Jamie Whincup has declared the Supercars season opener wide open, adding “no one really knows” what Saturday’s 95 laps through the streets of Newcastle will bring.
The Triple Eight Race Engineering managing director, who was the last driver to win at Newcastle back in 2019, told News Corp the strategy book that worked so well in the past would be thrown out the window with the introduction of Gen 3 cars.
“All that knowledge with the old car you basically throw it all out and start again — everyone in pit lane will have done the same thing,” Whincup said.
Reigning champion Shane van Gisbergen ran second-fastest in Friday’s practice sessions —narrowly trailing Erebus ace Brodie Kostecki — while sophomore star Broc Feeney was 16th fastest.
But with few drivers running extended stints on the same tyres throughout practice, questions still remain over how the Gen3 cars will fare under tyre degradation over 250km on Saturday.
“You take an educated guess,” Whincup said.
“We have some data and we can see how much the tyres were worn out with the laps we did – every team will be doing that. (But) no one really knows what’s going to happen on the long stint.
“Not knowing what the tyre degradation is going to be, I think we’ll find some real radical strategies (used by teams on Saturday).
“With these cars, you can follow and pass now, so there will be some real confidence that you can stop, grab a new set of tyres, go to the back of the pack and come through (the field).
“It’s shaping up to be exciting.”
Triple Eight has held a monopoly on season openers in recent years, winning 14 of the past 15, and van Gisbergen’s early practice pace has the Kiwi king right in contention to continue the trend.
“I didn’t know that,” Whincup revealed of the win streak.
“We always like to hit the ground running and always work really hard in the off-season to make sure we start strong in round one, but history doesn’t guarantee anything for us.
“It’s all open slather and we’ll just wait and see what tomorrow brings.”
Van Gisbergen had earlier complained about overheating inside the new Camaro throughout practice, telling reporters it was the “hottest car I’ve driven in a long time”.
Whincup said Supercars had acted quickly by allowing teams to install heat protection in the cabins to help alleviate the issue.
“With the changes they’ve made it makes complete sense that the cabin is a little hotter, but Supercars has reacted – we’re now allowed to put a bit of heat shielding in – so hopefully that will bring the cabin temp down tomorrow.”
Saturday qualifying begins at 11.15am AEDT, followed by the Top Ten Shootout at 12.35pm before race start after 3.20pm.
SPOTLIGHT ON SVG AS SUPERCARS RETURNS TO NEWCASTLE
The spotlight is on Triple Eight ace Shane van Gisbergen as the reigning Supercars champion readies for his title defence on the streets of Newcastle.
The first ‘Friday champion’ of Gen3 went to the Erebus No. 99 of Brodie Kostecki who clocked a 1:11.4068 in the final session, with van Gisbergen just 0.0557 back in second.
Triple Eight has owned a near-monopoly on season openers in recent years – winning a ridiculous 14 of the past 15 – and van Gisbergen’s practice form bodes well for a repeat performance to open the Gen3 era.
The Kiwi king was a Saturday victor when Newcastle last hosted a Supercars round in 2019 and is one of only two active drivers – the other David Reynolds – to have won a race in the Steel City.
The previous three pole sitters have all gone on to win at Newcastle, making Saturday’s qualifying and Top Ten Shootout particularly pivotal in the jostle for early season bragging rights.
With the true performance limit of the Gen3 supercars still a relative unknown, Cam Waters’ 2019 qualifying time of 1:10.1095s will be the early benchmark for fans to compare the old and new machines.
That time was hardly nudged in practice on Friday as teams tinkered with setups before venturing into the relative unknown that is 95 laps in the concrete canyon with new machines.
Drivers forecast carnage in the preamble but, miraculously, all 25 cars stayed out of the wall on Friday.
Turns one and two caused plenty of troubles however, with more than a few cars forced to run off into the escape areas as drivers struggled to get a handle on the braking zones.
They loom as some of the key battlegrounds for the opening race on Saturday, along with the tricky hairpin at turn 10.
Andre Heimgartner topped the first session with a 1:11.9958, continuing Brad Jones Racing’s practice dominance dating back to the official test day in Sydney last month.
Van Gisbergen clocked a 1:11.7555 to take honours in the second session, before Kostecki punched the fastest time of the day in the afternoon.
It took until three days out from the season opener for the Ford and General Motors homologating teams to officially sign-off on the Gen3 cars as ready to race.
With pre-season scrutiny firmly on the reported disparity between the Mustang and Camaro, there was particular intrigue in the times coming out of Friday’s practice.
And Ford fans can seemingly breathe a sigh of relief, with Ford fielding five cars in the top-10 across all three practice sessions on Friday – however Camaro held sway at the top of the time sheet on each occasion.
ON TOP OF THE HILL
Matt Stone Racing first-timer Cameron Hill lay down an early marker against his rookie rivals, outpacing Tickford’s Declan Fraser and Grove Racing’s Matt Payne on Friday.
Hill spent the first two practice sessions near the foot of the time sheet alongside his fellow rookies, however punched out a 1:11.9225 to finish 11th-fastest in the afternoon.
Highly-regarded 20-year-old Payne clocked in with 1:11.9782, ahead of graduating Super2 champion Fraser in 24th with a 1:12.4029.
Originally published as Supercars: Newcastle 500 Friday practice sees Kostecki hold off SVG and Triple Eight