SUPERCARS CONCLUDE A MEMORABLE WEEKEND FOR BAHRAIN Manama, 25th November 2006: Overnight rain and low track temperatures meant that tricky conditions greeted the grid for the second of the three races of the Australian V8 Supercars Series at the...
SUPERCARS CONCLUDE A MEMORABLE WEEKEND FOR BAHRAIN
Manama, 25th November 2006: Overnight rain and low track temperatures meant that tricky conditions greeted the grid for the second of the three races of the Australian V8 Supercars Series at the Bahrain International Circuit's inaugural Desert 400 weekend. Before the Supercars came out both the Formula BMW and Chevrolet Lumina CSV Championship Middle East support races had seen drivers scrabbling for grip at every corner, and showed the Supercar stars that the 37-lap race would be hard work indeed.
The grid lined up in the finishing order of yesterday's first race with Jason Bright's Ford Performance Racing Falcon on pole from Garth Tander's Toll HSV Dealer Team Holden. At the start Bright's getaway was stymied by a tyre-smoking bout of wheelspin, allowing the crisp start of Tander to rocket him into the lead as the pack surged into Turn 1 and began to jostle for position. Here James Courtney, starting fifth in his Stone Brothers-prepared Ford Falcon was tapped by championship leader Rick Kelly's Toll HSV Holden, with the ensuing melee seeing a gaggle of cars nerfing and bumping one another trying to avoid the wreckage.
The principal beneficiary of the first turn was Kelly's main championship rival Craig Lowndes, whose Team Betta Electrical Ford Falcon slipped through unscathed on the inside of the chaos and leaped from ninth on the grid to third by Turn 2. The 31-car field ran two- and three-wide for most of the opening lap, with Mark Skaife and Max Wilson running side-by-side for most of the lap, while Courtney and Kelly dragged their somewhat secondhand-looking cars back to the pits for repairs, costing Kelly four laps and Courtney two.
Tander began to eke out a strong lead from Bright, with Lowndes, whose Ford lacks the straightline speed of many of his rivals and therefore began building up a traffic jam in his wake that saw more panels getting dented in the frantic jostling for position. Elsewhere the combination of long straights, slow corners, loose-running cars and ambitious overtaking attempts began to take a further toll as Will Davison's APVC Ford and Jack Perkins's Sirromet Holden had their races ended with two stoved-in front ends and veteran Supercar hero John Bowe required a new front end on his BOC Ford.
Lap 7 saw the first pit stops of the 37-lap race, Garth Tander electing to stay out and build his lead while Craig Lowndes's run in third place came to an end as he pitted one lap later than his pursuers and emerged back on track behind the pack. Tander pitted on Lap 9, rejoining behind Jason Bright but in an imperious drive hauled him in by the end of Lap 10 and drove straight past the Race 1 winner under braking at the start of Lap 11. In a majestic performance Tander was never troubled again, pulling out a 12 second advantage by the time the chequered flag fell.
"That was a great race for us," Tander enthused. "I got a good start and was able to set a good pace early in the race. After the pit stop things got a bit close there for a little while, but we had no major dramas and ultimately things couldn't have gone any better from our point of view."
"We put a bit of pressure on Garth before the pit stop and after it," said Jason Bright. "After a few laps he was starting to creep away a little bit but they've got some good straight-line speed at the moment and after he learnt to nurse his tyres better that gave him good speed late in the race."
The action continued in Tander's wake however, as reigning champion Russell Ingall's Caltex Ford took a chunk out of the tail of Jason Richards's Tasman Holden as they emerged from Pit Lane. On lap 13 the dicing between Steven Richards's 'Jack Lives Here' Holden and Jamie Whincup's Betta Electrical Ford took on added zest as they ran neck-and-neck for the whole lap. Whincup won through to take sixth place, and before he knew is Richards was fending off a determined assault from the Supercheap Auto Racing Holden of Greg Murphy as they traded paint and position before Murphy won out.
