2018 Newcastle 500 – Preview

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Photo of the Newcastle Street Circuit precinct a few weeks before the event.

For the second time in as many years, the Supercars Championship is set for a thrilling conclusion in Newcastle, and this time, it will be a battle between two Kiwi drivers in Scott McLaughlin from DJR Team Penske, and Shane Van Gisbergen from Triple Eight Race Engineering as the 2018 Supercars Championship heads to the Newcastle Street Circuit for the 16th and final round of the season, the Newcastle 500.

Just 14 points separate McLaughlin (3656 points) and Van Gisbergen (3642 points) with both having stellar seasons, but within those stellar seasons, they have both had down moments.

McLaughlin has claimed eight wins and 19 podiums overall in 29 races, including four-straight wins from Race 9 to Race 12 of the season (Phillip Island and Barbagallo), and 13 podiums in 14 races, including a streak of eight-straight podiums, but before winning Race 29 at Pukekohe in New Zealand, McLaughlin had gone nine completed races without a race victory.

Conversely, Van Gisbergen started off the season superbly by winning the opening two races of the season in Adelaide, before going 15 races without win. After this barren run though, Van Gisbergen won four of the next five races from Race 18 to 22 of the championship (Townsville, Ipswich, Sydney Motorsport Park, and The Bend Motorsport Park), , and of course won Race 28 of the championship at Pukekohe in New Zealand to give us a titanic fight in Newcastle. Overall, Van Gisbergen has had seven wins and 17 podiums in 29 races coming into Newcastle.

During the season, McLaughlin and Van Gisbergen have finished first and second (in either order) in the same race five times in 2018, and with the championship battle set to be a “winner takes all” scenario, things are certain to heat up!

Looking at the Newcastle Street Circuit on paper, it is a circuit that should suit Triple Eight Race Engineering and the Holden ZB Commodore, given the lack of long, fast corners, and the point and squirt nature of the circuit.

However, despite street circuits typically lacking grip compared to your normal permanent venue, I expect the Newcastle Street Circuit to provide plenty of grip, which should suit DJR Team Penske and their Ford FG X Falcon beautifully, but on a circuit that I consider “The Monaco of the South”, anything can happen.

What also should be considered within the battle for the championship is the battle for third in the standings between Jamie Whincup (3175 points), Craig Lowndes (3117 points), and David Reynolds (2918 points), three drivers in strong cars who are capable of deciding who wins the championship.

Of course both Whincup and Lowndes are both teammates of Van Gisbergen, and will be looking to do what they can to help their Kiwi teammate claim his second championship. However, it will be an emotional weekend for Lowndes as he competes in what will be his final full-time Supercars Championship event, and the three-time Supercars champion will be looking to do what he can to beat seven-time Supercars champion Whincup into third in the championship, and maybe claim one last victory as a full-time driver.

Reynolds is the interesting one though, 257 points behind third-place Whincup and unlikely to get third, and 249 points ahead of sixth-place Chaz Mostert (2669 points) and unlikely to be surpassed for fifth in the championship, and the highest-ranked driver in the standings not associated with either Triple Eight Race Engineering or DJR Team Penske, so he is the most likely driver, along with Mostert that you think could sway the outcome of the championship one way or another.

So, what are the championship permutations?

For Saturday, only Scott McLaughlin can claim the championship over Shane Van Gisbergen with one race remaining:

  1. If McLaughlin finishes 1st or 2nd, and Van Gisbergen retires from the race.

I will update the championship permutations before Race 31 of the championship on Sunday morning should the battle continue through to Sunday.

So, who will win both races at the Newcastle 500, and who will claim the 2018 Supercars Championship?

I think if qualifying goes to the form book, I think Saturday’s race will be a largely normal race, and I think Shane Van Gisbergen will win Race 30 of the season, with Scott McLaughlin finishing second or third.

However, I think Sunday’s race, regardless of whether qualifying and the Top 10 Shootout goes to form or not, will be chaotic, and my gut feeling tells me something is going to happen between McLaughlin and Van Gisbergen that is going to decide the championship, and/or have major repercussions going forward.

