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.
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 was another enthralling weekend of Supercars racing as droughts were broken, maiden wins achieved and discussion over the future continued to ramp up across three fascinating three sprint races.
Here then are the talking points from The Bend SuperSprint.
Ford end winless streak with Heimgartner win
Coming into Race 9 at The Bend SuperSprint, Ford was staring down a winless streak of 223 days – which dated back to Cameron Waters’ last win in 2020 at this very venue. Such has been the dominance of the Commodores in 2021, that the reigning manufacturer’s champions were yet to notch up a win.
That changed however in the wet weather of Tailem Bend, as a new winner in Supercars emerged in the form of Andre Heimgartner for Kelly Grove Racing. The 25-year old Kiwi claimed a sensational pole position also in the wet and then went on to win by an adjusted 4.7 seconds over Chaz Mostert.
Adjusted, because Heimgartner was penalised five seconds for an unsafe release in the pit-lane, after his Kelly Grove Racing crew released the Mustang into the path of Jamie Whincup. It still didn’t stop the dominant display from the Ned Whiskey Ford, which had an 8.2 second buffer over Mostert at the fall of the chequered flag.
At the start of the race, Heimgartner was beaten on the run into Turn 1 by Mostert. Though the Appliances Online Commodore made a mistake at Turn 5, which allowed Anton De Pasquale through to the lead. Only temporarily though, as the Shell V-Power racer also found himself wide at Turn 6, allowing the pole sitter back to the front.
De Pasquale then ultimately rounded out the podium, finished at the head of a fascinating battle for third at the conclusion of Race 9, involving Waters and Nick Percat – who shot up from a miserable 26th on the grid to fifth for Brad Jones Racing.
The landmark victory was the first for the Kelly squad since team owner Rick won in 2018 whilst still racing the Nissan Altima. It’s the first win also in the newly formed partnership between the Kelly and Grove families – which is significant given they’re also the first Ford to win 2021, ahead of the likes of Tickford and DJR.
As for the emotional Heimgartner, he confessed post-race that he was “literally four days away from stopping racing,” back in 2017 after failing to secure a drive in Supercars. The Kiwi debuted in 2014 as a wildcard at the Bathurst 1000 for Tickford nee Prodrive, before launching into a underwhelming full season in the Super Black Racing Falcon.
2016 saw the 25-year old shift to Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport which also failed to yield success, before the watershed 2017 campaign – where he ended up being a late call up in the Enduro Cup for Tim Slade at the Gold Coast 600.
Subbing for the injured Ash Walsh, the last-minute pairing of Slade and Heimgartner at Brad Jones Racing ultimately earned them a podium finish, which was the Kiwi’s maiden in Supercars. This then springboarded him to return full-time with the Kelly squad in 2018, for whom he’s now won his maiden race.
De Pasquale earns Ford’s 400th win
After the great weekend at the Tasmania SuperSprint, the Shell V-Power Racing Team returned to their happy hunting ground at The Bend and were able to secure their first win of 2021.
Race 10 saw De Pasquale convert pole position to excellent victory, which happened to be a landmark 400th win for Ford as a manufacturer in the Australian touring car championship.
The first leg of Sunday’s double header also saw the Shell V-Power squad achieve their first one-two finish since the third race of last year’s Bend SuperSprint and a maiden one-two for the team’s new, and much talked about lineup of De Pasquale and Will Davison.
Two-time Bathurst 1000 winner Davison executed the better start, though was too deep into the first corner – allowing De Pasquale back into the lead. All before the 25-year old locked up himself at Turn 1 later on in the piece, though retained the lead.
Following their compulsory pit-stops there was a challenge from Shane van Gisbergen who had gained sixteen positions from the start and avoided the first lap chaos. Pitting late on Lap 16, van Gisbergen emerged to contend for the win – but was kept at bay by Davison.
De Pasquale then took the chequered flag by less than a second over Davison, while van Gisbergen capitalised on his championship rivals by racing through to secure an eighth podium of the season.
