2017 Newcastle 500 – Preview

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The 14th and final round of the 2017 Supercars Championship will take place this weekend from the Newcastle Street Circuit in the east-end of Newcastle alongside a beautiful coastline, the perfect scene for a titanic championship decider between Jamie Whincup of Triple Eight Race Engineering, and Scott McLaughlin of DJR Team Penske, with three others in Fabian Coulthard of DJR Team Penske, Chaz Mostert of Prodrive Racing Australia, and Shane Van Gisbergen of Triple Eight Race Engineering still in mathematical championship contention.

Whincup (2850 points) leads the championship by 30 points over McLaughlin (2820 points) in a championship battle that has been topsy-turvy throughout. They are ahead of Coulthard (2674 points), who is 176 points behind Whincup, Mostert (2586 points), who is 264 points behind Whincup, and defending Supercars champion Van Gisbergen (2574 points), who is 276 points behind Whincup in the championship after a round of drama in New Zealand, realistically leaving us with a two-horse race in the championship.

In any tie-breaker to decide the championship involving McLaughlin if the points are tied at the end of the championship, McLaughlin will win the championship due to winning more races, since his seven race victories in 2017 cannot be surpassed.

However, on Saturday, Whincup is the only driver who can win the championship with one race remaining.

On Saturday, if Jamie Whincup wants to create history, and win his seventh Supercars Championship, one of these scenarios must happen:

  1. If Whincup wins the race, McLaughlin must finish 26th or suffer a Did Not Finish (DNF) result.
  2. If McLaughlin does suffer a DNF result, Whincup only needs to finish third or higher.

However, this is not the only championship on the line this weekend in Newcastle with the all-important Teams’ Championship between DJR Team Penske (McLaughlin and Coulthard), and Triple Eight Race Engineering (Whincup and Van Gisbergen), which will decide which team’s garage will be closest to the pit-exit in 2018.

DJR Team Penske (5529 points) leads the Teams’ Championship by 105 points over Triple Eight Race Engineering (5424 points) in a heavyweight battle that will go right down to the wire at the Newcastle 500.

In any tie-breaker to decide the championship, DJR Team Penske will win the championship due to having more race wins with an unassailable lead over Triple Eight Race Engineering on that count by 11 to 7.

On Saturday, if DJR Team Penske wants to win its first Teams’ Championship at the Newcastle 500:

  1. DJR Team Penske must out-score Triple Eight Race Engineering by 183 points. For example, if DJR Team Penske finish Saturday’s race in first and second, Triple Eight Race Engineering must finish in 17th and 18th to claim the Teams’ Championship. However, DJR Team Penske need both cars to finish 24th or higher in the race on Saturday if they want to be a chance of claiming the Teams’ Championship on Saturday, and at least one car must be inside the top seven, with the permutations differing depending on the situation.

During the weekend, I will keep you up-to-date in regards to what certain drivers have to do to win the 2017 Supercars Championship, particularly when it comes to the final race of the season on Sunday.

So, who will be strong at the Newcastle Street Circuit?

Looking at the predicted characteristics of the newest circuit on the Supercars calendar, the Newcastle Street Circuit is 2.652 kilometres long, which would make it the third-shortest circuit on the championship calendar.

The predicted average speed of the circuit is set to be around 133 kilometres per hour, which would make it the slowest circuit on the calendar, with speeds set to reach around 231 kilometres per hour on approach to Turn 11, with speeds set to reach over 200 kilometres per hour on a total of three occasions across the lap, including on the pit straight, and on the run to Turn Two.

It will be a circuit that will reward a car that has strong braking and traction, so the cars will run with high-downforce, not because there is a lot of high speed corners, but to make sure that the cars are stable when accelerating out of a corner, and that the cars are stable under braking. There is really only one genuine high-speed corner, which should be a relatively simple flat-out, full-throttle run through Turn 10.

It isn’t a high engine power circuit on paper, even when you consider the uphill run to Turn Two, but it will put huge stresses on the gearbox, which large number of gear changes expected during a lap of the circuit, and during the race overall.

It will also reward driver bravery and technique, especially when they go down Shortland Esplanade, a place on the circuit that will sort out the great drivers of the sport from merely just the good ones, as well as the drivers’ ability to think on the run, whether it is to attack another car or defend from another car, because passing will be difficult around the Newcastle Street Circuit.

That means strategy will be very important, not to be stuck in traffic, and avoiding the plague known as double-stacking, because we are very likely to see the safety car be called upon at some point during the weekend.