However, regardless of what happens, I cannot wait to see what unfolds!

 

After Shane Van Gisbergen was given a post-race 25-second time penalty for a Breach of Rule D25.6.3.2. after Race 30 of the championship, dropping him from 1st to 5th, thus giving Scott McLaughlin his ninth race victory of the season, it means the championship picture has changed going into the final race of the season, with McLaughlin now having a 53-point lead in the standings over Van Gisbergen.

So, McLaughlin can win his first championship:

1. If McLaughlin finishes ahead of Van Gisbergen.

2. If Van Gisbergen wins the race, McLaughlin must finish 6th or higher.

3. If Van Gisbergen finishes 2nd, McLaughlin must finish 8th or higher.

4. If Van Gisbergen finishes 3rd, McLaughlin must finish 10th or higher.

5. If Van Gisbergen finishes 4th, McLaughlin must finish 12th or higher.

6. If Van Gisbergen finishes 5th, McLaughlin must finish 15th or higher.

7. If Van Gisbergen finishes 6th, McLaughlin must finish 18th or higher.

8. If Van Gisbergen finishes 7th, McLaughlin must finish 20th or higher.

9. If Van Gisbergen finishes 8th, McLaughlin must finish 22nd or higher.

10. If Van Gisbergen finishes 9th, McLaughlin must finish 24th or higher.

11. If Van Gisbergen finishes between 10th and 17th, McLaughlin must finish the race (26th or higher).

12. If Van Gisbergen finishes 18th or lower, McLaughlin is the CHAMPION!

 

Van Gisbergen can win his second championship:

1. If Van Gisbergen wins the race, McLaughlin must finish 7th or lower.

2. If Van Gisbergen finishes 2nd, McLaughlin must finish 9th or lower.

3. If Van Gisbergen finishes 3rd, McLaughlin must finish 11th or lower.

4. If Van Gisbergen finishes 4th, McLaughlin must finish 13th or lower.

5. If Van Gisbergen finishes 5th, McLaughlin must finish 16th or lower.

6. If Van Gisbergen finishes 6th, McLaughlin must finish 19th or lower.

7. If Van Gisbergen finishes 7th, McLaughlin must finish 21st or lower.

8. If Van Gisbergen finishes 8th, McLaughlin must finish 23rd or lower.

9. If Van Gisbergen finishes 9th, McLaughlin must finish 25th or lower.

10. If Van Gisbergen finishes between 10th and 17th, McLaughlin must not finish the race/not score points.

 

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An early look at the Newcastle Street Circuit

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Photo of pit complex site, and start/finish line before construction. (Taken on Monday 20th of February, 2017)

This is my early look at the Newcastle Street Circuit, but before I discuss the general requirements, and take you through a lap of what could be an iconic street circuit, I want to quickly touch upon the progress of construction of the Newcastle Street Circuit, and with eight weeks to go until the Newcastle 500, I was shocked, but not surprised at what I saw today (Tuesday).

I am not impressed at the rate of the construction of the Newcastle Street Circuit, particular approaching Turn Two, then from there through the Shortland Esplanade Esses (although the road has been resurfaced through most of this section, with plenty work to do on the outside of the corners to make it look visibly attractive for television and tourism purposes) to Turn Six. The braking zone for Turn Six, and the general area of Turn Six, as well as the approach to Turn Seven has been neglected significantly, with little to no work being done yet from the braking zone for Turn Six to the braking zone of Turn Seven.

In addition to this, the construction work from the exit of Turn Eight through to the braking zone of Turn 10 is still taking place, and from what I saw, it won’t be ready for a little while yet, and this is without thinking about putting up the barriers, which should be starting to go up now, and this is a long, exhaustive process.

While I remain confident that the Newcastle Street Circuit will be ready to go on time for the Newcastle 500, I am very concerned about the rate of progress in getting everything ready for the event.

Supercars, the New South Wales (NSW) State Government, the Newcastle City Council, and all other relevant stakeholders involved need to come out to the general public, and answer the tough questions to ease all concerns among many people that the Newcastle Street Circuit might not be ready on time, because I am very concerned that it might not be ready on time.

