Friday, March 02, 2007

V8 Supercars Preview

One of my favorite forms of motorsport, Australia's V8 Supercar Championship, begins its 2007 season this weekend. This year I'll be paying extra attention since I'm planning on going to the legendary Bathurst 1000 in October, and will get to see these cars "in the flesh".

Last year's championship was extremely tight and went right down to the line between top Ford driver Craig Lowndes and hard-charging youngster Rick Kelly in a Holden. It was eventually decided in a controversial incident that saw Kelly get caught out under braking and ram Lowndes off the track. Lowndes' steering was damaged to the point where he could no longer mount a credible fight, a bigger handicap than Kelly's drive-through penalty.

The stage is thus set for another huge year. V8 Supercars continues to increase its professionalism and global audience, and this year shuld be no different.

One of the top two Ford teams last year was Triple Eight Engineering, who won Bathurst, took second in the team's championship and second and tenth in the drivers table. They have retained both their drivers for 2007, Lowndes and young driver Jamie Whincup. Whincup started 2006 with a bang by winning one of the 250km races in the season-opening Clipsal 500, but his form faded as the season progressed. He is still a potential race-winner even if he won't necessarily be ready to push for the title. However, his team-mate Lowndes will be in line for a shot at the championship. One final note on 888 is that they have switched sponsors from the now-defunct Betta Electrical to bright-red Vodafone colours.

Triple Eight's main rival in 2006 was the Toll HSV Dealer Team. Although not strictly the "works" Holden team, these guys managed to be the top Holden outfit. They won the teams' competition and their drivers ended up first and fourth. This year they, along with the other Holden teams, will have to grapple with the new Holden Commodore VE car. It has yet to prove much quicker than the old VZ, but that will most likely change as time goes by. Of its two drivers, champion Rick Kelly is widely regarded as the weaker driver, and team-mate Garth Tander's bad-luck at Bathurst and Sandown are really what took the title away from him last year. No doubt he'll be looking to correct that this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see him finally get his first title...

The Ford team that ended up actually doing better than Triple Eight in 2006 was Ford Performance Racing. Their drivers, Mark Winterbottom and Jason Bright, came 3rd and 5th respectively. Bright struggled with inconsistency, but when he was on, he was REALLY on. Winterbottom was the opposite, with fantastic consistency but no dominating performances (consider him the Mikko Hirvonen of V8s - young, consistent and gaining speed). This year Bright has left to drive in his own team and is replaced by Steven Richards, another driver who has been a solid top-ten runner for many years. He brings good experience and a cool head, but not that magic outright speed. The cars should run well, as the team is operated by Prodrive, the same guys who are behind the Subaru WRC team and the Aston Martin Le Mans squad. Look for Winterbottom to pick up speed this year, and possibly be a surprise title-contender towards the end of the year.

The Holden Racing Team, owned by multiple championship winner Mark Skaife had a terrible 2006, marred by bad luck, accidents and freak failures. The fact that they were only the third-best Holden team was almost unbelievable, and there are hopes that the new VE, and a new year, will bring a change in fortune (a scandal involving Skaife's status of owner has dragged into 2007, so perhaps that bad luck continues). The driver line-up remains unchanged, although that's probably a good thing: Skaife is once again joined by Rick Kelly's brother Todd, who showed good pace throughout 2006 but was hampered by a couple of bad round results early on. Technical support is provided by Tom Walkinshaw, best known for masterminding Jaguar's success at Le Mans and for his Arrows team in F1 in the 90s. If HRT can shrug off the bad luck, pay a bit more attention to car prep, and develop the VE quickly, they could be in with a chance again. However, I'd pick Kelly over Skaife as the team's best hope for the title.

