In a game that is frequently measured by thousandths of a second, the challenge of qualifying is always a great test for all racing drivers, and this year’s Supercar rules have seen more qualifying sessions conducted than ever before, which has resulted in a more acute one-lap focus for all concerned.
Furthermore, with the current specification of the cars having more of an aerodynamic shape, this has had a knock-on effect of making it difficult to run in a queue of cars, which places even more emphasis on qualifying up near the front of the grid. It’s not too difficult to cope with running in the heat trail of a couple of cars, and the resultant tyre degradation this creates, but if you’re stuck behind a closely-grouped pack running nose-to-tail then it can ruin your race. Put simply, there’s no better way to avoid suffering from this situation than to put your car on the front couple of rows of the grid.
The toughest form of qualifying is the Top-10 Shootout, which sees the 10 fastest drivers having the track all to themselves for one flying lap against the stopwatch. The order of the shootout sees the 10th fastest driver from the earlier qualifying session hitting the track first, with the fastest driver being the last one to set their time. More often than not the pole lap comes from the last few drivers as the preceding cars put sticky rubber down through the session, but sometimes there’s a surprise when a driver nails a good early lap and moves up from their qualifying position.
Another key measurement is how close you can set your time by comparison with the one you did in earlier on in qualifying, where more than one lap and a couple of sets of tyres can be cycled through.
Sponsors also love the Top-10 Shootout, which is aired as a prime-time weekend highlight and sees their car’s having the track all to themselves for a full two-minutes, and with the shootout only taking place at major events the exposure can be very valuable.
From a driver’s perspective it’s quite a challenge knowing all eyes are following your every move where one small mistake can have a major impact on your starting position. Drive too conservatively and chances are you will not maximise the car’s potential, but locking a wheel, running wide or leaving the track sees you kicking yourself that valuable time has been lost, it’s a real pressure-cooker situation for both the driver and team.
At the Townsville street circuit in early July I managed to qualify my car in fifth position, meaning I would be the sixth driver on track for the Top-10 nail-biter. My qualifying time was 1:12.369 and 0.25s slower than Scott McLaughlin who, over the last few years, has become the benchmark all drivers need to beat, specifically in qualifying.
Heading out for my shootout lap the best time set previously in the session was a 1:12.8, and that had me thinking the track had slowed somewhat from earlier in the day, which is not an uncommon occurrence when other categories have been out on track prior to the shootout. One other advantage of going out late in the order is you can get a better read on what the track grip level is, so heading out for my lap I was thinking it might have been hard to get near my earlier qualifying time.
The lap I completed felt quite strong, although I did lose a little time in the early braking zone for Turn 2, so when my dash flashed up a 1:12.48s lap I knew I was fastest to that point, although I hadn’t expected to be over 0.3s faster than the previous fastest time set, and just 0.1s slower than my time from earlier in the day. That gave me some confidence that I might be able to improve from fifth once all drivers had completed their laps.
For all of the pressure the lap creates, there is nothing like the pressure of having to watch the remaining four drivers doing their laps, and having set the benchmark time can work against you in some ways, because those who are yet to do their laps can see the track is offering good grip for their respective runs.
Once I was out of the car, and had had the customary television interview, I watched the final three drivers on their laps, having missed one of them in the interim. With all of my team hanging on every sector time the pressure mounted with every passing lap. With just one driver yet to set their time I was still on the provisional pole, and while it was comforting knowing that a second-place start was the worst I could expect, when you’re that close, finishing second can feel like last.
In addition, knowing that the qualifying maestro in McLaughlin was heading out next I almost felt resigned to the fact that his strong recent form was potentially going to deny me by the smallest of margins. Watching his lap in the team pit area, which now had the crew from all four of our cars cramming into it, felt like time had frozen, and while the early indications were that my time was right in the hunt I fully expected McLaughlin’s final sector of the lap to be good enough to deny me my fourth career – but first Top-10 Shootout, pole.
As the DJR/Team Penske car thundered by our garage my eyes were as good as drilling a hole in the TV screen, but then the garage just erupted as the final lap time of McLaughlin flashed up with me shown in P1 and claiming the coveted spot by just 0.015s. It was such a great feeling and a great reward for all of the team and the next few minutes were a real blur as well-wishers seemed to come from everywhere.
To put that margin into a physical perspective, the distance separating our cars at the start-finish line at the end of each of our laps was just 35-centimetres, slightly more than the length of a standard ruler. A very satisfying feeling indeed, and for added satisfaction McLaughlin’s best shootout time was almost 0.4s slower than his best lap from earlier in the day. In fact, nobody has come as close as I had to their earlier time.
Of course qualifying earns no points at all, so I was delighted to claim third place later in the day in challenging, wet conditions having led the race early on when the track was greasy from light shower activity. Unfortunately the conditions worsened, and my car didn’t have the set-up to content for the win, but that Townsville Sunday will be a day forever etched into my memory.
A driver’s pure speed is measured in qualifying, while claiming pole position in a Top-10 Shootout delights sponsors and serves to heighten the pleasure of beating your rivals head to head on a clear track, but like any meritorious performance, once you have tasted it you want more of it … and that will be very much my intention when we next contest a shootout, which just so happens to be at the Grand Daddy of them all, Mount Panorama in Bathurst - now wouldn’t that be nice.