However, I think the drivers, knowing that overtaking is likely to be difficult will be looking to overtake cars at the start, and attempt to get into Turn One in first position. However, the drivers should be reminded that both races are 95 laps long, and that you can’t win the race at Turn One, but you sure can lose it, so it will be important early on for the championship contenders to stay out of trouble during both races (should they be in contention for the championship).

Looking at the strengths of the cars, I believe this circuit will probably suit Triple Eight Race Engineering slightly over DJR Team Penske, with Prodrive Racing Australia in the mix. However, I think drivers who are not in championship contention, and have proven themselves over the years to being the top drivers in the Supercars Championship will be able to show their stuff, even if their cars aren’t normally a match for the front-runners.

However, to pick who will win the championship is tough. I think Jamie Whincup will hang on to win his seventh championship, but I won’t be surprised if Scott McLaughlin does enough to claim his first championship.

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Scott McLaughlin has taken the championship lead after winning Race 25 (Race One of the Newcastle 500) of the season, while Jamie Whincup finished 21st and last after suffering steering damage after a collision with Michael Caruso. This means that McLaughlin has a 78 point lead heading into the final race of the 2017 Supercars Championship with Fabian Coulthard, Shane Van Gisbergen, and Chaz Mostert all out of mathematical contention.

DJR Team Penske has claimed the Teams’ Championship.

On Sunday, for Scott McLaughlin to claim his first Supercars Championship, one of these scenarios must happen:

1. If McLaughlin finishes ahead of Whincup.

2. If Whincup wins the race, McLaughlin must finish 11th or higher.

3. If Whincup finishes second, McLaughlin must finish 15th or higher.

4. If Whincup finishes third, McLaughlin must finish 18th or higher.

5. If Whincup finishes fourth, McLaughlin must finish 21st or higher.

6. If Whincup finishes fifth, McLaughlin must finish 24th or higher.

7. If Whincup finishes sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth, McLaughlin must finish 26th or higher.

8. If Whincup finishes 10th or lower, McLaughlin is the CHAMPION!

However, if Jamie Whincup wants to win his seventh Supercars Championship, one of these scenarios must happen:

1. If Whincup wins the race, McLaughlin must finish 12th or lower.

2. If Whincup finishes second, McLaughlin must finish 16th or lower.

3. If Whincup finishes third, McLaughlin must finish 19th or lower.

4. If Whincup finishes fourth, McLaughlin must finish 22nd or lower.

5. If Whincup finishes fifth, McLaughlin must finish 25th or lower.

6. If Whincup finishes sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth, McLaughlin must suffer a DNF result.

 

Supercars Review: First Five Rounds of 2017

So far in 2017, the Supercars Championship has had it all. From tremendous speed and performance in Adelaide by Shane Van Gisbergen, to the dramatic Lap Two pileup and wreckage in Race Three of the championship at Symmons Plains in Tasmania.

This was before the true emergence of DJR Team Penske, and their two drivers in Fabian Coulthard and Scott McLaughlin as genuine championship contenders and challengers to Triple Eight Race Engineering, and the resurgence of Prodrive Racing Australia (PRA) after their awful 2016 season.

However, after the opening five rounds of the season, only four points separates championship leader Fabian Coulthard (1060 points) and Jamie Whincup (1056 points), who hasn’t won a race so far in 2017, at the top of standings, and only 37 points separates the top four drivers with Scott McLaughlin (1032 points) and Shane Van Gisbergen (1023 points) well and truly in the championship hunt.

However, there have been some big talking points that have created great debate and intrigue, and are worth discussing in-depth.

All-round speed and performance from DJR Team Penske

The biggest revelation so far in 2017 has been the pace and consistency from DJR Team Penske.

The recruitment of aerodynamic wizard, and arguably the most intelligent person in the Supercars paddock in Ludovic “Ludo” Lacroix from Triple Eight Race Engineering has been an absolute masterstroke, making sure that their cars were fast from the very beginning, and what a car it is!

Fast through the high speed, low speed, and medium speed corners, quick on the straights, and nearly perfect on every type of circuit so far.

The drivers have also been superb, with Fabian Coulthard leading the championship, and really taking the battle to his new teammate Scott McLaughlin during the opening rounds of the season.

However, in the last two rounds, McLaughlin, combined with his race engineer Lacroix have really eliminated the small errors that crept in during the opening three rounds, and has really started to pile the pressure back onto his teammate.

And what about McLaughlin’s sheer speed over one lap?

Mind-blowing!

