Bringing you Part 2 in the series of interviews I did for V8 Supercars outlining how I think the main contenders will fair in this years V8 Championship Series:-
The Enforcer’s Contenders: Prodrive
Russell Ingall looks at Triple Eight’s main rival in part two of his 2016 contenders series.
Last year, two-time Bathurst winner and 2005 Champion Russell Ingall didn’t just watch on as an expert FOX SPORT commentator – he had the opportunity to get behind the wheel at the year’s biggest races with two of the top teams in pit lane.
With v8supercars.com.au, Ingall has named his top contending teams for the 2016 championship, and this week looks at Prodrive Racing Australia, for part two in his series.
The fan favourite, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, labelled Prodrive “almost equal” with Triple Eight, who he reviewed here last week.
But he gives current champion Mark Winterbottom the edge over Chaz Mostert in 2016, after filling in for the young gun last season.
Ingall talks through the team’s strengths – as witnessed first hand at the Gold Coast when he drove with young gun Cameron Waters – and why they’ll push Triple Eight’s three stars right to the wire.
Ingall admits that before he drove for Prodrive last year he never had much to do with team boss Tim Edwards. But after spending time within the team, at both the track and workshop, he was impressed by the feeling amongst the group and the calm of Mark Winterbottom behind the scenes.
He doesn’t mind Edwards’ explosive comments, either.
“Reflecting on the 2015 series, I think both team and driver were both deserved winners,” Ingall said.
“I think Mark’s copped a lot of criticism in the past for being the ‘nearly’ man – I only know too well about that after finishing four times runner up. I was seen as getting a bit edgy, but his stats of finishing in the top five in his career are pretty impressive.
“Ok, everyone counts the winners and forgets the rest, but his consistency over the years has been pretty remarkable – probably the highest of any other driver. It was probably only a matter of time before he actually got a championship.”
The FOX SPORTS expert believes both Winterbottom and the team lifted, and dispelled some of the negative reputation it gained over the years.
“I think as a team they were definitely the strongest team as a whole with car speed – because that’s the team, they extracted a lot of speed from the new Falcon … they did a great job with the car, they made very few mistakes, they made good pit strategy calls, all the things they were branded with in previous years, they’ve definitely fixed.”
Ingall was impressed with the team and felt a definite harmony within the group.
“Every single team up and down pit lane has got issues internally – any team that says they don’t, they’re just lies. Every team has issues, it’s just the extent of those issues. It’s a tough gig – you’ve got a lot of individuals living in each other’s back pocket every other weekend and it’s a hard sport, there’s a lot of finger pointing that goes on. I think they seem to manage that the best of what I’ve experienced in the past.
“I think the team dynamics were very good – good engineering base, good mechanic base, the way they engage their sponsors is very good – which is important.
“As a whole, it was a good vibe, so I give them a good tick for that and make no mistake, it’s as big a part of it as anything. Because, unless that’s right, you’re not going to win the championship. You’ve got to have the whole deal running.”
While Ingall says Prodrive will need to find some speed before Clipsal, he’s confidence there are improvements to be made.
“There’s no doubt Red Bull picked it up so they have to find a bit of pace.
“I think after driving the car there are bits and pieces there that could make it quicker – there’s pace in the car.
“All in all … I still believe Red Bull have the strongest overall challengers in the drivers, but Prodrive with Winterbottom isn’t that far away. So I think he’ll definitely be on the list of top threes for sure.”
Ingall puts ‘Frosty’ up there as “equal first” with the Red Bull drivers after his performance last year.
‘The Enforcer’ is the first to admit he had doubts about Winterbottom holding on for his first championship victory, once Triple Eight came on strong in the second half of the year.
“Everyone was waiting for him to fall over at the last hurdle and he didn’t,” he said.
“Even I thought that … but after I spent that Gold Coast race with them, I think he played along with the media a little bit as far as that bit of presuming he wouldn’t win.
