Nissan's Simona De Silvestro spent most of an incident-filled Bathurst 1000 stuck in traffic despite promising pace.
When it comes to iconic races and circuits, Bathurst is certainly one of the places that come to mind to many race fans all around the world.
The Bathurst 1000, one of the highlights of the Supercars championship calendar, is such a bucket-list event to many drivers, that it often features guest starters from other elite racing series, with international top drivers eager to feel what it's like to lap around the legendary Mount Panorama circuit in a +620hp Supercars vehicle. This year's edition saw two established IndyCar drivers such as Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe taking the start of "The Big Race" in a Andretti Autosport entry.
Simona De Silvestro, who described the Bathurst round as "the best weekend of the year", shared driving duties with Alex Rullo for the occasion.
The Swiss lady had a positive first practice day, bringing the Harvey Norman #78 car immediately up to speed and within the top-10 for the first session.
In the afternoon's session, De Silvestro gave up the last run on new tyres to allow teammate Rullo some more track time: “All in all it was a positive day for us, the morning was really good but in the afternoon we didn’t run on the green tyres so the time wasn’t really representative." - commented Simona after the first day of the event. “There are a few little things we need to fix in the car, especially on the longer runs to be a bit more comfortable but I think it was a really good start".
With Kelly Racing bringing to Bathurst the revised aerodynamic package on its four Nissan Altimas for the first time, De Silvestro felt confident enough coming into the following days: “It’s hard to tell how much difference the aero change has made, the car definitely feels comfortable and our pace is good if we look at all of us. We’re in the mix, we might not be flying away in P1 but we’re where we should be so that’s positive.”
Simona's feelings were indeed confirmed in the early stages of qualifying, as the 31-year old was consistently quicker than her Nissan's teammates in the rainy session.
However, when the track started to dry out, De Silvestro's tyres lost performance and she wasn't ultimately able to make the most out of her earlier promising pace.
“I was pretty excited about the rain because usually we go pretty well and we actually did go pretty well until the last lap. I think staying out and doing a bunch of quite good laps early didn’t help us because the track was getting better at the end and we probably should have had a fresher set of tyres for the final run.” - she explained, after securing the 17th starting position. “Seventeenth is ok but definitely I think we could have been close to the top ten in the rain. It’s a bit frustrating, but it’s a long race and last year me and Alex were quite competitive and we’re feeling pretty comfortable in the car so we’ll put our head down and look forward to the race.”
With no cars in the top-10 shootout, the Kelly Racing squad switched its full focus on race-day setups and practiced pitstops, another key factor in endurance racing.
The De Silvestro-Rullo duo kept working well together, as the 19-year old Australian continued to improve throughout the weekend.
The Big Race once again delivered brilliant racing and, after 100 laps of clean and mostly accident-free action, a series of Safety Cars sparked never-ending twists until the very last lap. Todd Hazelwood crashed and it was bad news for the Whincup/Lowndes duo, who had been leading the race in the closing stages: the race neutralization switched everybody's attention to fuel strategies and the Red Bull Holden drivers found themselves short on fuel.
With an advantage of more than 10 seconds, Red Bull team decided to pit the race leaders under the Safety Car, losing the vital track position that they struggled to make back.
Behind them, to inherit the lead it was championship dominator Scott McLaughlin, racing alongside experienced driver Alexandre Premat.
Chaz Mostert went deep in an attempt to pass his teammate Cameron Waters: the two Mustang collided and ended in the gravel. Following the many restarts, McLaughlin held off masterfully Shane van Gisbergen and, after 6 hours and 27 minutes of intense racing, crossed the finish line to take his first Bathurst 1000 victory, by a mere six tenths of a second.
It was the first win at Mount Panorama for Premat as well, who was also the first French winner and the first European since 1998.
The podium was completed by Van Gisbergen/Tander and Courtney/Perkins, with the early leaders Whincup/Lowndes finishing 4th.
Simona De Silvestro and Alex Rullo ran an incident-free race but could not replicate the competitive pace they showed in practice, as the drivers of the #78 entry spent the majority of the race stuck in traffic after the first pit-stop. The situation was further aggravated by the numerous Safety Cars: “Unfortunately I think we screwed ourselves a little bit with the first stop to be honest, I think we should have tried to aim for track position which we didn’t do and that really put us on the back foot to be honest. After every stop we came out in traffic. After the first stop we were losing almost two seconds a lap to what we were doing in clean air at the start.” - said a disappointed De Silvestro.
“From then on we were kind of behind the eight ball, the safety cars made things worse because of the position we were in. It was frustrating because we had good pace, and we showed there in the end we were easily able to keep up with the cars around us."
The Harvey Norman entry took the chequered flag after 160 laps in 14th position.
"Alex did an awesome job and I think we worked really well together but for sure walking away without a decent result is a bit annoying.”
The famous Australian race once again proved its potential to attract a record-setting global television audience and an on-track public of over 200,000 people.
With yet another McLaughlin victory, the title fight could now soon be over: the Penske driver will have his first match-ball in two weeks time, with three rounds to go. Supercars will in fact head to the equally famed Surfers Paradise street circuit for the Goald Coast 600.
In Simona's words:
"After every stop we came out in traffic. After the first stop we were losing almost two seconds a lap to what we were doing in clean air at the start.”"
Ph credits: Kelly Racing