Cars Motorsport News

IN REVIEW: THE 2019 SUPERCARS SEASON

THERE’S NO DOUBT that the 2019 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship will be long-remembered – if only for the politics and not the racing. Our chief features editor DALE RODGERS casts his eye over the year it was.

WORDS: Dale Rodgers IMAGES: Mark Walker, Supercars, Supplied

If ever there was a Supercars Championship flanked by controversy, 2019 was the year.

From the moment the ‘Camo’ Ford Mustang broke cover just over 12 months ago to the official Ford Performance Launch in February 2019, this was a car that that was inevitably going to have a huge effect on the Supercars Championship.

After four months of extensive debate in the media and across every Social Media platform, the DJR Team Penske and Tickford Racing Ford Mustangs made their debut at the Adelaide 500. Reigning Supercars Champion Scott McLaughlin delivered the Blue Oval a perfect result in its return as a ‘fair dinkum’ factory entrant in the Supercars Championship.

But it wasn’t only the fans who were amazed by the speed of the new Ford Mustang GT at its maiden hit out.

The pit lane was abuzz with the speed and domination the #17 DJR Team Penske dealt on that hot summer weekend way back in early March. Red Bull Racing HRT boss Roland Dane told Supercars TV anchor, Neil Crompton on the Sunday evening of the Adelaide 500 that in reference to the Mustang’s debut, a slogan used by local motorsport manufacturer PWR was “engineering the unfair advantage.” It was not difficult to see who Dane was aiming the barb at.

He went on to say that if the likes of Mostert and Coulthard had not succumbed to problems of their own doing, they would have finished in front of his team’s ZB Commodores.

Not surprisingly the ‘unfair advantage’ reference was not a view held by the Ford hierarchy who were strong in attendance at the series opener. Ford Performance Motorsports – Global Director, Mark Rushbrook summed up the Mustang Supercar when he spoke to The Race Torque in Adelaide.

“The opportunity to bring Mustang here has been fantastic, because Mustang has gone global as the biggest selling sports car in the world, and we have gone global with the Mustang racing program in NASCAR, the GT4 spec through the SEO and now here with the Mustang in Australian Supercars.” he said.

While there was plenty of Social Media noise about the design and look of the Mustang Supercar, Rushbrook addressed the comments by saying, “I think the reaction has been really positive on the car and when you see the car on the track it looks like a Mustang. We’ve made Mustangs since the 60’s and they all look different, but when you see them you know it’s a Mustang. And with this car it definitely looks like a current model Mustang. It’s got the hips, the shoulders, the proportions, and the glass lines – the key brand styling cues are in there and when you see it on the track, it says ‘Mustang’.”

Some disagreed with that sentiment.

But the domination, or perceived domination the Mustang would deposit on the 2019 season soon led to the introduction of a raft of technical changes by Supercars that carried on for many months and delivered changes to all three marques on the grid

Supercars CEO Sean Seamer had to bat off a lot of criticism, but told Supercrars.com just one week after the Australian Grand Prix round of the Championship that a Centre of Gravity (COG) change would be made to the Mustang and Commodore before the Tasmanian round.

“The success of Supercars is built on the closeness and spirit of competition. Like the ZB before it, the Mustang has advanced build techniques and technology,” he said. “All three homologated vehicles have been built within the rules. The Supercars Championship is underpinned by technical parity. That is, the sport seeks to minimise any technical differences between models of vehicle in the spirit of equitable competition.

“I compliment the manufacturers, homologating teams and the Commission for their positive approach to supporting technical parity across all models.”  

This quote would be a thorn in the CEO’s side for much of 2019.

This was just the start of a word which became synonymous with the 2019 Supercars Championship.

Parity.

Meanwhile, the racing was fierce and apart from the big news story that was Mustang, the other focus of close observers of the sport was the seemingly under-performing Red Bull Holden Racing Team.

Although the team were quick to point out that there were a number of things that they had to focus on to bring the ZB Holden Commodore back to a regular race winner, it seemed the change from the twin spring set up to a linear spring perhaps affected the factory Holden Racing Team more than others. This was borne out as it became obvious just how far ahead Triple 888 were in the understanding and application of this set up than other Holden Teams.

It was not until Race 8, the Sunday Race in Tasmania, that Shane Van Gisbergen lifted the winner’s trophy for the first Holden victory of 2019. Astonishingly, the next winner’s trophy presented to a Holden Team wouldn’t be seen until Race 18, the Sunday Race at Townsville, where Van Gisbergen would triumph once again.

