ITM Auckland Supersprint adds to drama of 2018 Championship fight

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ITM Auckland Supersprint adds to drama of 2018 Championship fight
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 03: Scott McLaughlin drives the #17 Shell V-Power Racing Team Ford Falcon FGX leads Shane Van Gisbergen drives the #97 Red Bull Holden Racing Team Holden Commodore ZB during race 28 for the Supercars Auckland SuperSprint on November 3, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

The second to last stop on the 2018 Virgin Australia V8 Supercars calendar, is the ITM Auckland Supersprint at Pukekohe. A stop which New Zealand racing fans were salivating over, as the two leading drivers of the championship, are both from that nation.

And each put on a great show over this weekend.

Scott McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen entered the contest fighting it out for the series title, and while the anticipated ‘championship fight’ was exactly how it transpired across two days, fans from each motor racing camp knew at the Pukekohe Raceway, anything could happen.

Such a close contest for the Championship too, meaning it was more about the outcome and in what race-strategy was utilized more successfully by the principal drivers (and their teammates if required). It ended up being one of the more clear-cut fights for superiority, and team orders would be used late on in the weekend, to assist one driver’s title hopes.

Two days of exciting action in Kiwi drivers ‘back yard’

Like in any championship when two drivers are clearly contesting the season outcome, it resulted in that all drivers attention was placed on those key figures. Whether in the pit lane or on the track, when other drivers actions affected McLaughlin and van Gisbergen’s path – on more than one occasion – space was allowed for them to battle it out. A show of respect, even in the cutthroat world of the V8 Supercars.

Over the weekend, not discounting any other team or driver, attention was directed onto the Ford and Holden drivers. The spotlight was well earned too, with each consistently at the top of the timesheets. In practice and in qualifying; where McLaughlin added to his list of Pole Positions.

Leading into Race 28 [Saturday] and the Sunday fixture, Race 29, the pent-up energy was palpable, and it only added to the drama of the 2018 championship fight.

Saturday – Race 28

With a qualifying advantage of just 0.1172 seconds, the championship standings reflected in the grid – side-by-side, McLaughlin and van Gisbergen could eye each other up, as the lights went green.

A good start was required, and the Falcon driver had one. Yet with such a close field, the conditions and strategy were the key influencing factors. It meant that van Gisbergen was leading when teams began to take their second, and final pitstop.

This factor would determine the final placings, as like in many races previously, the value of pitting and the unknown factor of potential stoppages to the race, influenced every team’s strategy. Shell V-Power Racing taking the early stop, while the Red Bull sponsored car stayed out. He was leading, and on a lighter fuel load, building a handy lead.

ITM Auckland Supersprint adds to drama of 2018 Championship fight

It transpired that even with the threat of rain, his call was the right one. No further incidents occurred, and when van Gisbergen pitted for fresh tyres, he was able to rejoin the race in second….although, the footage below would prove that the driver let the clutch slip. A semi-rotation of the tyres just as his car dropped off the jacks would play a

Note: the race rules are, that a driver must not engage any gear [Rule D11.8.8] while the car is off the ground. It prevents any danger to pit crew. With all teams under the same rules, the race director placed car 97 on notice – a five-second penalty was handed out.

With the bit between his teeth, he stalked McLaughlin, and he was too quick (with fresh rubber) and claimed the race lead with an audacious move on the high-speed corner, in front of a huge local crowd.

Now leading, it would require a huge effort to extend any advantage above five seconds, to retain the race win. Shane van Gisbergen; when given a challenge, is one driver who can successfully use that as motivation.

He would win the race by 5.7 seconds!

The ITM Auckland Supersprint result was to be investigated, and while the fact was clear, arbitration saw the race stewards judged the finishing places to stand. A questionable stance, with the memories of a penalty handed down to David Reynolds in the final laps of Bathurst, but his rival team DJR Team Penske decided not to appeal the decision.

They would let their young driver do ‘his talking, on the racetrack’.

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Sunday – Race 29

Red Bull Holden driver Jamie Whincup took pole position, with Scott McLaughlin alongside him. It was a reward, however, Whincup was out of the Championship running. He could not earn a seventh title, but he could upset the title fight of the young Ford driver.

A place back, van Gisbergen was ready to pounce, and only the racing ability of the Shell V-Power driver was able to withstand the early pressure. And that inability to overtake his rival, would show that minor changes made to the Commodore, would not bring any improvements in performance.

Teams can use small changes to virtually every corner of the racecar. A change to the suspension was soon rejected, and in pitstops, teams would exchange the race lead

Lap 37 looked to be a significant stage in the race for Scott McLaughlin. He was behind Jamie Whincup, and once the Red Bull Holden Racing car pitted on lap 36, it took a full rotation of the circuit, before McLaughlin reached the pit-exit. With speed down the front straight, the Kiwi pounced and managed to overtake six-time series champion.

What this did, was make the heavier Commodore the only driver who could then pressure McLaughlin when he took his final pitstop. But then almost in a strange twist, the Shell V-Power Racing car was asked to pit.

Final stages of ITM Auckland Supersprint holds full attention

As it can in other categories, pit stops and the life of a race tyre, can define a race. So even while van Gisbergen used a similar strategy, to have the newest tyres late in the race, only on Sunday, the gap would prove to be too much.

The Holden driver would claw back much time, but only his teammate Whincup was close enough to place any pressure on McLaughlin. With others suggesting that team-orders might see the second place driver let his championship-contending teammate past was premature. Whincup would race hard, and try as he might, the red Ford Falcon proved a worthy opponent.

So with the race all but sealed, it would, in fact, see Whincup slow his car on the front straight, so that after McLaughlin took the chequered flag, so it eventuated that Shane van Gisbergen just passed the 2017 champion before the line, and improve his points return.

[The difference between second and third, was 18 points. So the team orders were sensible, if not a little unsporting but, with the Championship on the line….it made good sense].

And thus, the title leading driver would earn the win. A well-driven race, and a reversal of the Saturday outcome. The Kiwi did his best burnout, and jumped from the car to climb the fence, and celebrate a victory that puts him closer to a maiden Virgin Australia V8 Supercars title.

They ended the weekend, in the same position where each had started. A race win each, a second place each but as the DJR Team Penske driver had won the major race on Sunday, he was rewarded with the Jason Richards Trophy (a popular driver, who passed away to cancer far too early). The Kiwi was extremely proud, and as the sunset, with the champagne corks popped and the crowd leaving pleased that two Kiwi’s had flown highest among the field of drivers.

The standings were finely balanced;

It means that now, the grand finale of the 2018 Championship comes down to the last stop of the calendar. In a replay of 2017, a Shell V-Power Racing driver will be challenged by a Red Bull Holden Racing driver [last year it was Jamie Whincup] at the Newcastle round.

Shane van Gisbergen is a one time champ himself, looking to add to his caliber of results but, with as much potential, the popular Scott McLaughlin is hoping to make Newcastle his crowning glory; rather than an end to the party (like it was last season).

Somehow, with 12 months of championship experience, more wins under his belt, and more understanding of his place in the world, Scott McLaughlin will be more determined than ever, to fly the New Zealand flag at the final hurdle.

The drama of Auckland adds more drama to another tremendous season of V8 Supercars racing.

Next race: Coates Hire Newcastle 500, November 23

 

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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