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Mt Panorama, Bathurst is the spiritual home of motorsport in Australia – so it’s fitting that it hosts the opening round of the Supercars Series.
It shouldn’t be the V8 beasts at Bathurst this weekend though, the series has stepped up to fill the place of the 12-hour GT sports car race amid this unpredictable pandemic time that stopped international teams and drivers from making the trip to the mountain. But what better place to start the season than the 6.2km circuit that tests both car and driver to the limit.
After the delayed and disjointed 2020 season, the teams will be hoping for a more uneventful year that keeps the focus on the action on the track.
This weekend’s Bathurst 500 will be a different affair than the 1000 in October – there will be a pair of 250km races, one on each day of the weekend. The series is then scheduled to run to a pre-pandemic-like schedule with races around the country, assuming borders remain open as hoped.
Regardless, as the sport demonstrated last year, it will do whatever it can to get the teams on track to fight it out for the coveted title. There are several compelling storylines to follow this season at Bathurst and beyond.
Jamie Whincup is the best touring car driver this country has ever produced – and arguably one of the best in the world. Don’t take my word for it, look at the statistics. He’s won the most championships (seven), the most races (122) and has the most pole positions (89).
Despite still being relatively young – he just turned 38 this month – Whincup has announced he’ll hang up his helmet from full-time Supercars racing at the end of the season to take on the team principal role for his Red Bull-backed Triple Eight team in 2022 and beyond.
There’s no doubt he’s not as dominant as he was previously (he won six of his titles between 2008 and 2014) but he’s unquestionably still one of the best in the category and could add an eighth crown this year.
His job has been made slightly easier by the departure of Scott McLaughlin, who won the last three titles, but Whincup’s own teammate, Shane van Gisbergen, is another title contender who won’t let Jamie enjoy a relaxed swansong.
The subplot to Whincup’s departure is who will replace him in arguably the most in-demand seat in Australian motorsport. Triple Eight says it has a succession plan but there’s little question that almost every rival driver would be more-than-happy to slot into the Red Bull Racing Holden in 2022.
Roger Penske came, he saw, he conquered and he left. The US automotive titan helped revive Dick Johnson’s team to its former glory and McLaughlin to the last three championships. But after succeeding in winning both the championship and Bathurst, Penske has opted to sell his stake in the team and focus on his US-based Indycar and NASCAR race teams.
And he took McLaughlin with him, and with new majority owner Ryan Story in charge, DJR 2021 features an all-new driving line-up. Veteran Will Davison takes over McLaughlin’s famous #17 while rising star Anton de Pasquale slots in alongside him in the second Shell-sponsored Ford Mustang.
Davison will be looking to rebound after losing his ride in 2020, while de Pasquale has been highly-rated in the Supercars paddock and after finishing eighth in the championship last season will be expected to be a title contender with his new squad.
De Pasquale isn’t the only young ace looking to make his mark in the post-McLaughlin and soon post-Whincup era. With the established champions gone, the mantle of ‘driver-to-beat’ is up for grabs and with some talented drivers maturing we’re on the cusp of a new era in the sport.
Tickford Racing’s Cameron Waters finished runner-up in 2020, so he’s looking to go one spot better in his Mustang this season. He has emerged as Tickford’s de facto leader and demonstrated last season he has no trouble going wheel-to-wheel with the best in the sport.
Chaz Mostert is another looking for his first title to cement his place as a Supercars superstar. He made a bold switch to the rebuilding Walkinshaw Andretti United Holden team in 2020 and his fifth place championship finish proved both driver and team have winning potential.
Brad Jones Racing’s Nick Percat won races in 2020 but needs more consistency fighting the big names at the pointy end to become a title contender.
Erebus Racing has hired a pair of rookies for this season, both are worth keeping a close eye on. Will Brown is the 2019 TCR Series champion and Brodie Kostecki has impressed many with his performances in the Super2 feeder series.
It’s not just the young kids that could be winning races this year, there’s plenty of wily veterans looking to keep the next generation honest.
As mentioned earlier, Will Davison is well placed to be a consistent front-runner with the new-look DJR. He was in good form at the start of last season before the loss of a key sponsor forced his former team to fold mid-season.
Mark Winterbottom was the 2015 champion and while his move to the smaller, Team 18 outfit in 2019 was seen as a surprise by many after years as the factory-backed Ford ace, he has shone in his new environment. He hasn’t won a race since 2016 but don’t rule it out as he and teammate, Scott Pye, continue to push Team 18 forward.
David Reynolds made a high-profile off-season move, leaving his 10-year deal with Erebus Racing after only a single season to join Kelly Grove Racing. He’ll have his hands on a Ford Mustang, which could help him get back to winning races and even fighting for the title if he can be consistent.
After all the emotion of Holden’s closure in 2020, both on and off the racetrack, the ZB Commodore remains on the grid this year. But it’s likely to be the last time we see a Holden competing at the highest level of the sport because new rules are due in 2022 that will see it replaced by the Chevrolet Camaro.
The new regulations will pit the Camaro against the Mustang, with more manufacturers encouraged to join (but there are no official takers yet), with cheaper cars that could produce more exciting racing.
It will be sad to see the Commodore go after such a long and successful career in touring car racing. It has been Holden’s racing flagship since 1980 and won 16 titles and the Bathurst 1000 a staggering 27 times in 40 attempts.