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Start/Finish Line, and pit complex site. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

From November 24 to 26, the final event of the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship will take place on the streets of Newcastle East, right beside the Newcastle foreshore, and while there have been a lot of political issues in relation to the race and the impact that it could have on the people living (or working) in the immediate area in and around the Newcastle Street Circuit, the vibe from most people in regards to the Coates Hire Newcastle 500 has been largely positive.

So, in a week where the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, and the great Mount Panorama Circuit takes centre stage, I want to give you an early preview to the Newcastle Street Circuit, and what challenges this 2.66 kilometre, 11 turn street circuit will provide the teams and the drivers in November in what is set to be two 94 lap races.

GENERAL REQUIREMENTS

It will be one of the tightest circuits on the Supercars calendar, in terms of the width of the circuit, and while many may regard the Newcastle Street Circuit as the Monaco of the southern hemisphere in the years to come, it will be surprisingly quick, quicker than what many people expect, given the general tight nature of the circuit.

However, like Monaco, the Newcastle Street Circuit will put a heavy premium on mechanical grip, and the teams will want to pile as much downforce onto the cars as they possibly can, due to the lack of long straights rather than because there is many high-speed corners, so in general terms, this track is not about aerodynamic efficiency, but rather having as much aerodynamic downforce on the cars as possible, but ultimately, the teams and cars that will do well are the ones who have great mechanical grip.

The surface of the road should be smooth, and not abrasive in nature due to resurfacing of roads for the Newcastle 500.

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Asphalt on pit straight. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

However, that doesn’t mean that engine power won’t play a part as to which cars are strong, especially going uphill to Turn Two, but it will be more important to have a car that has good traction, and that is strong and stable under brakes. In terms of transmission, there will plenty of time in the lower gears throughout a lap of the Newcastle Street Circuit, particularly during the middle parts of the lap, which could mean the stresses on the gearbox could be high due to the constant acceleration out of slow corners, so the teams will need to keep an eye on that as the weekend progresses.

In addition to this, teams will need to make sure that their cars have strong cooling packages due to the warm to hot weather that is typical in late November in Newcastle, and while you may get some cool breezes from the Tasman Sea/Pacific Ocean, Fort Scratchley and the various buildings in the east end of Newcastle shields much of this breeze. As well as this, cool suits will be essential for the drivers due to the hot conditions, and the heat build-up within the confines of the circuit, putting even more stress on the cars.

In terms of driving requirements, a driver will want a car that has a strong front-end, and is instantly responsive. A driver will want to have complete confidence in how the car behaves, and certainly doesn’t want a car that is out of control. A driver will have to build up his/her confidence from the start of the weekend, slowly building up to full speed.

A driver who is generally happy with a car that has a little bit of oversteer on a consistent basis will be strong in Newcastle.

PIT LANE

While the pit buildings, garages, and race control aren’t up yet to know for sure, I believe the Newcastle Street Circuit will have one of the tightest pit lanes, if not the tightest, in the Supercars Championship, meaning that teams will have to try and avoid at all costs double-stacking their cars for pit stops during safety car periods, and I think we will almost certainly see at least one safety car during both races at the inaugural Newcastle 500.

WHARF ROAD PIT STRAIGHT (run to Turn One)

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Braking zone into Turn One before construction. (Taken on Monday 20th of February, 2017)

The run along the Wharf Road pit straight will be quick before braking hard into Turn One, which resembles Turn One (Sainte Devote) at Monaco, albeit turning left rather than right.

It will be important in a race start situation to get a good start, because although there are a few passing opportunities around the Newcastle Street Circuit, the straight will narrow like a funnel into Turn One, meaning that you need to be in a good position to avoid possible carnage at the start.

In theory, it should be single-file into Turn One at the start of a race, but in reality, many competitors will take chances to get ahead of their rivals at the start, meaning the chance of damage to cars at Turn One after the start is high, meaning the chances of seeing an early safety car are high.

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Turn One. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

The saying “you can’t win the race at turn one, but you sure can lose it” will ring true here!

