After 106 days since the suspension of the season in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Supercars championship finally roared back into action at Sydney Motorsport Park for the Sydney SuperSprint.
There were so many changes to the formats and the rules to digest, but ultimately what resulted was some spectacular racing and plenty of surprises not seen in the sport for some time.
From a nailbiting opening race to some unique milestones to celebrate in this restarted championship, here are the key talking points from the Sydney SuperSprint.
McLaughlin beats Van Gisbergen in nailbiting return
What a return to racing that was! After all the waiting, the eagerly anticipated heavyweight battle between Scott McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen resumed at Sydney Motorsport Park during Saturday’s Race 7.
Claiming pole position in the top-15 shootout, McLaughlin catapulted himself into a handy lead during the opening phase of the 32-lap race, leaving behind Red Bull’s Van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup, who was up into third from fifth.
There was concern that, as good as his pace was, the reigning champion might have eaten into his tyres too early considering the limited supply of Dunlop rubber played a critical part in the weekend’s proceedings.
With the lead being as large as 3.5 seconds, McLaughlin took the compulsory tyre stop on lap 15 and elected to change all four tyres. As did Van Gisbergen, who didn’t pit until lap 19, though he still lost out to his compatriot’s undercut.
That set up a nailbiting conclusion to the opening stanza of the Sydney SuperSprint, with the Red Bull driver using his fresher tyres to close in on the Shell V-Power Mustang of McLaughlin with only a handful of laps remaining.
Only 0.18 seconds separated the two rivals across the finish line, with the reigning Supercars champion taking the first race victory since Race 2 in Adelaide back in February. Van Gisbergen rued aero wash while tucked up behind McLaughlin’s Mustang in those dying laps, while McLaughlin himself almost found trouble for abusing track limits at Turn 5.
Whincup joins the 500 club, Percat wins his 200th
It was a special day for seven-time Supercars champion Whincup, who added another feather in his cap at Sydney Motorsport Park, becoming only the eighth driver to achieve 500 race starts in the sport.
Having been forced to wait since March to notch up this milestone, having qualified on pole for what would have been his 500th start at the cancelled Melbourne 400 event at the Australian Grand Prix, the 37-year-old finally joined the likes of Craig Lowndes, Russell Ingall and Garth Tander in this unique club.
Though he started on pole for Race 8 in Sydney following an overnight tune-up on his Red Bull Commodore, it wasn’t the fairytale 125 kilometres that Whincup would’ve wanted.
Nick Percat, celebrating his 200th race start from sixth on the grid, rocketed to the front on a full set of fresh tyres at the start of the race, picking off his rivals in the first six laps to be second on the road. From there, the Brad Jones Racing driver sought to undercut Whincup in the pits, having stopped on lap 14.
Whincup himself then stopped a lap later, and while he rejoined ahead of yellow Dunlop Commodore, he had taken on only two new tyres as opposed to Percat’s four, which saw the former Bathurst 1000 winner take the lead on lap 22.
Crossing the line with three seconds over the Red Bull, it was Percat’s first win since the Sunday of the 2016 Adelaide 500 when he won in torrential conditions for Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport. It was also Brad Jones Racing’s first win since that year also, with the last having come courtesy of Tim Slade at Winton.
Astonishingly it was the first time in 30 races that someone other than the Red Bull Holden Racing Team or DJR Team Penske had won a race.
Behind them was an exhilarating battle for third won by Saturday winner McLaughlin. Cameron Waters and David Reynolds were heading this battle, though in their second stints they both were on a worse tyre, whereas McLaughlin and Chaz Mostert had better rubber.
What resulted was some epic wheel-to-wheel racing between the quartet before the Shell V-Power Mustang came out on top, with a small invoice on the rear guard from the Monster Energy Mustang of Waters.
Holdsworth’s Sunday carve up
Heading into the final 125-kilometre race of the weekend, the question on everyone’s mind was: who had what tyres left in their armoury?
It was a lights-to-flag victory for McLaughlin, who from pole position converted for his second win of the weekend to extend his lead in the championship, though Lee Holdsworth’s drive to second was the Race 9 highlight.
