Motor Sport Mark Fogarty, Willowbank August 05, 2012
CRAIG Lowndes has joined the hunters pursuing defending V8 Supercar champion Jamie Whincup, beginning his almost annual come-from-behind challenge at Queensland Raceway yesterday.
Lowndes moved into title contention with a comfortable victory in the opening leg of the Ipswich 400 as Whincup was forced to salvage third place after a bad start.
Their Triple Eight Holden Commodores were separated by the Ford Performance Racing Falcon of Mark Winterbottom, who was delighted to finish so strongly at the track where a year ago he was almost lapped.
While Lowndes dominated the 45-lap, 140-kilometre race, his build-up to the win was by no means easy.
His car had engine failure in final practice yesterday morning, forcing his team to fit a new motor for qualifying.
Despite the rushed change, Lowndes pipped Whincup for pole position to lock out the front row ahead of Winterbottom and Will Davison's other FPR Falcon.
The race was decided at the start when Whincup's clutch failed to engage properly and he was slow away, falling back to seventh place.
He gambled on an early pit stop for the mandatory change to the softer-compound tyres, charging back to third place at the finish to retain his championship points lead - albeit with his margin over Winterbottom reduced to 91 points.
Of more concern was Lowndes' fourth straight win at Queensland Raceway, at Willowbank near Ipswich, where he ignited his championship chase a year ago by emerging undefeated from last year's three-race event.
Although still fourth in the points standings, he gained 21 points on Whincup.
Lowndes' surge kept their title battle raging last year until the end, with Whincup only clinching the 2011 V8 crown in the final race.
The 38-year-old now looms as a serious threat, joining Winterbottom and Davison. While the Ford pair haven't been so formidable in the most recent races, Winterbottom regarded his runner-up finish yesterday as tantamount to a win, such was his team's woes this time last year.
"It's a big turnaround by the team," he said. "Second here is as good as a win."
This afternoon's second leg of the Ipswich 400 is a longer 60-lap, 200-kilometre race.
■In Jyvaskyla, Finland, French veteran Sebastien Loeb maintained his lead in his Citroen DS3 ahead of Finnish drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala after dominating the second day of action at the Rally of Finland.
Eight-time world champion Loeb maintained a five-second advantage on Citroen's Hirvonen with Latvala sitting third for Ford at 15.3 seconds behind.