Ipswich Supercars fever clicks into top gear
A WEEK out from the annual Ipswich SuperSprint showcase at Willowbank, it's not only the drivers and fans getting excited.
Long-time Supercars officials like Cole Hitchcock still experience the buzz of excitement just as much as the spectators and those preparing to race around the 3.12km Queensland Raceway "Paperclip'' circuit.
Next weekend's Supercars Championship series is the 21st time it's being run in Ipswich, with only six points separating frontrunner Scott McLaughlin and Jamie Whincup. Third-placed Fabian Coulthard is just 158 points from pole position.
"We're probably similar to rugby league (NRL),'' said former national sports writer Hitchcock.
"Everything is so close and so tight and anyone can win on any given day.''
Hitchcock, the Supercars General Manager Corporate Affairs, said the resurgence of Dick Johnson Racing heightened interest in the popular duel between competitors racing Falcons and Holden Commodores.
"It's actually looking really positive,'' he said.
"We're having a great championship with the Shell guys challenging the Red Bull guys. The Red Bull guys dominated Ipswich last year.
"But we've got Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard and the likes of (Mark) Winterbottom and Chaz Mostert.
"They are just starting to come into form now. They had a bit of a patchy start to the year.''
Last year's Saturday round winner Shane van Gisbergen will join second placegetter Whincup in trying to keep the Red Bull Holden team in the title hunt.
Shell-V-Power's McLaughlin and Coulthard are racing at the team's home track.
Queensland Raceway has special significance for popular Team Vortex driver Craig Lowndes, who remains the most successful driver at the Ipswich circuit with 12 race wins. He won the Sunday race last year from Whincup and Mostert.
Hitchcock said the closeness of the championship was due to the increased professionalism of teams backed by the likes of American legend Roger Penske.
"It's just pushed everyone to lift another level,'' Hitchcock said.
"Like rugby league is at the moment, it's getting so much better and better.
"Everyone is getting dragged up and the level of competition is becoming even more intense.''
This year's round in Ipswich starts next Friday with practice across the five categories, featuring the Supercars first warm-up session at 12.55pm.
Next Saturday's big program concludes with the 15th race in the Supercars series, over 39 laps (120km), starting at 4.15pm.
Next Sunday's main event is race 16 in the championship - a 65 lap (200km) trip where points will be vital at this stage of the season.
Hitchcock, working at Supercars for 12 years, said the state of the championship provided many fascinating stories heading into next weekend.
Apart from the frontrunners, he said top drivers like James Courtney were looking to get their seasons back on track.
"They are the people I want to see come through the pack a little bit and I'm sure at some stage they will,'' he said.
To celebrate the arrival of Supercars' drivers in Ipswich, fans are invited to a community BBQ at Coates Hire's branch, Churchill, from 4-5pm on Thursday.
Handy information: Coates Hire Ipswich SuperSprint (July 28-30) at Queensland Raceway, Willowbank
Tickets: On sale through Ticketek on 132 849, via www.ticketek.com or at any Ticketek agency, including the main gates of the precinct.
Public transport: Ipswich Station is located approximately 20 minutes from Queensland Raceway. Shuttle buses will run from the station to the Raceway on Saturday and Sunday only. Refer to the shuttle bus information for all times. These shuttles are not wheelchair accessible. For all other public transport information, refer to the TransLink website: www.translink.com.au
Gates are open from: Friday - 8am to 5.30pm. Saturday: 8am-5.30pm. Sunday: 8am-4.30pm.
Track information: Circuit length: 3.12km. Circuit direction: Clockwise. Average speed: 162km/h. Maximum speed: 255km/h. Fastest point: Entry to Turn 1. Slowest point: Turn 4. Queensland Raceway was quickly dubbed the "Paperclip'' because of its six-turn design and lack of elevation. Changing temperatures can make this circuit a massive challenge for drivers and engineers as its grip level changes at different times of the day. Despite its simple layout, QR tends to provide entertaining racing with passing chances at turns 1, 3, 4 and 6.
Autograph sessions for fans at Queensland Raceway are planned for: Saturday - from 9.15am-9.45am. Sunday: 9.30am-9.45am at the rear of team garages in the Supercars Paddock.