THERE was disbelief all round, even from Red Bull Holden’s Jamie Whincup when his Ford rival Scott McLaughlin gifted the Red Bull driver an unprecedented seventh Australian Supercars championship as the 2017 series came to a crunching, feverish and drama-filled denouement at the Newcastle street circuit.
A shattered McLaughlin was certainly left rueing the brutal truth that he threw away a golden opportunity to secure his maiden Supercars title.
The big crowd at the track and more watching at home reeled from the staggering developments that emerged throughout the last race of a tough and tight championship. This 250km contest kept tossing up OMG moments which left everyone on edge and the title in doubt until the last lap of the year.
Three big errors from McLaughlin in the final race brought censure from officials and ultimately left his title campaign in tatters.
Whincup’s 2017 season has been one of toil and tenacity. On sheer pace he and his Red Bull Holden often couldn’t match 24-year-old tearaway McLaughlin and the powerhouse Shell V-Power Ford team. Still, consistency is a powerful weapon in long title fights and Whincup held a useful though hardly comfortable 30-point margin going into the title-deciding weekend of two 250km races.
It was a weekend of contrasts for the two teams in the title battle.
Saturday was a disastrous day for Whincup and triumphal for McLaughlin.
The young Kiwi again raced to pole position, his 15th of 2017.
Whincup was back on row three, and under pressure from knowing that overtaking was awkward.
Every position and every point would be crucial. Seconds after the start of Saturday’s race, in the midst of the usual bumping and grinding for an advantage, Whincup was squeezed between the wall and Michael Caruso’s Nissan. The two touched, cutting Whincup’s right front that soon after pitched him into the wall.
While Whincup limped his Red Bull Holden back to the pits with serious suspension damage, rival McLaughlin methodically went about setting up his most important win of the title season.
Crucially, Red Bull got Whincup back out 13 laps down but soon enough for him to be classified a finisher and collect 80 championship points.
But an elated McLaughlin banked 150 points for his eighth win of the year. It was a 108-point swing in McLaughlin’s favour and a huge day for Dick Johnson Racing-Team Penske, with Fabian Coulthard finishing an impressive second ahead of Freightliner Holden’s Tim Slade.
The outcome sealed the team’s championship for the Dick-Roger squad.
Between Saturday’s chequered flag and lights-out on Sunday how often did we hear the observation that McLaughlin had one hand on the trophy?
It would be so difficult – almost impossible – for Whincup to claw back the 78-point deficit. Surely.
Another glorious pole to McLaughlin on Sunday left the Kiwi in command. Whincup could not do better than fifth fastest.
McLaughlin needed only to finish 11th to take his maiden title, even if Whincup was to win the race.
Despite obvious and understandable pre-race nerves, McLaughlin made a perfect start , beating Shane van Gisbergen, Whincup’s always forceful Red Bull Holden teammate, into the first corner, and then controlling proceedings until the first wave of pit stops.
There is usually a moment in time where a championship is lost…
That came at the end of lap 14, when McLaughlin and van Gisbergen swung off into the pits. It looked like a tense yet routine hard-braking stop to meet the obligatory 40km/h pit-lane speed limit.
Rejoining, McLaughlin and van Gisbergen found that David Reynolds’ Erebus Holden had jumped them with an earlier stop – the famed undercut.
McLaughlin would not have been too worried by this as his title rival was still a couple of places behind him.
Then came the crucial title-influencing message from race control that McLaughin (but not the close-following van Gisbergen) had been pinged for being over the pit speed limit on entry. The penalty was a drive through. This left him 23rd.
Up front, Reynolds slid wide and van Gisbergen slipped through to the lead.
The points situation between the two protagonists changed constantly as McLaughlin slowly picked off cars ahead. If he got up to the target of 11th, the title was his. It looked eminently gettable, at least until he lined up Simona De Silvestro’s Nissan.
De Silvestro had been having a great race, aggressively but fairly collecting worthy scalps such as Garth Tander and Tim Slade in her push for a top 10 result. She was never going to be easy for McLaughlin.
