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.
Four events in four weeks for the Supercars championship has meant we’re back to racing only seven days after the Darwin Triple Crown at the very same Hidden Valley Raceway in Australia’s Top End.
The margins for error continue to tighten, and with only soft tyres at their disposal during the Darwin SuperSprint, it was again another enthralling weekend of Supercars racing.
Here are the talking points from another round of racing in Darwin, from a new record for the reigning champion to assessing whose title credentials at this stage of the year are genuine.
Scott McLaughlin surpasses Peter Brock for wins
Another dominant victory for Scott McLaughlin during Saturday’s Race 16 not only extended his lead in the championship but also moved him past an all-time Supercars legend in terms of overall race wins.
A 49th career win saw the young Kiwi move to fifth overall for wins in Australian touring car history ahead of the late great Peter Brock. McLaughlin won the race ahead of Red Bull Holden rival Jamie Whincup, who holds the record with 120 wins in Supercars.
McLaughlin started on the front row of the grid after being unable to match Whincup in the top-15 shootout for pole position. At the start the two-time Supercars champion walked off the line on the clean side of the track and asserted himself on the run into Turn 1.
From there the Shell V-Power racer made his compulsory pit stop on Lap 6 and still maintained the lead over Whincup, who was in a lap later. There was no change in the order for the rest of the race, and McLaughlin cruised to his sixth win of the season.
“It is very cool. It’s a proud moment for me and my family,” McLaughlin said of passing the Brock record. “There’s no comparison between us, in regards to myself there was so less races [sic] compared to what there is now.”
Behind the top two runners in the championship was an all-Tickford battle for the final spot on the podium, which went the way of Cameron Waters, who picked up his first trophy since the season-opening Adelaide 500.
It was the Boost Mobile Mustang of James Courtney that had started the race in third, though Waters got the overcut in the pit stops to jump his stablemate for that third spot on the rostrum, solidifying what was another strong race for the Victorian squad.
A half-century and perfect weekend for Scott
Backing up from surpassing Brock’s record of wins for fifth on the all-time Supercars wins tally, McLaughlin then went on to execute a perfect weekend at Hidden Valley with three victories from three races.
Getting smooth starts in all three races from the front row of the grid, McLaughlin walked off the line again in Race 17 from pole position for a ten-second win over a much improved Shane van Gisbergen for what was a 50th career win.
Then the following race on Sunday afternoon saw the Shell V-Power Mustang from second on the grid make another blinder of a start to lead Van Gisbergen again into Turn 1 and not look back from there for a 14-second victory over Nick Percat and Scott Pye.
McLaughlin hailed his Mustang as the “best ever” car he’s driven in Supercars and paid credit the soft-only tyre allocation for the Darwin SuperSprint as opposed to the hard and soft compounds in use for the Triple Crown last weekend.
Having soft tyres only meant teams were able to show more of their true pace instead of varying tyre strategies presenting a jumbled order – though the No. 17 car has been quick regardless of the tyre thrown onto it.
Coming into the weekend with a 101-point lead over Whincup after a perfect 300-point event, McLaughlin leaves Darwin with a mighty 177-point lead over his nearest-placed rival in the championship.
The emergence of Team 18
There is probably no more passionate a team owner in Supercars at the moment than Charlie Schwerkolt, someone who’s seen the highs and plenty of lows in this very competitive championship.
It’s very warming to see his own team, which came into being in 2016 after breaking away from Walkinshaw Racing, finally deliver the results it deserves, especially as the independent squad is on the road and unable to return home to Melbourne due to coronavirus restrictions.
Scott Pye, who joined Team 18 over the off-season in the expanded two-car operation, achieved the squad’s first podium during the Triple Crown last week, though he backed up that trip to the rostrum with another during Race 17 at Hidden Valley Raceway.
Starting third, Pye lost his position to a fast-starting Fabian Coulthard from behind and then elected to run very long into the opening stint on the soft tyre to be on fresher tyres at the end to take back the position.
With eight laps to go, Pye made a stunning move going into final corner down the inside on Coulthard to move into third place. From there the Supercars race winner was able to chase down Van Gisbergen and just get pipped for second.
