Melbourne 400 Race Report

  

For the first time in 23 years the Australian Grand Prix round became an official round of the Supercars Championship.  Over previous years the Supercars have raced at the GP but not for Championship points.

It is certainly a positive move that that the round has become part of our Championship.  To race at the GP, an International event with tremendous exposure is something that the leading touring car Championship in the world should be doing.  Over previous years the event has been important to the corporate supporters of the sport, but from a sporting aspect the racing had that “empty feeling” and as much as you are always aware of damage, that awareness is much greater when there are no points on offer.  Unfortunately, the drivers often view it quite differently and tend to be a little more adventurous when a misdemeanour doesn’t affect their Championship standing and this can become very costly.

Joey left our Dandenong South facility on Tuesday morning for the Grand Prix precinct at Albert Park.  The Albert Park Grand Prix circuit is a race track first established in 1953 and when not used for the AGP it becomes an everyday road with a speed limit of 40-50km/h, which is quite amazing when the GP cars travel more than 300!

The trip to Albert Park is Joey’s second least favourite of the season (Sandown been his least favourite) as the Volvo Globetrotter FH16 700 barely warms up and he has arrived.  The crew spend Wednesday setting up the garage and walking the track.  During the track walk the drivers and engineers look for any changes that may have taken place, particularly new bitumen or kerbs.  Garth also takes it upon himself to explain any important aspects of the track to Bieber (James Golding) as this will be the first time that Bieb’s has ever raced on this circuit.

The racing schedule is spread over four days.  Thursday begins with 2x30 minute practice sessions.  Following practice, we were not positioned where we had expected.  When I say “expected” I certainly don’t believe that you should ever expect anything.  Results are achieved by “putting your head down and bum up!” and that is certainly what had been happening back at work since the Adelaide 500, but the practice results certainly did not equate to the amount of effort Stiffy (Stefan Millard, Team Manager) and the Team had been putting in. Garth was 14th and James was 26th.

With only 70 minutes between Practice 2 and qualifying for Race 3 of the Championship it was important to analyse how we could make some ground. It’s important that the drivers analyse their own performance and see whether they had made mistakes or could improve on certain aspects of a lap and/or whether the dynamics of the car did not allow then to drive in the manner that they needed to for a faster lap.

The Engineers and drivers discuss all of this and then decide as to whether any changes need to be made to the car.  The types of things that are changed are spring rates (softer or harder), the cars ride height and the roll centre. An example of a ride height change is if the driver is feeling that the car is tending to understeer (meaning that when approaching a corner the front of the car wants to continue straight ahead and not turn) a likely change is to raise the rear ride height which makes the car sharper and promotes turn, yet the downside is rear grip may be lost.

Qualifying for race 3 and 4 of the Championship were back to back 10-minute sessions.  As the Albert Park Circuit is close to a 2-minute lap plus the out lap of 3 minutes and the in lap of 2.30, the total time taken for one flying lap is more than 7 minutes.  If the driver then had a tyre change and re-entered the circuit the 10 minutes would expire prior to crossing the start/finish line.  This is certainly a pressure situation and I like that. I appreciate that it only gives everybody one good go at a lap and if you mess it up then you are out the back.  Well, I reckon that is great, this sport is all about pressure and everybody in the Team needs to manage this.

Both GT and Bieb’s found some improvement in Q3, albeit still not to the level that satisfied either of them. Garth was 10th and Bieber 22nd.  The DJR Penske cars of McLaughlin and Coulthard continued their 2017 AGP form and filled the front row.

Q4 was a disaster for Garth as his engine backfired on the run between turns 2 and 3 causing him to back off, losing several tenths in the process and qualifying in 24th. Bieb’s improved nearly half a second from the Q3 session and was 19th. This improvement was soon undone when the #34 impeded Lowndes when on a flying lap and was penalised 5 grid positions.  This time Whincup (888) jumped the two DJR cars for pole.

As Australians we should be immensely proud of the events that we attract and hold.  The AGP is a tremendous event that showcases our wonderful country and more particularly Melbourne to the world. The helicopter shots of Albert Park with the Melbourne skyline behind and Port Phillip Bay to the side are as good as images that you would see anywhere in the world.  On Friday when I arrived at the track, the sun was shining, people were picnicking in the park and tens of thousands were enjoying the activities on the infield I felt happy.  I just hoped this happiness continued!

Again, 2 qualifying sessions for races 5 and 6 of the Championship and one 25 lap (130km) race.  Garth found some improvement from the previous day as his gap to pole lessened, but so did others. This resulted in 14th and 11th in the sessions. Bieb’s managed 20th and 23rd.

Race 3 of the Championship required a minimum of one pit stop where all four wheels were changed, and 4 seconds of fuel added. These stops are vital as it is tenths of seconds that separate cars and if there is a slip in a pit stop many places can be lost.  In most of our pit stop races the fuel takes many seconds more than the time to change the wheels and therefore a little extra time by a wheel changer doesn’t necessarily make the stop any longer.  But, here the fuel and tyres take virtually the same time.  When GT stopped we let him down a little with a stop that was a little sluggish, yet he fought on hard and finished 8th.  Bieb’s battled hard with a group of fellow first year drivers in Hazelwood, Stanaway and LeBrocq. He managed to get the better of two of them and finished 21st.  Scotty McLaughlin led from the start and then found himself behind Whincup after the pit stops and with 8 laps to go pounced and retook the lead to win.

