Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bathurst Preview

I'm aware that the number of visitors to this blog who share my passion for the Australian V8 Supercars series is somewhat small, but I'm going to press on regardless since it's only three days until I leave for the Mountain...

The championship situation is rather easy to follow right now. The top two drivers are Rick Kelly and Garth Tander of the Toll HSV Dealer Team in Holdens. They are followed by Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes of the Vodafone-sponsored Triple Eight Ford team. Behind them are the two drivers from the Holden Racing Team, Todd Kelly and Mark Skaife. The top eight is rounded out by Steven Richards and Mark Winterbottom of Ford Performance Racing.

As luck would have it, each of these duos will be paired up in the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 on Sunday October 7th and unsurprisingly they are considered to be the four teams with a chance of victory. (For more info on how driver pairings work in V8 Supercar enduro events check out this post)

So let's break it down... who's who and what's what, presented in order of who I think is most likely to win:

Vodafone Triple Eight Ford: Series veteren Craig Lowndes, three time championship-winner and double Bathurst-winner once again will race with Jamie Whincup, maybe the second-best of the current crop of "young drivers". It was this duo that won in 2006, a year that also saw Lowndes miss out on the championship by a tiny margin. Both drivers have incredible consistency and great pace, the car is fast and the team well-drilled. If these guys run into trouble, more than likely it will be because of someone else.

Toll HSV Holden Dealer Team: Engineered by the same folks who engineer the Holden Racing Team, Tom Walkinshaw Racing, these guys have perhaps the most raw speed, both in terms of car performance and driver ability. Rick Kelly and Garth Tander sit 1-2 in the championship at the moment, and only missed out on a win at the Sandown 500 because they were seperated, each running with a part-timer. Interestingly, these guys didn't run together last year either in a bizarre situation that saw Tander placed with the HRT team, and HRT driver and Rick's brother Todd Kelly share with Rick. The ruse worked for Rick who finished in 2nd, and was a dismal failure for Tander, whose team-mate Mark Skaife burned out the clutch on the start line and who was smashed into before the second corner. The biggest thing Toll HSV will have to overcome is their tendency to make the occasional silly mistake, such as Tander's rain light malfunctioning at Sandown. This year, with no funny business in the driver dept., and if they can avoid those mistakes, they have the goods to win.

Holden Racing Team: With such a rich history of Bathurst and championship victories, you can never bet against HRT, especially when 8-times championship winner and 4-times Bathurst winner Mark Skaife is involved. To be fair, "Skaifey" has been out in the wilderness for a couple of years, but his form seems to be improving dramatically. Team-mate Todd Kelly is also very quick, albeit one of those "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" kind of people. Not quite the fastest Holden team anymore but there's some real depth of talent here. If team manager Rob Starr can get the car setup properly, often an issue for HRT, and Skaife can avoid getting entangled in dogfights, a good result is in the offing. If it rains though, look elsewhere for the winner.

Ford Performance Racing: Funny how the top four teams all have British engineering behind them. Triple Eight are British, Toll HSV and HRT have Walkinshaw building their cars, and FPR are engineered by Prodrive, the guys responsible for the Subaru WRC team, Aston Martin's Le Mans-winning effort, and, as of 2008, an F1 team. However, just as in the WRC, Prodrive's V8 effort is not quite quick enough yet. There are often signs of promise, especially back in 2006 when Jason Bright was one of their drivers, or Sandown 2007 where Mark Winterbottom grabbed a pole position for them, but FPR struggle to convert this into top results. The signing this year of longtime Holden steerer Steven Richards has yet to bear much fruit, with the ginger-haired son of Bathurst legend Jim Richards exhibiting the same lower-top-10 performance that he had in previous years. Team-mate Mark Winterbottom is a much more exciting prospect, and his speed and consistency could be enough to score the win should any of the other top contenders run into trouble.

