BANYO, Queensland, Australia – Welcome to the final edition of Race Chaser Online’s Virgin Australia Supercars Championship season previews for 2017! We’ve saved the defending champions, the Red Bull Holden Racing Team, for last. Come back tomorrow for our coverage of the Clipsal 500!
Red Bull Holden Racing Team
No. 88 – Jamie Whincup, Red Bull/ Holden Holden Commodore VF
No. 97 – Shane van Gisbergen, Red Bull/ Holden Holden Commodore VF
2016 TEAM POINTS FINISH: 1st
2016 HIGHEST RACE FINISH: First place on 15 separate occasions, most notably at Adelaide and Surfers Paradise
The story of the Red Bull Holden Racing Team’s 2016 season starts on March 5th, 2015.
It was on that day that they made a shock announcement that Shane van Gisbergen would be joining the team from TEKNO Autosports, and that a third car would be added to their stable to make room for him.
Everyone was caught off guard by the massive surprise news on that day, but as the 2016 season wrapped up, we all knew why van Gisbergen was so highly sought after by Red Bull HRT in the first place.
Everywhere he had been before in his career – with Stone Brothers Racing and with TEKNO – van Gisbgergen had shown an ability to wheel around a Supercar at a level matched by few of his competitors. The equipment underneath him, however, was never quite up to championship-caliber specifications.
But what if his car was good enough to consistently fight for a championship? Could a car be provided that would allow him to express his talents to the full extent of his ability? That was the question Triple Eight Race Engineering asked initially.
Their answer was “yes”, after coming to the conclusion that van Gisbergen was talented enough that it warranted an effort to bring him into the team at all costs. They made van Gisbergen to Red Bull HRT happen by shifting Craig Lowndes from the second Red Bull car to an all-new car for 2016, with sponsorship from Caltex.
The result? Eight wins, 18 podiums, seven poles and the title of “the first driver in the history of Triple Eight Race Engineering to best Jamie Whincup for the title from within the same team.” Shane van Gisbergen’s 2016 was entirely the realization of all the talent Triple Eight had seen in him over the years.
Never mind the fact that he came away with the PIRTEK Enduro Cup for 2016 as well, after going 2-2-1-2 at Sandown, Bathurst and Surfers Paradise. That they weren’t able to sweep all three of the endurance races might be the only major blemish Triple Eight would place on a 2016 season which by and large continued their standard of excellence.
On the other side of the garage, Whincup was any sort of slouch in 2016 either. His statistics from a season ago are nearly equal to van Gisbergen’s: seven wins, 17 podiums, and five poles. Solid numbers for a Supercars driver, right?
But by Jamie’s standards, it was a bit of an off season. His win total was the lowest it has been since 2007, and his pole total the lowest since 2008. He was in the championship hunt for the majority of it as well, until his season came completely off the rails in Sandown and Bathurst.
At Sandown, a late race penalty for a pit road infraction dropped him from a podium finish to 13th. Then, at Bathurst, he dove underneath Scott McLaughlin at The Chase and sent McLaughlin into the adjoining grass. Whincup attempted to redress immediately to avoid a penalty, but ended up being assessed one anyway after his redress caused McLaughlin and Tander to crash. Whincup finished 11th on the Mountain that day, as van Gisbergen collected his second consecutive second-place finish; by then, the title fight was all but settled.
For 2017, the biggest change with the team is the rebranding and change in the team name. Tired of seeing the factory Holden Racing Team beaten by Triple Eight, Holden executives decided to move the HRT name over to Triple Eight for 2017. What was Red Bull Racing Australia has now become the Red Bull Holden Racing Team.
Otherwise, there are almost zero changes with the Red Bulls. Which means that both Whincup and van Gisbergen will be expected to win the title in 2017 – their cars are that good.
But of the two, Whincup’s will be the more interesting case to watch. He is still plenty talented, even if he isn’t the defending series champion. Few drivers in the series can modulate the throttle and manage the tires like he can. The fact of the matter is that van Gisbergen represents a new kind of challenge.
For nearly a decade, Jamie and Craig Lowndes battled it out for the title, and in all but three of those seasons, the story was the same: Jamie was always able to just edge out Craig in the late stages of the season. With cars better than anyone else’s on the grid, Whincup’s run of titles feels almost predestined in retrospect.
But through all of those seasons competing for titles, last season was the first in which Whincup was properly matched for talent and pace by someone else. Most of the field expected van Gisbergen to be good in a Red Bull HRT car – but not championship-caliber good.
In short, Whincup has quite simply never had a challenge to the title like the one van Gisbergen provides. How Whincup responds in 2017 may give us a good idea of which direction his career will take over the next few years.
Likewise, for van Gisbergen, the challenge is similar: rinse, repeat, win the title over Whincup and the rest of the field, and start making people ask whether or not van Gisbergen is a more naturally talented driver than Jamie. A victory at Bathurst will also be on his radar too – it’s something that he has yet to accomplish in his career.
Whether or not Whincup’s reign of dominance over the series is over will still be up for debate in 2017. What is undeniable is that barring the unexpected and unforseen, the two Red Bull HRT cars will compete for the championship again, and an entertaining shootout should unfold over the course of the season to determine who is the real sherriff in town.
For more information on the Red Bull Holden Racing Team, visit www.redbullholdenracing.com.
For more information on the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, visit www.supercars.com.
About the Writer
James Pike is a multi-faceted reporter for Race Chaser Online and an analyst on the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
He is the lead correspondent for Race Chaser Online’s coverage of Australian Supercars and also covers regional touring series events in the Carolinas. He is a graduate of the Motorsports Management program at Belmont Abbey College and currently resides in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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