On Lap 25 Rick Kelly, four laps down after his first corner altercation emerged from the pits right in front of his championship rival Craig Lowndes, running in fifth. For the rest of the race a three-way dice between the two championship rivals and Lowndes' team mate Whincup, riding shotgun in sixth place, saw the irrepressible Kelly ignoring his on-track deficit and enjoying a title-runners' tussle. All three cars fortunately kept on the track, but when Kelly made a bid to pass Lowndes into Turn 1 on Lap 32 he got muscled aside by Whincup and trailed the two Fords to the flag.
The grid for the third and final Supercar race was decided by the finishing order of Race 2, with Garth Tander on pole position from Jason Bright, Mark Winterbottom's Ford Performance Racing Falcon, Todd Kelly's works Holden and the Team Betta Electrical Fords of Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup. At the start disaster befell Tander: a momentary roll forward, although checked on the brakes, earned him a drive-through pit lane penalty for jumping the start and dropped him to stone last among the survivors.
The lead was therefore in possession of a fast-starting Mark Winterbottom as Jason Bright again struggled to get off the line cleanly and found himself among the massed ranks of Supercars jostling three- and four-wide through the opening corners. Something or someone had to give and in the middle of the pack it was the Tasman Motorsport Holden of Jason Richards that caught it worst, getting bundled into the back of Max Wilson's WPS Holden and retiring on the spot with broken right-front suspension. Steven Richards's 'Jack Lives Here' Holden then fell foul of the Pack in Turn 3 and ended up pointing in the wrong way as the field streamed off four- and five-abreast down the back straight.
As the crowd of cars settled down into some semblance of order Winterbottom's lead was marginal over team-mate Bright, Todd Kelly's Holden Racing Team Commodore and Craig Lowndes in fourth. Bright took the lead at the end of Lap 3 and as they started Lap 4 Todd Kelly was through into second, with Winterbottom falling away from the leaders' pace as he encountered gear selector problems.
Todd Kelly put in some stern challenges on Bright's lead, the Ford and the Holden trading paint all around the circuit and allowing Lowndes to close the gap in third place as Winterbottom pitted for repairs. On Lap 6 Bright ran wide through the penultimate corner allowing Kelly through to the lead before the pit stop window opened up and the field began sweeping into for their mandatory stops and Jason Bargwanna had the damage from an earlier altercation remedied, dropping him down the order.
Five-time champion Mark Skaife meanwhile had a narrow escape, almost stalling his Holden Racing Team Commodore as he pulled away from his routine stop but not losing track position in the front-running pack. Team-mate Todd Kelly dived in from the lead on Lap 10, his 3.4s stop not costing him track position as he emerged ahead of Jason Bright with Craig Lowndes in the lead. Lowndes then pitted for a 3.6s stop that brought him out behind Kelly and Bright.
The story of the race, however, was championship leader Rick Kelly's recovery from 28th on the grid. He stayed out as long as he possibly could before the 'window' for the mandatory pit stops closed on Lap 26. This meant that from his lowly starting position, Kelly kept his nose clean and picked off victims throughout the race so that when he did eventually stop he emerged in sixth place overall with fresher tyres than anyone else in the race for the run to the flag.
The never-ending action saw Paul Dumbrell in the second 'Jack Lives Here' Holden battling against exhaust fumes that were coming into the cockpit, then dropping a large chunk of rubber from his left front tyre. Will Davison's Bahraini experience amounted to a lot of panel damage in the opening two races, but a different drama struck in Race 3 as his gearbox gave up the ghost, meaning that he needed pushing back to the pits into retirement.
Another casualty was Team Betta Electrical driver Jamie Whincup, whose engine grenaded itself at the end of the main straight as the leaders began Lap 15. Whincup kept his senses about him and drove off the track, over the gravel and out onto the escape road to avoid the Safety Car being called out. Another Turn 1 drama befell Lee Holdsworth in the Repco Valvoline Holden, who locked his brakes as he attempted to come down from a heady 300km/h past the main grandstand to get around the tight hairpin and ran into the back of Max Wilson.
