Jamie Whincup has attributed the stunning form reversal in this year’s Virgin Australia Supercars Championship to an unprecedented development effort at Triple Eight Race Engineering.
The factory Holden team dominated the Rabble.Club Sandown 500 with Whincup leading home Shane van Gisbergen in second and Craig Lowndes in third, while DJR Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin was nearly 17 seconds away from the podium, let alone victory.
It was also the Banyo squad’s seventh win in the last eight races beginning with a romp in Townsville.
McLaughlin has won only the Saturday race at Queensland Raceway in that span, a stark contrast to the eight before when the Shell V-Power Falcons claimed six and another went begging for Car #17 at Winton.
Asked about Triple Eight’s acceleration off corners, a critical element of lap speed given Sandown’s twin ‘drag strips’, Whincup hailed the team’s hard work in development, after teams only got a chance to test for the first time in-season in early-June.
“We’ve got a real fat rule book these days,” he noted.
“There’s not much you can do underneath but there is still some opportunity for our engineers to develop new parts and make the car faster, to bring a faster car to the circuit.
“I can’t think of another time we’ve thrown more parts, new parts, at the cars than the last three months.
“We’ve come forward leaps and bounds as far as mechanical engineering goes underneath, which has allowed us to showcase how good the aero is at the same time.
“Every track’s different. This track, drive out of the corner is important. Bathurst, it’s about flow. Every track’s got its different elements and we try to make sure that we’re strong in the areas that each circuit needs.”
As to how they achieved their pace at Sandown International Motor Raceway, van Gisbergen drew attention to the balance of the new-for-2018 ZB Commodore.
While Whincup and Paul Dumbrell were particularly fast in the #1 Red Bull Holden Racing Team entry, all three cars lapped quicker than the rest for long periods of the race.
Dumbrell also slashed more than 0.7s off the four-year-old practice record in Practice 1, albeit with the help of an unusually grippy surface due to the recent application of crack sealant at the Melbourne circuit.
Just when it appeared that the newfound pace had diminished completely, Whincup shifted that benchmark further in the Armor All Qualifying session which set the grid for the first sprint on Saturday.
Dumbrell probably would have won that first Race for the Grid had a sudden downpour not sucked Triple Eight into pitting its three cars for wets, but it mattered little when Whincup scythed from 11th to second in the day’s second 20-lapper.
DJR Team Penske had experimented with extremely low downforce set-ups during practice and qualifying in a bid to counteract Triple Eight’s apparent superiority in a straight line.
It was a method which has paid dividends for Ludo Lacroix before, such as when he engineered Triple Eight’s wildcard entry at the 2013 Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
At Sandown, however, McLaughlin was only 14th-fastest in qualifying while reportedly running with minimum rear angle and sprayed off the road late in the session.
The hatchback-shaped ZB’s pace, however, is achieved not by superior aerodynamic grip but by better balance, according to van Gisbergen.
The Kiwi, who finished runner-up to Whincup by almost seven seconds, drew a contrast to how the VF which it replaced performed at low-downforce circuits such as Sandown.
“The car’s pretty amazing and then get to race the Penskes and stuff (at) these type of tracks… the low downforce (tracks) have really been a struggle in previous years,” explained van Gisbergen.
“You took wing off the VF and it just wanted to do doughnuts everywhere.
“That’s one of the first things I learned in racing, balance is more important than grip, and the ZB didn’t make the downforce number outright but the balance of it is so much better.”
He noted how much better the ZB was to drive at Symmons Plains, when Triple Eight also went one-two-three in Sunday qualifying, before adding, “Hopefully at Bathurst we can actually take it off max wing.
“The balance of the car this weekend was awesome and we had straight line (speed). The last couple of years we couldn’t have both, so it’s been a really good step forward with the ZB.”
Van Gisbergen now leads McLaughlin by 55 championship points, an increase of 36 at the Pirtek Enduro Cup opener.