If there was one salient fact to take away from yesterday’s qualifying and race one at Winton, it’s that no team is invulnerable to the unpredictable.
The buzz around the circus during the lead-up to this event surrounded the ‘Red Cars’ of HRT. Everyone was sure that Holden teams, and HRT in particular, would do well at Winton. Most of the Victorian-based teams use Winton as a test track and know it well. FPR and HRT both use it. Performances during qualifying across the field were hot & cold. Team Vodafone having not the best of times with car 888, but finding a satisfactory benchmark with car 88. Russell Ingall in a Holden disappointed with a 15th place best in qualifying, in stark contrast to his performance at Willowbank a fortnight ago. The best Gart Tander could do for HRT was fourth quickest, this despite having laid down a challenge in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph to "bring down man-of-the-moment Mark Winterbottom." Winterbottom’s response was awesomely silencing of Tander’s bravado. During the second qualifying session, Winterbottom posted a 1m22.8s lap of Winton, a good four-tenths of a second better than anyone else. By the end of qualifying, FPR and Winterbottom stood a clear 0:00.3972 seconds clear of the second placed car of Team Vodafone’s Jamie Whincup, with Tander languishing forty-four hundredths away in fourth place. Mark Skaife again disappointed, making what I thought to be a rather weak-kneed excuse of uneven tyre performance on his car as the rationale for his 12th position on the grid.
Of surprising performance were the two Garry Rogers Motorsport Commodores of Lee Holdsworth and Michael Caruso. Both drivers put their mounts into the top ten grid with Holdsworth in fifth and Caruso in seventh. Mighty performances by both drivers, forcing team owner Rogers into a grid girl get-up in honour of his claim that anytime both of his drivers make the top ten on any grid, he’ll happily dress up in drag.
Also of note were the performances of Will Davison for Dick Johnson Racing locking down third spot on the grid, and Perkins Motorsport’s Shane Price putting the Jack Daniel’s Commodore into ninth. Davison’s performance is especially satisfying given the parlous state of finances at DJR presently, the fact that with both Steven Johnson and Davison coming off contract at the end of 2008, Davison being the subject of behind-the-scenes chatter with Stone Brothers Racing and Steven making it known publicly that he is engaging the services of a manager with a view to securing a drive away from DJR next season, DJR may not be around at all next year. Having to find $1 million to make up for what Ford pulled away with it’s restriction of funding to FPR and SBR is proving a difficult ask for team owner Charlie Schwerkolt.
I personally was pleased to see the young talent of Price shining out in the Perkins Motorsport Holden. He is a very talented driver in only his second season with the premier category. The learning curve is enormously difficult, but learning he clearly is.
Come race time for the first of three race heats over the weekend, confidence was oozing from FPR and Winterbottom, sitting in P1. Sadly, that confidence was to be punctured, just like the left rear tyre on car 5 on lap two of the forty lap event. Winterbottom rapidly lost pace and handling as the rear tyre faded away, with his team unwilling to bring him in before the Compulsory Pit Stop window opened on lap 5. By the time the CPS window did open, Winterbottom had drifted too far back in the field to recover any better than 21st place by race end. The real race excitement then shifted to Cars 88 and 18 – Jamie Whincup and Will Davison – for the leading position as the race unfolded. It’s interesting just how dominant FPR are at present, and Mark Winterbottom in particular. Obviously that car-driver combination are well ahead of the rest of the field. Confidence by the driver in machinery which is at it’s peak delivers dominant performances. Something Team Vodafone, HRT, DJR, HSV just can’t seem to pull together.
Once the Winterbottom’s dramas were sidelined, the attention shifted to the also-rans in the field. Rick Kelly provided some interest by wearing a heart rate monitor for television, and proved that fitness is a must. He came into contact with a hard charging Lee Holdsworth mid race, which resulted in Holdsworth scoring a pit lane-plus 32 second penalty, dropping him from a race end sixth place to a seriously disappointing 18th following a stewards meeting overnight. Todd Kelly for Perkins Motorsport finished well in sixth, but his team mate Price faded to 22nd. Shane Van Gisbergen did reasonably well in his debut season to finish 14th, which is remarkable considering he tripped over turn eight in practice, heavily damaging the car requiring an overnight rebuild from the firewall forward.
