Supercars 2018 mid-year review
Can anyone stop McLaughlin?
The 2018 Supercars championship has reached its halfway point. It’s a good time to review what’s happened so far. This year brought five new drivers two new teams, and a new Commodore. The pecking order has had something of a shakeup. Some teams and drivers have performed much better than expected, some worse.
Scott McLaughlin has so far proven to be the driver to beat. The DJR Team Penske driver's record this year includes an unbelievable seven pole positions and six race wins from 16 starts His pole to victory conversion rate has improved over last year, but still isn’t perfect. He also made a complete mess of the safety car restart at Winton. We’re yet to really see if he’s matured since last year, when he made a handful of crucial mistakes under pressure. McLaughlin’s qualifying has been so good that we’ve only seen him running at the front.
On the other side of the Penske garage Fabian Coulthard hasn't been having the best year. Penske placed Coulthard's engineer Phil Keed on gardening leave for the final year of his contract, despite enjoying a successful campaign last year. Working with a new engineer is always a challenge for a driver. Coulthard got off to a slow start with Mark Fenning. His results have improved with time but they're still nothing special. Will Coulthard's contract runs to the end of next year, will he spend 2019 on gardening leave? Probably not. There's no one available to replace him. Coulthard sits seventh in the championship, one place behind his former Penske teammate Scott Pye.
Despite Coulthard's lacklustre performance, Penske are leading the teams championship. The Queensland-based American team has more or less picked up where they left off last year, despite Holden teams having the new ZB Commodore. Usually a new-generation car is an advantage. Holden teams have faced issues with breaking splitters and factory team Triple 8 has lagged behind Penske in qualifying pace. What the Holden teams have is excellent race pace. Analysis released by Supercars this week showed that Penske has had the fastest qualifying cars this year, but they slip fourth in race lap times. The three fastest teams for race laps are, from first to third, Triple 8, Walkinshaw Andretti United and Brad Jones Racing.
Triple 8 leads the charge for the Holden teams, as you’d expect from a factory team. Shane van Gisbergen sits second in the drivers’ championship, 161 points adrift of McLaughlin. Jamie Whincup is fifth, disappointing by his lofty standards, but enough to keep the Red Bull Holden Racing Team second in the teams’ championship. Elsewhere at Triple 8, Craig Lowndes is enjoying a terrific return to form. The 44 year old veteran of the sport is sitting fourth in the championship, and broke a two year win drought and three year pole drought at Symmons Plains.
The third of the “big three” teams, Tickford Racing, has struggled this year. Last year, lead driver Chaz Mostert won the Enduro Cup and was a serious championship contender. Cameron Waters enjoyed a breakout season, winning the Sandown 500. This year decision by Supercars to revert to the old tyre specification has relegated them to the mid-pack. Tickford says the setup direction taken last year isn't working with the old tyres. Team manager Chris O’Toole’s absence from race meetings due to injury hasn't helped the team, either. He's back now but there's some catching up to do. The only real highlight to Tickford’s 2018 campaign has been Mark Winterbottom’s second-place at Barbagallo. Mostert actually had some reasonably good results up to Phillip Island, but has since gone backwards. Rookie Richie Stanaway has so far failed to live up to the hype surrounding him. Coming into 2018, he chose to join Tickford believing that they were his best option. Now he laments there was another team who made him an offer and is doing a lot better. We can only assume that team was Erebus.
Perhaps the most impressive team this year has been Erebus Motorsport. Erebus are far from the biggest team, but they make the most of what they have better than anyone else does. I'd like to see Triple 8 or Penkse manage on Erebus' budget. David Reynolds is driving better than he ever has, while Anton de Pasquale has been the standout rookie. De Pasquale is the only rookie this year to come in without first being a co-driver but that hasn't been a hindrance. Paul Morris, whose team ran de Pasquale in Super2, has described his signing as Erebus’ Jamie Whincup moment. His arrival will have the same impact that a young Whincup had on Triple 8. Erebus are behaving like a proper two car team for the first time since they had Will Davison and Lee Holdsworth back in 2014.
Erebus Motorsport’s performance shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. They did win Bathurst last year, after all. What has been a surprise is how well Walkinshaw Andretti United has fared in their first season. Since Michael Andretti and Zak Brown each bought minority shares in the Clayton team, there has been a profound turnaround in results. Penske took more than two years to win a race after buying out Dick Johnson Racing, WAU won in their second outing. Pye has regularly finished in the top 10 and achieved his first race win in Melbourne on slick tyres in the wet. Courtney is 10th in the championship. At 37, the former champion is now one of Supercars elder statesmen and unlikely to win a second championship, but he has lifted significantly over last year. Both WAU drivers have. Last year Pye and Courtney were 12th and 21st in the drivers championship respectively, and Walkinshaw Racing was seventh in the teams’ championship. Now the newly formed WAU has climbed up to 3rd place.
