It’s been a while since Winton and the Darwin Triple Crown can’t come soon enough! The mid-part of the 2018 Supercars championship kicks off at Hidden Valley Raceway near Darwin, the scene of a DJR Team Penske clean sweep last year (barring Rick Kelly’s pole position in Saturday’s race).
The coming weekend brings with it a whole host of intriguing sub-plots and battles to be watching along the whole length of the grid, and I’ve picked out four of the most fascinating of them below.
Can Nissan Continue Their Resurgence?
The Nissan Altimas have been brilliant in 2 of the last 3 rounds, the exception being Barbagallo. Rick Kelly scored a fantastic double podium finish at Philip Island with a 2nd and 3rd place and then went one better at Winton last time out taking Nissan’s first race victory since 2016. Darwin has been a circuit where Nissan have traditionally performed run well in the past, and I think this weekend provides the definitive test for a team who have been so assured that the Altima is moving in the right direction.
The pressure will be on Andre Heimgartner and Simona de Silvestro to match the performances of their more experienced teammates during the remainder of the season. The pair currently sit 20th and 22nd in the championship respectively, with a set of results that can probably best be described as inconsistent and underwhelming. Heimgartner has enjoyed an improved form of late with his highest finish of the season being an 8th in Perth, but Silvestro has struggled to extract the same levels of performance in her second year in the Altima, with her best result of 12th also coming in Perth.
I fully expect the Nissan charge to be once again led by either Rick Kelly or Michael Caruso, and Caruso will be aiming to add to his tally of 2 race victories at Hidden Valley.
Can Coulthard’s Upturn In Form Continue?
Winton provided Fabian Coulthard with something to smile about. A first race win and third podium of the season saw the DJR Team Penske driver move up to 7th in the championship table heading into a round where DJR Team Penske dominated last year. Coulthard has had an unfortunate start to 2018 and has already fallen some way behind teammate McLaughlin in the title race. Although finishes of 5th and 1st last time out ensure that DJR Team Penske remains at the head of the team’s championship, 87 points clear of Triple Eight.
I think the Penske Falcon will be the car to beat this weekend, and McLaughlin will be looking to Saturday and Sunday to extend his lead at the top of the championship table. If Coulthard can drag himself back in contention, and start taking more points off Van Gisbergen, Lowndes, Reynolds and Whincup then there’s no reason he can’t match or better his 3rd place positions in the driver’s championship at the end of last season. It critical however that he keeps pace with the drivers at the top of the table to avoid his title charge ending before the close of the enduros.
How Will Erebus Bounce Back?
After a sensation run of results, Winton was a disappointing weekend for Erebus and championship challenger Reynolds. 25th and 15th place finishes saw him lose valuable ground in his battle with McLaughlin, SVG and Lowndes and the team will be targeting an instant return to form in Darwin. Reynolds banked 8th and 5th place finishes last year at Hidden Valley in the old Commodore, but with the new ZB predicted to be fast on the high-speed circuit Reynolds will be targeting additions to haul of 4 podiums so far in 2018.
Anton de Pasquale will be looking to continue his promising rookie season in Supercars, but with the Super 2 series not travelling to Darwin in either 2016 or 2017 this weekend may be a steeper learning curve than most this season.
Improvements Needed From Tickford and Triple Eight
I wouldn’t necessarily group these two teams together in terms of the magnitude of their current woes, but both Tickford and Triple Eight will be targeting major improvements this weekend. The word from Triple Eight is that the fast flowing nature of Hidden Valley should suit the new ZB Commodore, and fresh from a successful test where they explored old setups, Tickford arrive in Darwin with renewed hopes of taking their first win of the season.
The pendulum at Triple Eight has swung in favour of Shane Van Gisbergen in recent rounds, following the fantastic early season form of Jamie Whincup. With a resurgent Craig Lowndes sitting in 3rd in the championship table and all Triple Eight cars in the top 5, the team remain the biggest challengers to DJR Team Penske this weekend. Should McLaughlin and Coulthard struggle to dial in their cars, I fully expect Triple Eight to be the team picking up the spoils.
The struggles of Tickford have been one of the biggest surprises of the season and although I suspected that 2018 would evolve into another battle between DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight, I didn’t expect Tickford to be quite so far off the pace. Boasting what some would describe as the grid’s strongest driver lineup a solitary podium finish for Winterbottom in Perth remains their only silverware. Mostert scored a 3rd at Hidden Valley in 2016, but if Tickford want to avoid their final season with the Falcon going down as a disappointing one, they need to start taking the fight to the championship’s top two teams.
I think McLaughlin and Coulthard will be hard to beat, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see DJR Team Penske take the wins this weekend. We might see a Nissan or one of WAU or Erebus sneak onto the podium but I think Tickford will continue to struggle, and Triple Eight will be the strongest threat to DJR Team Penske.
Let me know what you think over on social media or in the comments below!