HISTORY and Victoria's variable weather indicate there could be an unpredictable finish to this week's L&H 500 endurance race at Phillip Island.
The ninth championship round is the first endurance event of the season, and the traditional lead-up race to the Supercheap Auto 1000 at Bathurst, held this year from October 6-9.
In the past three years the Phillip Island enduro for two-driver teams produced dramatic finishes and late lead changes.
Team Vodafone's Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes dominated most of the 2008 race until a rain storm, and Toll Holden Racing Team drivers Garth Tander and Mark Skaife took the win.
The following year the Whincup-Lowndes combination led at the start of the final lap, but were slowed by a tyre problem which enabled Tander to make a pass and win the race for HRT.
In 2010 Whincup and Steve Owen led for lengthy periods and then an oil cooler problem forced an unscheduled pit-stop, allowing Lowndes and Skaife to drive to victory in the other Team Vodafone car.
These results were proof of the unpredictable nature of endurance racing, and the challenges teams face with car and engine reliability, performance, and team-work with efficient pit-stops and strategy.
Weather is another variable at this race because Phillip Island in September can mean four seasons in one day.
If the weather changes the most important factor is timing pit-stops so that you are racing on tyres that best suit the track conditions at the time.
Teams monitor weather patterns closely, because decisions on when to fit cars with 'slick' tyres suitable for a dry track or grooved wet-weather rubber, and vice versa, have a massive influence on results.
Practice on the 4.5km Phillip Island circuit starts on Friday. There will be separate qualifying sessions and 60km races for both drivers in all teams on Saturday to determine the grid for Sunday's 400km event.
Winners of the two qualifying races on Saturday will score 50 championship points each, and victory in Sunday's main event is worth 200 points for both drivers.
As in 2010, teams cannot pair their fulltime championship drivers together at Phillip Island. Cars will be raced solely on Dunlop's durable 'control' tyres.
Team Vodafone look strong with championship leader Whincup driving with Andrew Thompson, and Lowndes back with Skaife for a second successive year.
Whincup holds a 98 point lead over Lowndes in the championship, so it will be interesting to see how their personal battle for the title and rivalry develops within the same team.
I'm sharing my HRT Commodore with Cameron McConville at Phillip Island and Bathurst. He is very experienced, having driven in the championship fulltime for a decade up to the end of 2009.
In 2010 Cameron was with HRT for the endurance races, and that's a plus because he knows the team and how it operates.
Cameron has been very competitive in testing. Importantly, we are a similar size so we don't have to make any adjustments with seat positions or anything else for us both to be comfortable in the car.
HRT completed preparation for Phillip Island with a test session at Winton in Victoria earlier this month. Tander will drive the team's other car in the endurance races with Nick Percat.
My best previous result in the Phillip Island enduro was finishing fourth in 2009.
CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS (after round 8):
Jamie Whincup (Holden) 1,895; Craig Lowndes (Holden) 1,797; Shane Van Gisbergen (Ford) 1,502; Rick Kelly (Holden) 1,418; Steve Johnson (Ford) 1,345; Garth Tander (Holden) 1,321; Mark Winterbottom (Ford) 1,321; Will Davison (Ford) 1,302; Alex Davison (Ford) 1,255; Lee Holdsworth (Holden) 1,140. Jason Bright (Holden)
1,043. Other: James Courtney (Holden) 819.
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