy to believe given seven of the first eight races were won by the ZB chassis.
Despite the advantage perceived by their rivals, McLaughlin and the Shell V-Power squad went on an incredible run through the middle portion of the season, with the masterclass at Phillip Island demonstrating the driver’s newfound maturity and composure, gained after the events of Newcastle 2017.
Van Gisbergen remained in touch, and it wasn’t until the incredible SuperNight event in Sydney that the Triple Eight juggernaut found the ascendency again, leaving DJR Team Penske searching for answers.
Triple Eight peaked at the Sandown 500, where Jamie Whincup and his longtime co-driver Paul Dumbrell took the final win of his title defence season, with Van Gisbergen and the retiring Craig Lowndes locking out the podium.
McLaughlin’s maiden podium at the Bathurst 1000 was the real turning point in the title race. Even though Van Gisbergen finished fifth with co-driver Earl Bamber to retain the lead of the championship, the pilot of the No.17 showed that there was no giving up.
From the Gold Coast onwards it was finger troubles in the pit lane that proved to be nails in Van Gisbergen’s championship coffin. An unsafe release at Surfers Paradise resulted in a drive-through penalty and then a post-race time penalty in Newcastle, stripping the Kiwi of his Race 30 win, highlighted the shortcomings of the outfit that was crowned team champion for 2018.
The Newcastle penalty was almost justice for the lack of a sanction in Pukekohe when Van Gisbergen spun his wheels in the pit lane, the same offence for which David Reynolds was penalised at Bathurst.
Arguably the most heartbreaking moment of the season was Reynolds’s demise at the fabled Mount Panorama, which he and co-driver Luke Youlden conquered in 2017. Pole position saw Reynolds leading the great race for Erebus until the dying stages, when severe cramping in his foot caused him great fatigue.
Lowndes, 44 years old, bided his time behind the wounded Erebus Commodore before making his move. Disaster for Reynolds turned into delight for the evergreen veteran because he was on course for a seventh Bathurst 1000 win with Steven Richards, who claimed his fifth.
Has he hung up the helmet too early? It’s a debate that will undoubtedly go on as Supercars prepares for life after Lowndes as a full-time driver in 2019. The excitement, however, will remain, with the possibility of the triple champion equalling the record of nine wins at Bathurst set by his late great mate Peter Brock.
For Reynolds, for whom the Bathurst heartbreak will linger through the off-season, it was encouraging that he and Erebus had made positive strides all year, regularly gracing the podium with his antics. Rookie Anton de Pasquale staked his claim as a future star too.
As well as Erebus teasing what’s to come in the future, the Walkinshaw Andretti United camp in their new guise showed glimpses of what they can do with Scott Pye, who’s spent the early part of his Supercars career in all sorts of bother.
The emphatic win in the darkness of the Australian Grand Prix will hopefully be one of many for Pye, who could lead the trio of famous names in world motorsport to battle fellow young guns in McLaughlin and Van Gisbergen.
Another name to hopefully join those guys in championship contention in the near future is Chaz Mostert, who along with the Tickford team struggled throughout the season with the car, achieving only one win coming with co-driver James Moffat at Surfers Paradise.
Struggle is a fitting adjective to describe Nissan’s latest tenure in the Australian touring car championship as well, with their six-year stint with the Altima chassis coming to an end. While Rick Kelly did demonstrate off-season improvements, highlighted by a drought-breaking win in Winton, their pace was still not enough to turn heads.
Not even Simona de Silvestro in her sophomore full-time Supercars season was able to shine a light on the Nissan programme, though her growing experience did see her take strides throughout 2018, leading to a tenth-place finish in Newcastle.
What the McLaughlin-Van Gisbergen rivalry achieved for Supercars this year was to finally bring forward the next generation of championship winners now that Lowndes is stepping back. The futures of former Holden vs Ford rivals Whincup and Mark Winterbottom are also uncertain.
It was a fitting conclusion also to the decades of rivalry between the Holden Commodore and the Ford Falcon. Thankfully it wasn’t the end entirely of the Holden vs Ford competition that has for so long enriched the Supercars competition.