Lowndes maintains Vodafone's perfect start
27 March 2009
TeamVodafone's Craig Lowndes smashed the lap record multiple times en route to an unchallenged win in the first Sprint Gas Racing Manufacturer's Challenge at the ING Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne.
Having nailed pole in the Top Ten Shootout and overcome a hiccup on the start line, the veteran easily accounted for Ford Performance Racing's Mark Winterbottom, beating last season's championship runner-up by a massive 5.7secs over the course of the 15-lap sprint, and was a further four seconds ahead of Toll Holden Racing Team's Will Davison.
Lowndes had said that, going into the Shootout, he was confident of getting close to the qualifying lap record of 1min 57.5723secs he had set during Thursday's qualifying, but ultimately came up a little short. However, his frontrunning pace clearly carried over into race one.
“The car is brilliant,” Lowndes enthused, “We were lucky enough to get a break on the field and, when you do that, you can really start looking after the car and the tyres a bit more."
Lowndes looked as though he might have blown it on the start line when he almost slipped sideways on the greasy surface. Winterbottom saw the slip and dissected Lowndes and Davison to take the lead into turn one, but the TeamVodafone ace waited just two more corners before pulling a big move on the inside of the FPR machine, After that, it was shut the gate.
“I was good enough to sneak up on the inside, and it would have been great today if the race ended at turn one,” Winterbottom admitted.
Lowndes set consecutive lap records to stretch away over the second and third laps and, by the end of lap three, had already established a huge 3.2secs lead which only grew as the race went on as he broke his own record a further couple of times.
Behind him, the action was aplenty, mostly between Davison and Toll Holden Racing team-mate Garth Tander. The two were duelling for third in the opening laps when Tander attempted to make a move. Surprisingly, his team-mate didn't yield, and Tander was pushed wide, losing track position.
Davison had been far from disappointed at just being pipped to what would have been his first ever V8 pole - then revealed that he and Tander were instruction not to damage their cars in the race in an effort to help Holden retain the Challenge title it scooped on the back of a Tander hat-trick in 2008.
“It's very challenging coming out today," he admitted, "We haven't had track time today at all - it was straight into a one-lap Shootout, which was very tough to get to the limit.
“We're under strict instructions not to scratch the cars this weekend, all of us. It is a show race and we're really just trying to use it as a test session, use different things for the cars. For me, it's just about mileage, so to be up the front is just a bonus. “
As a result of the HRT clash, Jim Beam Racing's Steve Johnson and Team BOC's Jason Richards were able to slip through and, within two corners, Tander went from a potential third to sixth. It only got worse for the 2007 champion too, and he was classified as a DNF after 13 laps.
Lowndes' team-mate, Jamie Whincup, proved that he also had a rocket of a car by lapping up eight places to rise from 15th to seventh after a disappointing qualifying session, and chased Wilson Security Racing's Fabian Coulthard to the line.
Shane van Gisbergen, Todd Kelly and Team Autobarn's Paul Dumbrell completed the top ten as Holden was shaded 6-4 by the Blue Oval, while Team WOW's Cameron McConville and Intaracing's Marcus Marshall both secured top twelve results.
“The car is better than what it showed,” Kelly insisted, slightly disappointed with his position, “The clutch got stuck on at the start and the car started to wheelspin a few seconds before the light went so, when the race started, I lost a few spots and the rear tyres were completely cooked. I didn't get to recover so, given that, the pace wasn't too bad. All things being equal, I would have had the speed of the guys around me and in front which is promising.”
Marshall was altogether happier, having posted the best result to date for the new Intaracing squad.
“We moved up a place from where we started, which was good," he pointed out, "I really enjoyed today, especially being able to mix it up with some of the faster guys and, overall, I was a lot higher up than I have been in the past - which is fantastic for a team which was established just a few months ago. We had a really strong car at the start of the race, and I was able to hold off Jamie Whincup for a few laps. We are still learning how to set up the car so it will remain strong throughout the race - we are halfway there, so it's just a matter of me working with the team and tuning the car a bit better. The top ten is a major goal for us and we are just two spots away from achieving this.”
The second Jim Beam Ford, driven by James Courtney made up for a disappointing qualifying session by coming home 16th, but Steven Richards found himself slipping backwards in the second FPR entry, eventually coming in 19th. Lee Holdsworth, unlike Courtney, was unable to make up ground in the lead Valvoline Cummins Holden, finishing a lap down in 26th, ahead only of the non-finishing Tander, Rick Kelly, Russell Ingall and Dale Wood.
Kelly had started from twelfth position in the second Jack Daniel's Holden and was holding station until hit from behind and spun around by Richards' Ford at turn twelve on lap seven. The clash resulted in a badly flat-spotted tyre and Kelly chose to pit rather than risk further damage on the wounded tyre when there were no points at stake.
“We didn't get a good start, but the car was going quite well,” Kelly said, “We've made a few improvements since practice and have learnt a lot. The team is excited about our pace and the potential the car has got. Again, we got hit by 'Richo' - he hit us under brakes and punted us off the track again. We flat-spotted a tyre and it was a bit risky staying out there.”
The Sprint Gas Manufacturer's Challenge continues with race two on Saturday evening.