The Supercars finally return to Melbourne to tackle the new Albert Park circuit, but Shane van Gisbergen will be the man to beat in a familiar challenge.

After just one weekend off after a bruising round in Tasmania, the Supercars descend on Albert Park for the first time in two years for the Australian Grand Prix.

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The new track offers teams and drivers a new challenge, but the question remains the same after two rounds and five races: can anyone stop Shane van Gisbergen?

The Kiwi two-time champion stretched his legs at Symmons Plains after an imperfect opening in Sydney and has taken back control of the championship standings.

It’s early days yet, but the record looks ominously similar to his strong start last year that catapulted him to the crown.

SuperCars return to Albert Park.
SuperCars return to Albert Park.Source: Getty Images

NEW TRACK, NEW CHALLENGES — BUT WILL THEY BE GOOD FOR THE SUPERCARS?

The Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit has been revitalised in preparation for the return of the event after its two-year pandemic hiatus. It’s missing two corners, other corners have been sped up and the track generally is a lot faster than the 1996-spec edition thanks to the extended back straight.

The modifications have been aimed squarely at improving what had become a stale F1 spectacle around the quarter-century-old track, and while some of the same idea will apply to improving the Supercars showing, not everyone’s convinced the overall effect will be positive for tin-tops.

“I don’t know if it’s going to create more passing or less passing,” 18-season Supercars veteran Mark Winterbottom told the Supercars website.

“I actually think it might create a little bit less because turn 9 used to be quite an interesting passing spot.”

The removal isn’t a problem for F1 because the new straight section will be enhanced with a DRS zone, the fourth around the track. But there’s no such system in the Supercars despite the series having its own problems with aerodynamic wake, which can create serious understeer for a following car.

Winterbottom isn’t also yet convinced by the widening of some corners.

“Turn 13 is wider now which means the braking zone should be a little bit deeper and a bit faster. So again, that might take out a passing spot.

“The second-to-last corner has got a big, flat, rumble strip on the inside as opposed to a really tight one, so that might be a little bit quicker now and potentially take out a passing spot.

“So on paper I think it might be less chance of passing, but then when you go out there might be completely different.”

But Supercars has a habit of generating excitement even when on paper there’s little reason to

expect it, and the challenge of a newly resurfaced circuit combined with the tweaked layout will at Least be a potential error generator over the four days of running.

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CAN VAN GISBERGEN PICK UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF OR WILL DJR BITE BACK?

The full set of drivers will have spent the weekend off licking their wounds and considering ways to stem the flow of points to Shane van Gisbergen, who harangued and muscled his way through the field in Tasmania to sweep all three races in a display of dominance.

The Giz, meanwhile, was trying his hand at off-road racing in the Australian Rally Championship’s Canberra leg.

He finished second on debut. Not bad.

The two-time Supercars champion has limited off-road experience — though his father, Robert, was a rally driver — and he hopes to fit in more rallying when his calendar allows.

It all serves to underline the good place Van Gisbergen finds himself in. He’s at the peak of his powers, and it feels like there’s little that could slow him down on track or off road. He’ll arrive at Albert Park buoyed not only by this rich vein of form but also by the fact he’s clocked up seven victories around Albert Park

Shane van Gisbergen will again be the one to beat.Source: Getty Images

However, all of those wins came in the non-championship era of the Supercars’ appearances at the grand prix. Instead the points-paying form at the track has been with Dick Johnson Racing and Ford most recently, Scott McLaughlin having won three of the four races in 2019. Chaz Mostert, then in a Tickford Mustang, won the other, which McLaughlin failed to start.

It’s been a long time since the series last raced here, and the track has been reconfigured, but it shares some traits with Sydney Motorsport Park, where DJR was a match for Triple Eight, Anton de Pasquale having finished on the podium in both races.

“We’ll be a bit stronger there than [in Tasmania],” De Pasquale said after a sole podium from three races at Symmons Plains, per the Supercars website. “The style of track [suits] the strengths of ourcar, but a fair bit has changed too.

How much that’s changed in the philosophy of the car and previous data, we’ll find out.”

WHO’S UNDER PRESSURE?

Walkinshaw Andretti United had a shocker in Tasmania.

Off the back of victory in the second race in Sydney to claim the title lead, Chaz Mostert slumped to 23rd, fourth and 18th at Symmons Plains, while teammate Nick Percat fared little better on his way to 24th, 11th and 10th.

Some of the lacklustre scorecard was borne of technical problems, like Mostert’s power steering issue during Saturday qualifying, which later had him involved in a tangle with Mark

Winterbottom and David Reynolds, such is the risk you take when starting out of position.

But the team also struggled to nail set-up over the compressed two-day weekend. It meant even the clean qualifying sessions went poorly, and with making up ground around the punchy

Symmons Plains circuit always difficult, the race results were equally underwhelming.

Can Chaz Mostert bounce back?Source: Getty Images

Mostert in particular would do well to not dwell on the points turnaround, outscored as he was by 172 points by the relentless Van Gisbergen. He’s now dropped to 145 points off the championship lead after leading the standings at the start of the weekend.

Consistency wins championships, and the best teams don’t have bad rounds. Even Van Gisbergen’s rough second race in Sydney landed him a creditable sixth, and it’s that level of dependability that makes up the gap from WAU to the frontrunners.

One could argue calculations are purely academic when Van Gisbergen is driving the way he was in Tasmania, but Mostert and WAU can’t afford to drop scores to the reigning champion or Triple Eight early — now 267 points up the road — lest its presumptive title challenge is snuffed out after barely a handful of rounds. This is an important weekend to getting the season back on track.

WHAT’S THE FORMAT?

The Melbourne 400 runs to a unique format for the 2022 season, with the 400-kilometre event

spread across four days of action starting this Thursday.

Teams and drivers get two 30-minute practice sessions on Thursday, at 11:05am and 12:30pm,

before a pair of quickfire back-to-back 10-minute qualifying sessions from 3pm, both of which will make use of the soft-compound tyres.

Two more back-to-back 10-minute qualifying sessions kick off Friday at 9:40am, though these two will require drivers to use the hard compound, a spanner in the works around a new track that will likely see dramatic evolution in grip as the surface rubbers up.

Four races then follow, with one on Friday afternoon, two on Saturday and the final on Sunday as the curtain-raiser for the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix.

All four races will run to 20 laps and require one mandatory pit stop featuring four tyre changes.

Five bonus points per race are on offer for the fastest lap. The weekend’s overall winner will take home the Larry Perkins Perpetual Trophy.

It’s always a frenetic weekend for Supercars at Albert Park, and with a new track and new

challenges, their 2022 return promises to be no different.–



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