The results sheets show the absolute domination by Scott McLaughlin and his DJR Team Penske #17 Mustang, particularly in the first half of the season.

After the first 16 of 32 races to be undertaken in 2019, McLaughlin had won 12, his teammate Fabian Coulthard two, and Tickford lead driver Chaz Mostert one, leaving Van Gisbergen’s Tassie victory as the only interloper on the top step of the podium.

Add to this that McLaughlin also marked the half-way point of the season by taking the Darwin Triple Crown for the first time since the events inception, departing the Top End leading the points table by 319 from Coulthard.

But it was the Erebus Penrite Racing Team which were at least challenging the dominance of the Ford Mustang in the first half of 2019. David Reynolds was the best Commodore runner, sitting some 88 points ahead of the #97 Red Bull with Jamie Whincup only a few points further adrift.

Of the rest, at the mid-season break, Tickford had shown some good, yet erratic speed with Mostert, Waters and new ‘customer’ team Red23’s Will Davison all in the mix.

Brad Jones Racing too had shown some excellent performances – primarily from Nick Percat – but as seen so often over many seasons, the Albury based team could not turn out the same the cars at every track they went to. This would become more evident in the latter stages of the Championship.

Nick Percat however gave 110% and was one of the star performers outside of the ‘big’ team’s right through 2019.

With the Pirtek Endurance Cup looming large, there was still more Technical Changes to the Mustang, Commodore and the Nissan. Although completely above-board and written into the Operations Manual, the punters were clearly not reacting well to change after change.

It was a bad look for the series and questioned the whole process of the original homologation of the three brands of race cars conducted by Supercars, in particular the Ford Mustang. Communication of the process at times did seem clandestine and it was up to journalists to break the news rather than taking official announcements from the category itself. No example was more evident than Tom Howard’s award winning expose of further aero tweaks to the ZB Commodore’s in Darwin. 

But it was not parity that became the talking point of the second half of the season. If the first 16 races were throwing up lots of issues, they were made look inconsequential by what was on the horizon.    

Three Super Sprint rounds at QR, The Bend and New Zealand’s old school Pukekohe Raceway greeted the teams after their mid-season break. The level of competition at the front had raised as Triple 888 found form and constantly challenged the Shell V-Power machines for race wins. Whilst McLaughlin continued his stellar form, the Bulls were closer with Van Gisbergen and then Jamie Whincup opening his race win account at Queensland Raceway.

Looking past the main players as the series geared up for Bathurst, Chaz Mostert had been the big mover claiming a number of strong podium results and moving into second place as the field headed to New Zealand.

Tickford were on the rise with Cam Waters and in particular Will Davison making their presence felt: Davison claimed his first podium at QR and backed it up at The Bend where a possible race win went begging with yet another air box fire for Tickford in the Pit Lane.

The fourth Tickford entry saw driver Lee Holdsworth also starting to get to grips with the Mustang: His on-form performance would continue until the end of the season, netting him a new two year deal with the team after what many thought was a shaky start.

Over at Penrite Racing, David Reynolds had slipped a little in the points table but his young protégé Anton De Pesquale in the #99 Commodore was delivering solid results and moved into the Top 10.

Kelly Racing’s Nissan quartet were occasional Top 5 visitors, with Andre Heimgartner the stand out with a podium at QR. Despite technical concessions the now six year-old Altima was outclassed at just about every or style of track, be they fast, slow, street, low aero or high. It was a tough year for the Kelly gang.

A lot was been written about WAU’s woes in 2019.

As the team headed to the first of the Endurance races at Bathurst, James Courtney was in 14th and Scott Pye two spots behind in 16th. The team would field a Wildcard at Bathurst for Andretti Indy Car pilots James Hinchliffe and Alex Rossi, and while they were popular and from a Supercars rookie perspective, competitive, the focus was on trying to get the #22 and #2 up the results sheet. As history says, never underestimate this team come Endurance time and Courtney with Jack Perkins grabbed a memorable 3rd place podium at Bathurst. Scott Pye with regular Warren Luff continued their excellent form with a seventh place.

Other notable Bathurst results, including the Irwin combination of Mark Winterbottom and Steve Richards in sixth, Rick Kelly / Dale Wood in eighth and an almost-podium by James Golding and Richard Muscat in the GRM / Boost Mobile ‘disruptor’ Commodore, will all fade away as the DJR Team Penske controversy overshadowed the final results.