Maybe he was too impatient. On lap 47, McLaughlin made his second, and more damaging mistake, a clumsy attempted pass that bunted De Silvestro into a spin.
Race control quickly applied a 15sec time penalty. This dropped McLaughlin to 22nd and upped the degree of difficult another few notches.
On lap 30 of 95, van Gisbergen, playing the Red Bull team game, allowed Whincup through to the lead.
A safety car intervention gave brief respite, but when the race resumed, a scrimmage involving McLaughlin, Scott Pye, Jason Bright and Garth Tander left the #17 Ford with lots of body damage and a rubbing tyre. Could it get any worse for McLaughlin?
Running in 13th, McLaughlin took a couple of laps to clear his head and resume his attack. With Whincup on track for victory, he needed to pass GRM duo Garth Tander and James Moffat.
Behind McLaughlin but catching up fast thanks to a clever pit visit for fresh tyres was Craig Lowndes, Whincup’s Triple Eight Race Engineering teammate. McLaughlin finally forced his way under Tander on lap 90, and then on the penultimate lap, scrambled under Moffat to 11th.
Joy and relief were in short supply though with Lowndes right on his rear bumper. A small mistake by McLaughlin gave Lowndes a sniff and he loomed alongside in the run down the straight for the final time.
McLaughlin steered left to block and Lowndes hit part of the wall that protrudes maybe 50cm, broke his steering , pirouetted and hit a barrier backwards at high speed.
A lightning fast adjudication from race control resulted in a post-race penalty applied to McLaughlin . This third and cruellest penalty of the race dropped him from a title winning 11th to 18th.
The championship was Whincup's by just 21 points.
A devastated McLaughlin was consoled by his team after the race. He knew he had blown it.
“Oh man, I just gave it my all, gave it my all for the boys,” McLaughlin said.
“I lost my left-hand mirror early and obviously I knew we [he and Lowndes] were close but not that close. I defended my line to [turn] two and we interlocked. I genuinely didn’t mean to push him into the wall and to get pinged like that.”
McLaughlin may well wonder where the title went. He won more races than anyone this year with eight and took an incredible 16 poles.
It was not enough against the nagging, ever-present Whincup, the supreme professional with outstanding survival instincts – his last non finish was 135 races ago. He is the only regular Supercars driver to have finished every race of 2017.
Whincup didn’t realise he had won his record seventh title until after he had crossed the finish line.
"It was an unbelievable day from where I stand!” Whincup said. “Does it get any better than that? We just felt robbed [on Saturday]. We felt like we worked so hard and did so much to get ourselves within championship contention but we didn't feel like we deserved that yesterday.
“Today, we just thought we had to go out there and do our job, and for things to fall our way. We feel like we've worked the hardest and we deserve it and there's someone looking down on us and we got the ultimate result.”
“We fought hard, didn’t have the quickest car all year but it is all about team work and sport is all mental,” Whincup said.
Like many who witnessed the closing laps, Whincup felt for McLaughlin. . “A massive thanks to the car 17 crew. They stepped up this year and gave us an unbelievable fight. Commiserations to them. No doubt Scotty will go on to win the next eight but I am glad we got one.”
Whincup’s teammate van Gisbergen, who finished second on Sunday, also had thoughts for the loser and fellow Kiwi: “The unthinkable happened today and I feel for Scotty; it really sucks.”
But the outgoing titleholder had praise for the new champ too: “Well done to Jamie. That’s why he has won the championship so many times. He is so consistent, no mistakes. It’s pretty awesome.”
So, ignoring the relentless, repetitive hard sell from the Fox Sports commentators, was the freshly minted street venue in Newcastle a success?
Undoubtedly. Certainly the waterside location is terrific even if Mark Skaife’s regular reference of it having similarities to Monaco may have been a stretch.
It’s an interesting layout, but it has its limitations, like all temporary tracks . The claustrophobic and in places bumpy 2.6km layout did not offer generous overtaking opportunities, as McLaughlin will attest.
