Four rounds down and nine to go in the 2006 V8 Supercar Series. Both Ford and Holden have taken the fight to each other and each have two wins apiece, however there are always those who, at the end of the year - will decide this championship because of consistency, speed, memorable strokes of brilliance and most of all - the winning synergy between driver, car and team. Crash.net V8 Supercar Reporter Matthew Agius takes a peek at who will be in with a shot come season's end.

If you look down pitlane, there are only a few drivers who can claim to have held a Australian Touring Car Championship trophy above their head. Russell Ingall, Mark Skaife, Craig Lowndes and John Bowe are the only four current competitors to have won a title and when these champions accomplished their wins, they all possessed top machinery, polished teamwork and the mentality required to win the championship.

All were unique - Ingall had his consistent approach, Skaife his masterful determination, Lowndes his natural talent and Bowe his undenied experience. Former champion Marcos Ambrose - now departed to a new challenge abroad - possessed the incredible X factor of the uncanny ability to dominate on any given day.

These are skills required to win the most competitive touring car series in the southern hemisphere. The V8 Supercar Series has already reduced former Formula One tester and Sportscar ace James Courtney from an international superstar to a minnow in a fiercely competitive pond. Yet as the season progresses through its start-of-year sprint campaign, only a handful of competitors have shown what it takes to win this year's championship.

Orange is the new RedContenders: Rick Kelly and Garth Tander

The Toll HSV Dealer Team is a competitive unit in 2006. Drivers Garth Tander and Rick Kelly sit first and second in the championship standings (on non adjusted points) and each have shown the pace necessary to net race wins. Both drivers have won the Bathurst 1000 during their respective careers and with a competitive package in both HSV units this year, could really contend at the two endurance events in winter and spring. Whilst not winning any rounds in 2006, the pair has been two of the best reverse-grid racers, and have stood on the podium numerous times. With the Black and Orange VZ Commodores leading the Teams' Championship as well, the Toll HSV Dealer Team is currently the outfit to beat.

'The Kid' en route to go one BettaContender: Craig Lowndes

2005 V8 Supercar Championship runner up Craig Lowndes has really flown the Ford flag in 2006. That's not to say he hasn't been challenged - teammate Jamie Whincup and the two Ford Performance Racing Falcons have kept him honest - but in reality, Lowndes and his Betta Electrical Ford are the benchmark Ford runners at this stage in the championship. His round win in Winton represented a return to the very front of the field, after languishing outside the top three after the first race at the Clipsal 500. His car certainly appeared more competitive in country Victoria by comparison to his on/off package in Perth, but Lowndes really must capitalise on good car speed at the next three rounds at Hidden Valley, Willowbank and Oran Park to take the challenge to the championship frontrunners.

The red lion roars againContender: Mark Skaife

Mark Skaife leads the adjusted points championship for the Holden Racing Team with a round win to his name in New Zealand. At this stage in the championship the five-time Australian Touring Car Champion and Bathurst 1000 winner is tied with fellow racing legend Peter Brock on thirty-seven ATCC round wins. Skaife has since been unable to take a thirty-eighth win and the record for himself, however remains a hot favourite for this year's title. His natural speed, and gutsy determination are factors that few of nowadays drivers possess. Indeed, it is these qualities which have allowed Skaife to make the most of poor machinery to grab a good result - notably at Winton when he couldn't match the pace of the front running drivers. At this stage in the championship, Skaife leads on adjusted points, however with no points scored in Adelaide, the HRT boss must finish, and finish well at every remaining round up to and including Bathurst.

Beware Holden's Dark HorseContender: Steven Richards

Steven Richards was one known as the V8 paddock's "Mr. Consistency". This year he has successfully netted one round win, and along with the new look Perkins' Motorsport operation, he and his Jack Daniel's Commodore are looking good early in the championship. The biggest problem facing Steven Richards and boss Larry Perkins is using the experience of their lower-funded team to its limits whilst cashed-up outfits like the HRT and HSVDT and the Blue Oval's Ford Performance Racing and Triple Eight squads. True, Richards is one of the most qualified drivers in the field, yet to take a championship win, and his form thus far in 2006 has been very good. The main challenge facing Richards is good qualifying. At the opening two rounds he qualified eighteenth and eleventh, but then grabbed sixth at Barbagallo (which he later won) and fifth at Winton. Averaging tenth in qualifying is not the best place to score maximum points in this championship, and this is where the title will be won or lost for the talented New Zealander.

And at a long shot...Dark Horses: Jason Bright, Mark Winterbottom and Russell Ingall

The three above mentioned drivers have what it takes in one respect or another to win the championship, yet at this stage in the series, it looks unlikely that either one of these drivers could bag the title. Jason Bright has suffered too much early bad luck to be seriously considered a definite aspirant - with setbacks in Adelaide, Pukekohe and Barbagallo really hurting the 1998 Bathurst champion's chances. However his recent run of good form has drawn attention, and if he can consistently finish in the top five then his odds may dramatically shorten.

The same can be said for his teammate Mark Winterbottom. 'Frosty' could realistically be rated as a top contender, as he sits forty-eight points adrift of Skaife on adjusted points. However Winterbottom has only just begun to battle at the pointy of the grid in V8s this year. Whether he can handle this pressure is as yet unseen - he is talented, but can he maintain his current momentum through til November? His next few rounds will be the major indicators on whether or not the ex-Formula Ford champion can win a title in 2006.

Defending Champion Russell Ingall has been touted as a championship contender every year for the past half-decade. His level-headed nature of recent years has dramatically increased his chances of winning the title, but with a Caltex Falcon not as good as in previous years, the British-born, Adelaide-raised superstar may need to revert to some trademark 'Enforcing' if he is to retain his crown into 2007.

Supercheap cars don't win championshipsPretenders: Greg Murphy and Cameron McConville

The unfortunate clich? of having Supercheap Auto sponsoring your car is that cheap car parts are unreliable. Well unfortunately for Cameron McConville and Greg Murphy of Supercheap Auto Racing, this untasteful reference is proving correct. Whether it's the old Holden Motorsport chassis, the Perkins Engineering powerplants, or just plain bad luck, cars #50 and #51 have not performed to the expectations of team, drivers or spectators. The other critical factor is the pilot. It looks as though neither McConville nor Murphy can push their cars to the limit for good results - and this is the reason neither race-winner sits inside the top fifteen of the championship (adjusted points).

Kelly's last standPretender: Todd Kelly

One of the best drivers in the field, it seems unfair to call Todd Kelly a pretender. But whilst his qualifying pace thus far in 2006 has indicated good things to come from the Holden Racing Team number-two, the pieces of his championship puzzle have not fallen into place. Poor reliability and unfortunate incidents have cost 'Toddler' in 2006 - who has been one of the biggest sufferers of reverse grid racing. A shot at enduro wins in 2006 is all that Kelly has to look forward to as he sits twelfth in the championship standings. It looks increasingly likely that last year's Bathurst champion can only find solace in race and round wins for 2006, as his hopes of claiming the title have gone begging early in the year.

The remaining rounds of the first section (sprint events) of the 2006 V8 Supercar Championship Series will be contested at Hidden Valley in Darwin, Queensland Raceway at Ipswich and Oran Park near Sydney before the two enduros at Sandown and Bathurst.

 

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