The 2018 Supercars season returns under the lights at Sydney Motorsport Park (SMP) this weekend for the inaugural Sydney Supernight. Saturday’s race, (which for once doesn’t require me to get up at 3am in the morning to watch!) is arguably the most important race of the whole season, excluding the enduros. With 300 points on offer for the winner of the 300km race, it could be a pivotal weekend for Scott McLaughlin and the chasing pack. Read on to see my pre-race talking points, and who I think could end up on the podium on Saturday night.
Huge Weekend for Scott McLaughlin
There are no two ways about it, this weekend is massive for McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske. Fresh off a 1st and 2nd from the last round at Queensland Raceway, finishing Saturday’s race is critical if they want to head into the unknown of Tailem Bend and the Enduros with their championship advantage intact. SMP was one of McLaughlin’s more difficult weekends last year, where the #17 Falcon FGX finished 21st and 4th in the two races. However, Coulthard took victory in race one in 2017 and followed it up with a 2nd place on Sunday, underlying the fact that DJR Team Penske does have pace at SMP, and has been successful in the past.
The pressure on both team and driver will be huge on Saturday. Although a DNF or a low points score wouldn’t spell disaster at this stage of the season, it could all but wipe out McLaughlin’s hard-earned championship lead and set up a grandstand final half of the year.
What Can Triple Eight Do To Stop DJR Team Penske?
McLaughlin’s closest challenge is likely to come from one of Whincup, Van-Gisbergen or Lowndes. Whincup, after tough three rounds at Philip Island, Barbagallo and Winton is slowly climbing back up the championship table. With a result card from the last five races reading 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th the defending champion is dragging himself back into contention. A 3rd and 1st last year at SMP show us that Triple Eight know how to set up a car well around here, but with the ZB Commodore unproven in a race environment at this track a small question mark over its performance still remains. However, given how the car has adapted to the other circuits already visited this year it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
McLaughlin’s closest challenger, Van-Gisbergen also bagged a 2nd and a 1st last time out at Queensland Raceway. The Kiwi will be looking to improve on 23rd and 3rd place finishes from 2017 and like McLaughlin, will be desperate to avoid a DNF or a low points score. I’d be very surprised if we saw a conservative drive from either with such big points on the line on Saturday night, however, if I had to pick one driver who would most likely go all out for the win, it would probably be SVG.
Will Locked in 2019 Plans Give Coulthard The Boost He Needs?
DJR Team Penske’s announcement that Fabian Coulthard will remain with the team through into 2019 should be a weight off his shoulders. Compared to his teammate, Coulthard has had a tough start to 2018 and sits 6th in the championship table, a mammoth 669 points behind 1st. After a disappointing run which started in Melbourne and finished in Winton, the #12 Falcon has shown an improved form of late, but still not quite enough to take the fight to McLaughlin and Triple Eight. Since his victory at Winton Coulthard has finished 15th, 8th, 5th, 8th, 5th and 5th, and although we’ve only just past the halfway mark of the 2018 season it appears that his title challenge is all but over.
However, Coulthard has a vital part to play and will integral to both McLaughlin’s bid for the title, and DJR Team Penske’s bid to retain the team’s title. McLaughlin and Penske will need Coulthard to take as many points as possible off their Triple Eight rivals, and that begins with out-qualifying and out-racing them this weekend. As the driver with arguably the least to lose out of any from those two teams, Coulthard should be aiming to go all out for the podium or victory in the Supernight. 2017’s 2nd and 1st place finishes at SMP should serve him well, and I think Coulthard’s form could well prove to be a deciding factor in this year’s championship battle.
Can Nissan Start to Bounce Back?
The news of Nissan’s withdrawal of factory support from Supercars at the end of 2018 was greeted by the team’s strongest ever form on track. Rick Kelly’s fantastic run of results which included a double podium at Philip Island and a race victory at Winton propelled the Altima driver up the championship table and while he remains inside the top ten, the last two rounds at Townsville and Queensland haven’t proved as fruitful. Kelly is by far and away Nissan’s strongest performer this year, with Caruso a clear second. SMP hasn’t been an overly happy hunting ground for Nissan in the past, with Caruso’s 6th and 7th place finishes in 2017 their best in the last two meetings at the track.
I think it’s going to be tough for Nissan to break into the top three this weekend. If all goes their way both Kelly and Caruso stand chances of finishing in the top ten but it’s essential that Nissan regains the form which took them right to the top just four rounds ago.
I can’t see past DJR Team Penske or Triple Eight for the win, and if I had to pick some drivers I would go for a podium of either Whincup, SVG and McLaughlin. But I’m not sure in which order. Whincup’s experience will be key in an important race, but the raw speed and racing instinct of SVG could see him rise to the top in a race where others may not want to risk the points. You also can never count out McLaughlin, especially in the form he is in. Fabian Coulthard would be my outside bet, and I’m expecting to see a close fight between Tickford, Erebus and WAU for best of the rest with Mostert just edging it for Tickford.
I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know who you think will bag the points in one of the most important races of the year!