With rumours circulating in the Supercars world about a potential season finale at the Bathurst 1000 – more on that later – Scott McLaughlin said earlier this week that it would be ideal to carry a big lead into The Great Race, a race in which we all know anything can happen.
Those comments were made by the championship leader after a Darwin SuperSprint round which he had dominated, winning all three races and significantly extending his championship lead over Jamie Whincup to 177 points.
That great form from McLaughlin did not continue into this weekend’s Townsville SuperSprint.
While it was predicted that Whincup and Red Bull Holden would be closer to McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske in Townsville, it was not predicted that McLaughlin would see his championship lead be reduced as much as it has been.
The Supercars Championship always has a surprise up its sleeve.
McLaughlin may have taken the most pole positions so far this season, but he is not immune from making a mistake once in a while. And when the field is as close as it has been this season, these mistakes can be very costly indeed.
That was the case for both DJR Team Penske drivers in qualifying throughout the weekend, with neither McLaughlin nor teammate Fabian Coulthard qualifying in the top ten for races 19 and 20.
McLaughlin was able to bounce back in qualifying for race 21, taking pole position, but Coulthard was still languishing outside the top ten.
And just like McLaughlin took advantage of a bad weekend for Whincup at the Darwin SuperSprint, Whincup did the same this weekend in Townsville.
With McLaughlin starting in 16th in race 19 and 13th in race 20, the only way he could make progress was to pit earlier than perhaps would be ideal and make the undercut work, which he did in both of those races.
It was a far from ideal situation as McLaughlin had to keep some tyre performance in hand to preserve the tyre life, which did enable him to gain an upper hand in the final few laps of the race.
But first, McLaughlin had to navigate the chaos and congestion down at turn 2 on the first lap, and there was plenty of it on the opening lap of race 19.
Under braking for turn 2, Lee Holdsworth went into the back of Mark Winterbottom, who went into the back of Shane Van Gisbergen, who went into the back of Anton de Pasquale, sending the Penrite Racing driver into a spin.
The resulting carnage left Macaulay Jones, Todd Hazelwood, Andre Heimgartner, Zane Goddard with damage that would eventually end their races. Shane Van Gisbergen’s car was damaged too but was taped enough for the Red Bull Holden driver to complete the race, albeit nine laps behind race winner Jamie Whincup.
McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske made the best of a bad situation, finishing seventh in race 19 and sixth in race 20.
Meantime, Whincup comfortably won both race 19 and 20, taking his tally of race victories at Townsville up to twelve as well as gaining ground on McLaughlin in the championship.
After race 19, McLaughlin’s lead was down to 141 points, a margin which was further reduced to 109 points after race 20.
McLaughlin was able to claw something back in race 21. He started on pole position and had a relatively fresh set of tyres in his armour to put on at the compulsory pit stop.
The DJR Team Penske driver could also control this race in the way that he wanted to, not needing to pit earlier to get out of traffic.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for McLaughlin as he had a fast Cameron Waters to contend with. The Monster Energy Tickford driver gave it absolutely everything in pursuit of the race victory, but he couldn’t force McLaughlin into a mistake nor complete a diving move up the inside.
Waters had to settle for second place as McLaughlin took the victory in race 21. He’ll be pleased though with the fact that he was able to legitimately challenge McLaughlin in that race.
The Monster Energy Tickford showed great pace all weekend in Townsville. Waters was fastest in both practice sessions on Saturday and finished second in race 19 and race 21.
There was success also for Chaz Mostert, who drove his Walkinshaw Andretti United car to two podium finishes, finishing third in race 19 and second in race 20.
This allowed Mostert to re-take third place in the championship, now sitting 15 points ahead of Shane Van Gisbergen and Waters, who are tied on equal points.
As for our two main championship protagonists, McLaughlin and Whincup, they are now separated by 123 points going into another weekend of racing at the Reid Park Street Circuit.
It will be interesting to see how the teams use the knowledge and data gained this weekend when they race again in Townsville next weekend. When Supercars returned to Darwin for the second part of that doubleheader, teams had clearly learnt from what had gone wrong the previous weekend and the field came closer together as a result.
One thing we can be sure of is where Supercars will be racing for the rest of the season.
It was confirmed on Sunday that The Bend Motorsport Park will host a doubleheader on the weekends of September 19-20 and September 26-27. It was also confirmed that the Bathurst 1000 will be the season finale on October 18, a week later than originally scheduled.
Ten more races to go for Supercars then in 2020 and not long to wait until three more races at Townsville next weekend.