The provisional results showed that Scott McLaughlin / Alex Premat had won the race with team mates Fabian Coulthard / Tony D’Alberto in sixth place, but the final results were subject to a full CAMS Stewards enquiry.

The actual charge laid against DJR Team Penske was “a breach of Rule D24, given its ambiguous terms, a breach of Appendix B to the 2019 ISC (Code of Good Conduct), in particular the Obligation of Fairness.”

Whilst the details have been well documented and debated, the actual effect on the team was a ‘loss 300 Supercars Team Championship Points and a fine in the sum of AUD$250,000, $100,000 of which is suspended until 31 December 2021 on condition that DJRTP commits no breach of Appendix B of the ISC or any breach of Rule B6.5.4 (Conduct Prejudicial) or D24 (Team Orders) of the Manual prior to that date.’ 

The detail is important in context as it fueled a firestorm of criticism and opinion that Scott McLaughlin should not only be stripped of his win at the Mountain, to the more bizarre opinions that he should be disqualified from the 2019 Supercars Championship.

McLaughlin then went on to deliver what could only be described as a fraught performance at the Gold Coast: by his own admission he was overdriving in Practice picking up a number of kerb strikes – but then came big the big one.

A monstrous crash in Sunday Qualifying resulted in Scott being taken to hospital and a wrecked Ford Mustang. Just when DJR Team Penske thought it could not get any worse, they were hit just before the start of the Sandown 500 with a further fine and infringement notice when the #17 Qualifying engine was found to be illegal.

Regardless, McLaughlin clinched the title at the (final) Sandown 500 after a rear of grid start.

“I’m just so proud of this team. We’ve been knocked around a fair bit this year, and they’ve just kept coming back. We started last today, and just ground it out to get a Top 10 result. Thanks to Alex for his work this year, I love Frenchie. I’m stoked to have been able to get it done, but there’s still work to be done for our team and sponsors in Newcastle. We want to win the Teams’ Championship, and will be pushing hard to get that done,” the Champion-elect said at Sandown.

And so to Newcastle, where DJR Team Penske claimed not only the drivers’ championship but also the Teams Championship double for the first time in its short, five year history.

Triple 888 sent a clear warning that they were back in business with a stellar performance in the final rounds of the Championship. A clear trait of this team is to come back hard if results are not where they should be.

The focus now turns to 2020. Only 12 of the 24 drivers will tighten the belts in the same car and team as 2019. There will be no Nissan’s on the grid as Kelly Racing bolsters the Ford ranks fielding two Mustang GT’s. Simona De Silvestro departs leaving a huge mark on the series but not the results she would have ever hoped for.

Garry Rogers Motorsport also departs Supercars, at least for now. Of all the highs and lows of 2019, the loss of the eccentric Garry and his always happy garage is a huge loss to Supercars and one that probably should have never occurred. The team, according to Garry and son Barry, never really recovered from the loss of the factory Volvo status and after a period of some stability with Wilson Security and a return to Holden, entered into a volatile and in the end untenable partnership with Boost Mobile.

There is some stirring at the rear of the Pit Lane with Charlie Schwerkolt and Matt Stone committing to two car operations and the yet to be resolved Sydney based team with James Courtney as lead driver. But that is all to come.

A most interesting sidebar is the importance of the Adelaide 500 in a Championship campaign. A 300 available point kick start.

After the Sunday leg of the season-opening 500, the Top 10 points read:

  • Scott McLaughlin
  • Shane Van Gisbergen
  • Jamie Whincup
  • Will Davison
  • Nick Percat
  • Mark Winterbottom
  • Cam Waters
  • David Reynolds
  • Tim Slade
  • Chaz Mostert

On Sunday when the teams packed up the transporters in Newcastle for the last time in 2019, the Top 10 had changed little:

  • Scott McLaughlin
  • Shane Van Gisbergen
  • Jamie Whincup
  • Fabian Coulthard
  • Chaz Mostert
  • David Reynolds
  • Cam Waters
  • Will Davison
  • Nick Percat
  • Lee Holdsworth

Supercars 2019 is done and dusted, the trophies distributed and the teams heading for a hard earned rest. Scott McLaughlin is a dominant and worthy two time Supercars champion. DJR Team Penske has regained Pole Position in the Pit Lane for 2010.

It is just the events of Bathurst that will gnaw away for some time to come.