On Lap 135 of the race, then third-placed Fabian Coulthard slowed and held up the field, enabling him to avoid stacking behind then second-placed teammate Scott McLaughlin in the pits. Coulthard later received a drive-through penalty for his actions before finishing sixth, while McLaughlin drove to an historic victory alongside Alex Premat.
On Sunday, a week after the race, CAMS confirmed McLaughlin and Premat would keep the win. However, the Coulthard/Tony D’Alberto entry was relegated to last, while DJRTP was docked 300 teams’ championship points and fined $250,000.
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Coulthard was initially found to have breached Rule D10.2.2.3 of the Supercars Operations Manual, which states that drivers must “maintain a maximum distance of five Car lengths from the Car in front” when notified of the deployment of the Safety Car.
On Lap 135, the gap between McLaughlin and Coulthard blew out from one second to 47 seconds and, according to the stewards’ report, “the distance between them had increased to in the order of 1km”.
However, while Coulthard slowed dramatically when notified of the Safety Car deployment, holding up those behind, leader Jamie Whincup and McLaughlin continued at near race speed en route to the lane.
Drivers usually drive at near race speed on in- and out-laps under Safety Car in order to catch up with the queue, which is then brought to Safety Car induced speeds. In this case, there was still over two kilometres of track length for the leaders to navigate until the Safety Car picked them up.
One quick fix would be to employ the use of a Virtual Safety Car-like system, which Formula 1 introduced 2015. Cars are not only disallowed from overtaking under yellow flag conditions, but are forced to reduce speeds. Already, Supercars introduced a warning light system which notifies drivers on their dash, and was first used in Bathurst.
Speaking to The Loud Pedal podcast, Lee Holdsworth — who was one driver disadvantaged in the Bathurst drama — suggested a move to the Code 60 system used in endurance racing.
Code 60 is a flag system used to neutralise a race, which not only maintains gaps between cars in the race, but also allows marshals to safely attend to on-track incidents — and Holdsworth believes it’s the way to go should Supercars want to avoid future furores.
“We’ve had a few dramas with Safety Cars lately, and it’s about time we solve it,” Holdsworth said.
“We’ve run the same system now for a long time, and other categories have made headway on what they do to not have the race result affected by the Safety Car.
“Let’s bring in Code 60 … we’ve finally put the warning lights into the dash, so that was a good thing on the weekend.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s have it implemented into the series next year.”
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Had there been no Safety Car, considering the gaps and fuel numbers prior to the Lap 135 deployment, it’s likely Holdsworth would have emerged around the front of the race along with Shane van Gisbergen. However, Coulthard’s actions created a gap which allowed Whincup and McLaughlin to pit and retain track position.
Regardless, as the Safety Car was deployed, double stacking was unavoidable for many. While many would have played the fuel game, track position nevertheless played a part in how the field sorted itself out from the Lap 137 restart to the end of Lap 161.
Critically, it’s not only a question of racing to the rules, but also a question of safety. Yellow flags neutralise all racing on track. If the pit lane is left open, then drivers are encouraged to race to the pit lane, and potentially past the scene of an accident — at speed.
Supercars trialled closing the pit lane under Safety Car conditions at April’s Phillip Island SuperSprint. While mainly due to the compact nature of Phillip Island’s pit lane, the trial was a safety move to avoid congestion in the lane — although many argued that it would render in-race strategy homogenous, and sanitise the spectacle.
Another idea could be to keep the pit lane itself open under Safety Car, but close pit exit. Teams can pit their drivers in Safety Car conditions, but they’ll be stuck at pit exit, effectively penalising them. That would then encourage teams to pit early to negate the fear of being trapped by a Safety Car at exactly the wrong moment in their strategised pit window.
Code 60 — which could be immediately deployed as officials ponder over a full Safety Car deployment — effectively neutralises the race, with cars kept at a safe speed.
However, the racing gaps remain. Bringing the field under the Safety Car at least keeps them in proximity by a restart, which is obviously as entertaining a spectacle as there is.
However, Holdsworth acknowledged the entertainment aspect of the sport, and doesn’t believe a new system should replace the Safety Car altogether.
“I don’t want to see us going down that road of Formula 1 where the Virtual Safety Car replaces the actual Safety Car,” Holdsworth said.
“I still want to see Safety Cars, because it promotes racing.
“It means no one is disadvantaged or advantaged by the Safety Car.”
Garth Tander — whose co-driver van Gisbergen missed the win by less than 0.7s after the final-lap dash — agrees that a Code 60-like system would not only force drivers to maintain gaps, but it would also guarantee the safety of marshals and medics attending to an crash site.
“You won’t see the scenario that took place on the weekend,” Tander said.
“You won’t even see the scenario that happened at Pukekohe, because the first thing that happens is when the Safety Car boards are put out, the field instantly goes to Code 60.
“It’s like a Scalextric track, where everyone’s on the same track, everyone’s going the same speed.
“The gaps stay the same, but everyone’s going the same speed. You’re going 60, doesn’t matter if you’re at the end of Conrod or at the Dipper.
“It neutralises the field … it stops the field backing up, it stops the field getting caught by the Safety Car. You’re not racing back to the pits setting purple sectors.”