Ahead of the 2021 Formula One season, there was great anticipation surrounding what was supposed to be a record-breaking 23-race schedule – as it was a sign that the sport was returning to normality in this pandemic affected world.
It had been a month since the second Sydney SuperSprint and so much had changed in and around the Supercars championship, among the continual impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
After the Darwin Triple Crown was delayed by a week due to a late border crossing for the teams between Queensland and the Northern Territory, it was a great relief to see the cars on track again in this 2020 championship.
So from another maiden race victor in the championship, to some unwelcome chaos on track, here are the talking points from the Darwin Triple Crown.
Anton breaks through for maiden win
After more than a year without a win, Erebus Motorsport had their drought broken and so did Anton De Pasquale who claimed his maiden Supercars win during Race 13 at the Darwin Triple Crown.
In what was a crazy race, championship contenders such as Scott McLaughlin, Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen all took various penalties for all sorts of incidents throughout the 38-lap sprint.
De Pasquale started on the soft tyre and kept out of trouble in those chaotic opening laps. Having been involved with Whincup in the pit-lane when the Red Bull car was given an unsafe release, there was a heart-in-the-mouth moment for the Penrite racer.
Though with penalties ripping through the top order, it was a welcome victory for the popular 24-year old who finished ahead of James Courtney collecting second for his new team at Tickford and Scott Pye claiming Team 18’s first ever podium.
Pye’s teammate Mark Winterbottom started the race on the soft tyres and enjoyed a brief period in the lead during the early stages. Though with Pye switching over to softs in the next stint, the 2015-Supercars champion had to slot in behind his teammate.
Running softs in both stints yielded a season best finish for Chris Pither and Tekno Team Sydney in fifth, while Fabian Coulthard was the highest placing DJR Team Penske car in sixth.
A solid drive to seventh too from Chaz Mostert who started the race from twentieth on the grid, following a tail-shaft failure earlier in the day during qualifying.
After relatively clean racing at the two Sydney Motorsport Park events, it didn’t take long at Hidden Valley for the Supercars drivers to get a bit of the biff on.
The first lap of Race 13 saw Brad Jones Racing drivers Nick Percat and Todd Hazelwood become unstuck in the valley section of the track, with the two-time race winner in 2020 having to park the car early in the garage.
Replays showed Percat’s car being tagged by van Gisbergen who made his 400th start in the category. That then concertinaed onto teammate Hazelwood who had damage to the side of his car and managed to limp home in eighteenth.
Van Gisbergen was handed a drive-through penalty for making avoidable contact. But the day for Brad Jones was made worse with Macauley Jones crashing on Lap 24 also.
Not long after, the Ford Mustang duo of Jack Le Brocq and Rick Kelly toured the grass together with the Castrol car doing the bumping. When Kelly re-joined the track, he found the Matt Stone Racing Commodore of Jake Kostecki – who was sent into the wall and out of the race.
A Safety Car had to be deployed to recover Kostecki’s stricken Holden, while Race Control also handed Kelly a drive-through penalty for making avoidable contact. The former Supercars champion couldn’t control his Mustang when it re-joined the track and on appearance could not avoid the contact.
There was chaos in the pit-lane too when the Safety Car triggered a flurry of stops and it was Whincup who felt the wrath of Driving Standards Observer in Craig Baird, handing the seven-time champion a 15-second time penalty for an unsafe release. The incident in question was when Whincup was released into the path of De Pasquale and essentially squeezed the Penrite car into the left-side barrier in the pit-lane.
McLaughlin was also penalised 15-seconds for a Safety Car restart breach, as the penalties continued to be dished out in this opening race. He was found to have jumped on the throttle way too early upon exiting the final corner just before the restart – thus getting a strong run on James Courtney ahead.
A messy first race overall, especially with the championship contenders all receiving penalties for their various indiscretions.
Whincup wins the Triple Crown
A major change for the Triple Crown in 2020 was the permutations for winning the elusive trophy, with only scoring the most points across the three-race round now the requirement for the win.
This was a feat which seven-time Supercars champion Whincup accomplished, boosted by his Race 15 victory on Sunday afternoon over McLaughlin. The Red Bull Holden racer tied on 228-points for the round with Coulthard, though on countback for results was the Triple Crown victor.
