IT WOULD be hard to script a better return to racing than what the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship achieved last weekend.
While NASCAR and IndyCar had proved that getting back on track in this Covid-afflicted world was possible, both major US-based series have to this point run single-day events with no preliminaries; simply rock up, race and then go home.
While that definitely has its appeal, what Supercars achieved was a slightly scaled-back version of a proper race weekend.
And perhaps the highest praise you could hand them was that save for the odd face mask, interviews conducted with microphones on an extension pole and no crowd watching, it looked, felt and definitely sounded like every other Supercars round.
For starters, the changes to format designed to shorten the weekend into two days and three short, punchy races worked a treat. There was a breathless intensity to the way each day unfolded on TV, with little time for the often over-analysis that can be heaped on the sport.
Sydney’s low-grip, high degradation surface helped as well because, when coupled when a highly restricted tyre allocation of five new sets for two practice sessions, two qualifying outings and three races, it meant that each cars guaranteed to have at least one race when they were going to be out of rubber.
That, in turn, mixed the leaderboard up and gave others a chance to shine when the big guns slipped back on older rubber.
This was one of the key attributes of the weekend and one of the most important elements of it as well – giving more people a chance to run at the front and gain the valuable TV time is critical in these financially challenged times that we are undoubtedly heading towards.
It wasn’t artificial, though; it never felt like the people at the point-end in each race didn’t deserve to be there because they’d gambled on running a soft tyre against everyone else’s hards, or they were on wets when it started raining. Everyone who ran at the front did so on merit and did so pretty consistently which speaks volumes for their performances across the weekend as a whole.
Importantly, the best teams and drivers still did most of the winning meaning that the cream still does rise to the top which is important in professional sport.
You want to be able to give others hope that they can win, but ensure that the sporting contest is still generally won by the best operators.. as it was on the weekend.
Speaking of best operators, how good was Nick Percat?
Nick has always had plenty of speed but in recent years, since building the experience and maturity to use it, he probably hasn’t had the right equipment to utilise it with.
While he’s a Bathurst winner and his Adelaide 500 win was memorable for many reasons, they were both victories aided and abetted by others; at Bathurst Garth Tander’s herculean drive at the end of the race to withstand Craig Lowndes ensured the rookie got on the podium. His Adelaide victory was an outcome of incredible car control in atrocious conditions, but came in one of those random lottery-style races where with the fullest of respect to Nick, anyone probably could’ve won had the cards fallen their way.
Nick’s performance in Sydney, however, was exceptional. He was measured on his tyres when he needed to be, attacking when he had to be and then consistent enough to manage a gap to seven-time champion Jamie Whincup at the end of the race. Coupled with a great, consistent car from Brad Jones Racing it was, I think, absolutely his best ever drive and by stringing a trio of performances together across the weekend, it felt like one he could replicate, too.
Lee Holdsworth deserves praise as well, for his performances in the Truck Assist Tickford machine continue to get better.
Lee seems like a decent bottle of Red wine – getting better with each year, and his consistency and reliability to be fast in every occasion is going to be a big benefit for Tickford this year.
Of course, it is hard to go past the usual suspects at the front, including the remarkable Scott McLaughlin.
Much has been written about the Kiwi but the way he continues to deliver time and time again, especially when he needs to over a single lap in qualifying, remains breathtaking.
His qualifying lap in the shootout reinforced his status as ‘Mr Two-Tenths’ as he blew the otherwise tightly packed field apart. Things were closer on Sunday, but again he had the measure of the Red Bulls for much of it.
Sunday was also a reminder of his formidable race craft, too, as he stormed through the field to a podium finish in Race 8, before winning again in the weekend’s finale.
Scott is yet to finish off the podium this year and even though we’re only five races in, it is looking like it will again be a massive challenge to usurp the defending champion on his drive for an historic three-peat.
With so much changing in Supercars, that is one of the few things staying very much the same.