RED Bull HRT’s Jamie Whincup rediscovered near-perfection at Sydney Motor Sport Park on Sunday to score a record-breaking 106th Supercars Championship victory, moving to within just 12 points of series leader and Shell Ford rival Scott McLaughlin in a wild weekend of racing.
As well, McLaughlin’s teammate, Fabian Coulthard, powered back into title contention with an opportunistic win on Saturday after the younger Kiwi threw away a podium opportunity with a rash bumper-thumper with fellow Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen.
McLaughlin left Sydney rueing a brain freeze in the 120km race when he turned around Red Bull Holden’s van Gisbergen, leading to a 33sec time penalty after officials looked at the telemetry. This relegated McLaughlin from second to 21st.
Just who was the villain in the biffo is hard to determine. van Gisbergen appeared to trigger the strife moments earlier at a restart when he crept alongside leader McLaughlin and started bumping him in the straight.
He copped a similar penalty for an illegal overlap and was classified 23rd.
It was all messy and confusing. But try telling winner-grinner Coulthard that good things don’t come out of crazy situations. Chaz Mostert, second in a Prodrive Falcon, and Whincup, who hung on to third in his battered Commodore, were other beneficiaries of the McLaughlin/van Gisbergen contretemps.
McLaughlin’s comfortable 129-point margin heading to SMSP has all but evaporated. He is now a mere 12 points ahead of Whincup entering the endurance races at Sandown, Bathurst and the Gold Coast, with Coulthard 107 points from the lead.
SMSP’s abrasive tarmac, akin to a cheese grater across the Dunlops, and weird layout that means the cars spend 84 per cent of each lap turning, puts great emphasis on tyre life management – and interesting pit stop strategies.
The circuit formerly known as Eastern Creek Raceway often gets an uppercut from race fans but its pair of 2017 championship races were worth bottling, with white-line fever, aggro, and some hard-fought duels across the two days.
McLaughlin won pole for both races, taking his tally to eight on the trot and 13 all told for this season. Stunning.
But on each occasion he went on to fluff the start and failed to convert P1 on the grid to P1 at the chequers.
In the Saturday race, he was jumped by second-fastest qualifier Mark Winterbottom and row two’s van Gisbergen.
Then on Sunday, he completely botched the jump for the 200km contest and ended up in fifth place as Mostert made a stunning surge off the line followed by Whincup and van Gisbergen from the second row, and even Coulthard from row three.
Different cars were on different fuel and tyre strategies, and it was looking tight as the laps ran down.
After a clearly slower van Gisbergen let him through with 10 laps remaining, Whincup took off to open a gap. The rejuvenated six-times champ bolted, leaving a bad-arse battle pack of three Kiwis looking to fill the minor placings.
On fresher tyres, Coulthard finally cleared the tenacious van Gisbergen, as Mostert loomed up on the tail of McLaughlin.
In the end, Whincup held a 9.8sec margin to score his second win of 2017, with his 106th overall victory pushing him one ahead of Craig Lowndes on the podium counts list.
“It has been a bit lean this year, as we all know, but great to get my second win of the year,” said Whincup in his usual measured way. “It all came down to pace; we had great pace all race.
“The guys and girls did an awesome job with the strategy, I think that was a big contributor. We are a big team at Red Bull Holden Racing, thanks to my teammate for being a team player today. No doubt what comes around goes around in situations like that. We got the win, which is the main thing, and now we move on to the long races of the year, the season of endurance.”
The coming three enduros, each with double points (300) for wins, can change the complexion of the championships, with a great responsibility falling on co-drivers.
Twelve points must feel like a very fragile advantage for McLaughin, who will probably try to improve his starts between now and Sandown.
WRC: Tanak masters greasy 2017 Rally Germany
Ford M-Sport driver Ott Tanak has taken his second win in the World Rally Championship – and his first on tarmac – with a hugely impressive victory in a treacherous Rally Germany, beating Citroen’s Andreas Mikkelsen and his own star teammate, defending champ Sebastien Ogier.
The rally though was disastrous for Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who went into the event equal leader with Ogier but departed 17 points in arrears after he was forced to retire with damaged suspension on Saturday.
Neuville, a warm favourite to win the title at the start of 2017, now faces an uphill battle to overhaul the consistent Ogier.
Tanak, whose fast yet sometimes erratic driving early in his World Rally Championship career raised doubts about his ability to win at the top level, wasn’t expected to be a contender in Germany.
The lead changed hands four times on Friday before the baby-faced Estonian emerged from the final muddy asphalt speed test with a 5.7sec advantage over Mikkelsen.
Storms turned the narrow and bumpy Mosel vineyard tracks and Saarland country lanes into a mud bath. All the leading drivers spent time off the road as they fought for grip in treacherous conditions.
Mikkelsen, a part-timer this year, seized his opportunity to impress in the new Citroen C3, even though his low start position meant he faced dirtier roads as those ahead dragged mud and stones onto the surface when they cut corners.
The enthralling fight for the championship between Neuville and Ogier took myriad twists and turns. Both made errors in the unpredictable conditions but the Belgian’s mistake proved terminal, his left rear suspension almost torn off when he cut a corner early on Saturday.
Most of the leading drivers were caught out, some more than others.
Dani Sordo led briefly before missing a corner under braking, his i20 plunging 40 metres into bushes and trees. The other major retirement was Esapekka Lappi, who crashed his Yaris into a ditch when sixth.
Tanak headed Mikkelsen by 21.4sec before the final day, which was greeted by sunshine.
Mikkelsen was happy to concentrate on keeping Ogier back in third.
In the end Tanak claimed victory by 16.4sec from the Norwegian, with Ogier 14sec further back in third.
With three WRC events left, including Rally Australia, Ogier is looking tough to crack.
IndyCar: Will Power wins Pocono Indycar 500
Never give up. That was Will Power’s indisputable message after the Australian came back from a lap down to hold off a hard-charging trio of Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud to win a stunning 500 miler on the Pocono superspeedway overnight.
Power dropped a lap on lap 65 when his crew repaired damage to the front and rear of his Penske Chevrolet, but then went on a rescue mission to repeat his win at Pocono last year.
A timely caution period and great pit work got Power back on the lead lap, and then to the front with 35 laps remaining. But the pack was hunting him down.
After the final pit stop, Power still led, but with a reduced – and shrinking margin. Two seconds… then one second. Then half a second.
Championship leader Newgarden looked the big threat but Power had done his homework.
“I knew if he got up inside that would be it,” Power reported later, commenting on his bold defensive moves in turn three – the favoured passing zone on the triangular oval.
Just as Newgarden appeared set to pounce with six laps left, Power revealed what proved to be a winning strategy, craftily sweeping off the race line in T3 to the bottom of the track.
If Newgarden wanted to win, he had to pass around the outside, where it was bumpy and at times treacherous.
The last lap was a thriller, with the first four cars covered by fractions.
Newgarden, America’s bright young talent and a fellow Penske driver, had mixed feelings about the outcome.
“I’m disappointed I didn’t win but I can’t be disappointed about the points situation,” Newgarden said.
With three races to fight for, he holds a comfortable lead, but others including Power are coming.
The race certainly did not lack for excitement. There were 10 leaders and 43 lead changes.
It was Power’s third win this season and the one-time road racer’s sixth win on an oval track (and fifth on a superspeedway).
“What a day… I’m spent,” Power postscripted.