PHOTO: Insyde Media
Cracking a full-time drive in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is hard work at the best of times and at the moment, it’s particularly tough.
Veterans of the sport like Craig Lowndes and Garth Tander are still at least a couple of seasons away from retirement, and the remaining mix of drivers on the grid who are well-credentialed, well-funded or a combination of both, has created the likelihood of a shortage of vacant seats for 2018 – an environment that is hardly favourable towards those aiming for a full-time, main-game drive.
However, a number of drivers are doing their best to audition for any of those rare, prized seats that become available. Let’s check out five candidates who are knocking on the door.
Currently: Aston Martin WEC driver, Prodrive Racing Australia endurance driver
Richie Stanaway is more than just another fast New Zealander who looks set to infiltrate the Supercars scene, his abilities have been proven at some of the highest levels of international motorsport.
His determination to succeed was demonstrated by the speed of his recovery from fractured vertebrae from a crash in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2012. Not only was Stanaway soon back in a race car, he was winning races in GP3 while also competing as a factory Aston Martin driver in the World Endurance Championship.
The 2015 season was particularly outstanding – in addition to his WEC commitments, Stanaway participated in the GP2 Series, winning two races for the lowly Status GP team, against opposition that included current McLaren Formula 1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne.
Stanaway ultimately missed an F1 chance, but returned to Australasia as a much more highly-rated driver than when he left the region at the end of his 2009 Australian Formula Ford Championship campaign. His Pirtek Enduro Cup campaign last year alongside Chris Pither was exemplary, and his one-off Dunlop Super2 Series drive at Sydney Motorsport Park on the weekend rocketed him to the top of the list of contenders for 2018 Supercars seats.
He will drive with Cameron Waters in this year’s Pirtek Enduro Cup races and more good performances will only assist his ambition to be on the Supercars grid.
Verdict: If there’s a spare seat at Prodrive Racing Australia in 2018, it has Stanaway’s name on it.
Currently: 1st in Dunlop Super2 Series, Brad Jones Racing endurance driver
After what seemed like years of struggling from one race meeting to the next, all while toiling away trying to generate the necessary dollars to keep on the track, the hard work for Todd Hazelwood, his parents Sharon and Russell and sister Loren is finally starting to pay off in 2017.
Hazelwood currently leads the Dunlop Series after breaking through for an emotional maiden race win on home soil at the Clipsal 500, before adding another first place at Symmons Plains and piecing together two dominant, lights-to-flag victories in Townsville. A slightly off weekend at SMP has seen Hazelwood’s points buffer eroded, but he’s still on top of the standings.
Hazelwood made his main game debut at Queensland Raceway driving his Matt Stone Racing Commodore as a wild card entry and doing as well as could reasonably have been expected, while also scoring an enduro drive with Tim Blanchard at Brad Jones Racing.
The South Aussie’s best chance of a main game drive in 2018 appears to hinge on the availability of a Racing Entitlements Contract for Matt Stone Racing to step up to the top level. It’s something Hazelwood’s major backer, canny businessman Jason Gomersall, is working on behind the scenes and if it falls into place, it would be rather symbolic of Hazelwood’s entire motorsport career – using creativity and pure determination to achieve the ultimate goal.
Verdict: Has worked hard to get to where he is, but his 2018 activities are now mostly going to be determined by what happens off the racetrack.
Jack Le Brocq
Currently: 3rd in Dunlop Super2 Series, Nissan Motorsport endurance driver
While not as blindingly fast as he was in 2016 with PRA, Jack Le Brocq has nevertheless done a good job aboard the Matthew White Racing-operated Nissan Altima in DVS this season, recording three pole positions and three race wins.
Curiously, his outright pace has not been as strong as some others over the last couple of rounds, although it’s hard to judge whether this is driver or car-related.
Like others on this list, Le Brocq has the credentials (including the 2012 national Formula Ford title) and ability to succeed as a full-time driver in the main game and importantly, he has an accomplished management team behind him in the form of David Segal’s Advantis Sports Management operation.
The tie-up with the Nissan Motorsport operation is also one that could prove beneficial if Todd Kelly (whom Le Brocq will drive with in the enduros) decides to step aside.