Teething problems at a new venue are not a great surprise either, and the track surface breaking up on Saturday fell into that category. After overnight patching the track was good to go on Sunday.
While some local residents in heritage homes facing the track were highly critical, the reality is that the vast numbers of Novocastrians were thrilled to be hosting big-time motorsport for the first time.
Bottas ends season on a high with victory in Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
It was Valtteri Bottas’ third career victory, all of them recorded since he joined Mercedes to partner the 32-year-old Lewis Hamilton in January following the unexpected exit of 2016 champion German Nico Rosberg.
Bottas saved one of his strongest performances of the year until last, fighting off Mercedes team-mate and four-times world champion Lewis Hamilton to win the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix by 3.9secs.
It was the stoic Finn’s first success at the Yas Marina Circuit and he even allowed himself a brief expression session after crossing the line, with Hamilton joining in the fun, too.
This apart it was a grand prix that had produced little in the way of a spectacle and nothing much to race for as the Briton had already sealed the 2017 world title.
The 28-year-old Bottas, who a day earlier claimed his fourth pole position of the year, was in charge throughout apart from a period following his first pit stop when Hamilton inherited the lead.
“There was a lot of pressure from Lewis from behind throughout the entire race,” said Bottas afterwards. “I knew that one proper mistake could have ruined it. I had to keep my head down and go lap by lap. I couldn't be happier to end the season like this. Of course, it would have been nice to get the second place in the championship, but Sebastian [Vettel] had a good weekend as well.
“This weekend shows that I can perform, I can be on pole and win races. So now I need to try and do it more often next year.”
After being thwarted by Bottas, Hamilton called for a re-design of a track with too many corners, declaring that it was impossible to pass.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel took third in Abu Dhabi ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen. It was a modest result systematic of a season that offered hope in spades for the scuderia, but instead produced the sobering reality that Mercedes was just too good.
Despite several glaring driving errors this year, Vettel took second in the driver’s championship.
Red Bull-Tag Heuer driver Max Verstappen finished the race in fifth, a long way back from Bottas.
But after splitting the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen in qualifying to claim fourth, two places ahead of teammate Verstappen, Australian Daniel Ricciardo’s race ended early, on lap 21, with a hydraulics problem. It was his sixth non-finish of the year and it dropped him to fifth in the championship standings.
“Not a good last few races for me, unfortunately,” reported Ricciardo after his third non-finish in the last four races. “We had some highs this year and a lot of positive moments but it’s not the nicest way to end the season, with a DNF. At turn 19 I felt something strange with the steering so I thought I had a flat tyre. Then just before the pit lane I said: ‘I’m coming in’. We weren’t supposed to pit but I feared it was a puncture. Then when we got back out the steering was still strange and it suddenly got very heavy so I could tell that I was losing hydraulic pressure. I lost the power steering and then we couldn’t change gears and that was that.
“I’m now excited to go on holiday, really looking forward to the break and hopefully next year we’ll come back stronger,” said Ricciardo, his attention now on anything but racing.
In his last F1 race, Brazil’s Felipe Massa scored a point from finishing 10th. “I can say I am really proud of everything I’ve achieved, all 16 years and all the amazing races, and the great people I met in the paddock, racing against the best drivers in the world. The race was good. I was fighting from the beginning to the end,” he said.
New Zealand’s latest F1 driver Brendon Hartley finished 15th, one place ahead of Toro Rosso teammate Piere Ghasly. "It was always going to be an uphill struggle for us to hang on to that sixth place in the championship and it’s a real shame to lose it… I’m obviously massively disappointed. Going back to this weekend, I had a pretty clean race. I was in a train of cars – a McLaren, a Haas, a Sauber, myself and Pierre behind.
"It’s just very tricky to overtake here with these big downforce cars. It’s been a massive learning curve for me during these last few weeks and I’m well overdue a holiday! I’m looking forward to recovering, having some down time, preparing well for 2018 and coming back even stronger for my first full F1 season.”
Formula One returns next year for the Australian Grand Prix on March 23-25.