There Was No Cheating or Corruption, the Best Driver Won the Supercars Championship
Last Sunday, Jamie Whincup won his seventh Supercars championship in a dramatic final race. It was a divisive result. Many people believe that Scott McLaughlin should have won the championship, blaming poor decisions by race control, corruption and the points system.
Whincup didn't have the best car under him this year, but he and Triple 8 put together an excellent campaign. He only won four races to McLaughlin’s eight, but he finished every race. Whincup had 14 podiums and only finished outside the top 10 four times. Aside from those four races, Whincup’s worst result was sixth. McLaughlin had 16 podiums, but finished outside the top 10 five times and did not finish at Bathurst. His next worst result was 10th at Phillip Island. Whincup was, as usual, the most consistent driver out there.
For the most part, McLaughlin drove brilliantly as well. His eight race wins and 16 pole positions are a testament to that. New recruits McLaughlin and technical director Ludo Lacroix helped turn DJR Team Penske from a forgettable mid-pack team to championship contenders in just one offseason. It was an unprecedented turnaround, possibly helped by the new tyres. Usually it goes the other way. Look at Walkinshaw’s results in 2008 and 09 or Prodrive in 2015 and 16.
McLaughlin won twice as many races as Whincup, but that alone doesn't make him a more worthy champion and it doesn't justify changing the points system. Winning races is important, but so is the way drivers and teams conduct themselves on bad days. On two occasions this year 24-year-old McLaughlin demonstrated that he doesn't quite have the maturity of his more seasoned rivals. At Sydney Motorsport Park on Sunday afternoon, Shane van Gisbergen running second to McLaughlin made an illegal overlap before a restart following a safety car. It gave van Gisbergen the lead. McLaughlin responded by pushing van Gisbergen off-track and initially received a 15-second penalty. Analysis of McLaughlin’s throttle trace showed an unusually large spike in throttle application coinciding with the time of contact. McLaughlin was handed an additional 17 seconds to make it a pit lane penalty equivalent 33 seconds. Van Gisbergen also received a 33-second penalty for restarting four seconds early. This mistake and a DNF ar Bathurst for McLaughlin helped keep and ultra-consistent Whincup in the championship fight.
McLaughlin arrived at Newcastle 30 points down and needed a near perfect weekend to ensure he won the championship. On Saturday he did just that, grabbing pole position and going on to win the race. On Sunday he scored another pole in the top 10 shootout. Whincup needed a third and a second, but contact with Michael Caruso and a subsequent tyre puncture saw him finish 21st on Saturday, 13 laps down. McLaughlin was the firm favourite coming into Sunday.
It didn’t work out that way though. McLaughlin’s Sunday woes started with a pit lane penalty for speeding in pit lane. Trying to recover from his PLP for speeding in pit lane, McLaughlin took a dive at Simona de Silvestro and turned her around. Following a short investigation, McLaughlin was handed a 15 second penalty. This is a standard penalty for this sort of incident and few people are arguing about whether he deserved it or not.
McLaughlin was at also fault in the incident with Craig Lowndes. Drivers are required to give each other racing room. McLaughlin failed to do this. The standard line taken on that straight is on the right side. McLaughlin made a mistake at the previous corner, giving Lowndes a chance to overtake on the inside, left line. He was entitled to do this as long as he didn't push McLaughlin wide into the right side wall. McLaughlin was required to give him space on the left and didn't.
Division B section 2 of the Supercars operations manual defines three driving standards infringement grades:
Grade 1: Careless Driving
Departing from the standard of a competent driver.
Grade 2: Reckless Driving
Any unintentional action by a driver which creates serious risk to others.
Grade 3: Dangerous Driving
Any intentional action by a driver which creates serious risk to others.
Further, according to div. B section 3.7, “any driver defending his position on a straight, and before any braking area, may use the full width of the track during his first move, provided no portion of the car attempting to pass is alongside their car”. Section 3.8 states that “maneuvers liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted”. Lowndes had almost his entire car overlapping from the beginning of the straight, so McLaughlin violated both these rules.
In a post-race interview, he admitted to squeezing Lowndes to the left, which at a street circuit with concrete walls falls comfortably into the Grade 3 ‘dangerous’ category. That incurs either a drive-through penalty or the equivalent time penalty.
It's easy to understand McLaughlin's motive. Given the state of his and Lowndes' tyres, and the fact that they were fighting for the critical 11th place, his only hope of winning the championship by blocking. It's unfair to criticise him for having a go, but an infringement’s an infringement. Nothing can excuse him from receiving a penalty.
In his moves against both de Silvestro and Lowndes, he violated section 3.8, “it is not permitted for any driver to unfairly gain an advantage as a result of contact to another car”. That earned him a 15 second penalty for reckless driving.
The championship has fired up the Triple 8 bias argument again. You can take off your tinfoil hat, there isn't any. Over the years Triple 8 have received their fair share of penalties, including minor misdemeanours that could easily have been swept under the rug or intra-team clashes that are often left for the teams to sort out themselves. At Pukekohe this year, Cameron Waters spun two of his teammates, Mostert and Winterbottom, and received no penalty. When Whincup did the same to van Gisbergen at Pukekohe last year he got a PLP. When the wheel spinning in pit lane rule was introduced, Whincup was the worst offender. There was also the time Whincup got a PLP because a crew member accidentally touched his car during a pit stop at Adelaide. At Sandown a couple of years ago, he and Paul Dumbrell received a PLP because Dumbrell undid his seatbelt buckles early. No one would have noticed those infringements if the penalties weren't issued. If race control was biased, they could have ignored them and no one would have known. I am a long-time Prodrive supporter. My favourite team has battled with Triple 8 for years and only one championship, two Bathurst 1000s and one Enduro Cup. Yet I don't believe the stewards are biased towards Triple 8 at all.
Scott McLaughlin will eventually win a championship, but this wasn't his year. No matter how fast young drivers are, they tend to make more mistakes than older drivers. Whincup had a near miss in 2007 before winning his first in 2008 when he was 28, four years older than McLaughlin. What cost McLaughlin the championship was mistakes that Whincup wouldn't make any more. Whincup, on the other hand, might never win another championship. As the gets closer to the back and of his full time career, it will be harder for him to keep fit and his reaction times will slow.
The championship almost always goes to the driver who deserves it. Rick Kelly in 2006 being the exception. Congratulations Jamie Whincup on a record seven championships. You're now on par with Sebastien Loeb and Jimmie Johnson. Scott McLaughlin, there's always next year, you've got another 10 or so competitive years left.