If anyone is going to stop Scott McLaughlin from running away with the Supercars championship, they had better make their move quickly because he is starting to look uncatchable.
McLaughlin dominated the opening race of the Ipswich SuperSprint at Queensland Raceway on Saturday to move to an ominously comfortable lead in the title standings.
What is fuelling the 24-year-old Melbourne-based New Zealander’s championship momentum is a surge to the front of the field that was ignited in early May, culminating in six wins from the last nine races.
Following early errors as he acclimatised to his big-money switch to DJR Team Penske, McLaughlin has added consistency to the pacesetting speed he has had right from the start in the team’s front-running Ford Falcon.
The turning point was his sweep of both races at the Perth SuperSprint, launching a race winning spree that in the past three months has vaulted him from contending for the championship to commanding its pursuit.
Just to emphasise his status as the driver to beat, McLaughlin charged to victory in the 120km race on Saturday from his 10th pole position of the season, which is eight more than his nearest rival, defending Supercars champion and compatriot Shane van Gisbergen.
With six wins from 15 races so far, McLaughlin is also two ahead of van Gisbergen, whose form in his Triple Eight Holden Commodore has been variable in recent months.
McLaughlin admits his confidence is sky-high as he chases a maiden Supercars title.
“We’re just trying to make the most of each round we come to … feeling good but we don’t want to change too much, just keep pressing on,” he said.
Although only just past the halfway mark of the series, the combined superiority of McLaughlin and his Shell V-Power Racing Falcon shows no sign of being overcome in a hurry, especially as the previously dominant Triple Eight squad continues to compete on outright pace.
McLaughlin’s total conquest of the uninspiring 3.12km Queensland Raceway layout extended his lead over Jamie Whincup from six to 111 points, aided by a calamitous race for the six-time V8 champion.
Whincup, who scored his first win of the season at Townsville three weeks ago to maintain his dogged championship challenge, suffered a five grid place penalty for a driving infringement in qualifying, relegating him to starting from 14th place.
As if the return of his struggles in qualifying weren’t enough, all hope of salvaging a solid finish were dashed by a slow pit stop that dropped him to the rear of the 30-car field, boosted by the addition of four wild card entries.
Whincup recovered to finish 20th, costing him a big swag of points that may prove decisive in the championship battle at the end of the season.
“I had an idea that I wanted to capitalise on my position,” McLaughlin said.
“Even when Lowndes got in front of me, I didn’t want to risk too much but I wanted to get past him because I had the pace.
“That was a race – with the speed I had – I needed to try and win it and absolutely that’s what we did.”
Van Gisbergen was also off the pace in qualifying in the sister Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore, forcing him to fight his way through from starting seventh to snatch third place behind runner-up Chaz Mostert on the final lap.
His title defence is in difficulty, but still alive, as he remains fourth in the standings, 252 points adrift of McLaughlin, whose teammate and fellow Kiwi Fabian Coulthard is clinging to third in the championship after charging from 13th on the grid to sixth place in his Falcon.
V8 veteran Craig Lowndes was unable to convert his first front row start of the year into a podium placing, falling back to fifth at the finish in his Triple Eight Commodore after beating McLaughlin away from the start and leading the first two-and-a-half laps.
Lowndes, 43, is usually at his strongest at Queensland Raceway, where he scored his last race win 12 months ago, but his gamble on an early pit stop strategy didn’t pay off as his tyres weren’t up to maintaining front-running pace for such a long run to the chequered flag.
– With AAP
AT A GLANCE
1. Scott McLaughlin (Ford) 46 minutes 36.5253 seconds
2. Chaz Mostert (Ford) 46:39.7723
3. Shane Van Gisbergen (Holden) 46:41.2259
4. Tim Slade (Holden) 46:41.6842
5. Craig Lowndes (Holden) 46:45.6105
2.05pm-3.35pm: Race 16
(65 laps/200 km)
Fox Sports 506/506 HD:
Ten/Ten HD: 4pm-5pm (highlights)
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(All times AEST)