South Australia was welcomed by the Supercars championship in 2021, with a single visit to The Bend Motorsport Park which has become a mainstay on the calendar with its Bend SuperSprint.
It’s been a long off-season for the Supercars championship, having concluded the truncated 2020 campaign at the Bathurst 1000 back on October 18 – as Shane van Gisbergen with Garth Tander claimed the Great Race for Holden and Scott McLaughlin clinched a third championship.
2021 shapes to be another enthralling chapter for the Australian touring car championship, with fresh opportunities for drivers at their new teams, significant changes to the broadcast product – as well as hopefully a 12-event calendar.
Here then are some talking points from the world of Supercars during the lengthy off-season, ahead of the start of the 2021 championship.
Penske departs, McLaughlin to IndyCar
There has been plenty of time to digest this piece of news, though 2021 will indeed look different without the reigning three-time Supercars champion in Scott McLaughlin – as well as the involvement of Team Penske.
McLaughlin announced after his IndyCar debut at St Petersburg in October, that he would be indeed making a switch full-time to the premier American open-wheel championship with Team Penske. As an addon to the Kiwi’s departure from Supercars, the Penske organisation also revealed an end to its involvement in the series.
A massive shock, perhaps not – given the difficulties involved logistically for Roger Penske in 2020 with the global pandemic and international travel. Controversies with Supercars, however, especially the fallout of the 2019 Bathurst 1000 and the debut of the Ford Mustang – seemingly also soured the taste of the giant of motorsport.
Life goes on though, as Dick Johnson Racing will continue to race on as DJR and with continual backing from Shell V-Power. Key engineering personnel such as Ludo Lacroix and Richard Harris will remain in place, as long-time staff member Ben Croke is promoted to team manager under the watchful eye of Ryan Story.
Shell V-Power Racing will also boast a fresh driver line-up, having discarded the Penske-favourite veteran in Fabian Coulthard for young-gun Anton De Pasquale and two-time Bathurst 1000 winner Will Davison.
The general belief is that the team will be a race-winning force, still being the factory Ford team – tasked with the homologation duties for Gen3 in 2022. Davison is tipped to have a crack at the championship – at 38, having only finished runner up in 2009 and third in 2013.
De Pasquale, however, will need to demonstrate some consistency, which was a feat that was seldom seen during his three-seasons at Erebus Motorsport. However, having been regarded as one of the most talented drivers on the grid, he could be one of 2021’s surprise packages.
Big driver changes
Despite Shell V-Power Racing boasting one of the biggest changes to its line-up, the off-season hasn’t been short of additional significant driver movement.
De Pasquale wasn’t the only driver to depart Erebus, with David Reynolds shocking most having left the team – a year into his landmark 10-year deal with Betty Klimenko’s squad. The 2017 Bathurst 1000 winner has found a home at Kelly Racing, in place of team owner Rick Kelly, who stepped down from full-time racing at the end of 2020.
Reynolds also brought the prized title sponsor in Penrite across from Erebus to his Kelly Racing ride, leaving the Holden squad with a new line-up of exciting rookies in Will Brown and Brodie Kostecki.
Tickford was forced to sadly offload Lee Holdsworth, having been unable to secure a sponsor for the REC he was racing in 2020. Whilst the veteran has found himself as co-driver to Chaz Mostert at Walkinshaw Andretti United for Bathurst, the Ford squad has cut down to three cars now.
They will share garages though with the Blanchard Racing Team, as Tim Blanchard and Cooldrive fields a one-car entry for Tim Slade’s full-time return in a Mustang.
Tekno Team Sydney come into 2021 with the experience of DJR Team Penske refugee in Coulthard, as well as adding Garry Jacobson to the books after his single season at Matt Stone Racing – whom in turn have promoted their SuperLite drivers in Jake Kostecki and Zane Goddard to both full-time seats.
Whincup announces retirement, promotion to Team Boss
Entering his 18th full-time season in the Supercars championship, the decorated Jamie Whincup has announced that 2020 will be his last as a full-time driver.
Seven titles, 122-race wins and four Bathurst 1000 victories, Whincup is arguably the greatest of all time when it comes to the Australian touring car championship and his success also is paired with his loyalty to the Triple Eight organisation.