Verdict: Driving well and has the off-track ingredients in place, but may need to wait another year or two for a full-time seat.
Anton De Pasquale
Currently: 4th in Dunlop Super2 Series
After a rather quiet season learning the intricacies of a Supercar in an older-spec machine last season, the step into a new-generation Ford FG X Falcon has resulted in a meteoric rise up the DVS leader board for Anton De Pasquale in 2018.
De Pasquale’s talent has been backed up by his results in junior development categories – he was a sensation in go-karts, won his very first car race (Victorian Formula Ford Championship at Winton in 2012) and achieved one of the key metrics of aspiring professional racers – an Australian Formula Ford title – in 2013.
A trip to Europe yielded more success in the form of a Formula Renault 1.6 title in 2014, although the step up to Formula Renault 2.0 in 2015 was less fruitful and resulted in De Pasquale’s return down under.
This season, he’s chalked up two round wins so far and seems to keep improving at every race meeting. However – similar to Garry Jacobson last year – he hasn’t landed an endurance drive with a main-game team. Surely that will change next year.
Verdict: Clearly has the natural ability and talent, but a lack of available seats means his full-time main-game debut is more likely in 2019 than 2018.
Currently: 5th in Dunlop Super2 Series, Prodrive Racing Australia endurance driver
Defending a title in a feeder category can be fraught with danger – if you win again, it’s expected; if you lose, you are (sometimes unfairly) considered inferior to those who are beating you. And that’s the dilemma Garry Jacobson has been faced with this season.
Last year’s Dunlop Series Champion was left with little choice but to return to the series this year, with no vacant main game seats on the table.
Fifth place in the series after five rounds, with just a single race win to his credit, is probably not the sort of title defence Jacobson would have been planning, and largely reflects the fact that other teams now have access to the newer, “Car of the Future” spec vehicles.
But that still doesn’t explain why Jacobson has been outshone by drivers he had the measure of last season, such as Jack Le Brocq and Todd Hazelwood, who were also in COTF vehicles in 2016.
The manner in which Richie Stanaway (also in a Prodrive Falcon) burst onto the scene at SMP did Jacobson no favours in his quest for a full-time PRA seat and there will inevitably be comparisons between the performances of the two drivers in the Pirtek Enduro Cup races, where Jacobson will drive alongside Jason Bright.
Verdict: His stocks have copped a hammering this season, and he desperately needs to return to winning form to avoid falling out of calculations.
Of the other top 10 runners in DVS, Macauley Jones is well-placed for a full-time drive at some stage in the future (it helps when your family owns a race team) while Will Brown has backed up his Toyota 86/Formula 4 double titles with an impressive debut season in DVS, but needs at least another season before he’s ready for the main game.
James Golding is not racing in DVS this year but his wild card appearances at Winton and Queensland Raceway were solid and he will benefit enormously from the experience of driving alongside Garth Tander in the Pirtek Enduro Cup. Again, it’s unlikely we’ll see him full-time in the main game next year but his association with Garry Rogers Motorsport puts him in a good position for future seasons.
The Kumho V8 Touring Car Series is considered the third tier of Supercar racing in Australia, and yet the record of the series producing full-time Supercars drivers is patchy at best; of the drivers who have won the series since its inception in 2008, only Shae Davies has subsequently progressed to a (short-lasting) drive in the main game.
Nevertheless, there are some talents in this year’s series who are capable of progressing further, especially Tyler Greenbury, Jordan Boys, Jack Smith and Josh Smith (no relation).
In the past, Carrera Cup has been another source of young talent and this year Dylan O’Keeffe and Jaxon Evans (another Kiwi) have impressed at various stages of the season, but are both focused on pursuing opportunities outside of Supercars for the time being.
Cameron Hill has been the class of the field in this year’s Toyota 86 Series and is another with an enviable CV in karts and Formula Ford, but realistically needs a couple of seasons in a higher-level category to prepare him for the Supercars Championship.
Speaking of Formula Ford, the talent pool in this year’s series runs deep with names like Max Vidau, Jayden Ojeda and Hunter McElrea but it’s at least four or five years before we see any of these drivers in a full-time Supercars seat, if that’s their chosen career path.