(Dis)honours even after messy title bout
AUSTRALIAN SUPERCARS PUKEKOHE (NZ) NOVEMBER 3-4 ROUND 15/16
A tense weekend both on and off the Pukekohe track ended with a win apiece for Supercars title rivals Shane van Gisbergen and Scott Mclaughlin.
The New Zealand circuit provided the perfect setting for a dramatic all-kiwi clash – mid-race penalties, post-race investigations, protests and parc ferme mind games all adding to the intrigue.
Saturday’s race was a classic case of speed versus a potentially superior strategy. Van Gisbergen had the pace advantage, which he demonstrated perfectly by passing Mclaughlin on lap 22. But DJR Team Penske played the undercut game well, looking to give Mclaughlin clear air while van Gisbergen battled away with either lapped traffic or cars off-kilter in terms of strategy.
That meant van Gisbergen had to go 14 laps deeper in his second stint. Triple Eight knew that hopes of track advantage were gone, but car speed and better tyre condition could still decide the race.
He emerged from his late second stop with a four-second deficit to leader Mclaughlin, but it didn’t take long for that to erode. With 10 laps to go the pair were engaged in a heated exchange for the lead, which came to a head at the hairpin. Mclaughlin went narrow to try to hold van Gisbergen off, the Triple Eight Holden driver responding to the early blocking by shoving the Penske Ford out of the way.
They then went side-by-side into the flowing final series of corners as van Gisbergen swept into the lead.
But it wasn’t done yet. Stewards deemed van Gisbergen’s passing tactics too robust and hit him with a five-second penalty. Having quickly built a 3s lead, van Gisbergen had already backed off, but suddenly he was being told to do qualifying laps.
In the end he crossed the line 5.5s clear of Mclaughlin, which meant a 0.5s win. To add to the drama, van Gisbergen brought some gamesmanship to parc ferme, pulling up so tight to Mclaughlin’s driver’s side door that he couldn’t get out of the car.
Before the race was even over there were doubts as to whether the result would stand. During van Gisbergen’s second stop, TV crews had clocked his wheels spinning twice while on the jacks – once when he engaged first gear, which is allowed, and again as the car was lowered, which is generally a no-no.
Curiously, the matter was delayed to a post-race investigation rather than just being punished with an on-the-spot drivethrough. The investigation went late into the night, deputy race director Michael Masi eventually deeming that the wheel hadn’t turned a full rotation and as such there was no need to refer it to the stewards.
DJR Team Penske immediately protested the decision, which meant a hearing on Sunday morning. The argument to strip van Gisbergen of his win was based on the fact that the ‘full rotation’ theory doesn’t feature in the wording of the rule.
Had it been successful, it would have gone a long way towards deciding the title in Mclaughlin’s favour. Without knowing what the exact penalty would have been, it’s likely that the Ford driver’s lead would have been close to 100 points.
After a long deliberation on Sunday, enough precedent was established to stick with the original decision. It raised eyebrows up and down pitlane, and added plenty of spice to Sunday’s race.
Once again the flashpoint happened during a van Gisbergen stop. Having shadowed Mclaughlin across the first stint, the Holden driver came in on lap 15 for his first service. It couldn’t have gone much worse, a safety stand going under the car to make a rideheight change and not coming back out. That meant jacking
the car back up to retrieve it before van Gisbergen could leave the bay, the delay dropping him to eighth.
The race at the front was then between Mclaughlin and Jamie Whincup, who had pitted from the lead on the fifth lap and then come back into the game thanks to the undercut. Van Gisbergen, meanwhile, had to fight his way back into contention, again using a long second stint to give himself plenty of pace for the short burst home.
With 10 laps remaining, the race reached a critical point – Mclaughlin leading Whincup by less than a second, while van Gisbergen was a further 11s down the road in third. Swapping the Triple Eight Holdens over would yield a nine-point benefit for van Gisbergen. But Whincup passing Mclaughlin for the lead was a 12-point swing.
Whincup got very close, even showing the nose of his Commodore up the inside of Mclaughlin’s Falcon in the closing laps. But he just couldn’t quite get the job done, Triple Eight giving the reigning champion a none-too-subtle radio instruction to
‘save fuel’ on the final lap.
That meant van Gisbergen could streak into second, resetting to the same 14-point margin in Mclaughlin’s favour that they started the weekend with. The title will be decided on the streets of Newcastle later this month in the season finale.
Mclaughlin (l) and van Gisbergen (r) came to blows at the hairpin
Scenes in parc ferme resembled any given supermarket car park