Garry’s Race Report: Pukekohe highs and lows

Garry Roger’s from Wilson Security Racing GRM writes his thoughts on the latest V8 Supercars round, the ITM500…

I’ve had a bit of time to think about the weekend following an evening flight home last night and again there were certainly some spectacular highs, but also some moments of disappointment.

First, the Pukekohe event is absolutely fantastic and this year made even better with the calendar schedule seeing it moved from April to November.

The weather for the four days that we were there was extremely pleasant and the event certainly attracted a large enthusiastic crowd. For those that have not been to the Pukekohe circuit it is a great fast flowing and exciting race track just short of 3km. in length. The circuit was built in the early 1960’s and is not dissimilar to Sandown in Victoria, in that there is a horse racing track located on the infield.

Along with the Rugby the New Zealand people are extremely passionate about their Motor Sport. As an Aussie the Kiwi’s certainly made me aware of the recent Rugby World Cup result, but they seemed to have amnesia when it came to the current cricket test match been played. But all a good laugh and a lot of fun. Scott McLaughlin is certainly one of their heroes and he was determined to put on a good show for his local fans.

Arriving at the track on Thursday there was the normal set up procedures in regards to the pit facility. The normal routine and procedure that the guys go through in Australia is a little different in an overseas round. Instead of having our prime mover and trailers the team equipment and cars are transported by air. Each team has two lightweight air freight containers (4mx3mx2m) and with limits on weight and space you cannot take the exact same as you carry in your trailers. The whole of pit lane have pride regarding the presentation of the pit area and although it is difficult to transport pit walls and other items a good job is done is presenting the pit areas. There was certainly a buzz around on Thursday and Scotty was enjoying the love from his “bros”!

I first came to Pukekohe 40 years ago and have been involved in all of the modern era V8 Supercar events. Pukekohe is a small town and was home to Peter “Possum” Bourne the famous Subaru Rally driver who sadly died 12 years ago in an accident. Possum joined me in a Subaru Liberty turbo in the early 1990’s in one of the original Bathurst 12 hours and it was great to see a statue of him in Pukekohe. I am not sure exactly how long the statue has been there but I came across it as I was navigating my way to the track. We stay only 3 kilometres away and as I mentioned earlier I have been coming here for years but I always seem to get myself lost. The good news was the Volvo I was driving had sat nav, the bad news I have no idea how to use it!

Anyway, Friday arrived and 2 x 1 hour practice sessions ahead. Due to this being an overseas round we are unable to take any marked (used) tyres from Australia as they can possibly lead to contamination. As a result each car is allocated two additional sets of hard Dunlop tyres to use throughout practice.

Often during practice it is difficult to know exactly how you are placed as the quality of marked tyres that you are using are never exactly the same as those of your opposition. But, in this case everybody is on the same tyre so the practice times will certainly be relevant as to the progress of each team and driver. Following Friday practice Scotty (#33) was quickest (1.03.16) and David (#34) 24th.

Friday evening and the Engineers from both #33 and #34 compare notes and see what/any changes may be required. Obviously when you are fastest the assumption is that nothing should be changed, but it is important to analyse every aspect of the car and its behaviour throughout a whole lap and ascertain if improvement can be made. I am often asked the question is #34 the same as #33 and the simple answer is yes. Both cars have access to all of the same equipment the only difference is what suits a particular driver’s style. For example how Lowndes likes his car set up may feel totally foreign to Scotty. It is vital that the driver is confident with the feel of the car, but also important that they listen to the Engineer if something obvious is making the car slower.

Saturday and we are back to the Sprint Format, being races 28-30 of the Championship following the three previous Endurance Events. To recap this format it involves 2 x 10 minute qualifying and 2 x 21 lap races on Saturday.

The tyres to be used on Saturday are hard tyres for the first qualifying and first race and soft tyres for the second qualifying and race. On Sunday there is 1 x 20 minute qualifying followed by a 69 lap (200km) race.

Prior to Saturday qualifying there is a short 15 minute practice session to prepare the cars. The 10 minute qualifying sessions are quite tense and require everybody to be on their toes as there is limited opportunity to complete qualifiers and as the same tyres are going to be used in the race it is vital that the driver does not “overuse” them in these sessions. Scotty went in confident following his practice form and did a very solid job to qualify 5th, but probably a little disappointed as he didn’t quite nail his lap. Pole went to Whincup (Red Bull) and David was 21st.

Q2 and the soft tyres came out for the first time this weekend. This would be interesting as no teams had been able to practice on soft tyres and the cars can often behave very differently on the soft compared to the hard tyre. The obvious difference is the soft tyre gives you more grip but in turn this can make the car turn in and out of the corners totally different to how it does on the hard tyre. The Engineers and drivers spoke and in the short 10 minute break between sessions made some small “tweaks” to the cars. Scotty did a great job jumping a couple of positions to 3rd with Reynolds (Prodrive) on pole and David was 23rd.

