Super battles

By Benalla Ensign

While passionate discussions have raged over equality between the manufacturers in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, one driver is methodically going about the business of defending his title.

Lachlan Mansell looks at the form guide for the Winton SuperSprint.

The introduction of Ford’s Mustang into the Supercars Championship has ignited one of the most fiery and vicious debates about parity in the category for more than a decade.

The arguments began when Mustangs dominated the opening two events on the calendar at Adelaide and the Australian Grand Prix, and Supercars responded by conducting analysis on the centre of gravity of the Mustang, along with the Holden ZB Commodore and Nissan Altima, and also evaluating the aerodynamic packages of all three vehicles.

Adjustments were made to the centre of gravity of both the Ford and Holden in time for the third event at Tasmania’s Symmons Plains circuit; the Mustangs also received an aero tweak just before the Perth night races.

The on-the-run adjustments may have triggered emotional reactions from team owners and race fans, but through all the controversy, one thing has remained constant: defending champion Scott McLaughlin and his Shell V-Power Mustang have maintained their status as the most formidable combination in the field.

Heading to Winton, McLaughlin had won eight of the 12 races, and finished second in two others. Apart from a retirement in one of the Grand Prix races due to an unusual and embarrassing tangle with Cameron Waters on his way to the starting grid, McLauglin’s worst result has been fourth – he holds a commanding 142-point advantage over his teammate Fabian Coulthard in the standings.

If anything, the parity arguments have simply had the effect of firing McLaughlin up, the Kiwi saying he was becoming frustrated.

‘‘I’ve seen how hard everyone’s worked as soon as this (Mustang) thing was announced,” McLaughlin said.

“They worked bloody hard on building the car from the computer screen to what it is now.”

When McLaughlin hasn’t finished on top, Coulthard has often been there to pick up the pieces, scoring victories at Phillip Island and Perth. The other drivers to win races have been Shane Van Gisbergen (Tasmania) and Chaz Mostert (who capitalised on the McLaughlin/Waters incident at the Grand Prix). They are third and fifth in the standings, split by David Reynolds who has had a consistent, if not spectacular season, in his Penrite Commodore.

With seven titles under his belt, Jamie Whincup should never be discounted from challenging at the sharpest end of the field, but it has been a less-than-ideal season for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team driver so far. One of the major technical pre-season changes – a ban on twin-spring dampers – seems to have affected Whincup and his team more than others, and a difficult round at Phillip Island cost him bulk points to his main rivals.

An interesting sub-plot has been the battle between the drivers who have changed teams for this season; Mark Winterbottom left his long-time seat at Tickford to drive a Commodore for the single-car Team 18 operation, in what turned out to be a straight swap with Lee Holdsworth.

So far, Winterbottom is narrowly ahead, having taken a pole at Symmons Plains, but Holdsworth edged closer with a pair of top-10 race results in Perth.

Another driver who changed teams is Richie Stanaway, the highly-rated New Zealander leaving Tickford after a tough rookie season and moving to Garry Rogers Motorsport. So far, Stanaway’s results have not matched the potential demonstrated by his stellar overseas results or wet-weather performances in the Supercars endurance races of 2017.

Winton is a circuit that often throws up surprise results – last year Rick Kelly took his Nissan to victory lane, while in 2016 Tim Slade won both races.

Indeed, Slade and his Brad Jones Racing teammate Nick Percat have been in solid form this season, and it would not be a surprise to see one of the drivers from the Albury team on the podium.

With its numerous direction changes and short straights, Winton is a track that keeps the cars close together, but makes passing a challenge.

Finding the optimum strategy will therefore be critical, especially in Sunday’s 200km race where all cars will need to make at least two pit stops.