POLL: Who will win the Sandown 500?
The Pirtek Enduro Cup season is rapidly approaching with teams gearing up for the Wilson Security Sandown 500 enduro curtain raiser.
This year 26 driver pairings will line up on the grid all hoping to take out the prestigious 500km endurance classic from September 15-17.
Nine of the championship’s pairings are expected to remain unchanged from last season.
Strategy has proved a key element in conquering the race at the historic Melbourne venue, with driver changes, fuel, tyres and the region’s unpredictable weather key variables for consideration.
The race represents the first endurance race for Dunlop’s new 2017 construction tyre providing a new challenge for the paddock compared to previous years.
Teams are also required to run new leg protection devices in the cockpits of their cars and it remains to be seen if this will add time to driver changes during pit stops.
Heading into the race, the championship’s form teams DJR Team Penske, Triple Eight and Prodrive appear among the favourites to take out the Pirtek Enduro Cup opener.
Championship leader Scott McLaughlin will team up with reigning Pirtek Enduro Cup winner Alex Premat in the #17 DJRTP Ford.
The pair formed a solid relationship as a pairing at Garry Rogers Motorsport from 2014-2015, before Premat joined Shane van Gisbergen at Triple Eight last year.
The Frenchman is a valuable proven quantity after helping van Gisbergen to second place finishes at Sandown and Bathurst, followed by a victory and a second at the Gold Coast 600 last year.
McLaughlin’s team-mate Fabian Coulthard has a new co-driver with Tony D’Alberto replacing the Kiwi’s regular partner Luke Youlden, who will join David Reynolds at Erebus Motorsport.
D’Alberto proved a valuable member of the team alongside former driver Scott Pye last season.
Two of the three Triple Eight pairings remain unchanged from 2016 heading into Sandown.
Jamie Whincup, gunning for a seventh championship, is joined by Paul Dumbrell in the #88, while four-time Bathurst 1000 winner Steven Richards will link with Craig Lowndes in the #888.
Continuity could be key given how competitive the championship battle has been so far this season.
The only change sees current Carrera Cup Australia champion and Porsche Supercup star Matt Campbell pair with Shane van Gisbergen in the #97 Red Bull Holden.
Campbell, now based in Germany, is a two-time Supercup race winner this season and showed form at Sandown last year by helping Todd Kelly to seventh for Nissan.
Prodrive claimed a one-two finish in 2015 but the team has been unable to mimic the form of that campaign this year.
However, the Ford squad will be among the contenders with Chaz Mostert/Steve Owen and Mark Winterbottom/Dean Canto expected to lead the charge.
Its #6 Monster Energy Ford could provide a dark horse for the race. Rising star Cameron Waters is set to share the Falcon with the highly rated Kiwi Richie Stanaway, who impressed on debut at Sandown 12 months ago.
Tekno Autosports will be among the contenders should *Jonathon Webb officially confirm his return alongside Will Davison. The duo finished third last year.
Reigning event winner Garth Tander cannot be ruled out either now driving for Garry Rogers Motorsport with young gun James Golding.
Another driver who has shown several glimpses of speed is Reynolds, whose bid will be boosted by the arrival of the experienced Youlden.
Despite indifferent form this year, Brad Jones Racing, Preston Hire Racing, Nissan Motorsport and Mobil 1 HSV Racing all boast strong line ups capable of providing an upset.
Meanwhile, Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport is yet to confirm its driver pairings.
Which pairing do you think will take out the Wilson Security Sandown 500? Cast your vote on this week’s Pirtek Poll below.