The 2018 Supercars season returns this weekend for one of my favourite events of the year. The Townsville 400 marks the midpoint of the Supercars season and by the end of the racing on Sunday we’ll be staring down the final three rounds before the Enduros, and the real business end of the season. The first seven rounds of 2018 has seen the championship pendulum swing from Triple Eight and the new ZB Commodore back to their biggest rivals DJR Team Penske with a handful of race victories for Walkinshaw, Erebus and Nissan thrown in along the way. Townsville is a track where we know there will be drama, and with no race since its debut on the calendar back in 2009 ending with a 100% finish rate, there is bound to be some attrition along the way. The championship’s top two teams will be strong but with a whole host of others waiting in the wings, I’ve analysed some of the biggest talking points ahead of this weekend’s Townsville 400.
A Possible Turn of Fortunes at Tickford
For all their troubles so far this season, Tickford head to Townsville knowing the Queensland event has in the past, been among their strongest showings of the season. The last 3 seasons have seen Mark Winterbottom finish 1st, 1st (2015), 3rd, 3rd (2016) and 3rd, 4th (2017). If there was ever a round for Tickford to bounce back and inject some life into their disappointing 2018 campaign its Townsville this weekend. Tim Edwards’ outfit lies in 6th and 11th in the team’s championship, and their highest placed driver, Mostert, sits just 9th. With Winterbottom’s 2nd place a Perth their only silverware of the season, the Victoria-based squad are in dire need of a strong weekend.
Both drivers and car have been strong at Townsville in the past, and I expect one of Mostert or Winterbottom to be Tickford’s leading driver this weekend. After a really strong 2017, 2018 hasn’t been too kind to Cam Waters who’s results card this year is marred with inconsistency and barring the 9th place in race two at Winton, Stanaway’s season has yet to really get going. The Supercars rookie who promised so much in last season’s enduros will be hoping that Townsville marks the start of a step in the right direction after an opening half of 2018 which see’s just one top 10 finish and a 25th place in the driver’s standings to show for it. I think both Waters and Stanaway have what it takes to cut it right at the top of Supercars, and Sandown last year showed just that. However, with a car which is off the pace of its competition, even the slightest of off-days can result in being dropped right down the pecking order.
Is Silverware on the Cards for Walkinshaw?
Walkinshaw Andretti United (WAU) released a fantastic new livery this week, and their weekend could very possibly be even better. WAU are my outside bet for a race win in Townsville should either of DJR Team Penske or Triple Eight falter. The team, which are traditionally strong at street circuits arrive at the Townsville 400 with both drivers in the championship’s top ten (Pye 6th and Courtney 10th), and sitting pretty in 3rd in the team’s table. Two podiums apiece for Pye and Courtney so far in 2018 mark a significant improvement in fortunes for the team who endured a dismal season in 2017 and with Courtney a podium finisher at Townsville in 15 and 16, I think more trophies could be on the cards.
Pye and Courtney had mixed fortunes last time out in Darwin. Pye recorded a set of 4th and 20th place finishes, whilst Courtney finished 23rd and 11th. At a street circuit like Townsville, I expect the team to be far stronger. They are too far off to challenge the likes of DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) and Triple Eight (T8) but are right in the middle of a fight to be best of the rest with Erebus, which will be a fantastic sub-plot for the remainder of the season.
Tight at the Top
Although McLaughlin enjoys a 161 point lead at the top of the table the fight between DJRTP and T8 is incredibly intense, and it could come down to the finest of margins. An incredible run of 5 wins in the last 8 races has propelled McLaughlin into the championship lead but with Van Gisbergen, Reynolds, Lowndes and Whincup all showing race winning pace on a consistent basis I think we’re in the midst of a five-way tussle for the title. I think consistency through the Enduros is what’s going to win this 2018 drivers championship, but for any of the top five, leading the charge into the Sandown will be a much-needed boost of confidence.
Whincup and McLaughlin shared the spoils last year in Townsville, each bagging a 1st and 2nd over the course of the weekend. Van Gisbergen also finished on the podium whilst both Lowndes and Reynolds were in and around the top ten. I fully expect the battle for pole and victory on Saturday and Sunday to be incredibly tight, and with Fabian Coulthard also slowly returning to form it’s going to come down to hundredths of seconds. Both DJRTP and T8 will be strong, and this weekend is a real opportunity for McLaughlin to cement his status as the man to beat this year.
Acid Test for Nissan
Townsville marks a real test for one of 2018’s surprise packages. Nissan, along with Erebus and WAU are vying for the title of the most improved team so far this season but the Townsville 400 is an event where the Nissan Altima has struggled in the past. Without a top-six finish in any race at Townsville since 2013, the pressure will be on Rick Kelly and Michael Caruso to deliver results which match those which Nissan have been bagging in the last few races. Kelly sits 8th in the championship, with Caruso 15th, and after a tough start to the year Caruso has managed to finish the last four races inside the top ten. Kelly has been superb so far in 2018, with three podium finishes including a victory at Winton ensuring he heads to Reid Park in Townsville as the highest placed Nissan Altima.
I think Townsville will mark a real test of just how much the Altima has improved since last year. I don’t expect the team to be as strong as they have been on the fast and flowing circuits, but getting two cars in the top ten across both Saturday’s and Sunday’s races would be a sign of great progress.
I can’t really see past a straight fight between DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight for honours this weekend. The battle is too close to call between the two teams, and results are going to come down to the finest of margins. WAU are the team I think could be their nearest challengers, and I also think David Reynolds could be in with a shout for a podium finish.