The DeWalt car then backed up third in the early race for another third-place finish behind Percat.
Pye’s podium performances should take nothing away from the efforts of 2015 champion Mark Winterbottom either, who has consistently been in the top ten throughout this year’s championship so far.
Frosty had the pace in the qualifying session prior to the shootout ahead of Saturday’s Race 16, though he qualified seventh and ultimately finished down in 11th during that race, suffering through bad strategy and dealing with traffic.
It was a similar story for the former Bathurst winner in Race 17 en route to ninth. Then, after a third-place start for the final race of the weekend, Winterbottom was held up behind Van Gisbergen in the second stint before finishing fourth and being robbed of a chance to claim a podium.
SVG gets an engine change
Ever since the non-classified result for Shane van Gisbergen back at Race 2 in Adelaide it has been an uphill climb for the 2016 Supercars champion. Since the championship resumed following the forced break due to the coronavirus the Kiwi has not been as impressive as one would’ve thought.
However, an engine change after Race 16 for the Red Bull Holden racer saw an improvement in the 31-year-old’s pace, with Van Gisbergen striking back in the qualifying session for Race 18 to take the pole position.
He was second to McLaughlin in Race 17 and was just barely able to secure another podium in Darwin after Saturday’s result of eighth, seeing the Kiwi drop back to fifth in the championship standings.
A drag race to the chequered flag with his good friend Scott Pye saw Van Gisbergen just edge out the Team 18 Commodore for that runner-up position, nine seconds behind race winner McLaughlin.
Race 18 saw the Kiwi beaten off the line by rival McLaughlin, and he then dropped out of podium contention after Percat’s fast start from fourth up into second. Van Gisbergen then could not match the pace of the Team 18 cars, with Pye ahead before a late battle with Winterbottom on fresh tyres.
The Irwin Tools Commodore then made the pass after some very staunch defending by Van Gisbergen to finish fourth, with the Red Bull holding fifth ahead of Mostert. Overall it was a much-improved weekend for Van Gisbergen, who jumped to third in the championship.
Who’s in the championship hunt?
Coming into the Darwin SuperSprint weekend there was a 101-point gap between McLaughlin and Whincup in the championship, with these newly revised sprint races now paying 100 points per race victory.
It is typical to see contenders from the Shell V-Power Racing Team and Red Bull Holden Racing outfit fighting for the championship, but is the title race already a two-horse competition?
There’s no doubting McLaughlin’s sheer skill and pace between qualifying and the races. The off-season aero changes to create greater parity between the Ford Mustang and the Holden Commodore ZB as well as the shift to a control shock absorber have really done little to hamper the reigning series champion, and nor have the new tyre regulations.
What is a bit of a surprise is how Van Gisbergen has been struggling by comparison to Red Bull teammate Whincup, who has stayed at arm’s length to the championship leader ahead.
Zero points for his DNF at the Adelaide 500 is still haunting the 2016 Supercars champion, and despite making big gains during the Darwin SuperSprint weekend to third in the standings the Kiwi is still a massive 345 points behind McLaughlin.
Chaz Mostert, who since Adelaide had been sitting third in the championship, finally found himself relegated a spot after an 18th-place finish in Race 17. This was due to a 15-second penalty the Walkinshaw Andretti United recruit had copped for sending Nick Percat into a spin at Turn 1 on Lap 33.
The 28-year-old could have been seen as an outsider for the championship with his consistency at the revived Walkinshaw outfit, though without any race wins so far this year it’s fair to say the team still has some gains to make.
If the 2020 title race is to conclude at the Bathurst 1000, where 300 points are at stake for the winner, then every result leading up to the endurance classic will be crucial, especially given there’s still no certainty over whether there will be another round of racing in between the Townsville double-header and the trip to Mount Panorama.
The lack of a full Enduro Cup perhaps hurts opportunities for the Red Bull Holdens, who typically make significant points gains through those races on their opposition, placing more emphasis on these sprint races.
At this stage and with the consistency and form he is showing it is difficult to look past McLaughlin for a third consecutive championship – though in the Supercars anything could happen, and that 177-point lead could yet vanish.