Darwin Triple Crown Race Report

The Darwin trip, one of the favourite events on the Supercar calendar. And believe it or not, but it is the transporter drivers who look forward most to the trip north. Joey (Joe Sullivan) counts the sleeps to this trip and is so keen to get going that he heads off on the Friday evening just so he gets to spend an extra night in the luxurious sleeper cabin in the Volvo Globetrotter FH16700.

Joe arrived in Darwin early on Wednesday and spent the day washing the truck and trailers in readiness for the truck parade through the streets of Darwin on Thursday. The Darwin truck parade is a tradition that has continued on for the 20 years that we have been racing at Hidden Valley and is tremendously supported by the locals and tourists as they line the streets and watch the line of transporters pass by. It is an extremely impressive sight seeing 20 or so B-Double transporters travelling in convoy, all immaculate with shiny wheels and sounding their air horns as the kids urge the drivers on with arm pumps! In previous years Joey has been a little disappointed in the performance of his horn, so we contacted Jason at Viking Trucks who is the best in the business when it comes to individualising trucks and he fitted new air horns the FH16 700, and of course Joey is biased, but he now believes his truck has the best horn in pit lane.

It’s amazing this is the 20th year we have raced in Darwin. Time flies and a lot changes, yet much stays the same. For us one thing is the same and that is 20 years ago when we first raced here Garth Tander drove for GRM and 20 years later, again he drives for us. Both Garth and Craig Lowndes are the last two remaining drivers whom have competed in every Hidden Valley event. The circuit is 2.87 kilometres in length and has 14 corners. The front straight is 1km in length and the cars reach a speed of 260-270kph depending on the prevailing wind. The track provides for excellent racing with opportunities to pass at turn 1 and several other corners as the track moves from slight left to right handers through turns 2 to 5 and the hairpin at turn 6. For spectators there are excellent viewing areas all around and within the centre of the circuit. The track is like an amphitheatre and is one of the very best tracks to watch car racing in Australia.

This weekend in Darwin we were representing our sponsor group and particularly Wilson Security in creating awareness regarding their Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Wilson Security employ approximately 450 people in the Northern Territory and many, many thousands Australia wide. On the Wednesday afternoon Barry, Sally, Moff, Garth and myself attended a launch for the Northern Territory release of the program at the Charles Darwin University. We were welcomed by traditional land owners of the Darwin area, the Larrakia people led by Auntie Bilawarra (I hope the spelling is correct and I apologise if not) and listened to some enthralling stories of their history. One such story was during the Second World War when Larrakia men joined the Australian Army and amongst many other important duties specialised in locating American airmen that were shot down by the Japanese. It is very humbling when you learn such things that those before us have done to allow us to live in the country we do today.

I really hope that the endeavours of Wilson Security with their RAP is successful in guiding Indigenous people to a worthwhile career that gives them satisfaction and meaning. Of course many initiatives that have the right endeavours often are not successful, but my feeling is that with the right leadership and mentorship we can all make a difference.

Over the 20 years of coming to Darwin I have had a beer at almost every possible bar, but there is one that stands out for me. The Darwin Water Ski Club, down on the beach and with the best view of the sun setting over the sea in Darwin. I’m not sure who is game enough to ski in the crocodile/shark infested waters and in my 20 years as much as it is called the “Darwin Water Ski Club”, I have never witnessed a skier. On Wednesday afternoon Barry and I stopped in for one beer, watched the sun go down and thought about our freezing friends and family in Melbourne!

Thursday, Joey was primed for the truck parade and I noticed just that little bit of extra tyre shine and chrome polish and that was on Joey! But, the truck looked fantastic. As Joey headed off the rest of the crew prepared the pit garages. Stiffy (Stefan Millard-Team Manager) has a job allocated to everybody and the garage goes together in a military like precision, and this is great because I only get in the way.

Friday was the usual 2x45 minute practice sessions and following our recent test at Winton (Vic) a couple of weeks ago we had incorporated some changes to the cars that we hoped would benefit our speed over the weekend. Of course all teams are continuously doing developmental work, so it can be that you improve but so does everybody else. Following practice Moff and Garth were reasonably happy with the car, albeit Garth didn’t do a green tyre run in the second session. Moff finished the day 7th quickest and Garth 18th.

On the Friday evening in Darwin the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Michael Gunner welcomes the Teams and drivers to Parliament House which is located on the Esplanade overlooking the pristine Timor Sea. Again, the enthusiasm of the Northern Territorians for Supercars is really motivational and it is truly wonderful to see how much enjoyment that the people of the Northern Territory get out of us racing in Darwin.

Saturday, one final practice session, 15minute qualifying and a 120km (42 lap) race. Both Moff and Garth improved their times from yesterday, but so did most of the field. The speed of a race car has many different variables that affect the overall performance. One variable is track temperature and depending on the time of day when you run the difference in lap time can be very, very different. The tyre technicians are often measuring the track temperature and during qualifying all eyes are looking up at the sky to see if there is a chance of cloud cover. In Saturday morning practice most of the field improved 3 to 5/10ths of a second from Friday and most of this improvement would have been due to the cooler morning track temperature on Saturday compared to the hotter Friday afternoon temperature.

