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Silly Season Begins

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McLaughlin’s move to DJR Team Penske marks the start of this season’s merry-go-round, which will have some big implications for some top main game drivers.

So the first big move of the 2016 silly season has been confirmed, and to be honest, it’s a move the vast majority of people were expecting. Scott McLaughlin has announced his switch from GRM to DJR Team Penske in a move which will see Scott Pye leave the team, and with the futures of numerous big game drivers up for discussion during the course of the season DJR Team Penske have at least allowed Pye a great deal of time to find another drive. There’s been plenty of talk on the forums about McLaughlin’s move and Pye’s future, and I wanted to use this article to weigh in with my opinion on the move and some possible destinations for Pye in 2017.

It was clear from day one that McLaughlin had a touch decision to make, and one which he himself admitted was made easier following Volvo’s decision to withdraw factory support at the end of 2016. I can’t help but feel Garry Rodgers and Co were fighting a losing battle from the moment Volvo withdrew and as much as I admire McLaughlin’s sense of loyalty to GRM, it was always going to be a huge risk to stay a team with no factory support, especially when you’re one of the hottest properties in Australian, and most probably global touring car racing. Roger Penske’s reputation as the Captain speaks for itself, and with the financial might of his business empire backing the team, not to mention his manufacturer connections, from a purely racing perspective it makes complete sense for McLaughlin to make the the move. DJR Team Penske are quite clearly a team with ambitions to challenge the Triple Eight/PRA power play at the top of Supercars, and with money behind them in certainly looks possible in the medium to long term at least.

Of course, that’s not to say McLaughlin, and Garry Rodgers Motorsport can’t win a title this year because they absolutely can, but it will require a great deal of luck. GRM are a fantastic team who have consistently punched above their weight but to some extents that’s largely down to McLaughlin who we’ve seen is able to extract the absolute maximum from the Volvo S60, which is clearly a very good car. None of Dahlgren, Wall or currently James Moffat have been able to come anywhere close to matching McLaughlin in the same car and I fear for GRM if they cannot replace McLaughlin with a driver close to his ability. Step forward Scott Pye.

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Scott Pye leads his DJR Team Penske replacement Scott McLaughlin at this year’s Clipsal 500. Image – http://www.adelaidenow.com.au

I feel incredibly sorry for Scott Pye, but I can also understand that for a team with the ambitions of DJR Team Penske, there was absolutely no way they could turn down the chance to sign a superstar in the making. With Fabian Coulthard tied to a long term deal the obvious casualty was Pye, but I think he’s done more than enough to prove he deserves the opportunity for a long term contract at a front running team. Personally, I think Pye would make for a great replacement at GRM, or even as I’ve talked about in the past, a lead driver at a rejuvenated, new look HRT. He’s proved himself to be more than a match for his highly esteemed teammate Coulthard so far this season, and I really hope he can continue his strong performances, it would be great for Pye if he finished above Coulthard in this year’s championship.

McLaughlin’s departure means there’s now a seat available at GRM, but any choice to move to the team comes with a little more uncertainty than it did for the likes of Dalghren, Wall and Moffat because at the time of writing we still have no idea what cars and engines the team will be running next season. It’d be fantastic if a deal could be done to keep both the cars and engines in the series. I know there’s plenty of debate about who owns the chassis and parts etc and it’ll certainly be interesting to see what cars the team are racing next season. McLaughlin has demonstrated that the S60 is still very much a race winning car, and the vast majority (if not all) of the field set to stick with the current regulations for next year then it’s certainly possible for GRM to continue challenging at the front if they remain a privateer with the Volvo’s. That being said, although Garry Rodgers is widely regarded as one of the best talent spotters in the paddock, finding the right replacement for McLaughlin is going to be critical.

It won’t be easy. Moffat was, and still is highly rated in the paddock yet he has been unable to come anywhere close to matching McLaughlin and sits down in 20th place in the championship. I really thought by signing a second (relatively) big name driver this season that McLaughlin would have a vital ally in his fight for the championship, and a teammate taking points off his biggest rivals by finishing consistently in the top ten. As things stand, McLaughlin looks to be fighting a valiant battle against the might of Triple Eight and Mark Winterbottom at the top of the table and although it would be fantastic to see, I just can’t picture a lone Volvo coming out on top.

Whoever comes in to replace McLaughlin is going to struggle to continue his rich vein of form in the car and Dunlop series frontrunner James Golding has been mentioned as a contender for the seat on more than one occasion. I rate Golding highly from what I’ve seen, and to sit third in the Dunlop series ahead of Townsville is an achievement in itself, but with Moffat currently struggling in the #34 I fear GRM could sink rapidly into the depths on the midfield should Golding be given his chance at a rookie season in 2017. He’s clearly a future main game driver, there can be no doubt about that, but if GRM want to extract the maximum from whatever package they run, I think Garry Rodgers should be looking at an established Supercars driver to replace McLaughlin, and Scott Pye could be ideal.

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James Golding has been showing some great promise in the Dunlop Series, but is he ready to take on the challenge of being McLaughlin’s replacement at GRM. Image – http://www.paycemotorsport.com.au

Stranger things have been known to happen, but I really can’t see Courtney or Tander jumping ship to GRM, even if they do revert back to Holden. But with Pye on the market, and proving more than a match for Coulthard it’d be great to see him get a shot with a longer term deal at GRM. After a few years being shunted around on one year deals it’d be fantastic to see his talent rewarded. Whether Pye is on the same, superstar level as McLaughlin remains to be seen, but he’s certainly more than deserving of a full time drive. Jason Bright’s seat at BJR is currently unconfirmed past the end of this season, and I’m sure Brad Jones would love to have Pye over at the team, but whether BJR could afford Pye is again, another question.

Could Pye go over to Nissan to replace Todd Kelly, or even Dale Wood? Much depends on Nissan’s future in the sport, but the strong performances in Darwin can only add to aid Nissan Australia’s cause of receiving backing from the board in Japan. Assuming that Nissan do remain as a four car team then it would make racing sense to replace Wood with Pye, although Nissan clearly require Dale Wood’s financial backing. I know there was talk in Inside Supercars earlier this year about Todd Kelly possibly stepping aside from a driving role, but at the moment he’s been driving better than he has been for a few years, so the decision to step aside would no doubt be a difficult one.

McLaughlin’s departure has flicked the on switch on this year’s silly season, and it has the potential to be just as exciting as the last even after we saw a record number of movers at the end of 2015. I’d be fascinated to see where you think Pye will end up next season, and whether you think DJR Team Penske had a morally difficult, but ultimately easy choice in signing McLaughlin. After all, superstar drivers don’t come around that often.

 

 

 

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