A collected Scott McLaughlin has claimed the opening race from Sydney Motorsport Park in a grandstand finish which saw the #17 Mustang cross the line less than two-tenths ahead of rival Shane Van Gisbergen.
Battling indecently fast tyre degradation, McLaughlin would be compelled to defend from a hard-charging Van Gisbergen across the final five laps as the Red Bull Commodore desperately sought for a way past the nonchalant race leader.
It was not to be and McLaughlin duly drove to a sublime 45th career victory despite nursing evidently wounded tyres compared to his rivals.
From the start it was clear the two rivals were playing an entirely different strategy game, with McLaughlin pushing on his fresh rubber to have established a comfortable three-second lead over Van Gisbergen by lap three.
Cameron Waters had a turbulent start and had fallen to sixth by turn two after having qualified an impressive third.
It was a reverse of fortunes for David Reynolds who had wrestled himself up to 13th by lap one, five spots above his qualifying position.
Despite being 106 days after the last time the 24-strong grid hit the track the race start was relatively clean with every driver safely making their way around turns 1 and 2 .
Further back and Fabian Coulthard began falling like a stone as the #12 DJR Team Penske Mustang struggled to match the pace of the leaders and came under constant pressure. An unforced error at the hairpin saw him relinquish positions to Anton De Pasquale and Lee Holdsworth.
Driving to a number proved well for Van Gisbergen who, as the race settled down, began eating time out of Mclaughlin’s lead hand over fist before the DJR crew whistled the race leader in for his mandatory pitstop at the halfway mark.
The early pitstop forced the championship leader to show his hand early and he would inevitably come under pressure towards the latter stages of the race.
Van Gisbergen would push on in clean air before making his pitstop a handful of laps later, correctly pre-dicting Mclaughlin’s tyres would ‘fall off’ in the second stint.
Waters and Holdsworth had found themselves ahead of Van Gisbergen as the pitstops played themselves out, though a fresh-tyre shod Red Bull meant the Tickford duo were easy prey and despite a small scare at turn one in an opportunistic dive on Waters, Van Gisbergen was elevated back into second by lap 21 and began to hunt down the race leader.
As the leaders dragged themselves away from the challenging pack, Van Gisbergen began to scythe into McLaughlin’s lead and closed to within a whisker as the pair started their penultimate lap.
A desperate lunge at turns 2 and 8 were all Van Gisbergen could offer but shrewd defence by the race leader was enough to ensure McLaughlin could exit the final corner with enough margin in hand to narrowly clinch victory.
A lonely Jamie Whincup would cruise home in third, nine seconds behind the leading pair while Chaz Mostert made late moves on former teammates Waters and Holdsworth to snare fourth.
Alex Davison would be the race’s sole retirement when his ZB Commodore suffered a bizarre front end suspension failure when coming in to serve his pitstop which saw the 40-year-old come to a halt, stuck in the fast lane and required a go-jack’s recovery by his mechanics to make it back to his pitbox.
Tomorrow the championship will have a further two 130km races with back-to-back qualifying sessions to open proceedings tomorrow starting from 12.35 pm NZT.
|2||Shane van Gisbergen||49:59.773|
|8||Anton De Pasquale||50:31.369|
|19||Jack Le Brocq||50:51.474|