It wasn’t the most pleasant of weekends for the veteran, who sustained a horrible crash during practice early on Saturday. A miraculous turnaround by his Red Bull team saw the car ready for qualifying, in which Whincup made it into the Top-Fifteen Shootout and was second fastest.
The 15-second penalty for his unsafe release in the pit-lane, for which team manager Mark Dutton accepted responsibility – saw Whincup plummet to 17th in Race 13, though crucially was ahead of McLaughlin.
Starting fourth for the first of the Sunday sprints, Whincup was gifted second after Coulthard went deep into Turn 1 on Lap 8, while trying to pass his teammate McLaughlin as he exited the pits.
Then the victory in Race 15 came as a result of a well-timed undercut on Lap 6, which saw Whincup come out of the pit-stops ahead of the pole sitter McLaughlin. The 37-year old fended off an attack from the Shell V-Power Mustang, though ultimately kept his rival at bay for his second win of the season.
Whincup came into the weekend with a 107-point deficit to McLaughlin in the championship, though finished off the first round of two rounds in Darwin with only a 101-point gap to the standing’s leader.
Scott sweeps qualifying, while Fabian is cruelled
As much as the limited tyre sets have dictated results for some drivers across the past few events, it hasn’t stopped the dominant qualifying speeds from reigning champion McLaughlin who swept all three poles in Darwin.
Taking his tally for 2020 to seven in total, there was no stopping the Shell V-Power racer from demonstrating his one-lap pace over the rest of the field. His Race 15 pole position was also a fifth consecutive pole at Hidden Valley.
Race 15’s qualifying saw the 27-year old gap the second placed Jamie Whincup by 0.326, which was the biggest margin across the three sessions over the Triple Crown weekend. McLaughlin has too proved that he’s still the most consistent between the two different tyre compounds.
It was just unfortunate that Saturday’s Race 13 didn’t convert for the two-time series champion, making a rookie error during the first Safety Car restart to be handed a 15-second time penalty to be relegated to twentieth.
“It’s the first half of the payback for the guys,” McLaughlin said following Sunday qualifying, in reference to his mistake during Race 13 and needing to repay the team.
“We’ve got a great front-row lockout for Shell V-Power Racing in the first race and then hopefully we can get two wins or two good podium results today would be fantastic.”
Coulthard’s Race 14 mistake where he fired off into the grass at Turn 1, ultimately cost the 38-year old his first victory since Perth last year. Third was the best that he could manage in the end, as McLaughlin went on to win the first of the Sunday races.
To make matters worse for Coulthard, his opportunity to win the Triple Crown in Race 15 was thwarted in his eyes by the brush in the pit-stop with Whincup, who when released from the Red Bull box – almost drove into the path of the Mustang, which slammed on the brakes and lost valuable time.
Lost time which, Coulthard believed put his car behind Mostert in fifth for the rest of the race, with the struggling DJR Team Penske driver unable to pass the Walkinshaw Andretti United Commodore.
Tyre wear not as impacting
Overall, there would have been relief in some camps that the tyre wear at Hidden Valley wasn’t as critical as it was for the two weekends at Sydney Motorsport Park – despite a difference in the ambient conditions.
The much warmer weather in Darwin could have easily wreaked havoc on the Dunlop rubber, though given that the circuit is far less demanded on the tyres than that of Sydney Motorsport Park, there was hardly the same levels of degradation seen in previous rounds.
So much so, that despite only having two sets of soft tyres for the weekend again, it was the preferred race tyre and most drivers were able to utilise them across the three races instead of the hard compound.
The addition of two Safety Cars in Race 13 as well would have eased up some of the pressure on the tyres in that race, as well as the requirement for Saturday’s qualifying for drivers to only use the hard tyre – including in the Top-Fifteen Shootout.
De Pasquale though suffered in Race 15 for his tyre usage en route to his maiden win on Saturday, as a result finishing as the penultimate runner. So that philosophy of pooling all your good tyres into a single standout result still stands – though overall the results weren’t as varied as in Sydney.
Coulthard however after his Triple Crown loss to Whincup by nothing in terms of points, lamented the new tyre rules and labelled it as ‘not real racing’. However, the Shell V-Power racer had any other issues than just the tyres across the weekend – with his Turn 1 mistake in Race 14 ultimately what cost him the round.