Since the start of the endurance campaign, the Supercars championship race has effectively been a two-horse race -- or, in this case, a two (Red) bull race. Red Bull Racing team-mates Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup have been a class above the field.
There were several different race winners early on but the Holden outfit's dominance grew as the season progressed. Van Gisbergen yesterday secured his maiden Supercars title, becoming just the third New Zealander and first since Jim Richards in 1991 to achieve the feat. This is how he got there.
Clipsal 500, Adelaide
Whincup grabbed a first-up race win after a sensational battle with James Courtney but van Gisbergen took a solid third to open his account. He collected a fifth in race two on the streets of Adelaide before finishing the weekend with a 10th in a race where torrential rain, confusing refuel rules and a shortened event threw up some rogue results. Whincup managed just 14th.
The Kiwi got his first race win with Red Bull Racing when he led Whincup home in a 1-2 finish on the Saturday at Symmons Plains. He looked a likely chance for back-to-back wins on the Sunday before he was caught out by oil on the track. A number of cars slid off as a result, including Whincup, but van Gisbergen's car got stuck in the gravel and he recorded a DNF.
Phillip Island SuperSprint
The New Zealanders enjoyed the stop at the Victorian race track, with Scott McLaughlin dominating the weekend in his Volvo, but Fabian Coulthard and van Gisbergen also collected a solid haul of points. Whincup was second in the Saturday race, with van Gisbergen fourth, and the six-time champion widened the points' gap to his team-mate with a fourth to van Gisbergen's 10th in the Sunday race.
Changeable conditions greeted drivers at Barbagallo Raceway on the Saturday and van Gisbergen showed maturity in settling for second rather than fighting veteran Craig Lowndes, who had gambled and won on tyre strategy late in the race. With Whincup coming in third it was a Red Bull 1-2-3 for the first time. The New Zealander then took advantage of a rare bad day for Whincup by collecting fourth on the Sunday as Whincup finished 11th.
Tim Slade was too good for everyone at the small rural Victoria track, winning both races. Whincup took fifth and ninth, while van Gisbergen settled for ninth on the Saturday before turning the tables on his Holden stablemate with fourth in the Sunday race.
Darwin Triple Crown
The New Zealander hit form in the far north but handed his title rival a massive edge when he received a pit lane penalty for passing leader Michael Caruso at a late safety car re-start. Instead of winning the race, van Gisbergen dropped to the rear before scrambling through to 16th, while Whincup took second. The Kiwi got it right on the Sunday, however, winning the race, while Whincup finished eighth.
The Red Bull Holdens were rolling by mid-season and Whincup led van Gisbergen home in a 1-2 finish on the Saturday. Van Gisbergen returned the favour on the Sunday, grabbing the race win, while a charging Courtney pushed Whincup down to fourth.
Van Gisbergen claimed race wins at three straight events by taking out the Saturday race, while Whincup was second. Whincup fared better on the Sunday, however, taking second, while van Gisbergen faded to 12th.
Whincup and van Gisbergen raced panel-to-panel for much of the Saturday race in a superb showdown without making contact. The New Zealander prevailed. Whincup got revenge on the Sunday as he eased to victory, while van Gisbergen finished fifth. The results saw Whincup leading the drivers' championship by more than 100 points heading into the endurance races.
After leading early on, Whincup and co-driver Paul Dumbrell ran into problems. The Kiwi and French co-driver Alex Premat drove a measured race and were the fastest pairing during the closing stages. While Garth Tander and Warren Luff held off a charging van Gisbergen to win, Whincup saw his title advantage disappear by finishing 13th.
The biggest turning point in the season came late in the Great Race. Whincup, appeared on his way to victory after dominating the entire week, but made a small mistake as he tried to pass Scott McLaughlin at the end of Conrod. He forced the Volvo off the track but slowed to allow the New Zealander to take back his position. As McLaughlin rejoined, Garth Tander arrived and the three cars made contact. Tander and McLaughlin's races were over but Whincup continued without harm. He was given a time penalty that dropped him to 11th, while van Gisbergen and Premat took second behind Will Davison and Jono Webb. Red Bull appealed the penalty and it took nearly two weeks to confirm the results.
Gold Coast 600
Now with a handy championship lead, van Gisbergen looked the man to beat in the race to the title and he reinforced that with a dominant display on the street circuit. He overcame a 10-second time penalty handed to Premat to blast through the field and win Saturday's race before showing control to accept second behind Whincup on Sunday, rather than risk it all to win despite being the fastest car on track.
Whincup and van Gisbergen traded wins on the Saturday at Pukekohe before coming together in the first of two Sunday sprint races. Whincup spun the Kiwi and was given a drive-through penalty to drop him to last, while van Gisbergen recovered to finish third and collect the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy and take a 191-point lead.
The key moments
The mishap in Tasmania, where van Gisbergen got stuck in the gravel and saw a massive haul of points slip away was costly, as was his overtaking manoeuvre at Darwin that saw him blow a certain race win.
Whincup's misfortune in Sandown erased the advantage he took from van Gisbergen's early-season mistakes but the biggest championship moment was Whincup's time penalty at Bathurst.
Van Gisbergen drove a stunning race on the Saturday at the Gold Coast to claw back a 10-second time penalty and still win, while his nous to ease back during the Sunday race and accept second showed maturity and a focus on the long game.
The bumper-to-bumper racing between van Gisbergen and Whincup at Sydney and again at Pukekohe was superb as both drivers raced as hard as possible but gave each other enough room at the same time.
Any late chance Whincup had of snatching victory faded with his Sunday error at Pukekohe.