The thing that has most surprised me about the 2017 Supercars season has been the genuine improvement at DJR Team Penske. As a result, we have the makings of a return to the great Ford vs Holden rivalries from touring cars’ greatest eras.
The sport in Australia has grown up on Peter Brock vs Allan Moffat and Brock vs Dick Johnson throughout the ages, or maybe even yours truly vs Glenn Seton. In more modern times it’s been Jamie Whincup vs Mark Winterboom. Whether you’re talking Labor vs Liberal, Collingwood vs Carlton or Ford vs Holden, all are rivalries representative of the social fabric of Australia.
Personally, this year’s Supercars season has brought back memories of when Brock was winning everything and then all of a sudden a Moffat would emerge. This time around though, it just so happens there’s a couple of Kiwis who are dominating proceedings.
Nissan motorsport’s intervention at certain periods has been controversial, and they’ve maintained their commitment to the sport, which is fantastic. But at the end of the day we have this red vs blue bale which is still burning brightly across the Supercars landscape.
Aer ShaneVan Gisbergen came out at the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide at the start of the season and bagged a maximum-300-point haul, you would’ve been forgiven for thinking the Red Bull Holden Racing team, with SVG and Whincup on board, was going to dominate.
But fast forward to August, and pre- the endurance races, and arguably pre- the biggest race in the country – Bathurst – nothing could be further from the truth. At time of print we are smack-bang in the middle of arguably the closest championship bale in history, with just 12 leaderboard points separating first and second out of 2058 awarded so far, or a miniscule 0.05 percent.
The Red Bull Holden RacingTeam has probably played second fiddle to DJRTeam Penske in 2017. The resurgence of Ford has been unbelievable. Sco McLaughlin, who is only 24 years of age, has had a season like no other. Think about this: he has equalled the Brock and Moffat records for pole positions. If you can believe it, at time of writing he’d spent roughly 70 percent of the season on pole. That’s extraordinary.
McLaughlin has just shown incredible outright speed. But you can’t do it without great preparation, serious development by your team, or without a proper rapport with your engineer. Remember – McLaughlin’s engineer came from Red Bull Racing Australia last year and now he’s at DJRTeam Penske. When the Frenchman Ludo Lacroix made the jump to join DJR, it set the pit lane on fire. Roger Penske said it was going to take three years for them to be genuine contenders ... well, this is their third year. Everything is coming to fruition for those guys.
People don’t really recognise it, and I don’t think Shane would’ve known either, but when you’re the champion, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with it. Every time there’s a comment about the sport, the media goes to the champion for a reaction. Every time there’s a good result, there’s an expectation you’re going to come up with another good one at your next outing. When there’s a bad result, people want explanations: if you’re not leading the series or a respective race meeting ... why? Especially when you’re the factory team driver for Holden. I’ve lived that example: you’re expected to win the races. It’s a huge responsibility on the young Kiwi. It just so happens there’s another young Kiwi who has been the dominant factor, and who leads the championship going into the enduros.
From a Holden perspective at Bathurst this year, your red-hot opportunities are clearly Whincup and Paul Dumbrell, plus Van Gisbergen and new partner Ma Campbell. Craig Lowndes and Steve Richards have won ten Bathursts between them, too – you don’t forget how to do that. On the Ford side, the red-hot team is McLaughlin, who has gained two expert Frenchmen in Lacroix as engineer and new driving team-mate Alex Premat, creating a formidable combination. Then there’s the combo of Fabian Coulthard andTony D’Alberto, with Chaz Mostert and Steve Owen also flying the flag for Prodrive in a Ford.
There is also a myriad of other well-travelled veterans who are heavyweight contenders like Mark Winterboom, GarthTander, James Courtney and Rick Kelly, all whom will be hard to beat across the mountain this year. And again, don’t discount Nissan in all of this – they’ve shown their cars are geing beer and beer and will be looking to snatch victory from Ford and Holden.
Coincidently, a quarter of a century has passed since myself and Jim Richards snatched victory at Bathurst in controversial circumstances in the rain in 1992 – a moment etched in Aussie sporting history. It’s in this tradition that 2017 is looking like another epic showdown at Mt Panorama.
“At the end of the day we have this red vs blue battle which is still burning brightly across the Supercars landscape.”
Holden’s Jamie Whincup and Ford’s Scott McLaughlin are breaking closest-ever Supercars series records.