Race two started as so many rounds have begun at Winton. Massive brain fade from at least one driver through turns one and two, resulting another half-dozen cars being sidelined if not for the weekend, at least for that race. The television replays didn’t exactly show who instigated what, but majority opinion seemed to point at Steven Richards who started in fifth, taking out Jason Richards in fourth going through turn two, with Ingall suffering steering and suspension damage from Steven Richards impacting him, Skaife being punted by someone else avoiding the carnage into the fencing to the right of the track at turn two.
Once the safety car exited and racing resumed on lap 5, with the CPS pushed back to lap 8, the lead was Davison, Whincup, Tander and a very intense and quick Winterbottom storming through the field. By the time the leading cars had pitted on lap 15, Winterbottom had the virtual race lead, with his team confirming that both he and Steven Richards, who had survived the carnage he’d instigated, would be ‘run long’, meaning neither would be pitting until just prior to the CPS window closing. As the pit lane window closed on lap 28, Winterbottom had completed his stop, returning to the race in second position. He’d hesitated ever so slightly in his pit exit, costing maybe half a second, but it was enough to ensure second spot on the merge.
On lap 34, the lead was Davison, Winterbottom, Tander, Whincup and Lowndes. That’s how they all finished by lap 40, with the addition of Rick Kelly, Holdsworth, Bright, Courtney and Paul Dumbrell. After a disastrous race 1, Winterbottom starts race three on the front row of the grid. For Will Davison, the driver most in demand by his own team and other for 2009, his second race win of the season. For HRT, a face-saving P3, but just how much face when one considers that the car before him came from P21.
Race three started off with some push and shove between the two Team Vodafone Fords and Rick Kelly’s Holden, but everyone made it around turns one and two. Then to turn three and a synaptic snap too place in the mind of Mark Winterbottom, with a late braking approach, resulting in him sliding off the apex, recovering, re-entering and collecting another competitor before exiting on turn four to become bogged in a sand trap. Safety car out and Winterbottom’s race had been run. His team mate Richards had received a whack in the steering, resulting in the car being garaged. Winterbottom as well received a bent steering arm, which was replaced in double quick time, but as had already been decided, his weekend had become one to forget. From such a confident qualifying to disastrous racing, FPR’s Winton round is one to blank out.
Race three continued on with Jamie Whincup in the lead, followed by Garth Tander and Will Davison. At one stage about mid-race, it looked like Lee Holdsworth was going to challenge for second place, maybe even first place, courtesy of a slick CPS. It wasn’t to be, but all kudos should go to Garry Rogers Motorsport for producing two highly competitive cars. Positions swapped up front, resulting in Tander taking the lead at two-thirds distance in front of Whincup while Holdsworth, courtesy of his pitcrew, took third place ahead of Will Davison. Th
at’s how they finished, ahead of Rick Kelly, Lowndes just in front of a hard charging Ingall, Paul Dumbrell, Fabian Coulthard and a surprise top ten finisher, Jason Bright. Surely a creditable effort for a team which gives every impression of being jinxed. With two third places and a race win, Tander took out the round. Thanks finishing 21st in race one and stone motherless last in race three, Winterbottom has now surrendered the championship points lead to Garth Tander. Here’s the standings.
Thanks to Channel Seven’s clear penchant to place AFL over motorsport in importance, race three’s broadcast was delayed by three hours in Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide, so I’d just like to say here a huge heartfelt thanks for nothing yet again to Kerry Stokes. Here’s a suggestion Kezza …. if you’re going to promise something, how about doing it professionally. Chopping and changing from one sport telecast to another and back again is hardly the way to win supporters. Network Ten didn’t perform as poorly as Channel Seven has done in motorsport presentation this year. AFL is on every weekend. Motorsport only once or twice a month. Surely the fans deserve a better showing than two 1.5 hour recorded segments either side of a live aerial ping-pong broadcast?