The top three of Todd Kelly, Jason Bright and Craig Lowndes circulated in close company, all keeping their noses clean and putting on an exemplary performance in front of the crowds - a total of 28,250 people coming through the gates over the three days, according to the organisers. Mark Skaife was given a warning for ungentlemanly conduct on his way to fourth place, while Mark Winterbottom and Greg Murphy had an ill-tempered afternoon that ended with contact and body damage to both men.
Garth Tander's recovery drive was stirring meanwhile, rocketing up through the order to finish in eighth place, while Rick Kelly's recovery to an eventual fifth position at the flag kept his title fight with Craig Lowndes alive, although his Race 2 drama has closed the gap considerably as the field heads to the Grand Finale of the V8 Supercars Series at Philip Island on December 8-10.
Jason Bright's run of form in Bahrain, with victory in Race 1 and two runner-up positions in Race 2 and Race 3 was enough to give him the overall event win for the inaugural Desert 400 event in Bahrain. It also brought Ford the Manufacturers' Championship of 2006 to add to its victory in the Bathurst 1000. "All of it was good," Bright enthused. "Winning this round plus the Manufacturers' title means this weekend's been pretty sweet. I had a great battle with Todd today which was great fun. Actually I spent pretty much the whole day side-by-side with him so it was great racing."
Rick Kelly meanwhile goes to the final round with a lead of just seven points over Craig Lowndes in the drivers' title race. "It's not been a good weekend for my championship but that's what its all about and what makes the championship so exciting," he said. "For the fans and for our motivation it's a good thing that it can get this close after a long season."
"This event has been fantastic from start to finish," said Lowndes. "Our performance has given our guys a real boost and I had a lot of fun out there. Hopefully if we have another strong round next race we should take the championship home with us again."
On behalf of the teams and drivers, two of the mainstays of the V8 Supercars Series summed up the weekend on behalf of all the competitors. Team BOC's John Bowe, the legendary double Bathurst winner and 1995 series champion and battling privateer Paul Morris were fulsome in their praise of the Kingdom. "Well it went terribly!" Bowe said. "But because of the niceness of the people and the fantastic facilities I'm not as depressed as I usually am! My car got damaged through no fault of mine and yesterday my team mate's got damaged through no fault of his so what do you do? Unfortunately this kind of racing is very argy-bargey and these guys have no manners! But as an event it's been amazing-- last year we tried China but this is much nicer."
As a privateer entrant in the sport, taking the battle to the big guns of Supercars, every race weekend is a logistical battle for Paul Morris. After travelling 12,000km to the Middle East, being excluded from official practice and getting involved in the Race 1 shunt that brought out the Safety Car he could be forgiven for mixed feelings at least - but far from it.
"In our position, Supercars is the sort of sport where you have 90% disappointment and 10% exhilaration," he grinned. "You take some hard knocks but at the end of the day it's a great activity to be involved with. It really is a team sport like football or soccer. It takes a lot of people to make a race team go well. I really hope that Bahrain will be a long-term event. We went to China last year but that fell over, and what I feel here with the people behind the event and the reception we've had is that we should all hope to come back for many years to come."
For the Kingdom of Bahrain the Desert 400 proved a rousing success, with an event to rank alongside the Gulf Air Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in terms of sustained entertainment and enormous goodwill towards the Supercars series.
"The inaugural Desert 400 event at the Bahrain International Circuit can only be considered as a rousing success," said Talal Al Zain, Chairman of the BIC. "Never has this world-class motor sport facility witnessed such an intense three days of racing action from such a high calibre field, and the event is set to become one of the Gulf's biggest sporting events through the next five years. The organisers and teams can reflect on a superbly-run meeting, and we look forward to taking an active role in the growth of this fantastic series worldwide and welcoming the Supercars, their fans and drivers back here next year."
-credit: bahrain int'l circuit