V8 Supercar Championship Series frontrunners Garth Tander and Mark Winterbottom remained uncertain as to how the tough Phillip Island circuit, and the endurance format that runs there this weekend, will affect their chances, despite topping times on the opening day of the L&H 500.
Winterbottom, who currently lies just twelve points behind leader Tander in the standings, set the fastest lap in the two-and-a-quarter hours of practice, as he teamed with Ford Performance Racing co-driver Steven Richards to set a 1min 33.5330secs effort. Tander and Mark Skaife, pairing under the Toll Holden Racing team banner, were less than a couple of tenths behind, while James Courtney and David Besnard put the Jeld-Wen Ford third fastest.
Defending '500' champions Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes were only 15th fastest in the Vodafone Falcon, but is hoping to improve on that as he seeks to consolidate third in the championship.
The effects of the caustic Phillip Island surface on tyres, and the tactics for tomorrow's two super-sprint races, gave way only to cautious optimism from those concerned.
“It was nice to have the car work well out of the truck and we are quite happy, but tomorrow may be another issue though,” Winterbottom said, “For sure, on Sunday, track position is the key and the weather may play a part in that. But, tomorrow, who knows what the right strategy will be.
“The long race will be hard on tyres - usually here, in the sprint races, by lap 20 we are looking for a pit call to get tyres. So it's going to be hard here and, when tyres get worn, then mistakes happen. It's going to be interesting.”
Team-mate Richards said the Ford Performance team did not run enough laps to get an idea of tyre wear, but was happy that the team were able to complete all of the different set-ups to prepare the car for qualifying tomorrow. It was a tougher start for Tander and Skaife, however, after their car developed a steering issue in the first stint.
“That put us a bit behind the eight-ball but, generally, we had good speed although we have a few balance issues to sort out,” Tander commented, believing it will take a combination of skills to negotiate a way through the weekend with the two 14-lap races on Saturday shared between both drivers before the 113-lap 500km race on Sunday.
“I reckon the team that thinks best on its feet for the short races, but has thought about it best for the long race that will prevail,” he noted.
Further down the pack, Will Davison, fifth in the championship standings, was fourth quickest for Jim Beam Racing Ford, just ahead of Rick Kelly (HSV Dealer Team) who is one stop ahead of him in the championship. Jason Bright's Fujitsu Racing Ford ignored its recent mediocre efforts to be sixth fastest, ahead of the Garry Rogers' Holden pair of Greg Ritter and Lee Holdsworth. Russell Ingall was ninth fastest for Supercheap Auto Racing, while Shane van Gisbergen's SP Tools Racing Ford rounded out the top ten.
There is a further practice session and qualifying ahead of the two 14-lap races on Saturday, where points won will be combined to determine grid position for Sunday's 500km marathon.