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 well over a year since Victoria had any Supercars action, since the ill-fated Australian Grand Prix was cancelled in March 2020, thus cancelling the support round for the top touring car category.
Though Victorians – in their limited capacity – were treated this weekend to some enthralling racing between the cream of the crop in the Supercars championship. In its first non-endurance race since 2011, Sandown did not disappoint and here are the talking points from a bumper SuperSprint.
Van Gisbergen defies the odds on Saturday
Following his domination of the season opening Mount Panorama 500, Shane van Gisbergen broke his collarbone in a mountain bike accident, two weeks away from the second round of the championship at Sandown.
With time against the Kiwi for recovery, it was decided that the Red Bull Holden squad would give their driver every opportunity to prove fitness, including allowing van Gisbergen to compete in the opening practice sessions.
Having been cleared by the Supercars medics to race, the 2016 series champion qualified a lowly 17th for Saturday’s Race 3. With little expectation on his wounded shoulders to make an impact, van Gisbergen marched forward during the race.
With safety car interference early on for an incident involving Bryce Fullwood and Garry Jacobson, the Kiwi was up to 11th by Lap 8 before vaulting up to sixth by Lap 16 when the race leaders began to pit.
Van Gisbergen was left out until Lap 25 until his mandatory stop in the 36-lap sprint race, but his gains ensured he re-joined the race in its dying stages among the lead battle between Cameron Waters, Chaz Mostert and Red Bull teammate Jamie Whincup.
A stunning double overtake from van Gisbergen saw him dispatch Mostert and Whincup, before race leader Waters was passed into Turn 1 on the final lap, sealing the Kiwi’s first win at Sandown.
In a season where he’s tipped as the favourite for the championship, van Gisbergen put in a champion’s drive on Saturday through the pain of his busted collarbone to ensure his rivals would have no gain in the standings.
Then van Gisbergen proceeds to dominate Sunday
As if the 17th-to-first performance under injury wasn’t unbelievable enough, van Gisbergen went on to sweep the entire Sandown SuperSprint, claiming both Sunday poles and race wins.
It was a wet and wild Sunday at Sandown, and the Red Bull Holdens were in their element, having locked out the front row for both Races 4 and 5. Van Gisbergen went on to claim victories by 13 and 14 seconds respectively.
Race 4’s opening stanza saw some epic exchanges between the championship leader and Mostert, who leapt into the lead initially from third. Exploiting the absolute limit of grip on their Dunlop wet tyres, both Holden heavyweights entertained before a safety car neutralised the field, following Macauley Jones coming to a halt at Turn 1.
Van Gisbergen made a demon restart on Lap 9 and put himself ahead of Mostert permanently for this race, before his pit stop on Lap 21 to ensure a fourth consecutive victory.
A 45th career win came in Race 5 where the rain was at its heaviest in race conditions. It didn’t stop van Gisbergen nailing his start and putting distance between himself and teammate Whincup.
There was a threat from surprise podium contender Brodie Kostecki, who emerged into the lead after the Kiwi had made his pit stop. The Erebus rookie then was brought in on the third last lap for his change of tyres, allowing van Gisbergen back into the lead.
Five straight wins from the start of the season means that van Gisbergen is close to breaking Mark Skaife’s record of six straight wins from Race 1 in 1994. The Kiwi also holds a 150-point lead over his teammate Whincup.
Clash of the titans
While van Gisbergen stole the headlines for his stunning victory in Race 3, it was ultimately set up among a spectacular clash of the predicted championship titans for 2021.
The front row of the grid was locked out by old rivals in Mostert and Waters, though the start of the race saw Mark Winterbottom in the Irwin Commodore challenge his former teammates going into the first corner.
Waters led from Winterbottom initially and both matched each other strategically, pitting at the end of Lap 19. Whincup in this period ended up ahead of Winterbottom, while Mostert undercut the three of them altogether.
Unbeknown to the front runners was the solid progress of van Gisbergen who was knocking on the door of the leading quartet. Following the Kiwi’s late pit stop, Winterbottom and Shell V-Power Racing’s Anton De Pasquale found themselves behind, as did Mostert, who ultimately finished sixth.
Mostert’s earlier stop and older tyres meant that he was susceptible to Waters on Lap 34, before being victim of van Gisbergen’s epic double pass on he and Whincup. The 2014 Bathurst 1000 winner then dropped behind Winterbottom and De Pasquale.
The physically wounded van Gisbergen then threw down at Waters, pressuring the Monster Energy Mustang on the penultimate lap, before his race-winning overtake going into Turn 1 on the final lap.
Race 3 was ultimately a telling tale of the heavyweights vying for this 2021 Supercars championship and it didn’t disappoint with how it unfolded. It was a spectacular race for any viewer and perhaps one of the best in the modern Supercars era.
Unexpected maiden podium for Erebus’ Kostecki
Wet conditions in any motorsport always mixes up the order and provides surprise results and it was no different during Race 5, where rookie Kostecki finished runner up to the dominant van Gisbergen.
Qualifying an impressive seventh, in stark contrast to his teammate Will Brown in 19th, Kostecki made some impressive moves up the order, including the pass on Whincup to get himself within a sniff of the podium.
Mostert dropped out of contention with this group after a throttle cable issue brought him back into the Walkinshaw Andretti United garage, following his pit stop on Lap 11. On Lap 17, Kostecki became second behind van Gisbergen after clearing David Reynolds, who ultimately finished third.
Then three laps from the end of the 36-lap race, Kostecki pitted with a 31-second lead over the 2016 Supercars champion and then re-joined in second, bringing home the first piece of silverware for Erebus since The Bend last year.
It was vindication for the 23-year-old, who impressed during last year’s Bathurst 1000, when he was co-driving with former Erebus driver De Pasquale and was getting his elbows out against seven-time champ Whincup.
It would’ve also been vindication for Erebus, who underwent significant changes during the off-season in terms of bringing an all-new driver line-up for 2021 and new engineers following the departure of Reynolds, De Pasquale and their respective chief engineers.
Sprint racing is a winner at Sandown
2020 would have seen the shift from the traditional 500-kilometre endurance race to the SuperSprint format for the suburban Melbourne circuit, however the coronavirus pandemic forced the calendar to drop the Victorian event altogether.
Having fondly thought of Sandown as being synonymous with the pre-Bathurst enduro status, despite having hosted a sprint round in 2011, it was difficult imagining the event as a SuperSprint in 2021.
However, how wrong were we all proven? The racing across the weekend was phenomenal, without mentioning the van Gisbergen narrative of returning to race and to win with a broken collarbone.
Combined with the treacherous weather on Sunday, there was continual bumper-to-bumper racing between the championship heavyweights, as the likes of Mostert, Waters and van Gisbergen headlined.
Despite not having a fruitful weekend, Mostert provided the bulk of the entertainment in his battles with van Gisbergen and ultimately with former teammate Waters, whom he turned around in Race 4 to add another chapter in their book of feuds.
“These guys here at WAU pay me to have cracking moves and have a go to try and try get the result,” said the 2014 Bathurst 1000 champion, following his run in with André Heimgartner at the end of the race.
Aggressive strategies also backed up solid drives for the likes of Kostecki and Reynolds in Race 5.
All in all, hopefully Sandown is kept on the Supercars schedule for as long as possible and this weekend proved that even in sprint form it is beyond entertaining.