Having had pole position for both Sunday races, it was unfortunate that De Pasquale had to retire early on in Race 11 with an engine drama. The car looked to have had the pace to possibly go back-to-back with wins.
Contenders become collateral damage in Race 10
Ahead of Race 10’s start, the commentary team were cheekily building up hype around magnet rivals Mostert and Waters being on the third row of the grid together. Given their history of incidents, it was almost as if fisticuffs were being encouraged.
Inevitable was made between the Commodore and Mustang on the opening lap, though the pair were collateral damage if anything – as chaos ensued at Turn 6, involving multiple drivers.
Race 9 winner Heimgartner was aggressive into Turn 5 and forced his way past Tim Slade, who qualified an impressive third. The Cooldrive Mustang was pushed wide and off the track, then while re-joining ended up tagging Mostert – who then concertinaed into Waters.
Macauley Jones and David Reynolds were also innocent casualties in that melee, which Mostert described as ‘dodgem cars, not Supercars’, as his race was ended prematurely with significant damage.
Waters also failed to finish with damage to the rear end of his Monster Energy Mustang, which unfortunately meant that both he and Mostert failed to score points. A cruel twist in both their respective title tilts, after the pair finished Saturday having taken points off van Gisbergen.
Despite victory in Race 11 for Waters, the Ford driver still trails van Gisbergen in standings by 264-points in fifth. Mostert meanwhile remains third, despite the opportunity to move up to second in Race 10 and has a 246-point deficit to the leader.
Waters completes Mustang trifecta
Finally, Waters was able to break through for his first win of the 2021 season, holding off van Gisbergen in Race 11 to rebound from the non-classified result earlier in the day.
The 2017 Sandown 500 winner had been winless since Race 30 last year, which was at The Bend albeit the shortened layout.
From the second row of the grid, the 26-year old launched himself into contention with pole sitter De Pasquale and Whincup. The Monster Energy Mustang dispatched the Red Bull Commodore in a matter of corners, while it wasn’t until the early retirement of the Shell V-Power Mustang which allowed Waters to inherit the lead.
Van Gisbergen swapped positions with teammate Whincup and set about going after the leading Mustang, by also going long into the opening stint. Waters pitted midway through the race, though question marks remained over how the Tickford racer would be able to manage its tyres given their recent issues.
Making his Mustang as wide as possible, Waters held his ground to get home by under a second over the 2016-Supercars champion – who again collected vital championship points in second place.
An early pit-stop for Davison after starting fifth, by comparison to the rest of the leaders, saw the 38-year old split the Red Bull Commodores and ultimately net another trophy for the weekend in third.
Waters’ victory completes a hattrick of wins for Ford, having come into The Bend SuperSprint round being winless in 2021. It also was the perfect reward for the Tickford crew, who were forced to completely repair the right-rear end of that car following the Race 10 damage.
What’s going on with Gen3?
2022 is supposed to usher in a new era for the Supercars championship, with the evolution of the current technical regulations to allow more two-door coupe cars to compete, prepare the category for a hybrid powered future and ultimately create a low-cost formula.
However, with rumblings in recent weeks about possible delays to the start of the 2022 season and growing unrest in regards to the specifics of the ruleset – Supercars is set to hold a crisis meeting next week with all 11 of the current teams.
Supercars have moved to reject any ideas of a delayed start to 2022 to accommodate the shift to Gen3, nor postponing the introduction of the new regulations by another year and until 2023.
Given the seismic nature of the Gen3 evolution, it is difficult with the current information to see the category be ready in time for a 2022 start. Unless the meeting this week proves to be a watershed moment in nailing down the regulations – Supercars’ reputation surely will take further criticism.
One of the major points from critics, of which include a number of drivers, is the proposal to switch to paddle shifters and ditch the much-loved sequential stick shift. Championship leader van Gisbergen has been the chief when it comes to the anti-paddle rhetoric, having multiple times during the telecasts this year openly criticised the proposal.
At the end of the day, Supercars needs to remain as bespoke as it can – given how unique it is as a competitive touring car championship and as a spectacle. It would be a tragedy if it went down the DTM route and was forced to adopt GT3 cars to continue.