March 2, 2014 — race report by V8 Supercars correspondent James Pike — photo credit James Courtney — ADELAIDE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA — In a race that embodied the phrase “survival of the fittest”, James Courtney was the strongest driver of them all.
Courtney triumphed on Sunday in the 250 km finale of the Clipsal 500, race 3 of the 2014 V8 Supercars Championship. The Gold Coast native held off runner-up and Race 2 winner Craig Lowndes for his tenth career V8SC win after a frantic final restart. With the podium result, Lowndes took over the points lead from his teammate Jamie Whincup.
Shane van Gisbergen rounded out the podiium after he completed a remarkable comeback from an early penalty to bring his V.I.P. Petfoods Holden Commodore home in third.
Courtney’s victory was his first win since the finale at Winton Motor Raceway last season, and awarded him the overall title at the Clipsal 500 for the first time.
This weekend was the first that Courtney had been behind the wheel of a V8 Supercar since he broke his leg in a frightening crash at Phillip Island last November. That injury forced him to miss the final weekend of the 2013 season in Sydney and undergo rehab throughout the offseason.
For the Holden factory driver, the victory may not have been near as important as the message he sent the field — James Courtney is back, and he is as good as he ever was before the incident.
“It’s Adelaide,” Courtney said. “A Holden victory, it had to happen. I’m just glad I was able to get it done.”
However, Courtney was quick to shift the focus to his team when talking about his afternoon.
“Everyone knows we’ve been on a journey, the 2010 V8SC champion said. “All the guys have put in tons of hours of work over Christmas, and I just want to thank their families for letting them come to the shop and work for us. It means a ton.”
While Courtney’s victory made waves, the overarching theme of Race 3 was the carnage that ensued throughout the race. Eight cars did not finish the event, and over half of the field was involved in an on-track incident at some point during the event (which was forced to run two laps short of the scheduled 78 due to the 1 hour, 55 minute time limit.
The drama began on the opening lap, when Garth Tander and Rick Kelly made hard contact going down into Turn 1. The contact severely crushed the front bodywork and steering and forced Kelly to pit lane for early repairs.
More chaos ensued on lap 10, when Will Davison found the wall at Turn 8 after making contact with the #360 Nissan Altima of James Moffat. Moffat clipped Davison’s left-rear on corner entry, and knocked Davison off of the racing line. Davison attempted to regain the line, but could not keep his Mercedes from smashing into the wall (and the TV camera on top of it).
Afterwards, Davison employed a significant amount of self-restraint when discussing the incident.
“I went down the inside because (Moffat) stuffed it up in (turn) 7,” Davison said. “We go into turn 8, he was clearly conceding (the position), and he’s just clipped my left rear… It was pretty stupid.”
That accident brought out the first full-course caution and Safety Car period of the race. Moffat was later assessed a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact in the incident.
The second yellow came immediately after the restart from the first, and saw one of the series’ most spectacular multi-car crashes since the now-infamous wreck exiting turn 1 at Hidden Valley last season.
Jason Bright and Garth Tander were side-by-side entering the Senna Chicane when Bright drove down on Tander entering Turn 1. Tander held his line and made contact with Bright’s left rear, causing Bright to catch the curb as he spun. The curb-hop sent Bright flipping into the air end-over-end; he would come to a rest on his roof at the end of the chicane with severe damage to his machine and debris littering the opening sector of the track.
Scott Pye, Chaz Mostert, and Lee Holdsworth were all collected in the incident as they tried to avoid Bright’s flipping car. Pye and Mostert would be forced to retire from the event, while Holdsworth would have to spend significant time in the garage repairing the left front suspension before returning to the race.
Bright was not physically harmed in the incident, but was very critical of the new restart policy that he felt was a major contributor to his wreck.
“Whoever made that rule got what they wanted — there was a lot of action, but they just cost a whole bunch a teams a bunch of money,” ‘Brighty’ said. “There will be situations like that if they want to use those starts– if they want action, they’re gonna get it.”
Meanwhile, amidst the carnage, officiating drama began to play out as well among the race leaders.
A new restart policy was implemented for 2014 in the V8 Supercars Championship. The series has instituted a new “Acceleration Zone” for the leader to restart the race in. In that space of track, the leader has complete control of the field, and can choose to accelerate whenever he wants. It is the responsibility of the leader not to jump the Zone and the field behind him not to jump the leader or the Zone — if V8SC officials deem anyone guilty of these infringements, penalties may assessed to the guilty parties.
V8SC officials deemed Rick Kelly and Shane van Gisbergen to have both jumped the Acceleration Zone in the restart leading up to the massive crash, and handed both drivers pass-through penalties which sent them back deep into the field.
By halfway, the field and the race had calmed somewhat, however, a series of surprising events would shake up the championship standings in the closing laps.
On lap 54, defending champion and early points leader Jamie Whincup was assessed a pass-through penalty for unauthorized work on his race car. Race officials saw Whincup’s “lollipop man” (pit-sign holder) touch the right front corner of Whincup’s Holden Commodore, and they decided that the “touch” constituted an illegal effort on his part to repair some of the bodywork on Whincup’s car.
Whincup served the penalty from the lead and fell back to eighth, but the penalty became far more significant ten laps later. Whincup was attempting a pass on the #36 Norton Hornet of Michael Caruso in turn 9, but overshot the corner and made contact with Caruso’s car, bending the right front steering arm in the process.
Whincup was forced to limp his car back to pit road and managed to get back out on track, but ultimately finished 15th and gave up a significant amount of points to his teammate, Craig Lowndes.
A pair of young V8SC drivers also had their share of problems towards the end of the race, causing the final podium position to change hands three times in the final dozen laps. Scott McLaughlin was unable to repeat his success from Race 2 after his car lost power on lap 66, drawing the final caution of the event and setting up a seven lap sprint to the finish.
Following the restart, Adelaide-born Nick Percat overdrove the entry of turn 8 in an attempt to keep a hard-charging Shane van Gisbergen behind him. Percat made heavy contact with the wall, ruining the right-side suspension and forcing his retirement from the race as well.
That incident did not force another caution, and allowed Courtney to hold off Lowndes and van Gisbergen for one of the biggest wins of his career.
Fabian Coulthard and Rick Kelly, after his pair of drive-through penalties (Kelly was tabbed for speeding on pit lane at halfway), completed the top five.
Lowndes leads the V8 Supercar points standings after the first three races of the season over Coulthard, Van Gisbergen, Whincup, Rick Kelly and Courtney, who rose to sixth in the standings with the victory.
The V8 Supercars Championship will return to action from March 14-17 with an exhibition weekend at Albert Park in Melbourne as a support series to the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix.