Imagine if the referee of your favourite footy code suddenly leapt into the middle of a play, grabbed the ball and handed it to the opposing side.
This, according to some of motorsport’s greats, is exactly what happened in Sunday’s Supercars race in Pukekohe, New Zealand, after a safety car intervention simply blew the race apart, pushing some drivers down the order and giving others a free kick.
“Embarrassing really,” said one driver. “Disaster of a day,” said another. "Complete and utter stuff-up," said a third.
But what actually happened? What caused such a ruction on a day where New Zealand’s wunderkind, Scott McLaughlin, won his 17th race of the season for DJR Team Penske, smashing a 23-year-old-record of wins on a season in the process? Buckle up, because it gets weird.
The Safety Car is called on lap 14…
Erebus driver David Reynolds’ Holden Commodore broke a throttle linkage early in the race, stranding him on the circuit. Race Control dispatched the Ford Mustang Safety Car as Reynolds limped towards pit lane.
Usually, the safety car emerges from the pits in front of the leader, controlling the pace of the field until the hazard has cleared. Only in this case, the hazard – Reynolds – cleared himself. However, the safety car was already out on the circuit, ready to pick up the leader of the race…
…And it picks up the wrong ‘leader’
Red Bull Commodore racer Jamie Whincup was the first car to come across the Safety Car on the circuit (above left), despite not actually being in the lead of the race at the time.
In most cases, the safety car crew inside the car would signal for Whincup to move past with safety, allowing the field to cycle past and the real leader to take up station behind.
“That was the situation here. Hold the field, identify the leader, and wave any cars between the car behind the Safety Car and the leader through,” race director Tim Schenken told Supercars broadcaster Fox Sport.
Pukekohe’s short lap time of around one minute and its long pit transit time of 45 seconds didn’t help officials when it came to placing the safety car – but equally, this wasn’t their first rodeo, either.
…Who then broke the rules and passed the Safety Car
Whincup then compounded the situation massively by breaking the cardinal rule of car racing; disobeying the safety car.
His reasoning was – given his prior form at breaking the same rule – odd at best; he simply believed that Race Control had erred by picking him up, but it had been too slow in instructing the safety car to switch on a green light to allow him to pass.
He motored on past despite flashing yellow lights and no signal from within the safety car, assuming the lead of the race once the rest of the field had pitted to take tactical advantage of the delay in proceedings.
Whincup’s goose, reality, was cooked the second he went past the safety car – as were the respective gooses of the drivers, like Ford Mustang racer Lee Holdsworth (above right), who chose not to break ranks and disobey the safety car.
This meant that those racers were slowed by the safety car, with other racers able to pit and resume racing in unnaturally elevated places.
...But it was now too late to fix it
“By [Whincup] going past the Safety Car, we then lost the opportunity to be able to evaluate the situation in a calm manner, and we needed to avoid the situation where we had half the field a lap down [behind the leader],” said assistant race director David Stuart.
Gone, also, was the opportunity to keep the yellow flags waving and allowing the field to reset itself before setting off again.
Whincup didn’t see it that way. At all.
“They [the safety car] should have had green lights on, I wasn’t the leader of the race,” he fumed afterwards.
“The problem is you’ve got all the drivers, you’ve got everyone here, this is our life, you know, and we’re pushing bloody hard and you’ve got people making decisions that are just cruising back, just having a few glasses of red each night, and rocking up to the track and [their] brain's not with it.
“They’re not operating at the same level as what the teams are operating at.”
The seven-time champion – who’s pulled this kind of stunt before – claimed he had no choice.
“It was either stay behind and get completely screwed like the FPR (Tickford) guys, or just try to, hopefully… I gave them the opportunity to put the greens [lights] on,” he said.
“I stopped, waited, waited, waited, but they were just all asleep, so I just went through.”
The result was a pit-lane penalty, dropping him from the lead of the race to the tail of the field.
And that’s all she wrote
The bizarre situation arguably gave eventual winner McLaughlin an easier run to victory after a fraught qualifying effort, while Whincup’s teammate Shane van Gisbergen also profited, running second to McLaughlin to give the delighted Kiwi fans a one-two finish.
While the celebrations – and the emotions for van Gisbergen earning the coveted Jason Richards perpetual trophy in front of the late racer’s parents, wife and children – were real, the fury and disappointment for the majority of the field were just as raw.
“There are no words for how pissed I am,” said Holdsworth, whose brilliant second-place qualifying result came to naught as he fights to retain his seat for 2020. "Looks like no one’s going to take responsibility for today."
It was a disappointing and confusing day for the Supercars category and one that’s left racers and fans alike confused and disillusioned. In some ways, the fact that the next race is the Bathurst 1000 is a bonus; our greatest race will wash away some – but not all – of the confusion and fury from a bizarre day in New Zealand.