The Virgin Australia Supercars Championship isn’t a series we cover regularly on MotorSportsTalk, but it is something we need to look at today following an utterly dramatic finale at the Newcastle circuit at the weekend.
Jamie Whincup, of the Red Bull Holden Racing Team and Triple 8 Racing Race Engineering, snatched the title post-race from DJR Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, in his Shell V-Power Racing Ford, after McLaughlin was assessed a post-race 25-second time penalty for what the stewards deemed to be reckless driving.
An odd race saw McLaughlin, in the driver’s seat for both his and Penske’s first Supercars driver’s championship (DJR Team Penske did win the team’s championship) penalized three times (drive-through for pit lane speeding and a 15-second penalty for spinning Simona de Silvestro occurred earlier), but none worse than the crushing blow after a final lap battle.
Similar to the 2008 Formula 1 season finale in Brazil, McLaughlin was further down the order than he should have been in position to clinch the title, and required a dramatic last-lap pass up the inside of another car for a spot to gain. In that F1 race, Lewis Hamilton got Timo Glock for fifth place, and in Newcastle, it was McLaughlin’s turn to pass James Moffat for 11th. That position would have netted McLaughlin the title on countback over Whincup.
Although McLaughlin passed him to get through, and thus secure the position he needed to clinch the championship, what he hadn’t planned for was TeamVortex’s Craig Lowndes to attack up the inside and try to deny him in his Holden.
The odd nature of the Newcastle street course meant after Turn 1 there was a gap in the wall driver’s left, and the bumpy track could unsettle the corner and upset its stability. That set up the dramatic moment.
As McLaughlin got a poor corner exit, he then sought to defend the position ahead of a surging Lowndes, who he didn’t know was alongside because he’d lost his left side mirror earlier in the race. But the two collided, with Lowndes then losing the back-end on the run to Turn 2 and hitting the wall after sustaining left front tire damage following wall contact.
Whincup won the race but wasn’t assured the title until McLaughlin’s penalty was assessed. The 25-second time penalty dropped him down to 18th, and ensured Whincup had his seventh series championship (first since 2014) by 21 points.
Whincup was stunned even after the fact as he watched a replay of the contact, as in the immediate aftermath he couldn’t believe his fortune.
“I’m lost for words. I didn’t have a clue crossing the line, I assumed I came second and the crew goes ‘you’ve got number one’,” Whincup said, via Supercars.com.
McLaughlin was understandably gutted; the breakout season came up just short.
“I lost my left-hand mirror so early. I knew we were close, but I didn’t think we were that close, I just defended the line into Turn 2 and we got interlocked and I genuinely didn’t mean to push him into he wall,” he said.
“To get pinged like that… I shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. That’s hard.”
While McLaughlin was gutted, Roger Penske, who was on site in Australia, was furious.
“I’m not really sure what happened with Lowndes. It looked like, you know, he was there (McLaughlin was past Lowndes) and to give us a 25 seconds penalty is pretty outrageous. But it is what it is,” Penske said, via Speedcafe.com.
The loss cost Team Penske its second driver’s title in two series this year, with Josef Newgarden having won the Verizon IndyCar Series championship at Sonoma in September.
Penske was, however, on site for that championship victory there, in Miami last week as the No. 22 Team Penske Ford won the NASCAR Xfinity Series owner’s championship, and on site this weekend in Australia for DJR Team Penske to have claimed the Supercars team’s championship. Beyond McLaughlin, who ended second in points, teammate Fabian Coulthard was third after a dynamic season.