Friday, September 21, 2007

The enduro question

The Australian V8 Supercar championship is a slightly odd beast. It spends most of the year running its 31 regular drivers in three 100km sprint races each race weekend. But come September and October everything changes, as teams tackle the two traditional "enduro" events. For these races, teams must field two drivers per car, and prepare for fuel stops, mandatory front brake pad changes, extreme challenges to reliability and the myriad of possibilities for strategy.

The extra drivers for the Sandown 500 and Bathurst 1000 come from a number of places. The bulk of them are from the second tier Fujitsu series (analogous to the Busch Series in NASCAR). These are usually the hot young guns who will be graduating to the main series soon anyway, and the enduros often function as "auditions" for them. Drivers who have retired from full-time drives, such as former champ Glenn Seton and former Bathurst winner Tony Longhurst, frequently come back for the enduros and you see the occasional driver from another touring car series, such as Alain Menu, Yvan Muller or Richard Lyons. Finally there are the "almost-made-its", guys who have skirted the fringes of V8 Supercars, never quite getting that full-time drive but staying in the game with the odd Fujitsu drive or a season in Australia's Porsche Carrera Cup.

The key thing about all these fill-in drivers, regardless of their racing pedigree, is that they are rarely as fast as the drivers who race in the series on a regular basis.

The hot news item in Australian motorsport this week regards the implications of how these pairings work. Some teams opt to put their two regular drivers in one car and the two part-timers in the second car. Others keep their main drivers in their own cars and put them each with the extra guys.

At Sandown, the front-running Ford team, Triple Eight (the team that runs Vauxhall's BTCC effort), paired their two regulars, Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup, together. This created a powerhouse combination, and they destroyed the opposition, most of whom had kept their regulars in separate cars. The reasoning for not pairing your top guys is simple: if that one car is involved in a race-ending accident or mechanical failure, neither driver will score championship points. The Holden HSV Dealer Team (engineered and part-owned by Tom Walkinshaw), whose drivers Garth Tander and Rick Kelly were 1-2 in the championship prior to the race, went for the safe route. It was mildly successful: they came home 2nd and 4th and although they switched places in the championship, neither driver from the Triple Eight car was able to pass them in the table. Had Kelly and Tander been paired however, they could easily have won...

It was widely expected for HSV to go with that same strategy for Bathurst, a race that historically has a much greater tendency for accidents. Even if Triple Eight were to win again, HSV could still be pretty sure of getting at least one car home at or near the front, and maintain the championship lead.

But this is Bathurst...

In some circles, a Bathurst 1000 win is more important than a championship.Winners certainly get just as much publicity. So HSV are rolling the dice and placing Kelly and Tander together, and their enduro drivers Paul Radisich and Craig Baird in the other car. This is truly great news for V8 Supercar fans, because it means Lowndes and Whincup will have some very strong competition.

There's also talk that the second-best Ford team, Prodrive's FPR outfit will do the same, after splitting their regular drivers at Sandown too. And the other top Holden team, HRT, will pair up their regulars Mark Skaife and Todd Kelly. That had been their plan for Sandown too, but Skaife suffered appendicitis three days before the race and had to skip the event.

Finally, the third- and fourth-ranked Holden teams, Tasman Motorsport and Garry Rogers Motorsport are also pairing their regulars. This means that the only top team to stick with a split lineup is Ford's Stone Brothers Racing (who ran NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose to the V8 title twice). The good news for SBR is that both their fill-in drivers are nearly as capable as a series regular, and both cars have a legit shot at the podium.

The bottom line is this: with the last-minute changes in line-ups, there are now four teams who can definitely win, and four more with a chance at an upset. This year's race promises to be one of the most exciting for a long time.

And I'm going to be there. Excited? You betcha....

(I'll write a full race preview next week before I leave for Oz)

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