Amazingly the entire field was covered by less than one second. To illustrate how the type of tyre has an impact on the car Van Gisbergen (Tekno) qualified 4th on the hard tyre but 13th on the soft and Moffat 10th on the hard and 21st on the soft.

Prior to the Endurance season the Sprint rounds had provided some very exciting racing on the soft tyre but lesser so on the hard tyre. The reason for this is when the driver has grip they are much more confident to dive into a corner and have a go, but when they don’t have grip they are more likely to take the conservative approach. Many ask “why don’t we race on the soft tyre all of the time?” There is no simple answer to this question and in a perfect sterile world where there were no other factors that affected the tyre of course the soft tyre would be the best option.

The soft tyre degrades much faster on a track surface that isn’t “billiard table top” smooth and is more likely to suffer structural damage if it is driven off the side of the corner kerbs and in general in most cases does not last as long as the hard tyre. I have been racing for over 50 years and it is very simple to write down the ingredients of good rac ing, but these ingredients often change from circuit to circuit and unfortunately it is economically unviable to have endless variants in tyres to suit each potential scenario in regards to track condition, weather particularly temperature, race distance, types of kerbs and the list goes on.

Race 28 and unfortunately Scotty got a little bogged down off the start line and was swamped into turn 1 and was 9th. Whincup led from Reynolds and VanGisbergen. David held his position in 21st. On lap 7 Reynolds out braked himself and Van Gisbergen snuck into second and that is how the race ended. Whincup, Van Gisbergen, Reynolds and Scotty 9th. David finished inside the 20 in 18th.

Race 29 and the soft tyres are on the cars. Certainly I would expect the racing to be a little more aggressive and exciting. This is not only due to the tyre but also the mindset of the driver. When you have two races reasonably close together on the one day you are always conscious of preserving the car for the next race as the last thing that you want to have to do is major repair work. Scotty jumped off the second row well and was 4th heading into the first corner behind Lowndes, Reynolds and Whincup. There was plenty of action throughout the pack of cars and VanGisbergen in particular was monstering his way forward and had a great late race battle with Courtney. Out front Lowndes was being pressed by Reynolds, Whincup and McLaughlin and unfortunately had a spectacular tyre blow out heading down the main straight on lap 12.

The car spun across the track and ricocheted off the concrete walls causing quite bad damage. The Safety Car was deployed and Lowndes was fin e. With 5 laps remaining the race went green and there was a five lap dash to the line. As much as both Whincup and Scotty piled the pressure on Reynolds (Prodrive) held on for the win. Scotty did a great job to finish 3rd and stand on the podium in his home event. David battled with Walsh, Blanchard and Percat to finish 22nd.

The 888 car of Craig Lowndes was quite damaged. The 888 team did an incredible job to dismantle this car, have the chassis sent to a local panel shop to have the chassis rails and other under car repairs done and then totally reassembled in an overnight marathon. The professionalism and commitment shown by all that compete in this series is world class.

The tyre allocation for the Sunday race was 2 X hard and 1 X soft sets of tyres. The Engineers had measured the wear on the soft tyre used in Race 29 and ascertained that it would have a useable life of approx. 30-35 laps.

The Sunday race also required that each team fill at least 120 litres of fuel into each car over two pit stops. Our plan was to start on soft tyres, complete 10 laps and put fuel and hard tyres on to get through to approximately lap 45-50 (depending on how the soft tyres measured up after the first stint) and then put the soft tyres back on, the remainder of the required 120 litres of fuel and run to home. This is all very easy when the race runs green from start to finish, but of course this all can change with Safety Cars.

With all of this planned out a “curve ball” was thrown by the race officials. As a result of the tyre blowout that Lowndes had experienced the previous day it was deemed potentially unsafe to “use and reuse” the soft tyre and all teams were ordered to start on the soft tyre and had to remove them at their first stop and not reuse them. In simple terms this would mean soft tyre, hard tyre and hard tyre. To clarify things the officials were unable to ascertain what caused the tyre blowout on car 888. It is possible that Lowndes may have picked up some debris, or damaged the tyre on a kerb, but with such a catastrophic failure and safety paramount this was a decision made on safety grounds.

First we had qualifying. Scotty was determined to make the front row after 2nd and 3rd row starts, but the competition was of course aiming for the same. The session of 20 minutes really reaches its climax in the final 2-3 minutes as maximum rubber is on the track and drivers aim to do that perfect lap. With a little over a minute remaining Scotty began his final qualifying lap and put everything on the line to try and improve from his current 3rd place position.

