It’s the penultimate round of the 2018 season and we’re fast approaching the climax and the end of a ten-month battle between two powerhouse teams, and two first-class drivers. Scott McLaughlin and Shane Van Gisbergen return to their New Zealand homeland this weekend for the ITM Auckland SuperSprint separated by just 14 points in the table. With just four races left this year, the stakes have suddenly got so much higher as the enduros have ended and the margin for error is so small that neither driver can afford ta DNF. With everyone’s eyes locked on the title fight at the front and a whole lot of other things to watch out for, I’ve analysed some of the biggest pre-race talking points in my Auckland SuperSprint weekend preview.
Its Neck and Neck
Judging from the times in Friday practice there’s absolutely nothing to choose between DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight as both teams led the way in practice one and Whincup topped the table in practice two. Triple Eight won both races in New Zealand last year, with SVG winning on the Saturday and Whincup on Sunday as McLaughlin finished 3rd and 2nd. We know that both teams have the pace at Pukekohe, and I think the battle for pole position is going to be so so close. McLaughlin’s practice two was hampered by a heavy crash right at the start, but I have my doubts about just how much that will affect him come the race. True, it means that McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske have lost valuable practice time, but they’ve been so strong in qualifying this year that I wouldn’t be surprised to see them end up on pole.
I honestly can’t pick a clear favourite or winner out of McLaughlin and SVG this weekend. It’s going to come down to the finest of margins and I fully expect this title fight to go down to the wire.
The Supporting Cast
The role of Whincup, Lowndes and Coulthard could be crucial this weekend and in Newcastle at the final round of the year. Triple Eight are undeniably strong across the board, and both Whincup and Lowndes can be counted on to be right up there at the front of the field. The same can’t be said for Coulthard this year, and although his results of late have been marginally better than earlier on in the season, I think if there’s one area of weakness in McLaughlin’s title challenge its the lack of support from his teammate. Coulthard finished 5th in practice one and 14th in practice two and I don’t think DJR Team Penske can count on him to take points off SVG. It’s been a strange season for Coulthard. He was a championship contender for much of last year and we know that he’s seriously fast. For some reason, it just hasn’t clicked in 2018.
You can count on Whincup being in and around the top three on Saturday and Sunday and although practice didn’t show it I don’t think Lowndes will be too far behind. Triple Eight have all the tools they need to strategically help SVG to the title but if McLaughlin can get out in front, they’ll be playing catchup all race long.
Last Laps For Winterbottom At Tickford
I couldn’t talk about this weekend’s action without touching on Winterbottom’s departure from Tickford. The long-time Ford man and 2015 champion will part ways with Tickford at the end of the season, ending a 13-season run with the team. Consistently one of the team’s top performers since he joined, Frosty hasn’t been able to replicate the same level of results since his title-winning year with 2018 being particularly disappointing.
Winterbottom comes into Pukekohe sitting 12th in the championship table and without a podium finish since Perth earlier on in the year. 2018 looks set to be his lowest placed series finish since 2005. His last Supercars race win came at Pukekohe at the back end of 2016 and if there’s ever a time to win another it would be now, in his final four races at Tickford. 12th in practice one and 3rd in practice two offer a small glimmer of hope, but I think this weekend will be another where Tickford struggle. It’s been a great run, and Frosty will be forever remembered as a Ford and Tickford great. But I think the partnership has reached its natural conclusion.
Who Can Spring A Surprise?
With the title battle playing out at the front, there are a number of other drivers who could fly under the radar and spring a surprise this weekend. Reynolds was strong in practice two coming in 2nd, and Scott Pye also finished inside the top ten in both sessions. Both Reynolds and Pye had disappointing runs out at Pukekohe in 2017 but have shown great speed in recent races. With Mostert fresh off a race win, and Rick Kelly looking fast in practice the race for the lower end of the top ten will be just as fierce as the one at the front.
If you look outside of the top two teams, Reynolds and Pye have been two of 2018’s standout drivers. Both have improved on already strong seasons last year and have pushed on to become even better this time around. With the championship out of reach, Reynolds will be one of the favourites to add to his tally of two race wins this season and Pye will be keen to finish ahead of Courtney for the second year running.
I honestly think its too close to call at the top. I can’t pick a pre-race favourite out of McLaughlin and SVG, I think it’s going to come down to the finest of margins. I expect Whincup and Lowndes to assist SVG in getting the biggest points haul possible and that could just tip the balance in Triple Eight’s favour. Outside of DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight, Reynolds has a good chance of victory and I’m going for Mostert as my potential dark horse after his win at Surfers Paradise last time out.
What do you think will happen at Pukekohe this weekend? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or over on Facebook!