THE BATTLE for the top step of the podium in each Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this season may not be as unpredictable as some would like; but the fight for the final step certainly is.
Phillip Island’s ninth and tenth races of the 2019 season threw two brand-new names onto the Supercars podium, proving that while it’s hard to beat the Shell V-Power Mustangs for first or second, the fight for third is intense.
So far this year, seven different drivers have finished third in the ten races contested: Shane van Gisbergen was third in each race in Adelaide. Cameron Waters the first two at the Grand Prix before Tim Slade and Jamie Whincup each hard a turn in races five and six, respectively.
At Symmons Plains, van Gisbergen was third in race seven while David Reynolds made his first appearance in the top three in race eight.
And then at the weekend we had the somewhat unexpected pleasure of Andre Heimgartner and Anton DePasquale making their first ever trips to spray the champagne.
Of the pair, Heimgartner’s third place on Saturday was perhaps the biggest surprise for a whole raft of reasons – the strongest being that a week earlier his Nissan and those of his teammates were pretty, frankly, aweful.
Kelly Racing started four cars in each race in Tasmania and the best result they could manage was one, single 15th place.
Yet Phillip Island has always been a strong circuit for the Altima and, even though the team couldn’t quite explain why it was so again this year, there they were again on Saturday.
Even though, some suspect, Sunday’s results show that they may have engineered themselves backwards overnight, a Race 9 podium for young Andre was a great result.
The young New Zealander settled into his role at the team last year, often surprising with his one-lap potential, in particular.
This year he’s challenged his experienced team mate and team leader, the former champion Rick Kelly, throughout the season and did so again at the weekend. His first Supercars podium was a well-earned result for a driver who often seems to carry the reputation of a pay-driver, yet is a guy who enjoyed a strong junior career in open-wheel racing, both here and abroad, and in New Zealand’s own V8 series before making his mark in the Supercars.
The fact he beat Kelly to the podium this year is another tick in the box.
The next few tracks should suit the Nissan’s; Barbagello is an unknown thanks to a new surface, while Winton has been the team’s best circuit and they’ve always qualified strongly in Darwin, too. If they can work out why they’ve gone from being horrid to heroes, a continuation of their Phillip Island form through the next few rounds could see the former factory team establish themselves as the best-of-the-rest, behind the Red Mustangs.
Speaking of, while Triple Eight struggle to get on top of their cars, Penrite Racing have returned to their 2018 position as one of Holden’s top outfits this year.
After struggling slightly in Adelaide and Melbourne, Dave Reynolds retuned the team to the podium in Tasmania and then young De Pasquale did the same at Phillip Island.
He’s a highly rated young lad, is Anton, and Sunday’s drive proved that. Mature under pressure, he battled through a late-race fuel scare to grab his first podium.
What else of note from Phillip Island?
I thought James Golding actually did quite a good job, though few would have noticed.
While Boost Mobile Racing (you know it as Garry Rogers Motorsport) are clearly struggling with their cars, and possibly missing the experience that, say, Garth Tander inputted into the team, young ‘Bieber’, as he is know, performed well at the Island.
He was quicker than his highly-rated teammate in three of the four practice sessions and beat him in both races, too.
Clearly, Golding doesn’t have the same opportunity as Anton to spray the champagne but for a team that has settled into the rear of the midfield this year, it was a solid performance.
While it seems unlikely the Boost team will be a podium feature this year, what is clear is that outside of the Shell V-Power Mustangs, the fight for third place in this year’s Supercars Championship may well just be the best thing to watch.