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.
The Supercars championship was welcomed back to Bathurst this weekend for the beginning of a new season, making for back-to-back visits to the Mountain after the series ended 2020 at the epic Mount Panorama circuit.
For the first time since 1993 sprint racing was top billing at Bathurst with a pair of 250-kilometre single-driver races to raise the curtain on the 2021 championship season.
Bold new colours and fresh team line-ups always give a good thrill at the start of a new season, but it was the on-track action that produces the real talking points.
Van Gisbergen picks up where he left off
Shane van Gisbergen broke through at the end of 2020 to claim a maiden Bathurst 1000 victory with Garth Tander, and he’s continued his excellent run of form at the famed circuit, winning the first leg of the Mount Panorama 500.
The 2016 Supercars champion started from third in the 40-lap sprint race and benefited greatly from the demise of key contenders, such as polesitter Cameron Waters and DJR debutant Anton de Pasquale.
It was De Pasquale’s crash on lap seven at the Cutting that triggered the first safety car and the first round of pit stops. Race leader Waters headed Van Gisbergen, Tim Slade and Will Davison into the pits but was halted due to a power steering pump issue.
Van Gisbergen then emerged from the first round of stops to lead the race, while his Red Bull Ampol Racing teammate, Jamie Whincup, was hurt by double-stacking. From there the Kiwi led safety car beneficiary Bryce Fullwood – who had an excellent race to fifth – and made his second stop on lap 28.
Returning to the lead of the race with an almighty 11-second lead over Davison, there was no real threat to Van Gisbergen. Even Chaz Mostert, who’d been the benchmark pacesetter during the practice sessions, couldn’t reel in the Red Bull Commodore ahead.
There was a glimmer of hope for Walkinshaw Andretti United when the field was compressed after Slade’s heartbreaking crash with only a handful of laps to go. Mostert closed the gap to 1.4 seconds to Van Gisbergen, though the reigning Bathurst 1000 champion took the chequered flag to win Race 1 ahead of Mostert and Davison.
From pole to the flag again for SVG
Van Gisbergen made it a perfect 300-point weekend with another victory in Race 2, this time from pole position, achieved in the top-ten shootout ahead of Waters and the two Shell V-Power Mustangs.
A time of two minutes 05.617 seconds was the lap set by the Kiwi to eclipse provisional polesitter Waters, and the Red Bull Ampol racer made it look like an easy feat, claiming his first pole since Darwin and Race 18 in 2020.
The race saw Van Gisbergen jumped at the start by the Monster Energy Mustang, and Waters led the early phase of the race. However, Tickford electing to fill their car with more fuel during the first pit stop allowed Van Gisbergen to take back the lead on Waters’s out-lap.
From there Mostert threatened the top two by undercutting during the second pit stop on lap 23, but with Van Gisbergen, Waters and De Pasquale all pitting a lap later, the Appliances Online Commodore was denied.
Following the second round of stops, the margins between the top three were spread out further and at the time of the chequered flag falling. Van Gisbergen was over six seconds clear of the highest placing Ford in Waters.
Mostert made another appearance on the podium, though he lamented a troublesome top-ten shootout after which he ended up qualifying fifth. The 2014 Bathurst 1000 winner was over two seconds adrift of Waters in the end.
The Mountain still bites…
It’s a point to be made any time there is racing at Mount Panorama – and even at the former traditional season-opening Adelaide 500 – that racing can be unforgiving and does not discriminate.
The curtain-raiser for 2021 saw its first casualty during the opening practice session when Erebus rookie Will Brown binned his Commodore on the run down from Skyline. At first the damage was assessed to be enough to force a withdrawal for the rest of the weekend, though a mammoth effort from the crew overnight saw the car ready to race on Saturday.
Race 1 then claimed the lion’s share of casualties and struck right at the top of tree, taking the scalps of Waters, De Pasquale and Slade, who crashed out in the dying stages of the race and with a shot at the podium.
De Pasquale on lap seven went wide into the Cutting, which evoked memories of Whincup’s race-ending incident at last year’s Bathurst 1000. Given the 25-year-old’s speed all weekend, it was devastating given how early his retirement from the first 40-lap race was and the possibility of chasing a debut podium for DJR.
“It wasn’t a big hit, but obviously you pay a big price for it. Bad way to start the year, I feel really bad for everyone here,” was the reaction from De Pasquale to Fox Sports after returning to the garage.
Polesitter and early race leader Waters was also cruelled by a power steering problem, though he was fortunate enough to be classified at the end of the race to collect 45 points – unlike De Pasquale and Slade, who failed to score anything.
James Courtney in Race 2 was caught out at the Cutting also, this time on lap nine, losing control of his Boost Mobile Mustang. Given how tight this year’s championship is set to be, outcomes like this for the above contenders may have a significant impact on the end-of-season tally.
… but it bit Blanchard Racing Team hardest
Slade’s forlorn figure beside his busted Cooldrive Mustang at Forrest’s Elbow spoke volumes of the disappointment of the dramatic crash which started up at the Esses only five laps from the end of the race.
While Slade was thankfully uninjured in the incident, the crash was also sp severe on the car that the team were forced withdraw from the rest of the weekend, leaving the rest of us to ponder what if.
The 35-year-old was in pursuit of Davison’s Shell V-Power Mustang and the possibility of a maiden podium finish for the new Ford team.
Having qualified on the front row of the grid, Slade really announced himself on his return to full-time Supercars racing and the arrival of the new Blanchard Racing Team, headed up by father-son racing duo Tim and John Blanchard.
The Blanchards took their racing entitlements contract away from long-time home Brad Jones Racing during the off-season to start their own one-car operation in Melbourne, acquiring also the former 23Red Racing Mustang and a technical alliance with Tickford.
Key engineering personnel Mirko De Rosa and Brendan Hogan, who were recruited from Erebus and Tickford respectively, also bolster what could be a real surprise package in 2021.
A taste of things to come?
Coming into this season-opening weekend it was widely regarded that the likes of Van Gisbergen, Waters and Mostert would be in title contention during the 2021 championship, and the results of the Mount Panorama 500 confirmed it.
Van Gisbergen claimed the two wins and proved the more consistent driver, which will no doubt shape the narrative of this season. However, the pace shown by his rivals at Tickford and Walkinshaw Andretti United will mean that they can’t rest on their laurels.
It is quite pleasing to see Tickford and Walkinshaw Andretti United break into the top ranks given the stranglehold Triple Eight and Dick Johnson have had on the championship in recent years. However, race wins will be needed if they intend on stopping the juggernauts.
There’s no doubt that the title race is wide open without reigning Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin racing in the series this year. The question is: who has the consistency and tenacity to take the top gong?
Already we’ve seen mistakes from Tickford with their power steering pump failure in Race 1 and then Mostert’s dogged shootout lap for Race 2. Not to mention De Pasquale binning his Shell V-Power Mustang at the Cutting during Race 1.
On the other hand, quiet achiever Mark Winterbottom, with a fourth and fifth this weekend, currently sits third in the championship and only 69 points behind leader Van Gisbergen. Fourth-placed Davison is only 75 points adrift.
These mistakes and every result will prove critical at the end of the season when the championship arrives onto the streets of the Gold Coast. But the year is long and there is plenty of racing yet to pan out.
Who’s your early pick for the 2021 Supercars championship?