Just how did Jamie Whincup go from being sacked in 2003 to a near-unstoppable force in V8 Supercars from 2008 onwards? Andrew van Leeuwen spoke to the man who made the star, Triple Eight boss Roland Dane.
At the end of 2003, Jamie Whincup’s career was on the ropes. The big break from Formula Ford to V8 Supercars through renowned talent spotter Garry Rogers proved to actually be a big bust, Rogers losing faith in the young Victorian and letting him go after an underwhelming ’03 season.
A crucial second chance followed in 2005; Whincup was snapped up by Tasman Motorsport as a second driver to Jason Richards. He returned as a full-timer hungrier and better than two years earlier, ultimately showing that he was indeed the real deal with an impressive supporting role as he and Richards finished a surprise second at Bathurst.
Second – one place ahead of Triple Eight's top finisher, the #88 steered by Steve Ellery and Adam Macrow.
Roland Dane, meanwhile, was in the market for a fast, young, Australian to slot in alongside superstar signing Craig Lowndes at Triple Eight for the 2006 season. He wanted a long-term prospect who could at least competently support Lowndes at the endurance races in the short-term.
That second place at Bathurst was exactly what Dane wanted to see from one of the guys on his shortlist. And it led to Whincup being given a life-changing opportunity.
“We looked at a few young drivers at the time, and considered guys that were at a similar point of development – Will Davison, Mark Winterbottom etc,” says Dane.
“We were very keen on having not only a young Australian in the car, but having the best possible partner for Craig at the enduro races. At that point we were allowed to put two regular drivers into the same car, and we thought that was the best way of ensuring we could win Bathurst.
“Jamie had a good run with Tasman at the enduros in ’05, so the main factors were that, and also his hunger. And his lack of interest in what he was going to earn; it was all about his enthusiasm to be in what he saw as a much better race seat than he’d been in before.”
The plan worked better than expected for Dane and Triple Eight. Not only did Whincup and Lowndes win the Bathurst 1000 in 2006, but Whincup suddenly emerged as a contender in his own right – including a shock solo win in just his second start for the team at the Clipsal 500.
Dane had not only found someone who could help win endurance races, but someone who had the genuine potential to becomes the sport’s new superstar.
“The old adage is true; if you’ve got a fast driver you can make them into a safer driver, but if you’ve got a safe driver it’s very hard to turn them into a fast driver,” says Dane.
“With Jamie, he was fundamentally quick, but there were some rough edges to polish off. An awful lot of that went on in 2006. He just scraped into the Top 10 of the championship in 2006, even though he’d had a good enduro season with Craig and won Bathurst. He still made too many mistakes along the way.
“In ’07, he really worked on those mistakes and put a stellar season together to come second.”
That second place in 2007 was by only two points, and Dane admits that it could, or perhaps even should, have gone the other way.
“I think he was pretty much there as a driver in 2007,” he says. “He would have won the championship that year if we hadn’t made a mistake with the fitment of the wrong brake discs at Eastern Creek.
“Jamie would have beaten Garth Tander to the title, frankly, if we hadn’t made that error as a team.”
Not that it really mattered. What was important was that Whincup had developed, in the space of 24 months, into the form driver in one of the world’s most competitive Touring Car championships.
Since then, he’s won six titles, and missed out on just two.
The next generation
Roland Dane and Triple Eight are now looking to make history repeat itself. This time, however, rather than taking on an unproven youngster, they’ve gone for the wild, but incredibly fast, Shane van Gisbergen.
According to Dane, signing van Gisbergen offers a new take on the same challenge the team faced with Whincup back in 2006.
“Shane is a fair bit further along that path than Jamie was,” he says.
“He’s a regular race winner, and he’s proven himself very much over the last three or four years. Now it’s just a question of turning him into a very regular race winner, rather than a spasmodic race winner.
“The biggest thing for him is having consistent delivery of the car, and everything that goes with it. It needs to be less up-and-down, and more consistent, from the point of view of the team delivering the platform for him.
“And then he’s got to be more consistent on-track.
“He’s got to understand when to use which aspect of his skill set. Jamie can be pretty spectacular in his own right as well, but he also understands when to be smooth and contained.
“You saw that with Shane when he won on the Sunday at Homebush last December – he knows what it takes. Jamie, by his own admission, should have beaten Shane that day – he was on the better strategy.
“Shane drove a very controlled race, so he’s shown he can do it when he needs to.”