Brad Jones Racing are maintaining a resurgence that began half way through last year. In 2017, Tim Slade and Nick Percat finished the championship 11th and 19th, respectively, putting BJR second last of the two car teams. This year Percat is a much improved 12th in the standings with two podiums. Slade remains 11th, but his average finishing position has improved from 12.64 to 10.75. BJR’s race pace is very good, ahead of both Penske and Erebus, but qualifying remains a weakness.
Garry Rogers Motorsport is currently the worst performing multi-car Holden team. The former Volvo factory team has opted for youth and experience in its driver line-up. Incumbent and second oldest Supercars driver Garth Tander has been joined by rookie and youngest driver James Golding. Golding’s lack of experience is showing. He has suffered three retirements and has only finished inside the top 20 in four out of 16 races.These poor results leave Golding last in the standings. Top placed rookie Anton De Pasquale, meanwhile, sits 17th, has finished every race, and has only placed outside the top 20 twice. There’s not much good news on the other side of the garage either. Tander’s performance has slipped since last year. He has one podium, the same number as last year, but his overall results haven’t been as strong. His average finishing position has fallen from 10.63 this time last year to 12.25.
Results are mixed but there's plenty to be positive about at Nissan Motorsport. Rick Kelly and Michael Caruso are having a great run. Both are consistently finishing in the top 10 and Kelly is becoming a regular winner and podium finisher again. But 2018 isn't going so well for Simona de Silvestro and new recruit Andre Heimgartner. To be fair, de Silvestro is doing much better than last year. Last year she finished last of the full time drivers, while now she is sitting 22nd. Her average finishing position has fallen slightly, however, from 19.75 to 19.88. She has managed to beat three of the five rookies, but has failed to catch the established drivers. 23 year old Heimgartner is returning to Supercars after a year out, replacing Todd Kelly. His experience advantage over the rookies is showing, but he’s still only 19th and outpaced by Kelly and Caruso. He has improved over the course of the season though, so watch this space.
Rick Kelly is having his best season in several years
Kelly and Caruso’s performance can be attributed to two factors. The first is co-owner Todd Kelly’s retirement from driving duties. This has allowed him to focus on running the team and his younger brother Rick to focus on driving. The second is the recruitment of a new technical director, Nick Ollila. Ollila comes to Supercars with some impressive credentials. He was the chief engineer for Team Penske’s IndyCar program, and has been driector of aerodynamics at NASCAR teams Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. The team hoped that Ollila’s presence would deliver an immediate benefit, and so far he has.
Of the single car teams, 23Red Racing has been the standout. They are head and shoulders above the competition. With Will Davison on driving duties and an ex-Tickford Falcon, that should be a given. Despite far fewer resources at their disposal, 23Red have proven more than capable of achieving results comparable to Tickford in the same car. .
23Red’s pit bay partner Team18 haven't had such a good run this year. Remaining a Triple 8 customer team with the experienced but aging Lee Holdsworth, the single car team has been hampered by a lack of car speed and plain bad luck. Team18 has been the victim of more ZB splitter failures than any other team.
Matt Stone Racing has languished near the back of the grid after graduating from Super2 with a single car driven by rookie Todd Hazelwood. It’s been the same story for Tekno Autopsorts, who are also running a rookie driver in Jack LeBrocq. LeBrocq and Tekno are doing a little better than Hazelwood and MSR. LeBrocq is a more experienced driver than Hazelwood, Tekno is a more experienced team and they have a brand new Triple 8 Commodore, as opposed to MSR’s secondhand Penske Falcon. All this makes life easier, but in any case it’s hard being a rookie without an experienced teammate.
Looking past McLaughlin's dominance, 2018 has been more competitive than last year. More teams and drivers are regularly competing for podiums, and the balance between the three manufacturers has improved. We're halfway through the season and every multi-car team has had a driver on the podium at least once. At the beginning of the year I named McLaughlin, van Gisbergen and Mostert as the main championship contenders. Now I'd say McLaughlin is the firm favourite, followed by van Gisbergen and Reynolds. Tickford hasn't given Mostert the car he needs, while Erebus has lifted from occasional race winner to front-running team.
The ZB Commodore should get faster in the back half of the year. Triple 8 elected to shift some more of the 400kg downforce allowance to the front of the car for more neutral handling. The teams are still learning about the ZB, so it probably hasn't shown its full potential. This is a problem for Penske. They already lack race pace against the Holdens. It's even more of a problem for Tickford, who can't get to the front as it is. History shows that the Commodore should be faster than the incumbent Falcon and Altima over the course of the season. The AU Falcon remains the only new Falcon/Commodore not to win a championship in its debut season.
The 2018 Supercars championship has thrown up a few surprises, and will certainly continue to do so. We haven't even got to the silly season yet.