Given how tight the Supercars field has been in recent times, I don’t think I have seen a driver in Supercars with so much of an advantage over one lap, not just over his teammate, but over the rest of the field. Not even Jamie Whincup at his absolute best had that kind of margin consistently over either his teammate(s), or the field over one lap.

I estimate (educated) that his qualifying advantage over teammate Fabian Coulthard to being around three and a half tenths of a second over a 100 second lap.

If Scott McLaughlin can continue this trend, and convert the speed into results, he will win his first championship in 2017.

Craig Lowndes lack of one lap speed

While his teammates in Shane Van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup are in the championship hunt, Craig Lowndes has struggled to be competitive in comparison in 2017, and it is all to do with his one lap.

While Van Gisbergen and Whincup have consistently qualified on the first two rows, Lowndes has struggled to qualify inside the Top 10, and more often outside of the first five rows of the grid.

In a sport where qualifying has become a crucial part of the game, it has left Lowndes in a position where he cannot compete for race victories, caused by the new construction of the Dunlop tyres.

I feel Lowndes is struggling with his braking under pressure over one lap as he is not getting the feedback from the tyre to give him the confidence to push harder under braking over a qualifying lap, and is fearing subconsciously that he may make a mistake which could cost him dearly.

His qualifying performance in the wet at Symmons Plains, and in the dry at Phillip Island and Barbagallo were okay. However, his qualifying performances at the stop-go circuits of Adelaide and Winton were not.

Unless Lowndes adapts to the demands of the current Dunlop tyres soon, he will struggle to win races!

He is already out of championship contention in my view!

Resurgence of PRA

At the end of 2016, Prodrive Racing Australia were struggling to be competitive, and struggling to compete for podiums, let alone race victories on merit.

In 2017, it seems like they have found a better platform, and have shown better speed, especially over race distance.

Chaz Mostert has returned to his best after a winless 2016, which has taken a while after his monumental accident at Bathurst in 2015, taking a victory at Phillip Island, plus a further two podiums.

Mark Winterbottom has only got one podium so far in 2017, but is slowly starting to find form after a difficult start to the season, while Cameron Waters has improved out of sight to challenge his teammates on a more consistent basis, but Jason Bright has struggled to keep with his three teammates.

I feel PRA is a non-serious championship contender, and would have to lift if they want to seriously challenge Triple Eight and DJR Team Penske for the title.

However, PRA are in a much better position right now compared to the end of 2016.

Under-performance of Nissan Motorsport

In an article I published for The Roar in October last year, I talked about who could challenge Triple Eight in 2017.

One team I said could challenge was DJR Team Penske, and they are challenging.

The other team I said could challenge was Nissan Motorsport, and they are not in contention.

There is a genuine lack of speed, more so in qualifying than over race distance, and there also seems to be a lack of an attention to detail, both technically and in terms of the drivers.

Simona de Silvestro has performed alright so far in her first season, but given the potential of Rick Kelly, Todd Kelly, and Michael Caruso, in terms of being proven race winners, and in the case Rick, a championship winner, they and the team have completely underachieved.

Caruso’s technique behind the wheel is a bit jerky, and no one within the team has tried to mentor him as to how to have more control of himself in the car to be able to extract more performance from himself, and the car.

If he can develop more calmness behind the wheel, he would be a consistent Top 10 competitor.

However, it is the business side of Nissan Motorsport that is taking its toll on both Rick and Todd, affecting their performance on the track, and with Jack Le Brocq waiting in the wings for an opportunity, one of them could be forced to make way for someone who has the potential to be a serial race winner, and championship contender in the sport.

The disaster at Walkinshaw Racing

After a strong start from James Courtney in Adelaide to start the season, the wheels have completely fallen off at Walkinshaw Racing!

Getting caught up in incidents, such as on Lap Two at Symmons Plains, and then having a lack of genuine car pace has really hurt the chances of this once great team.

To add to this, the termination of Adrian Burgess from his role at the team has cast doubt whether Ryan Walkinshaw has the strong leadership skills to reinvent this team post the Holden Racing Team era?

The jury is still out on that one!

And, the driving performances have suffered as a result.

Scott Pye has been nowhere with his new team so far, and is struggling to match Courtney on a consistent basis, but in reality, the car has no speed, and that is the thing that must change quickly.

The problematic issue of the small team

Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport (LDM). What can I say about them?

They are so far off the pace of everyone, under-resourced on both a technical and financial level, and cannot get a stable driver lineup together, mostly due to the need of requiring more sponsorship money.

I cannot judge the performance of the drivers because they are so far off the pace.

I am surprised they have lasted five rounds, and I won’t be surprised if they don’t last the season!