The wait has been arduous since the Supercars championship last turned a wheel in anger at the Townsville SuperSprint in July, with the COVID-19 pandemic having halted the series due to states and territories locking down in response to outbreaks.
There have been a few changes made before the Supercars season restart but one thing that hasn’t changed is the close racing that makes the championship so great.
Scott McLaughlin and Shane Van Gisbergen’s closely-fought rivalry was revived at Sydney Motorsport Park with a nail-biting finish to race 7.
The two Kiwis lined up on the front row with McLaughlin on pole position.
Off the start, McLaughlin bogged down initially but was able to recover and stay ahead of Van Gisbergen into Turn 1. The DJR Team Penske driver then set about building a lead, something which would force him to make an earlier pit stop.
While McLaughlin was controlling the pace out front, it was a different story for his teammate Fabian Coulthard, who was leading a train of cars in the midfield. This triggered some cars to make a dive for the pit lane on Lap 12, which gave us the first opportunity to see how the new rule changes would affect pit stops.
Only six mechanics are now allowed to be involved in a pit stop, down from eight. With no refuelling, there was more emphasis placed on changing tyres. Teams had the option of changing just two tyres or all four, which meant that there were different strategies across the field.
A pit stop took half the time if only two tyres were changed, giving you track position. However, you would have more grip if you changed all four tyres with the hope that you could make up the additional time taken to change two more tyres.
An example of this was provided by Cameron Waters, who only had the right-hand side tyres changed. This gave the Tickford driver track position over Whincup but the Red Bull Holden driver was able to use the increased grip of four new tyres to get past Waters on Lap 20.
Both McLaughlin and Van Gisbergen had four new tyres put on at their pit stops. McLaughlin held onto the lead thanks to a successful undercut over Van Gisbergen, who found himself behind Waters, Whincup and Lee Holdsworth upon exiting the pit lane.
Van Gisbergen got past Holdsworth and Waters with ease while his teammate, Whincup, didn’t put up any defence. Van Gisbergen now set his sights on McLaughlin and the race victory with twelve laps in which to do it.
What started off as a three-second lead for McLaughlin was slowly eaten into by Van Gisbergen with the Red Bull Holden right behind the DJR Team Penske Ford with four laps to go.
However, while it was one thing catching up to McLaughlin, it was another trying to get past, with Van Gisbergen now sat in the aero wake. It wasn’t long before any advantage Van Gisbergen had was gone with both cars setting identical lap times on Lap 30.
Both McLaughlin and Van Gisbergen were on the limit with McLaughlin getting a bad sportsmanship flag for exceeding track limits at Turn 5. As Van Gisbergen’s attack was good, so was McLaughlin’s defence with the DJR Team Penske driver holding on to take the chequered flag by just 0.188 seconds. Jamie Whincup rounded out the podium.
After the race, McLaughlin joked, “He’s [Van Gisbergen] like a cockroach, you can never rid of him!”
Meantime, Van Gisbergen commented on how difficult it was to pass McLaughlin.
“As soon as you get close, the aero wash is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s hard to pass, we need to try something different tomorrow. We just need to get out in front to get clean air.”
McLaughlin’s win means he extends his championship lead over Jamie Whincup to 41 points. Van Gisbergen sits eighth in the championship, having lost ground in a challenging Adelaide 500 for him.
This action-packed weekend is not over by any means with two more races to come at Sydney Motorsport Park tomorrow.
I, for one, cannot wait.