He might have lost last year’s Virgin Australia Supercars Championship in heartbreaking circumstances, but Scott McLaughlin has fought back with vigour in the opening 12 races of 2018. LACHLAN MANSELL runs his eye over the key contenders for the Winton SuperSprint.
It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but the final race of the 2017 Supercars Championship at the Newcastle 500 may just have been the best thing for Scott McLaughlin’s career.
To come so close to winning the title, only to miss out at the very last hurdle, seems to have brought out an even more determined, committed and focused McLaughlin in the first five events of the season. And based on the last two events in particular, that’s a real worry for the rest of the field.
After hovering around the top five and picking up a couple of podium results at the Adelaide 500, Australian Grand Prix and Tasmania, McLaughlin was utterly dominant at Phillip Island and Barbagallo, notching up four race victories in a row.
Three of those four wins were lights-to-flag victories from pole but his fourth win was even more spectacular – a stunning charge through the field from 19th on the grid in his Shell V-Power Ford FG Falcon, in a pure display of raw speed and race-craft, along with exemplary strategy from the DJR Team Penske outfit.
As a result, McLaughlin heads to Winton with a commanding 158 point advantage over his nearest rival, Red Bull Holden Racing Team pilot Shane Van Gisbergen. To put this into perspective, even if SVG wins the Saturday race at Winton and McLaughlin fails to finish, McLaughlin will still lead the championship.
There’s no doubt that on his day, Van Gisbergen has the speed to challenge McLaughlin for the title and nowhere was this more apparent than the Adelaide 500, where he won both races. Since then though, he hasn’t quite demonstrated the raw pace we saw at Adelaide and a couple of technical issues – a pedal box drama at Symmons Plains and a power steering issue at Phillip Island – have left him further behind McLaughlin than he would have liked.
Third in the points is David Reynolds, who together with his Erebus Motorsport team, deserves a lot of credit for his meteoric improvement in form over the last two years, in which he has gone from showing occasional glimpses of speed, to consistently fighting for podium finishes. Reynolds is riding a wave of momentum that started with his sensational Bathurst 1000 victory and he already has a race win to his credit this season, emerging victorious in one of the races at the Australian Grand Prix.
Rounding out the top five in the standings are fan-favourite Craig Lowndes and seven-time champ Jamie Whincup in their Triple Eight ZB Commodores, both drivers scoring race wins at Symmons Plains.
The other race winner this season has been Scott Pye, who brilliantly held on for a memorable maiden victory on slick tyres in the rain at Albert Park.
Pye is sixth in the standings ahead of his Walkinshaw Racing team-mate James Courtney, Chaz Mostert (Tickford Racing), Fabian Coulthard (Shell V-Power Racing) and Tim Slade (Freightliner Racing). Slade and his Brad Jones Racing team-mate Nick Percat could spring a surprise at Winton; the BJR team has a knack for nailing the setup at Winton and Slade was victorious in both 2016 races at the nation’s action track.
Of the Nissan drivers, Rick Kelly has been the most promising, finishing on the podium in both Phillip Island races, and Winton has been a happy hunting ground for the Nissan Altima in the past, James Moffat taking the first Supercars victory for the manufacturer at the venue in 2013.
The 2018 Supercars field has a total of five rookies – the largest contingent for a number of seasons – and the battle to be the best newbie has been an intriguing sub-plot. Pre-season, many industry experts were tipping Richie Stanaway to lead the newcomers, following a strong campaign from the New Zealander in last year’s endurance races.
However, Stanaway has struggled and instead it has been Jack Le Brocq (Tekno Autosports) and Anton De Pasquale (Erebus Motorsport) who have been fighting for rookie honours, both drivers recording top-10 qualifying and race performances.
As always, the technical Winton layout will keep the cars close together and finding the right strategy will be critical, especially in Sunday’s 200km race… so there’s no doubt the 2018 Winton SuperSprint is shaping up to be a cracker.