Melbourne’s Albert Park grand prix, the traditional Formula One curtain raiser, has been pushed back to April 10 in a record-breaking 23-event calendar for 2022.
The Townsville 500 marked the first street event of the 2021 Supercars championship, which is an odd fact to ponder given the category was formerly synonymous with its season-opening race on the streets of Adelaide.
However, things are vastly different in the world these days, and the situation is no different for Supercars, who are once again battling with border closures and travel restrictions for the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing that stays the same, however, is the excellent racing on display, which again saw Red Bull Racing take the ascendency. Between the dominant bulls and a young bull in the making, here are the talking points from the Townsville 500.
Teammates square off
The Red Bull juggernaut dominated the opening 250-kilometre stanza of the Townsville 500, as both teammates squared off in an intense duel that lasted close to the duration of the race.
Championship leader Shane van Gisbergen claimed pole position via the top-ten shootout but lost the lead at the start of the 88-lap race to teammate Jamie Whincup. From there the Triple Eight duo finished a whopping 37.4 seconds ahead of third-placed Anton De Pasquale.
Whincup took his first pit stop from the lead on Lap 29, with Van Gisbergen following his teammate in on Lap 33. De Pasquale at this point had benefitted from an undercut on the Kiwi and found himself ahead of the championship leader.
However, Van Gisbergen within four laps was able to hunt down the Shell V-Power Mustang and take back the position before setting after Whincup and his 11.4-second margin in the lead.
Another pit stop for fuel came on Lap 58 for Whincup, who was stationary for 20 seconds, which allowed Van Gisbergen into the lead before his own final stop on Lap 64. The margin was cut to 3.8 seconds when both cars rejoined the race, setting up what would be an intense finish.
It took until Lap 70 for Van Gisbergen to make the winning move on Whincup, utilising the advantage of having six-lap-fresher tyres to dive down the inside of the seven-time Supercars champion at Turn 11.
Both drivers post race relished the battle, with an onboard reaction from Van Gisbergen as he crossed the line for his ninth win in 15 races one of absolute elation, which indicated how much the victory meant despite his healthy lead in the championship.
Carbon copy Sunday as Van Gisbergen gets 50th
Even though it was Whincup on pole on Sunday, Race 16 ended up being a carbon copy of Saturday’s 250-kilometre race as Van Gisbergen reeled in his teammate throughout the 88-lap race and took the 50th win of his Supercars career.
So much a facsimile was Race 15 that even De Pasquale in the Shell V-Power Mustang completed the podium after starting fifth. The 25-year-old came home on this occasion a distant 25 seconds from the lead.
At the start Van Gisbergen was swamped by a pair of Brad Jones Racing Commodores that vaulted from the second row of the grid. Both Todd Hazelwood and Nick Percat briefly moved ahead of the Kiwi before Van Gisbergen dispatched Hazelwood into Turn 3 and Percat into Turn 11.
Red Bull brought the race leader in for his first fuel and tyre stop on Lap 28, just as the backmarkers started to creep up. Van Gisbergen pitted on the following lap and then rejoined ten seconds behind Whincup after taking on more fuel.
Van Gisbergen continued to chip away at Whincup’s lead before the final phase of stops, which saw the race leader in on Lap 60 and also don a set of new tyres. Those tyres gave Whincup the advantage, as Van Gisbergen pitted on Lap 65 and ended up behind his teammate.
Four seconds separated the Red Bulls heading into the final sprint, and it was with 13 laps to go at Turn 13 when Van Gisbergen boldly went down the inside of Whincup and then parked his Commodore mid-corner to avoid a criss-cross.
Celebratory burnouts followed Van Gisbergen’s tenth victory of the season, the exhausted Kiwi emerging with a 245-point advantage in the championship.
No driver who has won ten races in a single season has gone on to lose the title, with Van Gisbergen on course to his second Supercars championship.
Three-tenth shootout advantage
Not only did the Red Bull teammates duke it out on track during the races, but they locked horns as well during both the top-ten shootouts for the weekend.
Whincup’s pole lap of 1:12.310 ahead of Race 16 was a vintage Whincup performance, claiming his 90th career pole. Importantly, though, he equalled the margin of three-tenths over teammate Van Gisbergen, which was the same margin that the Kiwi had over the seven-time champion for Race 15.
The 1:12.312 for Van Gisbergen on Saturday was ultimately slower than Whincup’s Sunday time, but what these pair of champions have demonstrated is how well they’re going with their Red Bull Commodores.
From the vision of the laps, both teammates look far more composed than their rivals in nailing together the sector times. Whincup’s Sunday pole lap was as good a lap as the seven-time champion has ever executed.
What this highlights is how poles apart both the Red Bull Racing teammates are from their competition in 2021, who’ve proved inconsistent throughout to emulate the performances that the former champions have been demonstrating.
Whincup’s heir apparent shines in Super2
One of the biggest stories in Supercars this year has been the impending retirement from full-time racing of seven-time champion Whincup, who announced prior to the start of the season that 2021 will be his last.
Upon hanging up the helmet the 38-year-old will be transitioning into the top job at Triple Eight Race Engineering, the organisation’s founding father, Roland Dane, will also retire from his position.
This has left a lot of conjecture around who’ll be piloting the No. 88 Red Bull car in 2022 given that it is one of the prized seats on the Supercars grid. Amongst some of the big names currently in the field, it is Super2 young gun Broc Feeney shaping up to be the heir apparent.
Having been poached to Triple Eight from the Tickford stable for 2021, the 18-year-old has been having a stellar season to date in the feeder series to Supercars. A sweep of the Townsville weekend, which included fastest times in both practice sessions, both qualifying sessions and then both races, saw Feeney tighten his grip on the championship lead.
Wins in three of the four races contested in Super2 so far see the Triple Eight protege with a 51-point lead over Tickford’s Zak Best in the standings. Another ten races are provisionally scheduled for the remainder of Super2 in 2021 across another four rounds with Supercars.
Feeney has been a metronome in terms of his consistency and has shown the hallmarks of a talent worthy of being nurtured by Triple Eight if he was to ultimately claim the Super2 title and graduate to Supercars. Red Bull themselves have hinted at their desire for young talent to partner Van Gisbergen as well as giving them at least a two-year opportunity.
Double dose of Townsville
COVID-19 has impacted the Supercars championship once again, with another forced change to the schedule in this middle portion of the season.
The provisional Winton SuperSprint has again been postponed to a date yet to be determined due to travel restrictions between Victoria and states such as Queensland and New South Wales, who have battled recent outbreaks.
This has allowed Townsville to back up from this weekend for another round in less than a week’s time utilising the SuperSprint format instead of repeating the two 250-kilometre races that were a success here.
Provisionally there are six rounds currently slated for the remainder of the 2021 season, including the marquee Bathurst 1000, which is set to run on its traditional 10 October date. The current situation in New South Wales may yet further impact the championship, which is set to stage the Sydney SuperNight at the end of August.
The cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix in November also denies Supercars the opportunity to have squeezed a round at Albert Park in Victoria between the Auckland SuperSprint and the Gold Coast 500 finale.
While it’ll be great to get more racing in less than seven days at the Reid Park circuit, there will be plenty of questions asked in regards to the remainder of the championship, especially with border closures between states currently still a fickle matter.