Family. Whether it’s blood relatives or other people you love so much that they become family, it’s such a huge part of life. It’s such a huge part of V8 Supercars, too. Whether you’re part of the Holden family, the Ford family, the small but ever growing Nissan family, the already large Volvo family, or the AMG family, as a fan, you will have a group of like-minded people around you to talk to, celebrate, and commiserate with. On the other side of the fence, you have the teams who each form a travelling family themselves. And let’s not forget the medical staff, fire and rescue staff and officials, who all form their own sorts of families, and without whom, no motorsport would happen.
It’s this concept of family that really stood out for me at the recent Phillip Island 400. You could see it in the fans, obviously, but as this was the first time I had actually been present in the pits when a major national championship had been decided, and saw for the first time just how much a driver’s championship win means for the family that is a large racing team. (It’s a lot, by the way).
In hindsight, that’s easy to say, though. It’s when you witness an entire team jump up and down and hug each other, right in front of you, that it really hits home. These guys don’t just work together, they travel together, eat and drink together, laugh, cry and talk together. It’s as close to a family as you’re going to get, and it’s part of what makes sport, and racing in particular, special.
As for the racing that decided the championship itself, that was actually pretty sedate. After Scott McLaughlin took a a lights-to-flag victory in the first race in his S60 Polestar, it became clear that thanks to championship rival Mark Winterbottom’s disastrous 24th place, all Whincup needed to seal the deal was finish ahead of Frosty in race two. Which he promptly did.
Winterbottom wasn’t going to make it easy, though. After starting in second, he got the jump on Whincup off the line and led early, but the Red Bull Racing cars eventually got by and that was all she wrote.
The rest of the field battled it out for the minor placings, but unusually for V8 Supercars, there wasn’t much action.
As you can see, there were plenty of trains going around, with positions swapped each lap, but I’ve never seen V8 Supercars look so clean at the end of a race.
Perhaps some of that had to do with the enormous crash that occurred last year at this round, where Frenchman Alex Premat (who used to occupy the second seat at GRM, filled this year by Robert Dahlgren in the Volvo above) lost control of his Commodore at turn four and slammed into Holden Racing Team driver James Courtney, in a shunt so severe it left Courtney with a broken leg and torn quad.
Whatever the reason, Whincup enjoyed an almost serene drive around the picturesque circuit to win the race by three seconds over team mate Craig Lowndes and clinch his sixth title. That number shouldn’t be ignored, either, as it puts Whincup on top of the all-time championship winners leaderboard in Australian touring cars. That’s ahead of Mark Skaife, ahead of Dick Johnson, ahead of Ian Geoghegan and every other great out there, including Peter Brock.
The saddest part? Whincup will never be considered the greatest by some because they either think he complains too much (in reality he complains no more than many in the field) or that he’s too boring. He’s actually not, but part of that perception is down to how he comes across on TV, I think. He’s so focused and professional that people think he’s cold. In person, he just seems professional and pleasant, not particularly boring at all. I guess that’s just what it takes to win six championships in seven years.
The personality thing is an interesting one, though, as it’s very evident how much it matters in sport even to a casual fan, and certainly to the die-hards. Take the ‘track walk’ at Phillip Island, for example. A recent addition to the V8 Supercars program, it’s not so much a track walk as letting fans onto the pit straight prior to the major races on Sunday, whereupon they can see all the cars lined up and meet their favourite drivers. It’s a great idea, and one that has really taken off since its introduction.
It also really highlights what makes a driver or team popular. Walking around, I could see huge crowds around the Red Bull Racing Australia, Ford Performance Racing and GRM Volvo Polestar camps, with smaller, but still significant gatherings around the factory Holden Racing Team, Nissan Motorsport Australia and privateer Erebus AMG squads. The smaller teams all had their fans, too, but obviously it’s harder for them to draw a crowd. The reasons behind each team’s popularity or lack thereof? Obviously size and success helps win fans. Red Bull has now six-time champion Jamie Whincup on its books, as well as three-time title holder Craig Lowndes. FPR has the last two years’ Bathurst winners in its stable, and it’s the factory Ford team. HRT is the factory Holden squad and driver James Courtney won the title in 2012. Nissan and Erebus AMG, meanwhile, are not major winners, but are new and have had their successes, so are seen as underdogs.
Success and size aren’t everything, though, and this is where personality comes in. Sure, Red Bull has two multiple champions, but in Craig Lowndes, it also has a PR dream. He pushes the envelope when driving, has a child-like energy to him, and women love him. FPR has a popular young gun in Chaz Mostert (pictured), who took this year’s Bathurst 1000 in spectacular style by overtaking Whincup on the last sector of the last lap after the Red Bull ran out of fuel whilst in the lead, and was responsible for the memorable podium quote, “The last five laps all I could think of was ‘Cough, you bastard, cough!'”. Volvo, meanwhile, counts Scott McLaughlin as one of its biggest assets, and not just because he’s bloody quick. He tweets about about visiting his grandma in her nursing home and takes questions on Facebook from fans. He also gained instant fame in the first race of the season thanks to his now infamous ‘Jandal’ comment after his thrilling battle with Whincup. (For those who aren’t aware, a Jandal is New Zealand slang for a beach sandal – a portmanteau of Japanese and sandal, as it was apparently the Japanese who first introduced the footwear to New Zealand).
You don’t even have to have won much recently if your personality is what people love, either. Russell Ingall’s only championship win came in 2005, and his last Bathurst victory in 1997. Yet despite frequently lapping towards the back of the pack these days, the 50 year-old is still one of the most popular drivers on the grid. Why? First and foremost, it’s because he’s old-school. No political correctness, no fear when it comes to speaking his mind, and precious little fear on the track, either. Give him a good car and he’ll still scythe through the field in intimidating style. There’s a reason he earned the nickname ‘The Enforcer’ many years ago. He’s also a fundamentally good guy, with a stable, long-term marriage, plenty of mates in the paddock whom he has drinks with and is always happy to share a joke with the fans.