Earlier in the session Scott was 9th and on his penultimate lap jumped to 3rd and we thought this is everything he has, but he had other ideas. With a blistering lap #33 was on top of the time sheets but Whincup was still completing his final lap and his sectors were mirroring Scott’s and as he crossed the line we held our breath and Scotty had got pole by .0014 of a second. Unbelievable!!

The Kiwis went “bananas” as Scotty strode atop of the pit wall. In an unbelievably close session David was 7/10ths off Scott but back in 24th.

The atmosphere around Pukekohe was very exciting. There was live music, traditional Maori dress and an incredible amount of colour and activity.

The pre race entertainment was inspiring with both the New Zealand and Australian anthems sung with emotion followed by one of the most exhilarating and intimidating versions of the Haka that I have witnessed. There was a mix of both strong looking boys and girls in the group and their traditional dress and body paint along with their robust voices and aggressive body movements was a sight to behold.

Race time had arrived. The weekend for Scott is certainly full on. Every second person seems to be a relative and everybody wants to talk or have a photo with him. But, to his absolute credit he handles all of this with both enthusiasm and respect which I am extremely proud of him for because it would be very easy to lose your cool amongst all of the mayhem and constant attention.

Race time and there is nothing better than seeing the Volvo S60 sitting on the front row. It should be easy for me with all of the years that I have been around but I would be misleading you if I said that I didn’t get a little nervous before a race and more so on this occasion.

The lights went out and Scotty jumped well but was just beaten to turn 1 by Whincup but Scott wasn’t going to give in as he ducked and dived looking for a way past in the frantic opening laps. Behind Scott was Reynolds and Pye (DJR), but he had small margin (approx 1sec) on them.

Lap 8 and the Safety Car came out as Nick Percat’s car (LDR) was stranded on the infield. This threw all pre race planning out the window as all teams darted into pit lane for their first stop. You may ask why after 8 laps would you come in? The reason is that you must have at least two pit stops in the race to put in the required 120 litres of fuel and pitting under a Safety Car allows you to do this without losing time, meaning if you decided to stay out and others pitted and you were later forced to pit while the race was “green” you are going to lose many, many positions as the cars are at racing speed on Safety Car speed. It is an option to stay out and “hope” that there is another Safety Car soon, but of course that is a gamble and not one taken when you are up near the front.

The disadvantage in this particular instance is that you have only been able to use your soft tyres for 8 laps when you had planned 30-35.

At this stop Scott came in behind Whincup with Reynolds behind. As we are pitted further back in pit lane than Reynolds his pit crew watched as we released Scott and dropped Reynolds just in front of Scott, resulting in #33 dropping to 3rd. David Wall pitted 24th but through some very good work the team returned him to the track 14th.

As the race continued the top four cars of Whincup, Reynolds, McLaughlin and Pye virtually mirrored each other for lap time. But, there was movement further back with Lowndes driving an inspired race moving from 9th to 6th with some brilliant moves on Coulthard (BJR), the extremely hard to pass Courtney (HRT) and Cameron Waters (Prodrive). Lowndes and Reynolds were the first of the front runners to pit and did on lap 37. Followed by Pye and McLaughlin on lap 38, Caruso (Nissan) lap 39 and the race leader Whincup on lap 40. The wash up of all of this activity was Whincup led from Lowndes, Pye, Reynolds, Caruso and McLaughlin.

How did this happen? The simple answer is pit lane position. If we go back to the first pit stop during the Safety Car period on lap 8 when the entire field pitted our pit crew must judge when they can drop Scott to find a clean exit. There is no point dropping him when the fast lane is nose to tail and vice versa you may need to drop him when you see a gap and may not have got exactly the fuel in that you want. As all the teams were coming up pit lane this timing needs to be precise. The long and short of all of this is to maintain track position we did not get quite the quantity of fuel we wanted at this stage of the race hence a little more was required at the second stop. Scott drove absolutely faultlessly and was only passed by cars while in the pit. After rejoining 14th after the first stop David finished 20th

To finish I would again like to acknowledge the achievements of Roland Dane and his team. To finish 1-2 after the work they had to complete on Car 888 to even manage to get it to the start line on Sunday let alone perform to the manner in which Craig drove it is very, very commendable.

Phillip Island and talking about fuel and pit stop strategy it worked in our favour last year as Garth Tander ran out of fuel on the line. Let’s see what 2015 brings. One thing for sure we will be “having a go!”

Garry

Benjamin Carrell is a freelance motorsport writer and currently edits talkmotorsport.co.nz. He writes for a number of Kiwi drivers and motorsport clubs. That's when he's not working in his horticultural day-job or training for the next road or mtb cycle race!

https://talkmotorsport.co.nz

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