A shocking accident for Toyota 86 entrant Craig Thornton forced repairs to the Turn 8 Armco barriers at Sandown, delaying Supercars Practice 3 at the Penrite Oil Sandown 500.
With just under four minutes remaining in Toyota 86 qualifying, Thornton lost control of his #71 entry at the exit of the fast left-hander Turn 6, overcorrected, and crashed heavily at the exit of Turn 8.
The heavy impact severely damaged the barriers, with Thornton’s car making contact at high speed.
Thornton exited his damaged car under his own steam, but gingerly made his way to safety, the accident clearly leaving its mark.
At first glance, the impact bent the barrier, but later inspections revealed a pillar had to be removed and replaced ahead of the final Supercars session of the day. Repairs took longer than expected, with the Supercars session delayed by over 40 minutes.
The notorious Turn 6 section underwent significant upgrades ahead of this weekend’s event, with a tarmac run-off area extended and angled, and a four-tyre deep barrier was placed in front of a new concrete wall, complete with catch-fencing.
The section caught out several drivers across all categories on Friday as they pushed to find the limit, with more margin for error available with no grass verge at the apex of Turn 7.
Notably, Jamie Whincup beached the #888 Red Bull Holden in Practice 2 at the Turn 9 sandtrap as a direct consequence of carrying too much speed through Turn 6.
Whincup fastest, then beached
Several other drivers either straightlined the corner or eventually slid off at Turn 9, including Chaz Mostert and Scott Pye at the end of Practice 2.
The parity debate over the Ford Mustang has raged on since the new model hit the track at Adelaide in March, while DJR Team Penske’s duel Bathurst dramas – the in-race team orders controversy, and the later engine breach from qualifying – has seen McLaughlin and Premat’s breakthrough win labelled as “tainted”.
The team orders controversy saw DJRTP cop a record $250,000 fine over for their role in instructing Fabian Coulthard to slow under the Safety Car, before McLaughlin was disqualified from qualifying and stripped of his Bathurst pole position after the #17 was found to have breached engine regulations in qualifying.
“Everyone says it’s been a tough year, but not really. It’s been the best year of my life,” he said.
“I’ve won 18 races, I’ve won Bathurst, the one I’ve always wanted to hit. Now with a second championship in a row, I’m really proud.
“When I came into the year, it was new for me as a champion, how I took on that role and how I had to be an ambassador for the sport.
“I feel like I’ve really learned a lot throughout the year and hopefully that will build me for future years as well.”
McLaughlin’s Ford team is still locked in a fight with arch rivals the Red Bull Holden Racing Team for the teams’ championship, with DJRTP holding a 116-point lead advantage over the factory Holden squad with 576 on offer this weekend.
However, having the drivers’ title sewn up has McLaughlin himself breathing easy after two previous visits to the coastal NSW city ended with two contrasting emotions.
In 2017, McLaughlin copped three separate penalties on the final day to lose the title to Jamie Whincup in dramatic fashion, before returning 12 months later to defy Shane van Gisbergen to win a maiden title.
This year, the drivers’ championship trophy is heading back to McLaughlin’s lounge room for another year, but that doesn’t mean he will take it easy this weekend.
“I feel like I can enjoy Newcastle for what it is a lot more. The last two years have been really stressful. I had a lot on my mind,” he said.
“To come here now, it is a lot a more relaxing, I can touch the championship trophy without feeling like I’m going to curse myself.
“I feel really excited for what’s not only going to be a good weekend for me, but the team and the fans.”
Regardless, rival drivers and team bosses have been unafraid to send a few jibes McLaughlin’s way in the wake of the parity debate and Bathurst scandals – but he firmly put the outside noise aside as he looks to finish 2019 on a high.
“I can’t control what other people say, what they do, what they judge us on, whatever,” he said.
“I control what I can control, and that’s driving this car as fast as I can. Every time I turn up to work, that’s my job.
“We’re race drivers. We all want to win. Any time you’re winning, everyone wants to drag you down somewhat and they’ll do whatever they can to do that.
“I’ve been surprised in what’s been said and what’s gone on, but that’s each to their own.
“Everyone conducts themselves in the way that they want to, whether that’s mature or professional, that begs to differ.”