Stone Brothers Racing: After enjoying some rosy years with championships for Marcos Ambrose in 2003 and 2004 and Russell Ingall in 2005, SBR have struggled a little, most notably in filling the giant shoes of Ambrose. His replacement, former Jaguar F1 test-driver James Courtney, is finally starting to find his feet and did well to score a podium in last year's Bathurst 1000. SBR are the top team to NOT pair their regular drivers in the same car, but both of the fill-ins have solid Bathurst experience: Courtney shares with former SBR driver David Besnard, and Ingall is teamed with young hotshoe Luke Youlden, a partnership now in its third year. The team is well-known for its in-house engine program, and neither car should be short of power. It's unlikely that either car will win, probably due mainly to driver talent, but a 3rd and 4th in 2006 indicate that they can certainly be near the front.

Tasman Motorsport: The "best Holden that won't win" tag belongs here, to the team that fields two Kiwis, Jason Richards and Greg Murphy, and is owned by Murphy's dad Kevin. It's Greg that is the strong point of this team, with four Bathurst victories under his belt. It seems that no matter how badly a season is going for "Murph" he always delivers the goods at the Mountain. The last time he was in a competitive car at Bathurst, he won, and this year he's in the best car he's been in since then. He and Richards proved their worth at Sandown, by running top six until a bad call by officials sent them almost a lap down due to a poorly-deployed safety car. This triggered off a whole set of issues that snowballed and put them way down the order. Up to that point, they were undeniably quick. Although Tasman have struggled with rear grip issues all year both drivers have done well to learn how to drive around the problems. Aside from the technical difficulties, the hurdle that Tasman (and other "second division" teams) face is the possibility of getting involved in other people's dramas. At Bathurst, the safest place to be is out front - the further down the field you are, the more likely it is that you'll be involved in someone else's prang.

Garry Rogers Motorsport: Over the years Garry has carved out a niche for himself by hiring the brightest young drivers. This course of action has tended to consign him to positions just behind the front-runners, as opposed to actually challenging for wins. However, they have stood on the top of the box a number of times in their history, most notably in 2000 at Bathurst. This year, youngster Lee Holdsworth has shown great pace, and grabbed the round win at Oran Park. It's he that holds the key to Bathurst success for GRM this year, and it will be critical that he puts in a good qualifying time to put the car near the front. If he can do that, it will be easier for trouble-prone team-mate Dean Canto to get a clean race. Alongside Tasman and SBR, I'd place GRM in the "dark-horse" category for a podium.

There you have it, the top eight cars in this year's event.

Bathurst is always full of drama. Anyone who has ever raced the track on the numerous video games that it is featured on know how hairy the section at the top of the Mountain can be. One small mistake can spell instant retirement, and with little run-off there are rarely single-car incidents. Some would say this is why Bathurst can be a lottery, but the fact remains that the fastest teams usually win, because they stay near the front and out of harm's way.

Now all that remains is for the weather to stay good, and we'll have ourselves a great race.

(For anyone looking to find out how to find coverage of Bathurst online, shoot me an email)


Rob said...

"Bathurst is full of drama." Something of an understatement! Have a great trip; here's hoping you see some great racing.

Nicebloke said...

Cheers Rob. By the way, I added your MotoGP blog to my blogroll.

V8 Fan said...

Good to see Tasman got a mention.

I personally feel Jason is the stronger half of the duo, granted Murph has a better track record historically but Jason picked up the the last trophy between them coming 2nd at the mountain alondside Jamie.

Theres also been a bit of car swapping in the team at Murphs demand but Jason has still recorded the fastest times in both cars.

Murph has self admitted he's not happy with the car and believes Jason has just learnt to drive around the problems. He also confessed at the enduros he'll mearly be a passenger.

All that aside I still rate Murph. Their both hot heads, but if Jason can qualify them in the top 10 I guarentee Tasman will get a podium this year.

Thats right boys, go stick 100 bucks on for a place. You can thank me later.

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