Now known as the ‘Grand Finale’, there isn’t a better track in the country upon which to sprint-race for the championship than Phillip Island.
As has been the case all year, qualifying comes down to three fifteen minute sessions where the slowest ten cars drop out of the first and second sessions, and the final ten battle it out for pole. Where you qualify in these three sessions is where you start race one, unless, as has happened, you need to make a major change to the car, say an engine, then you start either from the rear of the pack or pitlane. The rules of V8 Supercar racing are very, very convoluted and change year on year. If you really want to understand them intimately, you’d have to be a part of a race team.
Phillip Island is a very fast, sweeping-cornered track where the cars almost across the board want to understeer through the long corners. That is to say that while a driver might aim the car at the optimum apex of a corner, centrifugal force of 1.5 tonnes of high-speed race car trying to change direction wants to push the car wide of that apex. Each car, because of their unique construction, will handle this understeer in a different manner through alterations of steering geometry, center of gravity, ride height in both front and back suspension, shock absorption and many other miniscule alterations to the way the car drives. Some teams know their car-driver combination very, very well and can ‘dial-in’ a car to a particular track quickly. Others seem able to cope with elements like understeer or its anti-thesis, oversteer on a track by track basis. Better at some than at others. It’s this understanding and ability which makes the difference between the top level teams and the also-rans.
Apart from the usual bunch of tail-enders, this weekend’s qualifying found DJR/Jim Beam Racing’s Steven Johnson in car 17 languishing with bottom ten cars in the pack on position 22. A victim of the team’s inability to dial in the car for the Phillip Island track. It’s also interesting to listen to the radio feedback from driver to engineer in the pits. The driver is integral to refinement of the cars handling. Akin to our own bodies nervous system relaying impulses to our brains, the driver is the cars nervous system, with the engineer being the brains, making decisions based on what the driver is reporting.
Qualifying ended in a frantic last minute rush with first Skaife, then Kelly, and then Skaife again making a last second bid for the pole position, only to miss out by hundredths of a second. Rick Kelly took pole, with Skaife alongside. The second Toll/HSV car of Garth Tander seemed to lose a little at the end, finishing in P7. Jamie Whincup took P3 while Craig Lowndes ended on position ahead of Tander. The top ten looked like this:
Race one, as has been the norm in the sprint races this year, immediately follows qualifying on the Saturday. Skaife’s brand new, high-tech, semi-autonomous rocket ship took an early lead which changed with the first lot of Compulsory Pit Stops. Debuting a brand new car for the last three races of the year seems left-field to me, but apparently it’s aimed at next years first round, the Adelaide Clipsal 500 round. A kind of shake-down cruise for a new shell, new mechanicals, and even newer software which apparently controls many of the functions a driver would normally perform, such as pump switching, airflow and so on. I must have a look around at the sport’s magazines for a review of some sort about this new car.
Anyway, the race became pretty much of a procession with little of the jostling seen in races two and three. Tander managed, by dint of a good CPS and some excellent pace to get in front of Skaife from where he was never headed. The Toll/HSV sister car of reigning champion Rick Kelly had a miscue with braking, losing effectively six spots and mathematically, the title defence. Over the last 6 to 8 laps, things became a little tighter. Jason Richards, a man of great talent but occasional brain fade, had one of those moments and slipped from second place, giving the spot to Skaife. We then had Tander, Skaife, Whincup, Todd Kelly, Lowndes and Rick Kelly. On lap 24…..just three from the end…..Lowndes had the ‘Bad Sportsmanship’ flag waved at him for blocking Rick Kelly. Frankly, I find that ruling extraordinary. Blocking, or covering your race line, depending on your view, is quite legal during the last two laps of any race. With three laps to go it seemed highly unlikely that (a)Kelly had the pace to pass Lowndes; and (b)Lowndes could hardly be considered to have been ‘blocking’, considering that had Kelly managed to pass him, he’d still not have been in championship contention. Quite a bizarre ruling, really.
Despite the inconsistency of stewards which seems to have pervaded the sport all season, Lowndes was advised by his pit to ‘pull your finger out’. He did, and in the process managed to pass Todd Kelly, but not before both cars appeared to lock wheels momentarily, putting Todd Kelly in the losing position, dropping two spots in the process. HRT are said to be protesting, which, as Neil Crompton stated during the telecast, is pretty standard stuff for that team. The race ended to Tander’s credit, earning him back the seven point deficit he incurred courtesy of the last round. Whincup finished third, pulling enough points to level with Tander, making tomorrow’s two races make or break situations. Lowndes is still in the running, but really only if Tander and Whincup take each other out.
The team tactics of Toll/HSV will in interesting to watch, given the ‘win it or break it’ advisory given to Rick Kelly in the final tilt for last years championship. Personally, I still believe Rick Kelly took Craig Lowndes out in order to win last year and there was no ‘racing incident’ as determined by stewards. Tomorrow will prove fascinating viewing, no doubts there.