The schedule over the Grand Prix weekend is very spread out and Saturday saw a 5 plus hour gap between the two races.  Race 4 of the Championship was a 13 lap, no pit stop required sprint.  From the previous day it was known that the tyre life was good to reasonable until about 10 laps and then dropped off. As our qualifying positions were towards the rear GT and Bieb’s were conscious of not over racing early to maintain the tyre life as good as possible until late in the race where the opportunity may open up to pick up places.  Sure, we were extremely disappointed to be so far back in the field, but it is vital to focus on the job at hand as every position is vital come the end of the year.  At this stage whether you finish 18th or 22nd for example sound poor regardless, but the extra points obtained by finishing a few positions up can be very important.  By the end of the race both Bieb’s and GT had done a reasonable job and finished 17th and 18th.  Whincup, this time beat McLaughlin off the start and led to the finish.

During the extended time from the 1.30pm finish of Race until the 6.20pm start of Race 5 I took the time to take a walk through the Formula 1 paddock.  To be totally honest I have never been a big fan of F1, yet I do admire the machinery and the heroics of the drivers, but I find the racing too clinical.  The same can be said for the paddock, as much as the presentation is absolutely first class, I tended to feel “out of place”.  It is important to get reminded of the importance of embracing the fans that support your sport and as much as we can always improve, I feel that the Supercar paddock is a place where fans are welcome and a place where young children can see and touch their heroes and dream one day of being a race car driver.

Race 5 of the Championship was again a 25-lap race with one compulsory pit stop.  The Melbourne weather which had been superb so far seemed to be on the decline and rain seemed imminent.  One of the most popular websites in pit lane “bom.gov.au” appeared on the screens in each pit garage, yet I still decided to ring Kaye down at the farm and check which the horses were facing, and yes!  They were facing east, ears bag and gathering together – bad weather was coming. I alerted the Stiffy of this and told him to turn the stupid computer off.

Starting from 14th (GT) and 20th (Bieb’s), it was again the plan to be smart with the tyres and work our way forward.  The previous 25 lap race indicated that pitting early allowed a driver to undercut the field, but as the tyres degraded the early gains turned into bigger losses later. Undercutting is when a car pits early for fresh tyres while others that they were racing around stay on track.  The impact of fresh tyres and racing on a section of the track where you have nobody around equals quicker lap times so when the others pit it is likely that you will pass many that were previously racing in front of you.  The downside is the early pushing on the fresh rubber leads to quicker degradation and you become a sitting duck for those now chasing on fresh rubber.  The timing of an undercut is vital to be successful.

Following the compulsory pit stops both Garth and James had maintained their positions, and on lap 17 sprinkles of rain began, by lap 19 fifteen of the twenty-six car field had pitted to for wet tyres.  Unfortunately, during this stop GT had to turn sharply in to the pit bay as Reynolds was pitted behind and as Garth turned in and the car went from the asphalt surface to the concrete apron the car’s brakes locked and he skidded in to two of the pit crew.  The reaction of the Team was immediate as they pushed the #33 back and realigned the car under the pit boom. This all took precious seconds.  As Garth exited the pit it became apparent that he had a flat tyre, and this was caused by the car running over the RHR wheel as he slid into the pit. GT returned a lap later, but the race was over he was last. Bieb’s did his best, but also had a moment as he went sliding sideways as he exited the turn 12 chicane and was very fortunate not to contact another car or the wall.  I think he was straight off to the dry cleaners!  Out front it was just reward for the brave decision made by those to stay out on slicks and Scott Pye (Walkinshaw) led from half way through lap 1 after Scotty McLaughlin overshot turn 2 to win his first ever Supercar race.

The result of the #33 pit incident led to Casper (Ben Evans) and Squid (Mitch Feeney) being attended to by the medical personnel.  I must commend the medics who were immediately on hand and their handling of the situation and comfort and care shown was extremely appreciated.  Thankfully, both Casper and Squid were cleared of any broken bones and apart from a little bruising were full steam ahead!

I was very pleased to be have my hour long drive home so as I could analyse the days activities and as much as it’s important to acknowledge our pitfalls it is equally important to find some positives.  My big positive was that as much as from a sporting perspective we had a “stinker” of a day all the people that give everything for the Team were ok.

Sunday, and it was a final 13 lap race to complete the weekend. Qualifying had been so long ago I had to remind myself of the qualifying positions. Garth was 11th and Bieb’s 23rd.

On the front row was Whincup and Reynolds and Reynolds got the better of the two off the line and led.  GT started well and immediately moved to 10th and Bieb’s found 4 places on the first lap.  Bieber unfortunately was struck with a mechanical issue that led to a fire beginning in the LHR wheel arch of the car.  As the cabin filled with smoke he did his best to position a car near fire marshals as the fire was starting to take hold, it seemed like a very long time but eventually the fire marshals arrived and extinguished what could have been catastrophic. In the meantime, Reynolds led from start to finish and GT raced solidly for 9th. Well done to Dave Reynolds and the Erebus Team.

To be totally honest the weekend result is not something any of us are proud of.  Sure, there were moments when circumstances did not go our way, but we all know that we need to do better and between now and Tassie we will be doing everything in our control to produce a result that is more in line with effort that we have been putting in.

I can’t wait for Tassie!

MOMENT OF EXCITEMENT - Gypsy’s (Jeff Marshall – 19-year employee) birthday on Saturday.

MOMENT OF DISAPPOINTMENT – realising Gypsy is only 48!

Garry