The Gold Coast is normally known for its 70+km of world class beaches to the east with 270 km of waterways separating the coast from the 100,000 hectares of world-heritage listed subtropical rainforest. Over 12 million people holiday on the glitter strip each year. But for 3 days each October 2.98 km of this beach side paradise is blocked off to create one of the most picturesque racetracks in the world. With the Virgin Australia Supercars championship winding to a hair raising conclusion, not only is this round one of the toughest on the calendar both mentally and physically, it also relies on the co -drivers to bring the car back in one piece as it is the final round of the Pirtek endurance cup, which means there is a huge haul of 300 championship points up for grabs.
Friday saw the Supercars have three 30 min practice sessions, one for the main and co drivers respectively, and a mixed session late in the afternoon. In the post race press conference Paul Dumbrell questioned why the second co-driver session had been dropped as some of the co-drivers only had 8 or 9 flying laps before starting the race on Saturday, a daunting task at any track. But with the walls only millimetres away even the smallest mistake can end your race. Showing early pace in the first practice session was Scott Mclaughlin in the S60 with SVG hot on his heels. Punching well above his weight was David Reynolds in 3rd for Erebus racing, given that the team has no previous data given their swap from the C63 Mercedes last year to the hugely popular Holden chassis.
The Surfers track is unlike any other with balconies packed to capacity above the track, and the spectator areas on track littered with fans this event has a massive party vibe. With the corporate hospitality filled with the social elite and celebrities this event has almost as much to do off track as the action packed race schedule.
Saturday saw a fast paced 20 min qualifying session with the Red Bull Racing Commodores and both Volvos showing the early pace it was a close call, with finally 888’s SVG taking pole with a lap of 01:10.6544 edging the 33 of McLaughlin by 0.0297 with less than half a second separating the top 10 made up of 5 Holdens 2 Volvos 2 Fords and the Nissan Altima of Michael Caruso.
The 102 lap 300 km race on Saturday was started with mostly co-drivers, with the exception of reigning champion Winterbottom and went off without a hitch till lap 6, when the Tekno Autosports Commodore with Johnathan Webb behind the wheel bumped the Nissan of Dean Fiore who then made contact with the Erebus Commodore of Craig Baird causing a traffic jam at the turn 4 hairpin. It was the FPR Falcon of Jack Le Brocq making contact with the inside wall on turn 11 that brought the first safety car and the first batch of driver changes. Not long after a tiny mistake made by Karl Reindler at turn 3 forced him into the wall at 4 causing substantial damage to the Preston Hire Racing Commodore. The race then turned into a multi lap battle between the top 3 (SVG, McLaughlin and Whincup) when the battle between the then placed 5th and 6th placed cars of Coulthard and Tander made contact on lap 96 and fired the Penske Falcon of Coulthard into the pit wall at over 265 kph. A lot has been said about who was to blame, but with the stewards placing 2 penalties on the HDT Commodore of Tander they clearly saw Tander being at fault. This brought out another safety car to bunch up the field with just a two lap sprint left till the end. The podium was made up of both Red Bull cars and the 33 of McLaughlin, with SVG securing the Pirtek endurance cup with team mate Alex Premat. It’s the first time the cup has gone to an all international pairing.
With DJR Team Penske pulling an all nighter in their shed just up the road in Stayplton the Sellmycar.com.au Falcon rolled out at 9:35 for qualifying and took part in Sunday’s race. The extreme strength of these cars was definitely put to the test here, and for Fabian to walk away shows how safe modern day race cars keep their drivers.
Sunday saw another 20 min qualifying session and from there the top ten would take part in the crowd favorite shootout. The shootout was filled with the usual subjects with the #9 Erebus machine of Reynolds, the Bathurst winning car of Tekno Autosports, along with both Volvos, the FPR cars, the three 888 cars, and a fired up Garth Tander. Although Garth was already to serve a ten stop penalty, to add insult to injury his time was removed for overuse of the curbs seeing him start from 20th.
With all the formalities done and dusted all that was standing between the drivers and one of the famous surfboard trophies was 102 grueling laps. The first lap saw the 96 Nissan with David Russell behind the wheel clout the wall in the beach chicane causing the team to do some quick repairs before sending him back out. Next it was Chris Pither that found the wall after breaking the steering in a battle with Jack Perkins. With the co-drivers not having done the minimum laps it saw them doing a longer stint. All afternoon two drivers stood out with lighting pace, the 33 Volvo of McLaughlin and the 97 of SVG. With the track limits coming into play here more than ever SVG was often having to redress and overtake again without exceeding the track limits. Then late in the race McLaughlin fired one up the inside at turn 11 and had the 33 dancing on the rear brakes with the right front fully locked, given this was a similar move to that of the Bathurst crash a fortnight prior Frosty saw the move and left enough space in the end for McLaughlin to complete the pass. In the post race press conference questions were raised about the similarities of the pass to that of the one at Bathurst. Scott joked he was in control and also laughed that it was odd this time he was firing it up the inside of some bloke..
There was a lot to take away from the weekend for teams up and down pit lane, but the big news was the Pirtek endurance cup going to the first pair of international drivers since its inception. Surely the early rumors that Premat wouldn’t be up for the job have been put to rest with 4 podium finishes from 4 races amongst the mixed conditions faced during the three rounds. The championship rolls on to New Zealand in a fortnights time, and with the sprint format there is no chance of either driver being affected by pit strategy. The title fight now lies solely in-house with Red Bull racing and Whincup now 148 points behind SVG eyes will be on both drivers as they fight to clench the 2016 Supercars championship.