In true Melbourne fashion, weather today at Sandown International Raceway was the complete opposite of yesterday’s for qualifying and race one.
Overcast, wet and cold, race two started on a wet track with slow drizzling rain and a 14 degree ambient and track temperature. Rather unpredictably, there were no major bingles. Something of a change for the circus. More than one driver miscued a corner, especially heading south off the back straight, but the occasional off-roader across the grass isn’t to be wondered at during a wet sprint heat.
Starting off from where they finished yesterday, foregone conclusion is a rather underdown descriptor for Whincup disappearing into a rooster-tail of spray when the lights went out. Winterbottom, in the Ford Performance Racing Falcon, didn’t get away quite so well, allowing the second Team Vodafone Falcon through into second. Neither of the day-glo red Fords was headed for the rest of the 39 lap race.
That is, until the very last lap. Coming through what commentators colloquially call ‘Dandenong’, Jamie Whincup with his team mate close behind, visibly locked a front left wheel, unbalancing the car and failing to slow it sufficiently to keep Lowndes at bay. He went wide on the exit and Lowndes lunged past to take the lead. Seconds latter, as Whincup was struggling to bring the 88 car back to speed, he was passed by the driver I now regard as the latest and greatest thing to come to V8 Supercar racing since Marcos Ambrose. Shane Van Gisbergen. The nineteen year old drove a fantastic race from start to finish, He was amazing to watch in the wet, literally floating the car through bends and using as much of the racetrack as he possibly could. On a slightly drying track, he flew past Whincup and onto the main straight to take second behind Lowndes to the absolute delight of his team, not to mention himself. He was funny to watch when Seven interviewed him after the race. He was so chuffed he couldn’t stand still.
Disappointments from yesterday in James Courtney, Steven Johnson and Garth Tander managed to recover some pride and performance, finishing fourth, fifth and nineth respectively. HRT’s owner, Mark Skaife, failed yet again to present anything like the driving he is capable of. Perhaps I should say, was capable of. The hunger simply isn’t there anymore. It’s understandable that as one grows older, one becomes subconsciously aware of issues like mortality, judgement and ability. In other words, we slow down. At 41 years of age, Skaife can’t be called ‘old’ by any stretch, but he has won an enormous number of prestige events. I’d suggest that deep down, he’s no longer hungry enough. Time to put that experience to better use by mentoring new blood.
Usually when I write these posts, I have the TV running on the computer and Windows Live Writer running on top so I can ALT-TAB between the two. For race three today, I was glued to the TV, so good was the racing. Among the top ten, race three would have to have been the race of the season so far. Craig Lowndes, who finished in first place for race two, broke an axle on the parade lap of race three and didn’t make it back out to the grid. This left 19 year old Van Gisbergen on pole position, albeit by forfeit. When the lights went out, he jumped well, but Mark Winterbottom jumped better, taking the lead by turn one. Jamie Whincup was swamped by James Courtney with Steven Johnson threatening to do the same. Between Winterbottom and Courtney, they managed to dispose of Van Gisbergen by turn four and set out to street the field. These races aren’t called sprints for nothing.
There was little change through the field as the race progressed, but up front, the action was intense. Russell Ingall, who qualified sixth, stayed around sixth or seventh, and as planned, away from the bulk of the hassles the mid to late field contenders tend to wind up creating. Todd Kelly, now driving for Larry Perkins’ team, Jack Daniel Racing also had a terrific third race. Starting from eighth, he very soon was hassling Van Gisbergen who had fallen into fifth spot by lap two. By the time the compulsory pit stop window opened, the order was Winterbottom, Courtney, Whincup, Van Gisbergen, Todd Kelly and Russell Ingall. Once the CPS’s were done, Whincup had the lead courtesy of a very slick stop by his pit team. 3.2 seconds from stop to drop is a dazzling effort, given that the car has to stop, go up on rear jacks, two rear wheels are changed, jacks retracted and the car needs to re-enter the pit lane without hesitation. It worked a treat with Whincup re-entering the fray 1.5 seconds in front of Winterbottom, closely followed by Courtney, which was how the top three finished.
The real excitement in the race came from positions four, five and six. Specifically, Shane Van Gisbergen, Todd Kelly and Russell Ingall. Van Gisbergen drove a truly masterful race over the last ten laps, in deteriorating light conditions on a track which wasn’t exactly dry. He was absolutely monstered by Todd Kelly who in turn had a fast closing Ingall behind. There was paint-swapping, shoulder-rubbing and at least one rear-end punt from Kelly but the youngster held his cool, bringing the Stone Brother’s SP Tools Falcon home in a very creditable fourth place. As the television commentary said, today was the day Shane Van Gisbergen came of age in the sport. I’m eager now to see how he handles the enduros later this year.
With HRT failing miserably, the championship table starts to look less like a Tander benefit and more of an open proposition.