It’s race week in Australia and it’s also the start of endurance season! The 2018 RABBLE.club Sandown 500 and the PIRTEK Enduro Cup kick off this weekend at Sandown Raceway near Melbourne and with it come three of the most important races of the season. With the championship so finely poised between new leader Shane van Gisbergen and Scott McLaughlin, each race during the endurance season will be crucial to maintaining a championship challenge. Ahead of the action beginning at Sandown, I’ve given my assessment on some of the biggest things to watch out for and talking points in my Sandown 500 race preview.
Can Triple Eight Continue Their Form?
After Scott McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske dominated from Philip Island to Darwin, there can be no doubt that since Townsville Triple Eight (T8) has been the team in the ascendancy. Roland Dane’s Red Bull HRT outfit have won six out of the last seven races with the only non-T8 victory coming courtesy of Scott McLaughlin at Queensland Raceway. Four of those last seven race wins have fallen to now championship leader Shane van Gisbergen. The New Zealander sits just 19 points ahead of McLaughlin in the table and with 300 points on offer for the winner of Sunday’s race, neither can afford a retirement.
Its battle royale between SVG and McLaughlin, and Triple Eight and DJR Team Penske. At a track where both teams have been strong in the past, I think it’s going to come down to the finest of margins once again. Triple Eight is a team which know how to win enduros, and have tasted success countless times over the last two decades. The newer DJR Team Penske partnership, perhaps less so, but the rate they are progressing suggests they’ll reach that same level sooner rather than later. With the title race so finely balanced, the will have to be as even the smallest of slip-ups in Sunday’s high-pressure race could spell disaster for McLaughlin’s title hopes.
Win on Sunday and you get the feeling that it will be a monkey off DJR Team Penske’s back, especially after McLaughlin and Premat came so close to winning last year. But with serial winners Triple Eight fast, and rapidly progressing with the ZB Commodore its going to be so tight, and so tense at the head of the field.
Co-Drivers Will Be Crucial
If there’s one slight advantage McLaughlin holds over SVG coming into Sandown it would be the co-driver. Both Alexandre Premat (McLaughlin) and Earl Bamber (SVG) are highly experienced and successful drivers in their own right, but crucially Premat has that Supercars experience, something which will prove invaluable both in qualifying and the race.
Elsewhere in the field, the familiar enduro lineups of Whincup/Dumbrell, Lowndes/Richards and Coulthard/D’Alberto will be waiting in the wings to take advantage of any slip-ups from the two title protagonists. All experienced operators in their own right, the Triple Eight pairings of Whincup/Dumbrell and Lowndes/Richards are real contenders for victory on Sunday and a win for Whincup would propel him right into the championship fight. Sitting 362 points off the lead, a full points score for Whincup combined with a DNF for McLaughlin or SVG will lift Whincup into striking range ahead of the final rounds of the season, a period where he has always been so strong.
Lowndes will be keen to bow out of his final Sandown 500 as a full-time driver by adding to his tally of five wins in the race, however recent results at the circuit haven’t fallen his and co-drivers Richards’ way. Finishes of 13th, 8th and 11th in the last three years mean its five years since Lowndes won at the circuit but in Stevie Richards, he has a co-driver of the highest quality capable of winning once again.
What Can Tickford Do?
Cam Waters and Richie Stanaway won last year’s race by just 0.6s, but with Stanaway now in a full-time drive, the pair won’t contest the race together this year. In a season which hasn’t been kind to Tickford, Waters and Stanaway have fared worse than their more experienced teammates and sit 17th and 25th in the championship table. Mostert and Winterbottom haven’t fared much better, sitting 8th and 15th in the standings with a podium apiece being Tickford’s only silverware of the season. Despite a brief upturn in results between Townsville and Sydney Motorsport Park for Mostert, there’s been little for the four-car outfit to cheer about in 2018 but in a race which can become as chaotic as Sandown can, this might just represent their best chance yet of a victory this season.
The team have traditionally gone well at Sandown with Winterbottom and Owen taking victory in the Pepsi Max Falcon in 2015. Often strong on strategy, whilst Tickford could struggle to keep up with Triple Eight and DJR Team Penske they should be able to position themselves in a position to capitalise on error mechanical faults or penalties which could happen to their rivals. All four drivers have strong co-drivers, and with Winterbottom/Canto, Stanaway/Owen and Mostert/Moffatt there is a wealth of Supercars experience. However, with David Russell as a co-driver to Waters, Tickford have a relatively unknown quantity in terms of a driver partnership and on paper at least it seems the weakest of the four.
I think Tickford will sink or swim on Sunday. I can see them picking up a victory if any of the frontrunners run into trouble but on pace alone, I can’t see them winning the race. A podium might be an outside possibility but I equally wouldn’t be surprised to them finish somewhere in the midfield should things not go their way.
Who Else Could Spring A Surprise?
Out of the remaining teams, Erebus and Walkinshaw stand out as two who could play a large role in the outcome of Sunday’s 500km race. At Walkinshaw, Pye/Luff and Courtney/Perkins possess a wealth of enduro experience and Luff and Perkins have been with the team a number of years, something which could prove important in the pressure cauldron of both qualifying and the race. Both co-drivers have tasted success with the team, and Pye and Courtney will be keen to put the brakes on a downturn in form since such a positive start to the season.
David Reynolds and Luke Youlen return to the Sandown for the first time since their Bathurst victory last year and in an Erebus car which just keeps on improving. Reynolds put an end to a run of six races without a podium finish with a fine 3rd place in race two at The Bend last time out, and the team will arrive at Sandown with confidence high, and hopes of another strong result. The Erebus Commodore has proved itself to be one of best packages of the grid in 2018, and will be one of the cars giving Triple Eight and Penske a close run for their money. After finishing 17th last year, Reynolds and Youlden will be keen to make amends in a car which has the pace to perhaps challenge for victory.
I think its got to be between Triple Eight and DJR Team Penske for the win on Sunday if the race is relatively clean and rain-free. Out of the two, I’m going to go for Triple Eight, and the experience of Whincup/Dumbrell to win the race, closely pushed all the way by McLaughlin and Premat. Whilst SVG and Bamber will be strong, I think the experience of the other co-driver pairings might just edge it. If anyone slips up, I’m backing Erebus or Tickford to be there to take advantage.
With the race now just a matter of days away, let me know who your picks are for the podium in Sunday’s race either in the comments below or on Facebook!