Starting fourth, the Tickford racer had saved his tyres until this final race. The 37-year-old then dropped to sixth on the opening lap before running the longest of anyone on the first stint to make his one and only pit stop on lap 18.
Rejoining the race in seventh and with the benefit of much fresher tyres than the cars ahead, Holdsworth began carving up the competition, including the likes of Todd Hazelwood, Van Gisbergen, Mark Winterbottom and Reynolds.
It then took only six laps for the three-time race winner to catch and pass Whincup for second. Despite the pace advantage, there were not enough laps for Holdsworth to have a shot at McLaughlin in the lead, with only a 1.5-second margin at the chequered flag.
Whincup’s third podium of the weekend kept him second in the championship behind McLaughlin, though it allowed the Red Bull Holden Racing Team the lead in the teams standings with a 50-point advantage over DJR Team Penske.
Holdsworth’s first podium since Sandown last year saw a fifth different driver on the podium at the Sydney SuperSprint, vindicating the unpredictability in the racing as a result of the changes to the tyre regulations.
New tyre and pit-stop rules a winner
When it was announced that Supercars would be embracing two-day sprint events due to the COVID-19 restrictions there was a mixed reaction given the lack of popularity of shorter races in the past.
However, even without a compulsory fuel stop, scrapped due to the six-crew restriction for pit stops, and the limit on how many tyres each driver is permitted for the weekend we’ve seen some incredible racing.
Unpredictability and more variability have come with the new tyre strategy even though there is only one stop. Teams have been forced into deciding how they use their limited sets across the weekend, with each race requiring one compulsory stop to change a minimum of two tyres. Do you save your tyres for a particular stint or try to balance them all out? There was plenty of variables.
We saw in Race 7 some drivers taking two tyres and others taking all four. In some cases even three tyres were changed given teams would lose time moving between front and rear on the right side of the car because of the mechanic with the air spike located at the C-pillar.
Eventually this would mean that there would be a sacrifice in a stint throughout the weekend because there aren’t enough tyres. There was a scrambled order in Race 8 due to this sacrifice, with the likes of McLaughlin, Van Gisbergen and Coulthard all falling away in the opening stint, while Percat, Waters and Reynolds all had good tyres to start.
However, in Race 8 Percat used his good tyres and took the trophy, but in the following race he struggled for pace and ultimately finished ninth. It kept things exciting for the viewer as you didn’t know who had what number of tyres left by the final race.
Seeing as the next round at Winton will see a similar format, hopefully it will result in more of the unpredictable racing seen at Eastern Creek.
The new normal?
All sports that have returned to play worldwide have had to adapt to new safety and operational measures forced by the pandemic, and Supercars is no different in this respect.
Whether it is the limited media presence or the reduction in engineering staff for the race teams, all the changes to accommodate social distancing could be the new normal in Supercars, and it looks like they’ve adapted well.
Across the weekend team managers like Red Bull’s Mark Dutton and Erebus’s Barry Ryan have been hands-on in garages themselves, with these larger squads running roughly half the staff they are used to.
Data logging also won’t be available until Monday after the race to reduce the number of analysts that teams must bring trackside, which again is a benefit to the larger teams, such as Red Bull and DJR Team Penske, though the lack of this will prove an equaliser for the smaller outfits.
The long-term exercise out of this new normal is for Supercars teams to run as leaner operation in a bid to encourage existing teams in Australia to come into the category and not run at a financial loss. Seven-time champion Whincup, a member of the Supercars Commission, says this could attract the likes of Garry Rogers Motorsport back to the sport.
Media-wise driver interviews trackside, as seen in IndyCar, were conducted with a mic on a boom and the interviewer standing at the minimum distance as per the new social distancing regulations.
The rapid-fire schedule as well has been a success with the drivers, keeping everyone on their toes and putting more onus on minimising mistakes in high-pressure situations. Though with support categories such as Super2 and Super3 due back for the next round at Winton, the schedule may not be as condensed as this weekend in Sydney.
Overall, the favourite of these new measures, as detailed above, is the tyre and pit crew regulations, which have brought some excellent racing and a strong return for the Supercars championship.