Team Vodfone drivers Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup started the enduro races where they finished off at Bathurst last year by taking the chequered flag yesterday at the Just Car Insurance Sandown 500, but it wasn't all plain sailing when a brief...
Team Vodfone drivers Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup started the enduro races where they finished off at Bathurst last year by taking the chequered flag yesterday at the Just Car Insurance Sandown 500, but it wasn't all plain sailing when a brief shower threatened to cause havoc, as has been the case in the past.
With a dozen laps to go in the 161 lap event, it was a matter of will I or won't I pit to take on wets and the gamble paid off, no doubt thanks to the bureau of meteorology, or more precisely the team boss Roland Dane, who made the right decision, allowing Lowndes, his number one driver to remain on the track and cross the line two seconds ahead of championship leader Rick Kelly in the Toll/HSV Holden Commodore.
Third place went to new Ford recruit Steven Richards in the Ford Performance Falcon which he partnered with Owen Kelly, who has recently returned from the USA after racing in a number of NASCAR style Late Model races.
Lowndes started the race from 5th on the grid and moved to 3rd by the end of the front straight, it was then a matter of keeping a cool head and following the leaders. Mark Winterbottom in the sister Ford Performance Racing Ford, who claimed his second career pole, held the lead until lap 47 when he came in for his compulsory pit stop and driver change, leaving Todd Kelly in the Holden Racing Team Commodore out in front with Lowndes breathing down his neck.
Todd Kelly pitted four laps later with Lowndes assuming the lead for five laps before he came in and handed the wheel to Whincup who was aggressive from the start and was bumping and rubbing Kiwi international Matt Halliday who took the wheel from Winterbottom. Halliday remained calm despite the pressure and after a handful of laps ran wide and dropped several places, which eventually cost them a podium position.
The weekend started poorly for the Holden Racing Team with lead driver Mark Skaife hospitalised with appendicitis, causing him to miss his first race since 1997 while Todd Kelly suffered from a gastro complaint and was on and off a drip over the entire weekend. Tony Longhurst who was working on a building site in Queensland was contacted and flew to Melbourne on Friday afternoon for the late practice session. Ironically, he had only recently sold his helmet and HANS device and made a quick call to borrow it from the new owner.
Like Bathurst, Sandown is hard on the drivers and cars and this was evident when 11 of the 31 field failed to finish, which included the likes of Steven Johnson when his Jim Beam Racing Ford suffered a steering pump failure and Shane Price and Jack Perkins who shared the Jack Daniels Holden Commodore had problems with their steering. The twin cars of Team BOC also failed to see the chequered flag fall and were sidelined towards the closing stages of the race.
At the later press conference, Lowndes joked about the lack of blue flags waved throughout the race, however, from the in car shots it was apparent at the time he was serious. His encounters with Kiwi Greg Murphy in the Tasman Motorsport Holden looked as though one or both of them might end up off the track. Murphy failed to let Lowndes pass a number of times, and things looked like hotting up. The ever cool Lowndes managed to pass, giving his former HRT team mate a tap to let Murphy know that he was in a superior machine. This gave the Ford fans much pleasure and each time Lowndes drove along pit straight the blue and white flags waved in unison.
Although round one of the enduro races is over, round two awaits in three weeks time, and this is the biggest challenge, the Super Cheap Auto Bathurst 1000. As the defending champions, Lowndes and Whincup would like nothing better than a repeat of last years performance, which is harder said than done.
With Skaife to return and perhaps some changes in driver pairings amongst several of the big name teams anything can happen and usually does at Bathurst.