Qualifying and after been in the Top 10 throughout practice and much of qualifying Moff found himself in 13th and Garth 18th. The surprise and it was great to see was Rick Kelly in the Nissan sitting on pole with the two Penske cars led by Scotty McLaughlin just behind.

Race 11 of the Championship was the traditional 120lm race that required a minimum of one pit stop. Each car had two sets of tyres that had previously been run during the qualifying session and they were the Dunlop Super Soft tyre. During these races there are many strategies that you may choose in regards to when the driver stops. What strategy the team take has many variables. These variables include how long they believe the tyres will last (which during practice the driver does an extended continuous “race run” on a set of tyres and the tyre technicians measure the wear and from that it is calculated the anticipated life of the tyres), the position of the driver are in the field in comparison to the pace (that is the driver may be quicker than the cars in front, but unable to pass. Or alternatively the driver may be slower than those behind, but able to hold them up). If a driver is quicker than the cars in front and the engineers believe that they can pit the car and put the driver in clear air there is the opportunity to put together a sequence of quick uninhibited laps that when the other cars pit that the driver ends up in front of them. On the other hand if the car is “slow” and holding up the field the engineers are more likely to leave the car out and only pit when those behind finally find a way past.

Moff has been an excellent starter all year, but unfortunately the car stalled as he went to take off and he dropped from 13th to 20th off the line, but managed to be 17th at the end of lap 1. Garth also has been very good off the line and by the completion of the first lap he had passed 7 cars to be 13th (Garth was penalised 2 grid positions for inhibiting Jason Bright during qualifying). The Nissan of Rick Kelly led the way McLaughlin who tried an ambitious move around the outside in to turn 1 and dropped back to 5th. While leading Kelly pitted on lap 9, along with Moff who was fighting his way through the field. Garth was one of the last cars to pit on lap 18. Unfortunately for Rick Kelly a jammed throttle sent him into a tyre barrier on lap 16.

As the race settled following all of the cars completing their compulsory stops it was the Penske cars of Coulthard and McLaughlin at the front, Moff had done a great job along with Lewis (Manuel Sanchez – Engineer) to fight his way into the Top 10 and Garth also had improved significantly from his starting position to sit in 13th. On lap 36 Will Davison (Tekno) dived bombed down the inside of Garth through turns 13 and 14 making contact with the left front bending the steering arm. This left the #33 vulnerable and Van Gisbergen two laps later attacked through turns 5, 6 and 7 which saw both cars spear off into the infield ending Van Gisbergen’s race and forcing Garth into pit lane for a left rear tyre.

Coulthard went onto win from McLaughlin and BJR’s Nick Percat was 3rd. Moff held his position in the 10 and finished 9th and in the process set a new Supercar lap record at Hidden Valley.

Overall a more than reasonable result for Moff considering where he was half way through the first lap and Garth was dealt an unfortunate blow and it was only the second occasion this season when he hadn’t finished further forward from where he had qualified.

Saturday night and guess what? Off to the Darwin Water Ski Club for one beer, and gee it was nice!

Sunday was Moff’s day! But unfortunately didn’t quite end as promised. Moff turned 33 on Sunday and Dom (our chef) cooked up a delicious chocolate cake and we surprised Moff with it while he and Garth were on the track during the “True Colour Track Walk” which allows the fans to get up and close to not only the drivers, but also the cars and crew. From this very happy day things only got better as Moff qualified in the Top 10 (5th), improving 3/10ths from Saturday’s qualifying and moved further forward following the Top 10 shootout, qualifying 3rd behind McLaughlin and Whincup. Garth wasn’t quite able to find the sweet spot that Moff had found and was in a similar position to what he started yesterday, 19th.

Race 12 was 200lms (70 laps) and required a minimum of two pit stops and 120 litres of fuel had to be put in the cars during the race. Again strategies would vary amongst teams. Off the start both our cars lost positions and by lap 1 #33 was 22nd and #34 6th. Whincup led from McLaughlin and Coulthard. Moff took his first stop on lap 17 and Garth had previously stopped on lap 2 in an attempt to find clear air at the rear of the field and hopefully find track position further up the order as the race unfolded. Moff was maintaining his position and was in a tightly raced group including Slade (BJR) and Pye (Walkinshaw) until he stopped on lap 34. Garth stopped a lap later on lap 35 and when the race settled for the stint home it was being led by McLaughlin from Whincup and Van Gisbergen. Moff was 7th, but unfortunately on lap 58 his day turned sour with a puncture forcing him to pit lane. Garth pressed on in the mid pack to finish 16th behind Saturday’s 3rd placed finisher, Nick Percat. Moff as a result of the tyre failure finished a lap down in 25th. Scotty McLaughlin went on to win from Whincup and Van Gisbergen was 3rd.

Following any race weekend it’s important to find some positives even if the results are not quite what we aimed for. It was great to see Moff find some qualifying speed because that has certainly been an achilles heel for us this season. Unfortunately Garth experienced a weekend that didn’t quite go to plan, but like Moff on Saturday his race speed on Sunday was very impressive.

Joey’s on his way back and will arrive at the workshop either very late on Wednesday or the early hours of Thursday. We will then prepare for Townsville and Joey will depart Friday next week and I can’t wait!

MOMENT OF EXCITEMENT:  Moff qualifying 3rd on Sunday

MOMENT OF DISAPPOINTMENT:  Leaving that Northern Territory weather behind!