A Winton weekend of two very different days
Action track provides thrills and, on Sunday, a Triple Eight revival
Dick Johnson may have famously described racing at Winton “like running a marathon around your clothesline", but the now extended circuit certainly turned on the action at the weekend.
It was a tale of two races over two days – and two very different outcomes.
What is now very obvious is that four drivers – two each from DJR Team Penske and Red Bull HRT – are set for a mega fight for the 2017 Supercars championship.
The best of the rest, the Prodrive Ford squad, still has some pace and consistency to rediscover.
It was a win apiece for the leading two teams across the two days, Scott McLaughlin dominating in a DJR Penske Ford on Saturday and a rebounding defending champ Shane van Gisbergen bursting back to win on Sunday.
All around too, there were some highly entertaining duelling all the way back through the expanded field (boosted by three wild card entries).
Saturday was all about McLaughlin, who took the pole and then effortlessly clinched his third consecutive race win (and sixth for the team).
The DJR Team Penske cars looked supreme even though six-time champ, Red Bull HRT’s Jamie Whincup fought tenaciously to stay ahead of Fabian Coulthard and split the two Ford men.
David Reynolds sliced through from 14th to fourth for Erebus, passing Tekno’s Will Davison, who struggled with fuel issues near the end.
Craig Lowndes turned in a stellar drive to charge from 19th to sixth, ahead of the always racy Garth Tander.
Defending Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen was a distant eighth after a slow pit stop.
After starting from second, Chaz Mostert’s race ended in just the 13th lap after his Supercheap Auto Ford Falcon experienced transmission failure.
A major talking point was the lurid end to James Courtney’s race on the final lap when the Walkinshaw Holden driver, fighting for 10th, appeared to get a helping hand into the kitty litter from BJR’s Nick Percat. The officials though deemed it a no-blame incident.
Coming after a tough year and tumultuous week with the sacking of team principal Adrian Burgess, Courtney was clearly shattered considering a good result had been within reach.
“I’m gutted,” indicated Courtney after yet another bad outcome. “We’ve had a hell of a time here with everything that’s been going on and to have that happen, it’s another kick in the face,” Courtney said post-race.”
Another day brought a change of fortune for some, although McLaughlin continued his stunning qualifying form with another pole ahead of Whincup, van Gisbergen, the impressive Cameron Waters, Coulthard and Davison. Unfathomably, Lowndes was just 26th fastest.
If many were thinking another DJR Team Penske day of dominance loomed, Whincup had other ideas, jumping McLaughlin at the start and after a spirited flurry and some panel rubbing, van Gisbergen joined him up front while the pole man slipped behind Waters.
Whincup continued to lead for much of the race until a safety car intervention compressed the field behind him.
At the restart, Whincup’s car slid wide on a dirty part of the track and van Gisbergen needed no invitation to pounce into the lead followed by Coulthard. Then van Gisbergen strategically organised his team-mate to get back to second, and that’s how they finished. A great bounce back by the Red Bull squad after looking outgunned 24 hours earlier.
Despite winning the weekend overall, Whincup said he was “gutted” after failing to land his first win of the year.
"All I want to do is win a race and just can’t get there.”
Still, it’s now clearly game on in the title fight.
Coulthard finished third from Waters, McLaughlin (who was forced to go old school and use his clutch pedal for much of the 67 laps), Tander and Reynolds.
The points situation is now very tight, with Coulthard just four ahead of Whincup, while McLaughlin is within 28 points of the lead and van Gisbergen only nine points adrift of him.
Ogier takes unpredictable Portugal
Seven drivers took turns to lead
The first European gravel fixture of the 2017 World Rally Championship lived up to its promise by producing another fierce fight for victory with just 15.6sec separating winner Sébastien Ogier (M-Sport) and second-placed Thierry Neuville (Hyundai).
Neuville’s team-mate Dani Sordo completed the podium a further 46.1sec behind.
It was a record-equalling fifth Rally de Portugal victory for Ogier, who matches the five wins achieved by Finland’s Markku Alén.
Ogier ended Saturday’s penultimate leg with a 16.8sec advantage over Neuville after leader Ott Tänak’s hopes of a maiden FIA WRC win ended when he swiped a bank in his M Sport Fiesta earlier in the day.
“After the struggle we had in the last round, it’s fantastic to be back on the top step of the podium again,” Ogier said.
“I had a new car in Monte-Carlo and we won. I had a new car here and we won. I’m not sure if the team can afford to give me a new car for every rally!”
Remarkably, Ogier was one of seven different drivers to lead this unpredictable four-day gravel encounter on rough dirt roads in the north of the country, round six of the season.
Belgian Neuville was another. He topped the standings in his Hyundai i20 Coupe after Thursday night’s opening speed test, but slipped away before recovering to second.
Ogier has increased his FIA World Rally Championship lead to 128 points, from Neuville (106), Jari-Matti Latvala (88) and Ott Tanak (830.
Indy 500: Dixon takes blistering pole
Alonso qualifies fifth; Power ninth
While former Formula One driver Sebastien Bourdais’s 2017 Indy 500campaign ended in a frightening crash which put him in hospital, Fernando Alonso is in the 33-car field after a qualifying effort that looks strong enough to give him a shot at winning next Sunday.
Alonso has qualified fifth fastest for his first start at the fabled 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The McLaren F1 ace uncorked a hectic Sunday four-lap average speed of 234.113mph, good enough to line up on the middle of row two.
Pole went to New Zealand’s Scott Dixon with an insanely swift run of 232.164mph in a Ganassi Honda. This is the fastest four-lap qualifying average since Arie Luyendyk's record pole run of 236.986mph in 1996.
