Jamie Whincup and the Red Bull Holden Racing Team have combined to land the first blow on the streets of Newcastle, with the seven-time champion ousting Cameron Waters and teammate Shane van Gisbergen in a hotly-contested Practice 2.
Whincup launched to P1 late in the 30-minute session to set a session-best 1:10.3173s – but Waters’ #5 Monster Energy Mustang was just 0.0057s down the road, with van Gisbergen a further 0.0549s down.
The top eight were separated by a scant 0.1301s, with Practice 1 fast man Scott McLaughlin fourth in the session, just 0.0666s down on Whincup’s lap.
David Reynolds – who brought out an early red flag due to an off – was fifth in the #9 Penrite Racing ZB Commodore, ahead of Mark Winterbottom (#18 IRWIN Racing ZB Commodore), James Courtney (#22 Walkinshaw Andretti United) and Fabian Coulthard (#12 Shell V-Power Racing Mustang).
Todd Hazelwood continued his strong Friday pace to drop the #35 SS Signs ZB Commodore into ninth, with Lee Holdsworth (#5 The Bottle-O Racing Mustang) rounding out the top 10.
The tight margins, although skewed somewhat by the changeable weather conditions, have set up the top two teams for a weekend-long battle for the teams’ championship.
World champion Ott Tanak crashed out of the Monte Carlo Rally on Friday when he flew off the road on a mountainside in the Alps in the fourth stage.
The Estonian and his co-driver and compatriot Martin Jarveoja escaped unharmed but their Hyundai was badly damaged.
Tanak went off the road at high speed. The car’s nose dipped and hit the ground bouncing the vehicle into the air. It spun through a tree before landing on the mountain side. The two Estonians quickly climbed out of the car unscathed.
“They’re fine,” said Hyundai team manager Andrea Adamo.
“I don’t know what happened. You saw what I saw, I’m waiting for him to come back but I was mostly concerned about his physical health.”
Tanak, 32, has never won the Monte Carlo Rally. He was in fourth place overall when he crashed.
His teammate Thierry Neuville was leading going into the stage from Saint-Clement-sur-Durance to Freissinieres but finished third, ceding the overall lead to Welshman Elfyn Evans in a Toyota who also won Friday’s opening stage.
“I was slowed down so much in that section,” Neuville, a Belgian, said.
“I knew there was something when I saw Ott’s lines, so I lost quite a lot of time.”
Frenchman Sebastian Ogier, in a Toyota, was second on the stage and is third overall, 5.5 sec behind Evans and 2.1 sec behind Neuville.
“I hope Ott is okay,” Ogier said.
“It was a very fast section where he went off with a big compression.”
The temperature was below freezing overnight and while there is not a lot of snow on the roads, patches of ice have made the route difficult since the start on Thursday evening.
Several drivers have already been forced to retire after going off the road, including Britain’s Gus Greensmith (M-Sport Ford).
“Unless somebody pulls a rabbit out of a hat, then I think we’re set for a really exciting year between, Mercedes, Ferrari, ourselves. And it could be a real classic season.”
The mouth-watering prediction made by Red Bull’s Christian Horner in the closing stages of last year after the 2019 campaign finished with a competitive and unpredictable run of races.
Only two seats may have changed hands on the grid over the winter, but stability – both in terms of team personnel and F1’s rules themselves – offers the prospect of an even closer battle for honours this year.
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Plus, 2020 offers the rather significant spectre of Lewis Hamilton chasing down F1’s two greatest records.
So with just a few weeks to go until we see the new 2020 cars for the first time, and just under a month until the sport goes testing, here are nine early reasons to be very excited about the F1 year ahead.
Hamilton’s quest for a record-equalling seventh title
Sixteen years after Michael Schumacher set a record that at the time was considered unassailable, Lewis Hamilton starts 2020 just one more world title away from F1’s benchmark of seven crowns.
Verstappen in a first F1 title fight
Are Red Bull, Honda and their star Dutch driver ready to take on Mercedes all-year long? On the evidence of a fine 2019, Max Verstappen certainly appears poised for a first true run at the title.
Welcoming Vietnam and the Netherlands
Vietnam’s vibrant capital, Hanoi, will host F1 on a new street circuit in April, while Zandvoort in the Netherlands returns in May after a 35-year absence ready to welcome Verstappen’s Orange Army.
Midfield pack closing the gap
Stable regulations ahead of F1’s 2021 reset should mean that gaps are closer than before through the field, with former champs McLaren and Renault among those most keen to make up ground on the Big 3.
Big deals in the driver market
Verstappen and Leclerc may have secured new big post-2020 deals early, but most of the grid are still out of contract at the end of this season. Could Lewis go to Ferrari? What will Seb do for 2021?
More races than ever before
22 races, 22 countries, for the longest Formula 1 season ever. The campaign begins in Australia on March 15 and ends in Abu Dhabi on November 29.
Vettel vs Leclerc II as Ferrari bid to end drought
Into their second season as teammates, Vettel and Leclerc will hope that their battle for supremacy this year at Ferrari is closer to the top of the Drivers’ Championship battle. Can Ferrari deliver?
Hamilton hunting down Schumacher records
Seven to tie, eight to take the record outright, Hamilton ended 2019 with Schumacher’s record of 91 race wins firmly in sight. He is also just five more podium finishes away from another new record.
The continued rise of F1’s new generation
Expect to see further compelling evidence that F1’s driving future is in very safe hands. Norris, Leclerc, Verstappen, Russell, Sainz, Ocon to name just a few.
This article was originally published by Sky Sports and reproduced with permission.