After almost four months leave, the Supercars circus is back in gear this weekend for the Repco Mount Panorama 500. Qualifying one for the weekend kicks off at 10.50am on Saturday morning, with the series opener following at 4.10pm in the afternoon.
It’s shaping up to be a doozy of a year, given all of the off-season silly season seat swaps, the end of the Car of the Future era, the retirement of Jamie Whincup and Indy-fueled departure of Scott McLaughlin, and the shuffling triggered by the ongoing ramifications of Covid-19. On top of all that, here’s five big talking points to consider ahead of this weekend’s racing.
Who needs Penske?
Speculation that Shell V-Power Racing is going to be a dead duck without Roger Penske’s involvement and Scott McLaughlin’s wheelman skills is unlikely to be founded. Both drivers should be expected to be championship challengers, which in itself is likely to create an interesting inter-team rivalry.
On one hand Will Davison will be out to prove that he’s in his driving prime and years away from retirement. His ace pre-Covid-19 performances for 23 Red Racing are solid evidence of this. On the other hand Anton De Pasquale has been ‘the next big thing’ in the sport for years now, and this is arguably his first shot in a proper blue-chip ride.
Critically, there are two other things being retained — Shell support and Ludo Lacroix. Shell’s ongoing commitment to the team is worth its weight in Premium 98, and helps slay some of DJR’s past demons in regards to retaining sponsors. Lacroix meanwhile is undoubtedly one of the sharpest engineering minds in pit-lane. We saw what he helped McLaughlin become.
Same track, different beast
This is the first time in the modern Supercars era that the series has visited Mount Panorama in a sprint-race capacity. Admittedly, the races themselves aren’t sprints — they’re two 250km slogs. But, the point still stands … expect these races to map very differently to a traditional Bathurst visit.
Logically, the racing itself should be good. Mount Panorama packs a healthy number of passing opportunities into a lap, even though there’s just one in the whole middle sector. There will be comparatively minimal strategy, which in theory means more passing for more of the time.
The interesting counterpoint is history. When the Supercars last tried to make sprint racing at Bathurst happen 25 years ago, the result was three rather dull races (save for the two WGR Coke Holdens taking each other out on lap one turn one). Hopefully history won’t be repeating.
“Check out the split, it’s awesome!”
Another symptom of hosting a sprint-based Supercars event outside of the 1000 is that it has the potential to overshadow the lap record theatrics that we always get on the edge of our seat for each October.
With cars set-up to tackle two 250km races instead of one honkin’ 1000km marathon, there’s a chance that we’ll see quicker times than normal through practice and qualifying. The counterpoint to this is that the quick times we see at the 1000 are motivated in part by the history and spectre of the event. Still, it’ll be a bit of a bummer if someone cranks out a 2min 01 sec lap in quali won’t it?
The kids are alright
Normally it’s around this time we round up all the rookies on the Supercars grid and wheel out a familiar list of truths about how competitive the series is and how our expectations of rookies should be tempered and how there’s a bedding period. To a certain degree, that can be thrown out the window for the season opener.
On one hand, staging the event at Bathurst makes it a different kind of gauntlet to run. However, it’s worth noting that all of the full-time rookies on the grid were wheeling Supercars at Bathurst last October.
Will Brown, Brodie Kostecki, Jake Kostecki, Zane Goddard are the full-time rookies (although the latter pairing did a half-season each in 2020, so ‘rookies’ is admittedly a slightly demeaning label). Each has visited the mountain multiple times and has impressed here in a Supercar in one way or another. Eyes on Brodie in particular — he was a fierce competitor at last year’s 1000.
Watch the skies
According to preliminary weather forecasts, there’s a high chance of rain for Saturday. The Bureau of Meteorology reports a 70 per cent change of showers, most likely in the morning and afternoon, with the potential for a thunderstorm in the afternoon and evening. The remainder of the week appears unlikely to be wet, with showers around 30 per cent likely on Friday and Sunday.
The Mountain loves a sudden shower, of course. Over the course of its history it’s been known for having its own little weather cycle not unlike that of Pukekohe Raceway closer to home. One of these timed for qualifying or racing on Saturday could wreak utter chaos.
A new era
All the fluffy floury ‘new era’ language should be reserved for 2023 and the arrival of Gen 3. But I think you can overlay some of it on this new season, namely in the wake of McLaughlin’s departure.
The last handful of years will be looked back upon as McLaughlin’s era, where he was the undeniable driver to beat at every race weekend for a stint of three years (some may say four). Before that it was the Jamie Whincup era, before that it was the Walkinshaw/Clayton and Marcos Ambrose/Stone Brothers Racing era, and so on and so on.
With McLaughlin gone the series has been split wide open. Red Bull’s driver duo are a logical bet but come off a mixed few seasons. The Shell Mustangs have the potential to be just as competitive as they were last year. Tickford Racing had incredible momentum in late 2020, particularly with one Cameron Waters. And there’s a huge chunk of drivers in the mid-pack who are capable of winning races — and maybe even sewing together a consistent season.
Enough of the chit chat, let’s get on with it.