Despite coming off a tough couple of rounds, Shane van Gisbergen and his TEKNO Autosports team are confident they are in a strong position to push for the title this year.
The young Kiwi sits seventh in the standings, but heads to the SKYCITY Triple Crown with new Darrell Lea STIX coloured car ‘Lola’ and the memory of an outstanding finish last year, having hunted down Mark Winterbottom in the closing stages of the race.
“Shane drove brilliantly to close up on Winterbottom within the dying laps of the last year’s race. Unfortunately we had to settle for second that day, as we used a bit too much tyre getting there,” race engineer Dr Geoff Slater told v8supercars.com.au.
“Honestly we thought it was a long shot but never gave up hope. Any slip up and we would have had it.
“And I think we just did what the rest of the viewers did, sat back and watched Shane on the attack.”
While van Gisbergen settled for second best last year – both in Darwin and in the Championship race – Slater praised his driver’s efforts and affirmed the team is still well positioned to challenge for the title come December.
“We all feel like we’re in a better position,” Slater said.
“We have a greater understanding of the car, and Shane’s driving as well as ever. Unfortunately, we’ve had some poor circumstances in recent rounds that have prevented closing that gap, but the pace has been there.
“We at Tekno are working harder than ever to maximise the remaining rounds to finish up the front, where we deserve to be.”
V8 Supercars teams and drivers face new tests in Darwin with tweaks to the tyre allocation for the weekend and resurfaced track, Slater warned that small errors at the fast track could have big consequences.
“The different challenge will see some upsets up and down the field. With the top 20 cars separated by 0.6 of a second last year a slight mistake is costly,” he said.
Slater explained what to look out for across the three days of racing at Hidden Valley.
Slater describes Hidden Valley as having a little bit of everything.
“The long front straight has the third highest speed of all events, large braking zones for passing opportunities, and slower speed corners that require good rotation and drive from the car,” he said.
Teams will be looking at the new surface on their track walks tomorrow to get an idea of what to expect.
“Hopefully the new surface will provide continuity for setup changes,” Slater said, alluding to the inconsistencies of the previous surface.
“We will be looking at the consistency of the surface, the general track attitude and any additional additives not noted from the resurfacing.”
Bumps, kerbs and drop-offs need to be looked out for.
Traditionally the track has been hard on tyres, but that could change with the resurfacing.
Slater says focus will be on tyre longevity and strong handling characteristics for the race package.
“Managing the long laterally loaded corners with hard acceleration such as that out of turns 1 and 8 really compromises rear tyre life.
“Emphasis is also placed on a car with good braking stability as turns 1, 5 and 6 present critical passing opportunities…
“Good rotation and drive without destroying the rear tyres on exit will always yield a front running car here.”
The TEKNO engineer said last year showed the subtle differences a setup could have on performance with the varying tyre compounds.
“The Saturday races saw Jamie Whincup absolutely dominate whilst on Sunday Winterbottom’s car clearly was the benchmark on soft tyres.”
And be careful at turn one.
“The tight nature of the track at the race start has seen many incidents occur quite early in the race, so surviving the opening laps will be paramount.”
An additional set of hard Dunlop tyres for Friday means teams have a chance to see how the cars react on new rubber, but Slater explains most of the two one-hour sessions are spent on used tyres to understand the degradation that the racing will present.
“In general, we try and get the car balance right as a race package during Friday’s practice sessions,” he said.
“Qualifying really becomes more of the focus on Saturday and Sunday morning where you can do a simulated qualifying run on a ‘better’ tyre to see what the car/track behavior is like and get the driver’s mindset on outright pace.”
Keeping up with who is on what quality and compound of tyre can be tricky for fans watching along at home, but Slater says the last 10 minutes of practice two should give some indication of how each team and driver is performing, as they have the set of tyres for a simulated qualifying run that must be handed back at the end of the day.
While there is the change to Saturday’s format, with qualifying two and race two on the soft compound tyre for the first time in a 2015 SuperSprint, Slater says he doesn’t think teams will do much differently during practice to account for that.
“Some will now do a short soft tyre run in addition to a longer run as we will be qualifying on the soft tyre for Saturday’s second race – but … several teams have been doing that already.”
Slater believes the addition of the soft tyres for Saturday will actually make things easier for teams – though he believes we will “absolutely” see some upsets in the order.
“The focus is on getting the best out of both tyre compounds.
“To qualify on a hard tyre, then a soft tyre, will take some subtle changes to maximise the performance of each. The racing format enables everyone on equal tyres, as no one is saving tyres for Sunday, so you can just race which is what everyone wants to see.”
Race two will give teams information that will help determine how to use the one set of soft tyres during Sunday’s 200km race.
“I guess most will be looking at Saturday’s Race 2 performance to come up with Sunday’s strategy – the fastest way isn’t necessarily the best way especially with the danger of a safety car.”
“Generally a newer surface reduces the degradation characteristics as we’ve seen at tracks like Phillip Island, but only if your car is working well,” Slater said.
“When the tyres slip and tear you’ll see high degradation but the newer surface should allow for more bite and reduced degradation.
“But with the higher track temperatures in Darwin, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Slater says strategies will be similar to what we have seen across this year’s SuperSprint Sunday races – but a number of small errors could change the way a team approaches the strategy.
“As easy as it sounds, any slip up in a pit stop or chassis performance can make an easy strategy call go out the window,” the number #97 engineer said.
“We all calculate an expected performance of the car prior to the race from practice and Saturday’s races but when the car reacts differently to these we need to rethink our options to maximise any tyre advantage or track position we can get…
“With the 120L fuel drop – as in all SuperSprint rounds – and everyone having the same quality of tyres for the race I’m sure we’ll see similar strategies to the previous three rounds.”
Slater noted that the last two Sunday races have had Safety Car interventions, though he believes the professionalism of the category means they aren’t as common these days.
“There is always the risk value of trying an alternative strategy at some stage during a race, but it’s a balance between risk and reward. Naturally the danger zone for the safety car is with the second stint of running, where any track advantage gained previous to this means nothing.
“The nature of the Hidden Valley track also leads to a potential incident on the first lap, so keep an eye on that!”
The Darrell Lea STIX Commodore will next be on track at the SKYCITY Triple Crown Darwin 19 – 21 June 2015.