Supercars move into Texas
TOWNSVILLE, Texas, and my team-mate Garth Tander have dominated the pre-race build-up to this week's annual V8 Supercar visit to tropical North Queensland.
The seventh championship round on the (2.9km) Townsville street circuit is the halfway point of the season, and the battle for the title is hotting up.
Jamie Whincup continues to lead, but his points advantage was cut from 262 to 156 by fellow-Team Vodafone Commodore driver Craig Lowndes in the previous round in Darwin in June.
Shane Van Gisbergen (SP Tools Falcon), who is third in the championship, and fourth-placed Rick Kelly (Jack Daniel's Commodore) also outscored Whincup in Darwin and are next best among the title contenders.
Texas is on the V8 Supercar radar after last week's announcement (as revealed exclusively by Drive days before) the new Circuit of the America's track in Austin will host a championship round for five years, starting in 2013.
The 5.5km circuit will also be a venue for Formula One and MotoGP races so it's going to be an impressive facility when completed in mid-2012.
There are rumours V8 Supercar Championship organisers may try and lure some American-based drivers for Austin, including Australia's NASCAR competitor Marcos Ambrose, and if so that will help promote the event to motorsport fans in the United States.
Tander has also been in the news in the past week. The 2007 V8 Supercar champion ended speculation over his future by signing a new deal to continue with the Toll Holden Racing Team until the end of 2014.
I've enjoyed working with Garth in my first year as an HRT driver, and it's good we will remain team-mates because it provides continuity and stability for the future.
The Townsville round starts today with practice. There will be 200km races tomorrow and on Sunday, with separate qualifying sessions for each.
This is our third visit to Townsville and it is one of the most successful events added to the championship calendar since I entered the series fulltime in 2006.
More than 160,000 fans attended in 2009, and 152,000 turned up 12 months ago, which is staggering considering Townsville's population is 185,000.
This event attracts fans from North Queensland, and the warm climate is also a lure for motorsport enthusiasts in the southern States who want a mid-winter holiday combining racing with a fishing trip on the Great Barrier Reef, or camping at Magnetic Island.
Townsville has been a successful circuit for me. I won a race there in 2009 and was second in race two the following year.
The track is partly located in open parklands, and reminds me more of the Albert Park layout in Melbourne, compared to the Gold Coast street circuit which is surrounded by high-rise buildings.
There has been a change in the tyre regulations for Townsville this year.
In our previous two visits we raced exclusively on Dunlop's durable 'control' tyres for both races.
However, this year cars will be allocated a set of soft-compound 'sprint' tyres for each race, and we will drive on the 'control' rubber in the remaining laps.
The 'sprint' tyres can be used at any stage of the races. This will produce varying strategies depending on whether you run the 'sprint' rubber in the opening or closing stints.
In-car temperatures can reach about 60-degrees because of Townsville's warm climate, and the heat getting trapped between the concrete walls. These races test your fitness more than most.
Championship points (after round 6):
Jamie Whincup (Holden) 1,395
Craig Lowndes (Holden) 1,239
Shane Van Gisbergen (Ford) 1,134
Rick Kelly (Holden) 1,082
Steve Johnson (Ford) 1,030
Will Davison (Ford) 1,020
Garth Tander (Holden) 1,013
Alex Davison (Ford) 963
Mark Winterbottom (Ford) 961
Jason Bright (Holden) 920
Other: James Courtney (Holden) 679