The annual trip across the ditch for Supercars has come a little early this season, with the Auckland SuperSprint preceding the upcoming Enduro Cup in October.
Pukekohe always draws a huge crowd, and with five Kiwi drivers on the grid this year there was plenty to cheer about, especially for those who were also Triple Eight fans.
From landmark driver contract deals to a race-defining controversy involving the safety car, here are all the talking points from another eventful Auckland SuperSprint.
Safety car controversy
Several drivers were furious and Supercars was left red-faced after the podium places, including first place, were decided as a result of a safety car controversy in Sunday’s Race 24.
Lap 14 of the 70-lap race saw the safety car deployed when David Reynolds’s Erebus Holden was left stranded on the circuit. At that stage the top four drivers had pitted, including pole-sitter Jamie Whincup and Tickford’s Lee Holdsworth, who made his first front-row start since 2010.
Whincup had the net race lead when the safety car was deployed when accounting for pit stops, though he was not the actual leader on the track or on the lap chart, which was why so many were confused when the safety car picked up the Red Bull Holden as the supposed leader.
Eventual race winner Scott McLaughlin was the actual leader at that time, and eventually Whincup just went past the safety car realising what had just happened, whereas Holdsworth and co continued to wait behind until they were signalled to go for a further lap and a half.
A drive-through penalty was issued to Whincup for a breach of safety car procedure, leaving the Triple Eight camp furious that an error from race control had effectively cost them victory.
But the real heartache was to be in the Tickford camp and with the luckless Holdsworth, who played the patient game behind the safety car and was robbed of a certain podium finish, which the 36-year old has been deprived of since 2014.
McLaughlin collected his 17th win of the season, eclipsing Craig Lowndes’s 1996 record of most wins in a single Supercars championship year, while fellow Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen and Chaz Mostert rounded out the podium.
Plenty about this controversy will be debated, principally around the question of whether Whincup should have just stayed behind the safety car, which didn’t have its green light on to pass, and waited for race control to intervene and correct the error.
Aero tweak puts Triple Eight on song
Further aerodynamic tweaks to the Holden ZB Commodore ahead of the Auckland SuperSprint have paid dividends for the factory Holden team as Triple Eight were the class of the field at Pukekohe.
Adding another gurney flap on the rear wing endplate, among other changes, to increase the downforce of the Commodore to maintain parity with the Ford Mustang saw the Red Bull Holden Racing Team claim both pole positions and look on track to take both victories.
Shane van Gisbergen walked to the Race 23 victory ahead of Tickford’s Cameron Waters and David Reynolds, while teammate Jamie Whincup was stripped of his podium in the opening 200-kilometre stanza for his role in a collision with Nick Percat early in the race.
Without the penalty it would have been a dominant one-two finish for the factory Holden squad on Saturday, whereas chief Ford rivals at DJR Team Penske were left asking questions in fourth and seventh.
A controversy in Race 24 with the safety car took away all hope for Whincup to convert his first pole position of the season to a win for Triple Eight to clean sweep the weekend, but Van Gisbergen was able to finish second.
Van Gisbergen wins the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy
Now a tradition during the Pukekohe round, the drivers vie for this special trophy, which is won by the driver who collects the most points across the weekend.
In memoriam of the much-loved Kiwi racer Jason Richards, who succumbed to his battle with cancer in 2011, the JR Memorial Trophy means a lot to any of the Supercars drivers to win, let alone the contingent of New Zealanders.
With a win and a second place, it was Van Gisbergen who won his second JR Memorial Trophy after 2016 to become the second repeat winner of the award following Red Bull Holden teammate Whincup.
A solid weekend for the 2016 Supercars champion has put him into second in the standings but still a sizeable 598 points behind Race 24 winner Scott McLaughlin. However, going into the Enduro Cup there is plenty of expectation for the Red Bull Holdens to strike hard across the three events, with a total of 900 points on offer.
Reynolds signs landmark deal
The doubt surrounding David Reynolds’s future at Erebus Motorsport was emphatically quashed in the lead-up to the Pukekohe event with the announcement that the 34-year old had put pen to paper on a ten-year deal with the team.
Such a long contract has never been seen before in Supercars, let alone motorsport. The 2017 Bathurst 1000 winner will be locked to the Victorian-based Holden squad until the end of 2029, when he’ll be 44 years old.
Loyalty in any sport can be fickle and dependent on performance, culture and results, though deals such as these are a reminder that genuine commitment exists. The partnership between Reynolds and Erebus was destined to blossom from day one.
While the rebuilt Erebus have achieved a mighty David-against-Goliath victory at Bathurst, a championship would be next on the agenda, and while 2019 may not have yielded the success predicted preseason, there is clear hope for the future.
A podium on Saturday as a result of Whincup’s penalty would have added a positive touch to the new deal, while a crash for Reynolds during qualifying ahead of Race 24 left even team boss Barry Ryan having a laugh and wryly remarking, “Oh well, we’ll just hold hands and skip because I don’t want to say anything bad against my driver”.
Next up: Bathurst and The Enduro CupThis is typically the time of year the Enduro Cup begins, but 2019 is bearing witness to a shakeup in the scheduling, with the endurance season to commence at the Bathurst 1000, the next event on the calendar. Heading straight to the jaw-dropping Mount Panorama for the first of three endurance races will present many challenges, chiefly for the co-drivers, who are being dropped straight into the deep end. That, though, will hopefully bring more unpredictability and put greater onus on all the crews and drivers to execute those one-percenters presented during an endurance race, even if it is the biggest event on the Supercars calendar. Strong weekends from Triple Eight and Tickford here in Pukekohe will be a great indicator for the 1000-kilometre enduro, though there are many driver combos and teams that will be chasing that revered Peter Brock Trophy. McLaughlin leads the championship by 598 points over Van Gisbergen, with both Kiwis chasing a maiden victory at The Mountain despite being in contention on many occasions over the recent past.