Once the race is underway, Turn One should be a decent, but difficult passing opportunity should a competitor get along a rival heading into the braking zone, but regardless of whether a pass is made here or not, it will potentially set up the opportunity for a pass, or re-pass into Turn Two.

WATT STREET UPHILL RUN TO TURN TWO

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The run from Turn One viewing up the hill to Turn Two. (Taken on Monday 20th of February, 2017)

Accelerating out of Turn One, you head up a long uphill straight to Turn Two. It is very similar in resemblance to the pit straight at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. It starts as a gradual uphill run, but when you get to the King Street intersection (on a normal day), Watt Street starts going dramatically uphill into the braking zone for Turn Two, which will be a popular passing opportunity on the Newcastle Street Circuit.

Whoever dares to brake later (as you can see in the photos of Turn Two taken in February before construction), and has the inside line when trying to pass a rival car will be rewarded, but unlike the run into Turn One at the Circuit of the Americas, the road width will the same into Turn Two, and there will be no chance for a competitor to defend their position around the outside of Turn Two in Newcastle compared to Turn One in Austin due to the concrete walls.

Another thing that the drivers and teams should note is the escape road for Turn Two goes uphill, which should give them confidence in practice to brake as deep as possible to find the optimal braking spot for Turn Two, which will be important during qualifying sessions, the Top 10 Shootout, and of course in the races.

SHORTLAND ESPLANADE ESSES (Turns Three, Four, Five, Six)

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Turn Three before construction. (Taken on Monday 20th of February, 2017)

This is the section of the Newcastle Street Circuit that will become iconic in the history of the sport, a section that will literally scare the drivers more than any part of circuit on any track on the Supercars calendar, and it will sort out the good drivers from the great!

This section will require immense bravery, but also great driving technique and throttle control as you go downhill left through Turn Three, and then a slight kink right, then left through Turn Four, and then turning right around Turn Five before braking hard into Turn Six, which is a possible passing opportunity for those who are opportunistic.

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The braking zone into Turn Six. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

The car and driver combination who is fastest through this section will be the ones to beat at the Newcastle 500.

EXIT FROM TURN SIX TO TURN 10

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Braking zone into Turn Seven. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

After the breathtaking wonder of the Shortland Esplanade Esses, which some drivers may struggle to recover from, we head to a section of the Newcastle Street Circuit that will be a very tactically part of the circuit, and drivers will be trying different lines through the staircase of Turn Six (left), Seven (right) and Eight (left), which are all 90 degree corners, to try and gain an advantage over their rivals. It is similar to the staircase section at the Adelaide Street Circuit.

However, the way that you accelerate out of Turn Eight will determine whether you can pass a rival car into Turn 10, or keep them behind. From Turn Eight,  Turn 10 is a hairpin, similar in style to Turn Nine in Adelaide, except it is a left-hander rather than a right-hander.

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Turn Eight. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

In between Turn Eight and Turn 10, you head slightly uphill over a crest before rushing downhill a touch towards Turn Nine, which I think should be an easy flat-out corner, and while it may well be the fastest corner on the circuit, it doesn’t look like it will pose a huge challenge for the drivers and teams, but it will be more exciting for the fans watching the cars through this section of the circuit.

However, if you are not switched on through this entire section of circuit from Turn Six to Turn 10, you will lose a lot of time, and/or positions!

TURN 11 ONTO PIT STRAIGHT

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Exit of Turn 11. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

Accelerating out of Turn 10, you drive along Horseshoe Bend Road a short distance to Turn 11, which appears to be a corner similar to the Turn 19 (Anthony Noghes) in Monaco, and I think it will be a slow to slow-medium speed corner, and will require good traction out of the corner to accelerating onto the pit straight to complete a lap of the Newcastle Street Circuit.

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A view of the pit straight behind the grid. (Taken on Tuesday 3rd of October, 2017)

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

While like at every circuit you need to have a great car, the driver will have a greater influence than normal into achieving a great result at the Newcastle Street Circuit, and in a tight championship battle, it could have a decisive bearing as to who wins the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.