“Behind the scenes, he was the most relaxed I’ve seen a race driver considering he was going for the win. I think he had it under control. He knew what he had to do, where he had to finish, he had enough confidence in himself that even though Red Bull had picked up their pace, he could still finish it off and still be competitive, which he was.”
Many current drivers commended ‘Frosty’ on earning ARMOR ALL Pole Position on Saturday in Sydney when he had to deliver, and Ingall was equally impressed.
“I changed my view from the Gold Coast race … to be quite honest unless the car broke he was going to win it so there were no problems with that at all.
“That’s not only a team turnaround as far as the mistake side of things, but I think Mark’s found a bit of inner strength as well in keeping it together.
“It’s a tough gig when it’s coming down to the crunch [when you’re] at the last round and then you’ve got to finish the deal. It’s pretty nerve wracking stuff – this is the thing a lot of these drivers have worked for, for years, it doesn’t happen too often, not too many people get it across the line and now he’s got his name on the cup. I think he did a remarkable job.”
A consistent top five finisher, and a Bathurst winner from 2013, Ingall says Winterbottom isn’t just a flash in the pan, and will be more threatening now he has one title under his belt.
“All of a sudden the weight’s off the shoulders and you know how to do it, the pressure’s off to do it because you have already done it once – let’s go again.
“So I think he’ll still be very strong in the season of 2016 and I still think he’ll be a championship contender.”
While Winterbottom’s win was a big story from 2015, his teammate’s was colossal. Ingall’s assessment of Mostert may surprise some people, though.
“I think there’s a question mark on whether he’s actually a championship winner,” he said.
“I’m just not too sure. It’s a fifty-fifty in my head at the moment – but make no mistake, out of the top five drivers in the category he’s definitely amongst that.”
There were some costly errors during Mostert’s season, which gives Ingall the impression he may need a bit more time before challenging the likes of six-time champ Whincup and centurion Lowndes.
“I still think he’s a year or so away from it. I still think he’s got a little bit of learning to do and there were a few crashes and shunts and a few mistakes. I think there’s still another season there to get it absolutely refined.
“Mark, I suppose it took a lot of seasons before he actually got it down pat to string a full season together, and I still believe there’s another year as there’s going to be some pretty tough competition from Triple Eight.
“It’s not going to be an easy run – overall I’d still be thinking Mark would be a little bit stronger, especially out the gate. But if Mostert can hang in there in the top five until mid way through the year, I think he’ll be strong at the end.”
Ingall does acknowledge he would have been Winterbottom’s nearest rival last year without the accident.
“What happened was just so freakish and so bizarre,” Ingall said.
“The injuries he sustained that put him out for the rest of the year – otherwise at the end of the day, he was probably going to be Mark’s ultimate challenger. We would’ve been talking about Mostert in Sydney, not about Lowndes as far as who’s going to win the championship.”
Acknowledging how amazing it was for Mostert to be in contention so soon after joining the championship mid-2013, Ingall credits his qualifying ability as his biggest asset.
“That’s what’s going to put him in a strong position – that ability alone to pull that one lap out because qualifying is everything … ultimately that’s what Lowndes’ downfall was, average qualifying.
“Chaz has got that in spades and up to a point even better than what Mark was, so if he can maintain that this year there’s no reason at all – but barring no injuries affect him at all he can be hot on the list of contenders.”
Heading to the hardest race of the year at the Clipsal 500, Ingall says Mostert will need to keep a cool head and ease into the season, coming back from his broken leg, wrist and knee issues.
“There’s no doubt it messes with your confidence a bit – that was one of the biggest shunts we’ve ever seen in V8 Supercars, and it would knock you around … play on the mind a little bit and make you more cautious.
“But that’s just a matter of blending into it for a couple of rounds, getting the fitness back up and then pressing on with it. So that’s why I’m sort of saying, maybe, it’ll be tough for him to be an outright contender.”
What do you think of Ingall’s analysis of Prodrive? Comment below and head back to v8supercars.com.au for next week’s analysis from the FOX SPORTS expert and former champion.