Well, round two of the 2019 Supercars season at Melbourne’s Albert Park certainly threw up a few talking points. Scott McLaughlin strengthened his position as the man to beat by making it five race wins from the first six races of the year, whilst his countryman and championship rival Shane Van Gisbergen suffered a weekend to forget as he plummeted to 11th in the standings. In amongst all the action, Chaz Mostert won the Larry Perkins Trophy with a great overall weekend performance and Cam Waters and McLaughlin came together ahead of race three which resulted in neither starting the race. Now that the dust has settled, I’ve given my thoughts on some of the biggest talking points from the Melbourne 400 in my Weekend Wrap.
Melbourne Horror Show For Two Championship Contenders
You would be hard pressed to find a pair of drivers more unlucky than Fabian Coulthard and Shane Van Gisbergen in Melbourne, and for SVG his shocking weekend was largely through no fault of his own. He was running a strong fourth on a good strategy in race one before his engine gave way, finished 10th in race four, before races five and six of the season took another turn for the worse. Race five would see him finish in 21st after losing a wheel in the closing laps, and in race six on Sunday he came together with Fabian Coulthard at turn 13 after redressing from a corner cut at turn 12. After a 15-second penalty was applied he would finish the race 22nd and fall to 11th in the championship standings.
McLaughlin’s closest challenger after Adelaide, I’m fairly confident that SVG’s Melbourne weekend was a one-off. I can’t remember the last time he was as low as 11th in the standings, but come Symmons Plains I’m sure that Van Gisbergen will be back at the sharp end of the field. It was an unusual run of bad luck and bad fortune, the likes of which only happen once every few seasons.
Whilst Fabian Coulthard’s weekend was decidedly better than his fellow Kiwi’s on paper, it was the wider repercussions of being beaten so convincingly by his teammate that will have done the damage to Coulthard in Melbourne. His four-race results read 2nd, 5th, 5th and 15th which now leave him 6th in the championship table, 130 points behind McLaughlin. After a tough time of it in Adelaide, the Melbourne 400 was the round where Coulthard needed to show the paddock that the 2019 title race wasn’t just going to feature one DJR Team Penske-run Mustang, but even in race one of the weekend where he ran McLaughlin hard for 2nd place, McLaughlin never looked troubled. He was unfortunate to be collected by Van Gisbergen in the final race of the weekend on Sunday, but even at the time of contact he was outside the top five.
There are no two ways about it. I think Coulthard has to win at Symmons Plains to stake his claim for the 2019 title and to keep McLaughlin within striking distance. Both DJR Team Penske Mustangs were capable of finishing on the podium in every single race in Melbourne, and to come away with just one-second place finish will have left Coulthard disappointed. I rate Coulthard highly and would love to see him succeed and fight for the championship.
Andre Heimgartner Proving His Worth
Despite a raft of aero changes over the summer break, the four Kelly Racing Altimas are even further away from the front of the field than they were in 2018, and a change of car can’t come soon enough for the four-car outfit. As much as I admire the Kellys and Nissan for bringing the Altima into the series back in 2013, I think as a race car in the main game its time is up, and I just can’t see the team threatening the high points scoring positions.
That being said, Andre Heimgartner, now into his second season with the team is proving to be the shining light and his 14th place in the championship after Melbourne reflects his early season superiority over his teammates. 15th, 18th, 9th and 14th place finishes over the weekend’s four races are hardly results which will make the headlines, but that 9th place finish remains Kelly Racing’s best result of the year. He sits 49 points ahead of the next Nissan Altima of Simona de Silvestro but I am expecting him to be chased down by Rick Kelly as the season goes on. However, I think 2019 is looking like somewhat of a breakthrough year for Heimgartner. If he can continue on in the rich vein of form he has started the year, other teams on the grid could well take notice and consider him for a drive in 2020.
Mostert And Waters Are Taking The Fight To McLaughlin
In a season where McLaughlin is dominating, his closest challenges are more often than not, coming from Chaz Mostert and Cam Waters. Mostert was a worthy winner of Melbourne’s Larry Perkins Trophy finishing 5th, 2nd, 1st and 2nd in the races whilst Waters finished 3rd, 3rd and 4th after clashing with McLaughlin and failing to make the start of the third race.
Waters is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in 2019 after a tough 2018 where he finished 16th in the standings. His podium tally for the season currently stands at three in six races, three more than he managed last season and he has responded to Frosty leaving the team by stepping up into his place and keeping Mostert honest. So harmful are DNSs and DNFs in Supercars that Waters sits 9th in the standings after Melbourne, but his performances so far this season have been far better than his championship position suggests. It’s only a matter of time before he wins a race this year.
2019 is his 4th full season in Supercars, and I think it could be a breakthrough one for Waters. He still has a lot to learn in the main game as Saturday’s incident with McLaughlin shows. However, the early signs are there that Waters is starting to fulfil his potential, and he could become a real threat to McLaughlin later in the year.
Chaz Mostert got his trophy count off the ground at Albert Park with 5th, 2nd, 1st and 2nd place finishes over the weekend. Like in Adelaide, on pace alone Mostert looked to be McLaughlin’s closest challenger in Melbourne although I am slightly disappointed that we still haven’t really had a straight fight between the two in race conditions. McLaughlin’s great start off the line in the final race compared to Mostert’s poor one set the tone for the remaining laps, and although Mostert did work his way past Whincup to 2nd he never looked like troubling the defending champion.
Mostert needs a trouble-free weekend to lay down a marker in the title fight. Both Adelaide and Melbourne have bought their trials and troubles alongside great flashes of speed. Mostert and everyone at Tickford now must nail down that consistency if they are to make 2019 their year. It’s close, but I think from what we’ve seen so far they could be in with a real chance of taking the title fight all the down to the wire, but it’s going to take a mammoth effort from both team and driver.
Jamie Whincup managed to come away from Melbourne as one of the drivers who had enjoyed a better weekend, all without really setting the world alight. But that’s the kind of weekend you’d expect from a seven-time champion and he leaves Melbourne sitting 2nd in the championship standings after finishing 8th, 4th, 2nd and 3rd, all whilst extracting the absolute maximum from the car. After SVG’s weekend was virtually destroyed, Whincup comes away from Albert Park as the top Holden car both in the championship and on current form.
You can almost guarantee that if Triple Eight can narrow at least some of the performance deficit to DJR Team Penske, Whincup will be a title threat and he’s the sort of driver who will just keep on plugging away and getting results, and putting the car into positions it really shouldn’t be in. The Albert Park weekend was a perfect example of that, as Whincup extracted everything he could from the car to score two podiums and narrow the deficit to McLaughlin to just 31 points.
Symmons Plains has been a happy hunting ground for Whincup in the past, but Melbourne showed us that Triple Eight still have work to do to catch. However, if there’s one team which can bring themselves back into the title fight it’s Triple Eight.
Races seven and eight of the season take place at Symmons Plains Raceway in Tasmania on the 6th and 7th of April.
Top Performer: Scott McLaughlin
Biggest Disappointment: SVG’s bad luck robbing us of a closer fight at the front.
Notable Mention: Tim Slade and BJR who had a fantastic weekend.
What are your thoughts on the Melbourne 400? Who performed and who didn’t? Let me know in the comments below!