The Bullfight For the 2016 Supercars Championship
Now that the enduros are over, we’ve got a good idea of who the 2016 championship contenders are. There are only two of them, the Triple 8 Red Bull Racing Australia pairing of Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup. The other drivers are too far behind now. Fifth placed Scott McLaughlin finished 15 at Bathurst, putting himself out of contention, fourth placed Mark Winterbottom was 23rd at Sandown and had a DNF at Bathurst. Finally third placed Craig Lowndes only managed 19th at Bathurst. That leaves van Gisbergen and Whincup. Whincup’s Bathurst penalty appeal was rejected, so van Gisbergen leads the championship by 148 points.
This is a scenario that few people anticipated at the start of the year. Some people believed that Lowndes, Winterbottom, McLaughlin and Chaz Mostert would comfortably outperform their pit boom partners (Will Davison, Cameron Waters, James Moffat, and Chris Pither) while Whincup and van Gisbergen would double stack each other out of contention. Others thought that Whincup would dominate his new teammate this year and that van Gisbergen wouldn't be a contender until next year when he's settled in. It's also a scenario we haven't had in a while . In recent years the championship contenders have come from different teams, or Whincup has won it with a round to spare. It means that this year's championship could be decided by double stacking in the final race at Sydney. Hopefully that won't happen and we'll get an proper race for the championship.
Shane van Gisbergen is looking for his first championship, up against Whincup, who is after a record seventh. But he doesn’t seem to be worried about it. Van Gisbergen’s big advantage over Whincup’s previous championship rivals is that he is seemingly immune to pressure. He just gets in the car and drives. He says he's aware of his position, but is completely relaxed about it.
Van Gisbergen has momentum on his side. He finished second Sandown and at Bathurst, while Whincup only managed 13th and 11th due to penalties in both races. He also made a net gain on Whincup at the Gold Coast with a first and second to take the Enduro Cup. This gives van Gisbergen a handy 148 point buffer. Going forward, Pukekohe is his home track and he always does well at Sydney. All van Gisbergen has to do is finish fourth in each of the remaining six races.
Jamie Whincup is probably the greatest ever ATCC driver. He has won six championships in the last eight years, only beaten in 2010 by James Courtney and in 2015 by Mark Winterbottom. He's been here before, but it's going to be tougher this time around. He will need to gain 38 points for every day of racing on van Gisbergen. That's going to be a tall order. For most of the year the two Red Bull cars have been evenly matched. If Whincup's leading, there's a good chance van Gisbergen will be in the top three or four, so getting ahead by the necessary 3-5 positions at Pukekohe is going to be hard. At Bathurst and the Gold Coast on Sunday Whincup relied on double stacking to keep van Gisbergen several positions behind for most of the race, but he won't be able to rely on that in New Zealand. Pukekohe has unique four sprint race format and no pit stops. Then there's the track itself. In the three years since Supercars returned to Pukekohe, New Zealand has not been kind to Whincup. Sydney has been better to Whincup than van Gisbergen in previous years, but in equal equipment that could change given van Gisbergen’s street circuit performance.
For Whincup to win, he needs to reduce the gap to less than 100 points at Pukekohe and out qualify van Gisbergen in Sydney. The race format will prevent him from taking the lead at Pukekohe. Van Gisbergen’s job is easier. He just needs to be consistently near the front, he doesn't necessarily have to beat Whincup. Staying one place behind will be enough at Pukekohe, but beating Whincup there will make things easier at Sydney. If he can consistently beat Whincup at Pukekohe and drag his lead out to 180 or so points, he will go to Sydney with a double stacking buffer and can win the championship wherever he qualifies. Even if the points lead remains, van Gisbergen will only need to finish 10th in each race at Sydney. On the other hand, if he concedes too many points at Pukekohe, qualifying at Sydney will be crucial. Last year, van Gisbergen qualified ahead of Whincup in two of the three Sydney races. If that happens again it's van Gisbergen’s championship to lose.
Craig Lowndes believes van Gisbergen will win this year's championship. Following the Gold Coast, it looks like that's what will happen. He has a sizeable points lead and the two remaining tracks will favour him. Whincup can win, but the points gap has been widening and he's out of rounds where he would be the clear favourite over van Gisbergen. If van Gisbergen does win, he would be just the third New Zealander to win the ATCC/Supercars championship after Robbie Francevic and Jim Richards.