The Closest Supercars Championship in a Decade
The 2017 Supercars championship will be decided at next weekend’s Newcastle 500. Only two drivers remain in contention, Triple 8’s Jamie Whincup and DJR Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin. Just 30 points in Whincup’s favour separate them. 300 remain available.
Whincup has consistency and momentum on his side. He hasn’t won as many races as McLaughlin, but has had strong results at most rounds and hasn’t had a single retirement. He only recently took the championship lead at the Gold Coast, and has been the better performer since Bathurst. His 39 point lead means he doesn’t have to beat McLaughlin. He has the option of letting him go if he needs it. Whincup has already been in this position seven times and prevailed on six, McLaughlin, on the other hand, has never been a serious championship contender. Whincup already has a record number of championships. He has nothing to prove and isn’t under nearly as much pressure as McLaughlin will be.
In McLaughlin’s favour is outright pace. He has won more races and achieved more pole positions than anyone else. His performance on Sunday at Surfers Paradise demonstrates that Penske not only have great pace, but great fuel economy, too. If McLaughlin scores another pole he will be very hard to beat. The problem for McLaughlin is that Whincup only needs a third and a second place, and not many drivers are faster than Whincup. McLaughlin, as the second-placed driver, has to have a perfect weekend. Based on this year’s results, he’s also the driver most likely to have one.
At street races there hasn’t been much between them this year. Whincup has only won a single street race at Townsville, while McLaughlin has won at Townsville and Gold Coast. Both have had two seconds each at street races. McLaughlin has finished outside the top 10 at street circuits twice and Whincup once.
Whincup and McLaughlin’s teammates, Shane van Gisbergen and Craig Lowndes at Triple 8 and Fabian Coulthard at Penske will go Newcastle thinking more about the teams’ championship and helping their teammates. Penske still leads the teams’ championship over Red Bull HRT by a 100 point margin, but there are still 600 points available. As the designated third driver, Lowndes doesn’t factor in the teams’ championship, so let’s put him aside for a moment. Teams arguably want the teams’ championship more than the drivers’ championship because it comes with the coveted number one pit boom next season. Team factors will influence the driver’s championship, but it’s hard to predict how. Should van Gisbergen be racing with McLaughlin, he will be under a great deal of pressure to get in front, both for the teams’ championship and Whincup’s drivers’ championship tilt. If Coulthard is racing Whincup, it will depend on Penske’s priorities. He may be asked to be conservative if they’re more concerned with the teams’ championship because they can’t afford a DNF there. Additionally, Coulthard hasn’t been the most aggressive racer this year. On the other hand, given van Gisbergen’s up and down season, Coulthard is perhaps more likely to find himself in the position to hold back Whincup than van Gisbergen is for McLaughlin. If Lowndes finds himself up against either Penske driver, he has nothing to lose and will be ordered to go hard.
This year the championship will be settled at a new circuit for the first time in decades. When the final round was held in Sydney in 2009, Whincup had already won the championship. Newcastle will throw up a new challenge. It’s a new circuit that nobody knows, and a street circuit at that. Street circuits are vastly more unforgiving than permanent circuits Small mistakes can end weekends and that’s what could happen here. The drivers and teams, particularly Triple 8 and DJR Team Penske will already be out there studying every surface imperfection and every painted line. The drivers will figure out the fastest way around the circuit but the overtaking opportunities will remain a bit of a mystery until the race begins. Whincup knows this all too well. In a wet race on Saturday in Sydney in 2009, all three contenders, Whincup, James Courtney and Mark Winterbottom, aquaplaned into the wall together. Whincup and Courtney were both able to limp back to pit lane, but Dick Johnson Racing was able to get Courtney back out and classified as a finisher, while Triple 8 couldn’t quite do the same for Whincup. Courtney finished 15th and secured valuable points. All he had to do on Sunday was finish 19th, while Whincup had to be at least fourth to win. Courtney finished 14th and Whincup fifth, making Courtney the champion by 65 points.
History suggests that we won’t see an all-green race in Newcastle. One or probably both races will have at least one safety car intervention. Street rounds rarely go by without one. It’s this unpredictability that means Fabian Coulthard, Chaz Mostert, and Shane van Gisbergen cannot be completely ruled out. It is entirely possible that the championship will go to the highest-placed driver in mathematical contention that doesn’t have a massive accident.
Last year the odds were comfortably in van Gisbergen’s favour over Whincup. In 2015, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Mark Winterbottom would beat Lowndes. This year it's too close to call. It's the closest championship since 2006 where Lowndes went into the final race with a six point margin over Rick Kelly. There's no point making a prediction until after qualifying on Saturday.