An organisation which he will take over as the Managing Director and Team Principal of in 2021, as the man who entrusted the young Whincup in 2006, Roland Dane, will step down and retire from those positions at season’s end.
This announcement ahead of the new season does place a weight of expectation on the 38-year old, as he gets set to pursue a record eighth Supercars championship. Whincup himself has admitted that he intends to avoid a Craig Lowndes style ‘funeral tour’ but given that the veteran is still driving at a high level, he should be in the thick of it in 2021.
A lack of consistency and errors plagued the Red Bull squad in 2020, with the relentless McLaughlin holding them to account at almost every event – though without the three-time champion on the grid this year – the opportunity is there for the seasoned combination of Whincup and van Gisbergen to strike back.
Whether he can win an eighth title or not, Whincup’s stellar career is still one to be in envy of, as no other active driver is within reaching distance of the Victorian’s incredible records.
2021 marks the beginning of an all-new broadcast deal for Supercars, which will see the Seven Network regain the rights to telecast the championship, as well as Fox Sports continue as the Pay TV provider.
This new five-year deal, sees the series return to what’s widely regarded as the home of the Australian touring car racing and has confirmed that six rounds in 2021 will be shown live on the Seven Network.
Those events will include this weekend’s Mount Panorama 500 and then the Darwin Triple Crown, Townsville, Sydney SuperNight, the Bathurst 1000 and the season-ending Gold Coast event.
A new bespoke graphics package will also debut during the first round, having in the past been specifically tailored to the aesthetics of the primary broadcaster. However, Supercars have now tried to present their graphics in a similar, slick style to Formula One and MotoGP.
There was controversy aplenty though during the off-season in regards to the team that will be presenting the championship on our screens in 2021, as fan-favourite technical and pit-lane pundit Mark Larkham was scrapped from the line-up.
Following an intense backlash and petitioning to reinstate the former Ford driver, Larkham was allowed to return and will link up with his commentary stalwarts in Neil Crompton and Mark Skaife.
Craig Lowndes and Garth Tander will also join Larko in the pit-lane, with the latter having been tipped to even land himself in the commentary box in place of Skaife at selected rounds.
Seven brings with it the likes of Abbey Gelmi, Jack Perkins, Molly Taylor (pending Extreme E commitments), Charli Robinson, Brad Hodge and the former Supercars host in Mark Beretta.
Fresh faces are intended to liven up the broadcast, which according to Supercars has been ‘too technical’ in the past. However, this is a sentiment that fans have disagreed with, given the value that the insight that individuals such as Larko bring.
It all starts at Mt Panorama
The narrative will begin where it concluded last time out and it couldn’t be at a more special place than Mount Panorama – which for the first time will host sprint races at the fabled 6.2km behemoth.
Whilst there is some sadness that Supercars hasn’t descended upon the streets of Adelaide and we won’t hear the roar of 26 Mustangs and Commodores charge towards the Senna Chicane, Bathurst is still a great way to get the season underway.
Two 250km races will headline the season opener, with top-ten shootouts for both. Music to the ears of the likes of van Gisbergen and Cameron Waters, who were the benchmark drivers in the 1000km race at the end of 2020.
From Bathurst, the championship will head to Melbourne in March – however not to Albert Park and the Australian Grand Prix support categories. Due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 globally, Formula One and the AGPC have elected to postpone the Grand Prix until November – though it remains to be seen if Supercars will be on the support bill.
Instead, a three-race sprint round at Sandown will take place on the March dates, before returning to the likes of Symmons Plains, The Bend and Winton. The majority of the 32-races on the calendar will be the same three-race sprint weekends as seen in 2020 – which brought with them plenty of close racing and a variety of winners.
The blue-riband Bathurst 1000 will again be the only endurance event in 2021, while Townsville and the Gold Coast season finale will feature two-250km races – as does the Mount Panorama 500.
By the time the cars first turn a wheel in anger for first practice at Mount Panorama, it would have been 131 days since the chequered flag fell at the very same venue. A long wait, which hopefully will pay off with one of the most exciting and enthralling Supercars seasons in recent history.