THE Australian V8 Supercars Series circus moves to Tasmania’s Symmons Plains Raceway this weekend with heightened interest in the performance of Scott Pye, the very able substitute for local hero Marcos Ambrose.
Ambrose’s shock call to step down from as driver of the DJR Team Penske #17 Falcon FG X has triggered many thousands of column centimetres and many hours of panel talk time – with the picture no clearer than it was at the time of the shock announcement on March 17.
But as the teams get set for the Symmons weekend, Dick Johnson has mounted an aggressive defence of Ambrose and his star driver’s call to hand over the car to Scott Pye after just two race meetings this year.
Johnson told Wheels that, yes, Marcos is disappointed with his results so far, even though no one should have expected him to come back here after nine seasons in NASCAR and beat up Jamie Whincup et al straight out of the box.
He insists Ambrose should be praised for his guts and honesty.
“He has got balls to do this [announce he’s sitting out Symmons and perhaps more races],” declared Johnson.
“How many race drivers do you know have admitted they’re not fast enough?” Johnson is also impressed that Ambrose didn’t shirk calling Roger Penske and Tim Cindric in the States to tell them of his decision.
Johnson suggested that the Ambrose hiatus came about because the driver is simply unsure whether he or elements in the car or team are the problem.
After identical Prodrive Falcons dominated the AGP with four wins from four starts, it would be especially bold to suggest the car is the problem.
Had the team been running two identical Falcons this season, drawing conclusions would have been a rather more simple matter for Ambrose.
“It’s his way of flushing out any ‘impurities’,” Johnson explained. The well-regarded Pye is a known quality in the car. He bagged two top 10 results at Symmons last season with DJR.
"If he qualifies and races about where Ambrose did in the opening round of the championship in Adelaide, then it’s fair to assume the speed problem can be blamed on something or someone other than the driver."
Johnson says that rather than slam Ambrose, the critics should be aiming at the failure of the V8 Supercars’ regulations to give outsiders (and Ambrose has been away for nearly a decade) a chance to get to grips with the very different beast that is a V8 Supercar.
He is critical of a system that does not allow the returning Ambrose – and, before him, internationals Alex Premat, Maro Engel and Robert Dahgren – extended private testing to get them on the pace quickly.
Johnson is urging the series to create a process of easing in drivers from outside before it burns any more marquee names.
“Marcos has to get miles in the car away from the spotlight and the current silly system of so little testing doesn’t make exceptions for cases like him, Engel, Premat and the others.
“These are not easy cars to get the hang of, and they’ve changed since Marcos was racing them last time. It’s a very competitive series – less than one second can cover the whole field.
“If we want to encourage drivers from outside to race in V8 Supercars we have to make [testing] allowances so they can get up to speed.”
But the Ford legend finished the chat with Wheels with an encouraging prediction, saying that, while he’s heard all the speculation to the contrary, he has no doubt that Ambrose will be back in a DJR Team Penske Falcon.
“Marcos hasn’t lost it. He’s got everything he had when he raced V8s before.
“And he’s not a quitter. He’ll be back.”
The lingering question is…when?
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER AT SYMMONS
• Will the blinding speed of the two Prodrive Falcons At Albert Park make the boat trip across Bass Strait?
• Buoyed by his Clipsal triumph, HRT’s James Courtney is talking loudly and often about winning the championship. Is he guilty of a premature prediction?
• Holdens currently own the first six championship positions, with Ford’s Mark Winterbottom the best of the rest in seventh.
• Will Scott McLaughlin and his Volvo rediscover the mojo conspicuously missing at Albert Park?
• Some big names languishing in the points – McLaughlin, David Reynolds, Nick Percat, Will Davison, Lee Holdsworth…
• Symmons Plains is first championship round not to be shown live on free-to-air. Instead it’s a one-hour highlights package on Ten at 4pm. High anxiety along pit lane about the likely ratings…
1. James Courtney 258pts
2. Fabian Coulthard 241pts
3. Garth Tander 237pts
4. Shane Van Gisbergen 222pts
5. Jamie Whincup 216pts
6. Craig Lowndes 208pts
7. Mark Winterbottom 202pts
8. Rick Kelly 177pts
9. Jason Bright 161pts
10. Todd Kelly 143pts
11. Tim Slade 135pts
12. Marcos Ambrose 125pts
13. David Reynolds 120pts
14. David Wall 114pts
15. Dale Wood 110pts
16. Tim Blanchard 102pts
17. Nick Percat 101pts
18. Scott McLaughlin 93pts
19. James Moffat 84pts
20. Andre Heimgartner 82pts
21. Lee Holdsworth 81pts
22. Chaz Mostert 69pts
23. Michael Caruso 59pts
24. Will Davison 48pts
25. Ashley Walsh 42pts