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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Jamie Whincup says sport still strong despite ‘strange’ Brodie Kostecki saga

Seven-time Supercars champion Jamie Whincup believes the strength and interest in the category remains high, despite a tumultuous off-track period.

Coverage of the sport has been dominated in the past fortnight by the ongoing Brodie Kostecki saga.

On a sporting level, his absence – and also that of Shane van Gisbergen – has prompted claims that the talent pool in the category has been decimated.

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Only two former champions will be among the field when practice begins for the season-opening Bathurst 500 Friday week. Mark Winterbottom’s 2015 triumph is the most recent of those.

James Courtney, who won the 2010 series for Dick Johnson Racing, is the only other champion on the grid.

Since Winterbottom’s triumph for Ford Performance Racing, only four drivers have won Australia’s premiership motorsports category – Whincup, van Gisbergen, Scott McLaughlin and Kostecki.

Before Kostecki’s split with Erebus, Whincup – who is now a part-owner of the Triple Eight team with whom he won each of his crowns – retired from full-time driving at the end of 2021, while McLaughlin and van Gisbergen have each headed overseas for careers in IndyCar and NASCAR respectively.

Whincup said the Kostecki saga was “strange”, but that the lack of champions gave the sport an opportunity to reset.

He said Supercars executives should be buoyed by the massive crowd that attended the team’s livery unveiling at the Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport last weekend.

“We’re obviously focused on our job, which has been to launch our cars,” he told Wide World of Sports.

“About 10,000 people rocked up to see a new livery and get Supercars on the way, (so) the sport’s strong if you do it right.

“But outside of that, it has been quite a strange week.

“I’m an opportunist in some regards, so I see that as an opportunity to crown a new champion in 2024, which is exciting. 

“I’ve got two guys that haven’t won a championship yet, so I’m hoping I can create a new champion.”

Van Gisbergen and Broc Feeney finished second and third in the standings behind Kostecki last year. Erebus also topped the teams championship over Triple Eight.

Feeney is heading into his third season in the sport. Kostecki’s former Erebus teammate Will Brown will step into the seat vacated by van Gisbergen.

Feeney and Brown have both proven to be among the most exciting talents on the grid. Both won races throughout 2023, Brown even briefly led the championship.

“We don’t count the chickens before they hatch, but we feel confident,” Whincup said.

“I believe we’ve got the youngest, most exciting driver line-up the category has seen for a long, long time, and I’m just as keen as anybody to see how that pans out. 

“We’ve got two brand new cars, we’ve got a solid engineering lineup, we’ve got stability – all the engineering team are exactly the same as they were in 2023. 

“Right now, all the pieces of the puzzle are certainly there to do a good job, but it’s sport and it comes down to the human element and it comes down to who steps up on the day.”

Draft calendars had the season starting with a 500km event on the streets of Newcastle, but it was moved to Mount Panorama after the Newcastle Council withdrew support for the race.

Whincup clinched his final championship title at the inaugural season-ending Newcastle 500 in 2017. It ended the season again in 2018 and 2019, before a two-year pause during the pandemic.

The event returned to the calendar as the season-opener in 2023 on a standalone one-year deal while the state government negotiated a long-term extension.

Council informed Supercars in October it had withdrawn support of the event, citing heavy pressure from locals. 

While Supercars are hopeful of returning to the town in the future, the Newcastle Herald reported on Monday the council would shortly begin works to re-install permanent roundabouts and raised pedestrian crossings in key areas of the circuit. 

Contracts between Supercars and the government stipulate the season must begin in NSW, and so off to Bathurst they go.

Whincup said losing the Newcastle event was disappointing for the sport.

“If I’m honest, I’d love to be at Newcastle. I think it’s a fantastic event to start the year,” he said when asked his thoughts on Bathurst as a season-opener.

“But because we can’t go there, then Bathurst is the next best thing.”

The Bathurst 500 forms the second leg of an unofficial motorsport festival at the circuit, which begins with the Bathurst 12hr – which Whincup will be driving in – for GT3 cars this weekend.

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