In a Bathurst blockbuster that went for nearly six and a half hours, a five-second fuel stop proved the difference for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team and the #888 in winning the race.
While conjecture remains over whether Fabian Coulthard’s Safety Car go-slow influenced the outcome, with Scott McLaughlin holding on to win for DJR Team Penske in a final-lap dash, the factory Holden squad took a series of gambles — and produced errors — they would rue by race’s end.
The ‘dream team’ pairing of Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes in the #888 entry started fourth, and finished fourth. In between lights-out and the chequered flag, at times you could have pencilled them in for the win — but they would finish where they started.
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The #888 first hit the lead on Lap 87, eight laps after Whincup came in to hand over to Lowndes. On Lap 79, McLaughlin — who was in front of Whincup — gave the reins of the #17 to Premat.
When Lowndes emerged, he had a comfortable margin over Premat, which became the effective race lead when James Moffat — aboard the leading #55 Tickford car — stalled as he left his pit box.
However, a pair of Lap 91 Lowndes mistakes opened the door to Premat, before the ZB Commodore was handed over to Whincup on lap 98. Then, the #888 jumped the #17 in the lane with a shorter stop on Lap 113, and also stayed ahead through the next round of stops on Lap 135 in the Safety Car period made infamous for Coulthard’s actions.
Afterwards, Whincup initially fuel-saved, but turned up the wick to lap in the 2:06s and 2:05s to build an 11-second lead.
That gap became redundant once Garry Jacobson and Richie Stanaway tripped over each other at Hell Corner on Lap 151, and Whincup was called to pit as the Safety Car was called — a decision Mark Skaife labelled the “biggest call of the race so far” in commentary. The #888 took on five seconds of fuel, but new tyres weren’t fitted.
Hindsight will sting the team, with Andre Heimgartner’s Lap 158 shunt bringing out another Safety Car, which ultimately helped McLaughlin on fuel.
In the garages, Lowndes was helpless as Whincup would fail to clear James Courtney in a final-lap sprint to reach the podium — but the team expected much more than even that.
“It was nerve-wracking to be honest, not being inside the car, which I’m normally used to at the closing stages of a Bathurst,” Lowndes told Supercars Trackside after the race.
“The decision made to run hard and fast was an interesting one. We hedged our bets.
“We had Shane van Gisbergen running on the fuel consumption run, Jamie lit it up and was gapping everyone quite quickly.
“The only downside to what we didn’t do was put some tyres on the car for him. He obviously went out with full fuel.
“He could run to the end, but he had the same tyre quality than everyone else. He really didn’t have an advantage over anyone else.
“That was probably the only hindsight of what we didn’t do right, but we were in the hunt most of the day.”
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The sister #97 entry suffered a loose door latch and double-stacking headaches, but van Gisbergen and Garth Tander only missed the win by just 0.6799s.
However, when the Coulthard drama hit the fan, van Gisbergen was seventh and enjoyed nearly a 10-second fuel advantage, which again would have proved redundant as the #97 would have stacked behind the #888 anyway.
With focus back to #888, team manager Mark Dutton admitted they needed to commit earlier to the final stop to stay in the hunt for the win, which would have been Whincup’s fifth in the Great Race, and Lowndes’s eighth. Being in the lead at the time left them exposed as the pioneers, so it was a risk either way.
“The time we lost not making it earlier — and that’s a collective, we’re a team making these decisions together — means that there’s a chance we would have come in, pitted and got back out in the lead and cruised home,” Dutton said.
“But it was not to be. Other people may have done things differently if we were in that position as well, so you can never say that’s definitely what would have happened.
“You’re consuming a lot of extra fuel compared to everyone else. The numbers we had to hit were near-impossible if you were leading at that stage, hence the call.”