Speaking of the fans, I decided I’d do something different at Phillip Island this time and spend the Sunday shooting entirely from the spectator areas, aside from the podium ceremony, where I kind of forgot my mission and rushed into the pits. Whoops.
There were a few reasons for this ‘spectator areas only’ mission. Firstly, I’ve told people many times Phillip Island is the best circuit I know for shooting without media accreditation as a beginner, as there’s only a low fence and about a meter of turf between us press guys and the crowd, and it was time I put my money where my mouth is. Secondly, shooting from the other side of the fence would let me see things differently. Thirdly, it would give me a chance to talk to the fans a bit more, which is always nice.
Things started off after the track walk with the Touring Car Masters. Always popular, thanks to the old-school metal and thunderous noise, the Phillip Island round provided the fans with some ding-dong battles in both races. In the first event, Greg Crick took his car’s name seriously (it’s the Charger above) and after starting towards the back of the pack, fought his way towards the front in great style.
Meanwhile, in race two, Andrew Miedecke in his Camaro SS took the fight to eventual championship winner, John Bowe, in spectacular fashion. Starting together on the front row, the pair left nothing on the track, trading positions several times until Miedecke prevailed. Bowe can’t have been too unhappy, though, given he still won the Pro Master championship for a second time.
Next up came the little Aussie Racing Cars, which have to be one of the greatest categories in motorsport. Each cars is essentially a single-seater tube-frame with a hilariously shrunken large sedan body on top (in this case, a Nissan Altima) and a litre-class motorbike engine driving the back wheels.
And thanks to the general parity, and tiny wheelbase and even tinier track, they provide fantastic racing. Door-banging, understeer, oversteer, mid-corner corrections aplenty, you name it, it’s there. Obviously they’re not super quick, but that’s hardly the point.
After that, I had the pleasure to shoot a category I’d never seen until the Phillip Island 400. The Longford Revival Sports GT series is apparently a Tasmanian one, shipped over to Phillip Island to provide support for the V8s, and has to be one of a few championships where you can see FD3S RX-7s and other JDM metal going up against classic Ford Falcon GTHOs and HQ Monaros.
It’s great to watch, and standing in the spectator area outside turn nine, I actually got talking to the uncle of the driver of this white RX-7. Turns out he sponsors his nephew’s car, and it seems to be worth it. Brodie Maher, the driver in question, raced incredibly well all weekend, and in the category’s final race, even ended up taking the fight to Ray Hislop in his monster BA Falcon, which is amazing given Hislop had it so easy every other time that he coasted the final laps. Clearly this 20 year-old is one to look out for.
The Sports GTs also gave fans a chance to see a Group C VK Holden Commodore in the flesh, which is a rare treat in itself.
Even better, if you stood at turn nine like I did, you could see it go against an R32 Skyline, which is the kind of battle we haven’t seen since the 80s.
Come the main race, all eyes were on Scott McLaughlin, whom I forgot to mention had scored Garry Rogers’ first win at Phillip Island since the 1970s on Saturday in race one, and would start against champion Jamie Whincup for race three. Would he win again, or would the newly-crowned king upstage him?
Things looked good for McLaughlin early on, as he pulled out a sizeable gap over Garth Tander, who passed Whincup early. However, a safety car about a quarter of the way through the race led to a mad dash to the pits, whereupon Tander passed McLaughlin after taking on less fuel. This proved critical later.
As the race progressed, the initial stream of cars started to split.
Groups emerged, like this one with Courtney, Lowndes and Nick Percat bunched together …
… and Michael Caruso sandwiched between Kiwi Shane Van Gisbergen and Percat after the first round of pit stops.
Lone stragglers emerged, too, with Jack Perkins’ weekend finishing as badly as it started (the announcement he’d been dropped from the Jeld-Wen squad for 2015 came just before the round), back in 21st.
As I moved around the track and up into the Gardner Straight grandstands (which were free to enter to anyone, by the way), I joined the fans in getting a great view of the cars blasting past at maximum warp.
I also caught one of the best battles of the weekend, as HRT driver James Courtney tried to hassle Percat and Caruso in the Nissan at close to 300km/h. Side-by-side and bumper-to-bumper at that speed? That’s V8 Supercars at its best.
Up front, the battle between McLaughlin and Tander raged on, with Tander in fuel saving mode but still able to keep the Volvo driver at bay. Things were made easier after McLaughlin locked up coming into turn six, Siberia, and lost ground. Pushing hard, he caught back up to Tander by the final lap, but it still looked like the HRT driver’s race. Except until the final 100 metres. In one of the strangest finishes I have ever seen, Tander swung across hard to the left after coming onto Gardner Straight, making me think he was going to blast by his team on the pit wall to celebrate. But no. He was actually desperately trying to get fuel to slosh into the pumps from the surge tank, as he was out of petrol. McLaughlin didn’t need asking twice, and he swung by the take the win. It was Bathurst all over again, except more extreme.
HRT was gutted, but GRM and McLaughlin were ecstatic.
In the post-race press conference, Tander was philosophical, saying he was warned fuel was marginal, but he hoped it would last until the line. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. McLaughlin stated he was “so pumped, but I feel for Garth”. “He drove an awesome race and that was all I had.”
So that was the Phillip Island 400. Two new champions crowned in Touring Car Masters and V8s, and a thriller in the final race. Some teams went away happy, others less so. Same with the fans. But all enjoyed a cracking spectacle in the company of their adopted families. And that’s worth celebrating, no matter who you are.