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Supercars finally got back on track at Sydney Motorsport Park for the third round of the 2020 Virgin Australia Supercars championship season after a three month hiatus. The first of three sprint races for the weekend was snared by reigning champion Scott McLaughlin aboard the Shell V-Power Racing DJRTP Ford Mustang. The Red Bull pairing of Shane vanGisbergen and Jamie Whincup took the minor placings in what became an enthralling, incident free 32 lap race.
McLaughlin and vanGisbergen started from the front row, with Cameron Waters Chaz Mostert, Jamie Whincup and Nick Percat in close pursuit. Jamie Whincup was relieved to find himself near the front of the field after a less successful stint during the Supercars E-Series.
“It’s great to be back and cutting laps,” Whincup said. “It’s the first time in 12 weeks I haven’t been a second and a half off the pace in practice, so that’s nice!
Whincup hinted that the revised race format and a lack of track time might prove critical later in the day. “It’s really quick, fast sessions here, straight out of P1 you don’t have much time to make changes and that’s going to be the story of the day. I’m hitting wrong buttons on the steering wheel and stuff, I’m definitely rusty, you can tell I’ve been out of the seat for three months. Hopefully that gets better as the day goes on. I think the winner of today will be the one who makes the least mistakes.”
David Reynolds was the big loser during the three phase qualifying session when the team elected against a second tyre run during Q2. He sat in 14th place for most of the session only to drop to 18th as the grid found more speed in the closing stages. While the decision cost the Penrite driver for race one, the move may prove a master stroke on Sunday as fresh tyres become scarce.
“We rolled the dice because if you make the Shootout you’ve got to have green tyres around here, otherwise there’s no point,” said Reynolds. “Unfortunately we start 18th or something which is very dismal, but today’s all about getting back into the rhythm and it’s just good to be back racing again.”
Shane vanGisbergen edged ahead of Scott McLaughlin off the line as race seven of the season commenced. McLaughlin moved back in front on the run down the main straight and headed vanGisbergen, Whincup, Percat, Mostert and Waters into turn 1. Jack LeBrocq was last away after his car failed to move at the green light, which forced Alex Davison and James Courtney to swerve suddenly to avoid contact with the stranded Truck Equip Ford Mustang. It was the start of a sterling drive by Courtney who moved the Boost Mustang into 12th place at the finish.
Scott McLaughlin forged ahead of the field throughout the opening lap and led by over a second from vanGisbergen as they crossed the line for the start of lap 2. McLaughlin later admitted that he may have pushed a little too hard during the opening stint on the Dunlop tyre and pitted for four new tyres on lap 15. McLaughlin maintained the lead after the compulsory stops, while vanGisbergen dropped behind Whincup, Waters and Holdsworth when he stopped for tyres two laps later.
There was a hair raising moment for the Red Bull pair as they looked to pass Cameron Waters in the Monster Energy Mustang at the entry to turn 1. Whincup held the better line, which placed Waters wide at the apex and vanGisbergen dived inside the black Mustang as well.
McLaughlin held was appeared to be a race winning lead when vanGisbergen dove past teammate Whincup at turn 4, only to find the #97 Red Bull Holden Racing entry closing rapidly. VanGisbergen closed to within a tenth of a second from the race leader, who then received a bad sportsmanship warning for exceeding track limits.
Shane vanGisbergen was unable to maintain the pressure under the rear wing of the Shell V-Power Mustang and dropped two-tenths of a second as he struggled with the turbulence behind the race leader.
“It was a pretty decent race but every time you get close, the aero-wash is ridiculous, so I couldn’t do much with it,” vanGisbergen said later.“We tried to go long and have a better chance at the end but we could him and it just understeered. It’s hard to pass, we need to try something different tomorrow.”
When asked later if the soft tyres helped, vanGisbergen added, “First you’ve got to be able to follow the car, then you can pass. The tyres are not the problem.”
Scott McLaughlin hung on for the race win from Shane vanGisbergen with a further ten-seconds to Jamie Whincup in third. Chaz Mostert was a close fourth, comfortably ahead of Nick Percat. Cameron Waters, Lee Holdsworth, Anton De Pasquale, Mark Winterbottom and Fabian Coulthard completed the top 10. Alex Davison in the Local Legends Commodore was the only retirement of the race on lap 12 with a steering issue.
“He’s like a cockroach, you can never get rid of him, he’s always around!” McLaughlin quipped of runner-up van Gisbergen. “I knew I was going to be in a little bit of trouble in that last stint, the way he came at me.”
“It’s a lot better than doing a cartoon,” McLaughlin joked later, in reference to the recent round of E-Series races in which he had competed.
The three place-getters described the new normal at the track as “weird” during the remote live stream press conference.
“It was very weird, I hardly saw anyone past the Red Bull garage,” Scott McLaughlin explained. It was quite easy going between the garage and the truck,, but it sucked a bit. I love the crowd.”
Jamie Whincup agreed in principle, but also saw a plus side to the revised format.
“It’s not as good without the crowd and the corporates, but it isn’t as rushed,” he said.
“It is a bit weird, especially on the grid where I could only hear Mark Larkham,” Shane vanGisbergen said. “In some ways it is good, in other ways it is a bit hollow, but I think this will be the norm for a while.”
The revised format, with fewer crew in the pitlane during stops was also seen as a positive by the three drivers.. Teams ran a range of tyre strategies with only two rattle guns permitted. At around five-seconds to change two tyres, teams were split on their strategies. Jamie Whincup noted that there may well be different winners on Sunday as those strategies played out.
“The top 5 used 8 of their 20 tyres during Saturday,” Whincup noted. “While that was great for us today, we will have to pay for it at some time tomorrow.”
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