Another team whose success was much lower in 2006 than in previous years was Ford team Stone Brothers Racing. After a string of titles with Marcos Ambrose and Russell Ingall, they just couldn't put it together. They brought in the very talented James Courtney to replace Ambrose who had left for NASCAR, but despite Courtney's success in other forms of motorsport worldwide, he took a long time to get to grips with the V8 Supercar. Third at Bathurst was the highlight for him, as he started to challenge towards season's end. A pole position at the opening round of 2007 bodes well for this year, and, like Winterbottom, he could be surprisingly well-placed as the season builds to its climax. His team-mate Russell Ingall was outpaced in 2006, his consistent approach that won him the title in 2005 not working in the more competitive environment a year later. If he returns to his old approach of pushing for wins he could once again justify the nickname of "The Enforcer", even if he may not actually be in line for the overall crown. The sheer engineering ability of SBR will continue to be a major asset. Let's see if the drivers are worthy of the cars they're given.

One of the better of the "second-division" Holden teams in 2006 was Tasman Motorsport, owned by Greg Murphy's father Kevin. Their lead driver, New Zealander Jason Richards, is very talented but was crippled by a power-steering-related failure at Bathurst, that cost him a good five championship spots. He returns for 2007 and will be joined by fellow Kiwi Greg Murphy. "Murph" made the somewhat poor decision to leave the team that became the Toll HSV team just before their ascension to true greatness. He languished for two years with Kees Weel's Supercheap Auto concern, a project that promised much but could never deliver. There's hope that Murph could begin his journey back to the top with his new ride, and Tasman are hoping that his superstar status will help move them from mid-pack to front-runners.

Two Holden teams that are banking on the development of young drivers are Garry Rogers Motorsport and Larry Perkins Racing. GRM have always looked to youth and will stick with Dean Canto and Lee Holdsworth for another year, both of whom have developed well. Perkins' hand was somewhat forced when his two experienced drivers, Paul Dumbrell and Steven Richards both left for other teams. Instead, he will be running his son Jack, along with one of the top youngsters from the Fujitsu series, Shane Price. Look for these teams, both run by legends of Aussie racing, to run mid-pack year-long.

Ford's mid-pack crew will probably be Dick Johnson Racing and WPS Racing. Neither team have changed their drivers for 2007, and neither looks to have made any changes that will see them improve their position in the middle of the grid. The brightest hope here is Will Davison, who will once again be part of veteran Dick Johnson's team. As 2006 unfolded he ran quicker and quicker and although his points didn't reflect it due to being caught up in some crashes (not his fault) he's a decent talent. It's also worth noting that DJR picks up Jim Beam title sponsorship.

Joining DJR and WPS halfway back will be the Supercheap Auto Holden team. They have brought in Paul Dumbrell who moves from the Perkins squad to join Cameron McConville. Both drivers have moved on from being hopes for the future to being solid, experienced members of the V8 fraternity. Sadly, this team is the not the place for them to show their talents, as Greg Murphy found out to his cost for the last two years.

The final team worth mentioning is the Fujitsu-backed Britek team, owned by top driver Jason Bright. He's made the bold move of leaving a front-runner, Ford Performance Racing, to drive with his own organization. Thus far, Britek have struggled near the back of the grid, so it will be interesting to see if Bright's exceptional ability can turn things around.

Other changes to look for in 2007 include a new qualifying format that echoes Formula 1's knockout system. After 15 minutes, twelve teams are knocked out, then another ten leave at the 30-minute mark, making for a 10-car final period. The old "top 10 shootout" remains for the two endurance events. Look also for changes in the points structure. Whereas previously all positions paid points, that is now limited to the top fifteen, and the spread between the first five increases to make a win more important. Organizers are hoping to make teams push harder for points and wins rather than "settling" for a poor, albeit points-paying, position.

One final change is the host TV broadcaster to Channel 7. Only Neil Crompton remains from the old Channel 10 crew, which is good because he's a terrific commentator. For US fans of the series the change should be met with concern, as Speed Channel will need to renegotiate their deal to show the races during winter months.

1 comment:

spectator said...

G'day Nicebloke, just spent the afternoon watching v8's in Adelaide on TV (am in Victoria- next door.)Some close racing in race 1, looking forward to 2&3 tomorrow. Hope to get down to Phillip island later in the year and see the boys really open em up.Young Courtney finished second today and shows real promise, Stone brothers are smart operators.Best of luck getting to Bathurst-try you-tube for old footage of the 60's and 70's to see how the legends used to do it.My kids are yelling for the internet so I must go. Regards.