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Conrod, Straight - Issue 8

11/8/2006 22:06 (Michael Shaw) - Welcome to the 8th issue of Conrod, Straight. It has been a little while since the previous issue, but there hasnít been too much to talk about. So in light of this, I will do a little half-term report. I thought weíd look for any patterns in the results by looking at the statistics.

Weíve completed six of the 13 rounds this season and itís still very close in the championship. Only 32 points separate Garth Tander and Craig Lowndes, which switches over to a 34 point lead in Lowndesí favour, after their worst results are dropped.

Keeping to the points table, there is an important marker which I use to see how likely someone is to be a championship contender by the final race of the season. This works best with championships with a high number of points. Basically, itís looking at who is within one round of the lead Ė 320 points for the V8 Supercar Championship.

Using the adjusted points, this creates a list of seven drivers: Craig Lowndes, Garth Tander, Rick Kelly, Mark Winterbottom, Russell Ingall, Mark Skaife and Steve Richards. Jason Bright, Paul Dumbrell, and Jamie Whincup are all just outside this range and so shouldnít be counted out, at least in a mathematical sense. Of these three, only Bright has shown a consistently high speed, though has been lagging in the results compared to the contenders ahead of him.

Mark Winterbottomís impressive improvement in results over last year is the standout performance. Some of that has to go to Ford Performance Racingís increase in competitiveness over the break. Both Winterbottom and Bright have made it into five of the six Top Ten Shootouts this year. The improvement is most easily seen in the reliability. It is something that has made it possible for the team to progress by improving testing, feedback and virtually everything.

Only two drivers have competed in all of the shootouts so far Ė Rick Kelly and Skaife. Tander should have been in this group but a problem with the weight check during qualifying, at Winton, caused his times prior to the problem to be excluded. He actually went faster later in the session but officials decided, without checking the timing records, that as the times were so fast they must have been done before the infringement. They were, quite simply, wrong and so Tander was relegated to 11th. Had there been more time between the end of qualifying and the start of the shootout, it may not have been an issue; but there are only a handful of minutes in which to make these decisions, putting officials under pressure to make a decision immediately.

Looking at the entire field, there have been a total of 17 different drivers in the Top Ten shootout and yet only 3 have been able to take out pole position; 2 a piece to Skaife, Bright and Tander.

Moving on to Round Results and things are not as varied but are still impressive as there have been five round winners; Jamie Whincup, Mark Skaife, Steven Richards, Garth Tander each have a win, with Craig Lowndes having had 2. There have also been 22 different drivers finish in the Top Ten. It's still difficult to make it to the podium though, as only ten of these drivers have cracked a top three result.

In the races, there have been seven different winners. Dean Canto is the exception amongst the race-winners as the only driver currently outside the current the top 12. His reverse grid win, while artificial in nature, was still well driven and deserved under the circumstances.

16 drivers have finished in the top three and 26 in the Top Ten; reverse grid racing has helped diversify the results beyond the top few. Of the drivers who have competed at every round (remembering that Morris has been switching drivers around in his teamís second car), only three havenít had a Top Ten race finish: John Bowe (11th), Brad Jones (18th) and Lee Holdsworth (12th).

Iím most disappointed with the performance of BJR, and I know the team are even more upset. The engine deal with Stone Brothers was meant to be the turning point for the team after a downturn in results in the last couple of years. What has gone wrong?

Itís difficult to pinpoint any one cause for BJRís situation. The speed of SBRís engines this season does appear to be inferior to last year; then again, it could just be that the Tom Walkinshaw Performance Group teams have improved to a level above the field and left SBR lagging. It is unlikely to be the engines that are putting BJR so far down the field, with an 11th from John Bowe their best result of the season. There appears to be an inherent understeer problem in the cars, and nothing the team do can get rid of it. The solution for BJR may be a couple of brand new cars, even though the current ones arenít exactly ancient.

I know there are some people who will say that the problem lies with the drivers. While there is no escaping the fact that both Bowe and Jones arenít young anymore, they still have the fighting spirit, which can be seen through the frustration caused by their striving to extract as much pace from their cars as possible.

James Courtney is finally heading towards the front of the field. After a disastrous start, with three big crashes in just two rounds, he has made it into the top three in a race. Queensland Raceway will have been a huge ego boost for Courtney. In spite of being SBRís test track, and therefore the first track heís known this year, the ability to run at the front of the pack, until an engine failure put him out of the final race, is reassuring to both himself, and to Ross Stoneís faith.

Courtney has also been improving his qualifying. At QR he made it into his first shootout and acquitted himself well, with 3rd on the grid. On average, Courtney has been only 0.69s from first in standard qualifying.

Keeping the subject on qualifying, I have had a look at qualifying times. The bad news for Britek is that one of their cars has been the slowest in qualifying on five occasions, the exception being Mark Porter in Pukekohe. The field does spread markedly at the back, as the gap between the last two cars on the grid has never been less than a third of a second and yet only greater than that margin once at the front of the grid.

The driver to suffer most between qualifying and the race, as everyone can easily guess, is Mark Skaife. He averages within 0.14s of the fastest qualifier. Tander, as second best can only keep within 0.2s, even with his correct qualifying time for Winton. Russell Ingall averages at almost 0.6s and Marcus Marshall has only once been within a second and a half of first.

Extrapolating from a purely statistical view, the championship is going to come down to a three way fight between Rick Kelly, Tander and Lowndes. They have one-third of all possible race podiums shared between them, plus one-third of all round podiums as well. The only people to come close are Ingall and Winterbottom; only these five have an average race finishing position below inside the ten.

Ingallís single round podium stems from his poor qualifying because his reliability has been impeccable. The differences between Garth Tanderís and Rick Kellyís race results are negligible, though Tander has the edge everywhere. This leaves Oran Park as a turning point in the championship.

Statistics, however, can never tell the entire story. They donít explain why things are happen and only shows trends that have already occurred. For instance, it doesnít explain why Garth Tander has managed to finish inside the Top Ten in every race except the first at Pukekohe; that is the type of run that can win a championship.

With Oran Park being the last of the sprint rounds before the enduros, itís the last chance to Ďaccumulateí points. Bathurst and Sandown, even with the dropped round scenario, are a minefield of possibilities. Any hint of unreliability will take its toll and could mean the difference between winning and losing the championship. The difficulty is that in recent years it has been an HRT and SBR hunting ground and that trend is more than likely going to continue.

Release Date: 11/8/2006