Ed Carpenter, the pole winner in 2013 and 2014, and last year’s 500 winner Alexander Rossi will also start on the front row.
Aussie Will Power, a last-start IndyCar championship winner, qualified his Team Penske Chev in ninth with an average of 230.200mph.
The 2014 IndyCar champion, Power has never been on pole at the Brickyard although he did qualify second two years ago when he was also second in the race.
A measure of the dangers faced when racing on a high-speed American oval ringed by walls was the awful crash on Saturday of former F1 driver (and experienced oval racer) Bourdais, who had been a pacesetter throughout practice.
The Frenchman was fastest after the first two laps of his four-lap qualifying run before losing control exiting Turn One and then slamming nose first into the barriers and flipping. Bourdais suffered multiple fractures to his pelvis and a fracture to his right hip. He was lucky to be aboard a modern race car engineered to deal with heavy impacts.
Aussie James Davison will replace Bourdais in the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.
Davison, who is 30, made his IndyCar debut with DCR in 2013 and returned to race with the team at the Indy 500 in 2015. He has been racing sports cars this year.
DCR’s prime car was destroyed in the Bourdais crash but a backup machine is being prepared. It is in full road course configuration and will take some time to convert to oval spec.
Davison will start from the back next Sunday.
French MotoGP: Rossi slides off within sight of the chequer
But the talking point was the brutal Jack Miller practice crash
Yamaha’s Maverick Vinales took a breathtaking last lap victory in the French MotoGP championship race at Le Mans, with local hero Johann Zarco (also on a Yamaha) claiming a stunning second ahead of Honda’s Dani Pedrosa.
Valentino Rossi had looked set for an epic tyre-managed victory when he grabbed the lead from Vinales with three laps left to run.
Then the 38-year old ran a little wide on the final lap and the Spaniard was back in in the lead. Rossi poured on the pressure during the last half lap but then slipped off just a few corners from the flag.
For many laps the parochial French crowd of 104,000 dared hope for a fairytale win courtesy of MotoGP rookie Zarco.
Zarco, one of three Yamaha riders filling the front row, aggressively pushed his way to the front on the opening lap and stayed there until Vinales slipped by.
But Vinales couldn’t shake Zarco, nor Rossi (Yamaha) in a close third or Marc Marquez, in fourth on a Honda.
Marquez crashed out with 11 laps remaining, his world title hopes taking a tumble with him.
Jorge Lorenzo was a lowly sixth for Ducati.
Australia’s Jack Miller, riding with painkillers after his pounding ‘off’ on Saturday, bravely held on to eighth.
The footage of Miller’s scary high-speed shunt at the end of final practice has captured so much attention from the weekend.
And he walked away! pic.twitter.com/ZA1TXlbzQa— DarcyF1 Multimedia (@darcyf1) May 20, 2017
Miller, 22, miraculously walked away relatively unscathed after losing control of his Honda and slamming into a barrier surviving a terrifying crash during practice.
The TV vision shows Miller firing out of turn one before the bike reacts badly, the front wheel tucking before it spears towards a barrier, bucking violently across some bumpy outfield before hurtling into the tyre barriers at barely diminished speed.
Miller said afterwards that he let go of the bike when he saw it wasn’t going to stop before it contacted the barrier.
Miller and the bike ricocheted along the wall, both finally coming to a halt in a pall of dust in a gravel trap. It all happened in a blink. The bike was severely damaged but the rider gingerly got to his feet.
Miller bravely returned to his garage before re-emerging after a medical clearance to qualify 11th on his back-up machine.
Earlier, the Queenslander had topped the timesheets in the opening rainy practice.
Later former world champion Jorge Lorenzo accused Miller of having a cavalier attitude to rider safety.
The Moto3 race was marred by a two major crashes early, one taking out four riders and then a bizarre lap two multiple spill when an estimated 20 in the lead bunch slid on oil and went down.
All were cleared to participate in the restarted race reduced by one-third to 16 laps. It was won by Honda’s Joan Mir, who extended his lead in the championship to 34, helped no end by his leading rivals failing to score.
The Moto2 race was won by Franco Morbidelli while Australia’s Remy Gardner finished 20th as he continues to rebuild his confidence and race fitness after breaking his leg at the Argentine GP several weeks ago.
Big grid for Le Mans 24H
Two Aussies in field of 180 drivers
Confirmation of the full 24 Hours of Le Mans entry for June 17-18 shows a field of 60 entrants and 179 drivers (one slot yet to be filled).
Of the 60 cars, 28 are from the FIA World Endurance Championship, the French classic being the third round of the 2017 season and the jewel in the crown of endurance.
There will be six LMP1 entrants, including five hybrid-powered 1000-horsepower prototypes from Porsche (two) and Toyota (three) chasing overall victory.
Toyota in particular is on a mission to succeed after is heartbreaking 2016 race, when its lead car failed within minutes of the chequer.
An impressive 25 cars fill out the LMP2 category which features all four different chassis manufacturers.
As usual, the popular LMGTE classes is full of cars and interest, with 29 entries representing the world’s leading luxury brands (and a few ring ins) including Aston Martins, Chev Corvettes, Ferraris, Fords and Porsches.
In all racing licences from 31 different countries are among the entries including two from Australia.
Ryan Briscoe returns with the Ganassi Team USA Ford GT squad in LM GTE Pro, teaming up with New Zealand’s Scott Dixon and Richard Westbrook of Britain.
Graff Racing has named Aussie ex-Formula Renault racer James Allen along with Briton Richard Bradley and young French driver Franck Matelli in the #39 ORECA Gibson LMP2 machine.