How a Supercars backmarker team turned the tables
Nick Percat's victory in a wild 2016 Clipsal 500 for LD Motorsport stands as one of the more surprising wins in recent Supercars history, but owed more to excellent strategy and canny driving than luck.
Nick Percat doesn't do ordinary when it comes to race wins. He's twice been a winner in the top-tier of Supercars racing, both triumphs as sensational as they were unexpected.
The first was the famous Bathurst 1000 win alongside Garth Tander in 2011, in what was just Percat's third main game start. Yes he was driving a factory Holden Racing Team entry and yes, Tander had put the car on provisional pole. But few expected the pairing to be able to match the likes of Craig Lowndes/Mark Skaife, Mark Winterbottom/Steve Richards and Jamie Whincup/Andrew Thompson over the course of the race.
A rookie Bathurst win would generally be tough to top in the 'didn't see that one coming' stakes. But five years later, on the soaked streets of his home town Adelaide, Percat did something even more remarkable. He won the Sunday leg of the Clipsal 500 for the minnow LD Motorsport team.
Given the promise Percat showed in the build-up to his Supercars career – Walkinshaw backing as a junior, a record-breaking win count in Formula Ford, that '11 Bathurst win – it took a long time for him to get a foothold in the main series having spent another two years as a co-driver.
It wasn't until 2014, right when Percat was close to jumping ship to Dick Johnson Racing, that a full-time spot was finally made available at Walkinshaw Racing. That long-awaited first full season yielded a solid 12th in the points, Percat under the impression a plan to have him back permanently in one of the sister HRT cars by 2016 was full steam ahead.
But things took a U-turn at the end of the year. James Rosenberg handed the Racing Entitlements Contract that had been underpinning the fourth WR entry back to Supercars, that spot then taken over by former Dick Johnson Racing co-owner Charlie Schwerkolt. And Schwerkolt wanted Lee Holdsworth, not Percat, for the seat.
Percat was rocked by the news that his eight-year Walkinshaw journey was over and he only had a single full main game seat to show for it. But he wasted little time securing his spot on the 2015 grid.
He called on Holden Motorsport boss Simon McNamara and good friend Lucas Dumbrell, the three setting up a two-year lifeline deal for Percat at LD Motorsport within hours of the Walkinshaw news being made official. It may not have been Percat's preferred option at that stage of his career – LDM was a bonafide backmarker – but there was a certain romance to it.
When Dumbrell had lost the use of his arms and legs in a tragic Formula Ford crash at Oran Park in 2008, Percat was his team-mate. In the difficult years that followed, Percat was a consistent figure by Dumbrell's side.
Percat spent most of his first season as an LDM driver mired in the midfield. He then missed the last two rounds due to a blood infection caused by a nasty foot burn from hot pedals on the Gold Coast.
When the 2016 season kicked off in Adelaide the following March, Percat's season couldn't have got off to a worse start. The bonnet on his car wasn't fastened properly before Saturday's race, which meant it flew open on the warm-up lap. Then the battery died and the car rolled to a stop. Percat was forced to walk back to the pits as the race got underway.
Understandably Percat didn't arrive back at the circuit on the Sunday expecting to be in the hunt for victory. There was one thing he was expecting, though. And that was rain.
Years of cycling around his home town had taught him to read the weather, and he told team manager Barry Hay to be ready for a downpour shortly before the race.
"After the lap to the grid there's that period of time where you're waiting for the five-minute board," Percat recalls. "I ducked around to the bathroom and then bumped into Barry Hay near the truck. I said 'the weather will come from there, and we're going to cop it. So be ready'.
"That was a legitimate conversation we had. It was genuinely a bit of local knowledge. When I go riding in Adelaide I start from within a kilometre of the track. I'm always watching where the weather comes from."
As the start drew closer the rain started to fall. By the time the two-minute board was up it was teaming down. There was then a delayed start due to Aaren Russell's car stopping on the warm-up. When the race did finally start, it was behind the Safety Car. At that moment a time certain finish was almost guaranteed.
But even if drastically shortened, the rules stated the minimum 140-litre fuel drop – ie, cars have to take on at least that much fuel during a race – would still apply. Percat's engineer Chris Stuckey made a race-defining call to start pumping fuel into the LDM car whenever possible.
He sacrificed the 15th starting spot to pit for fuel on Lap 3. When it came time to switch for slicks on Lap 20, more fuel went into Percat's Holden. Eight laps later, when the Safety Car was called to clear Chaz Mostert's crashed Tickford Falcon, Percat pitted for a return to wets and more fuel.
On Lap 36, when the Safety Car came back out after race one winner James Courtney's crash, Percat made one last stop. There was just enough space in his tank to hit that 140-litre mark. It was the only car to have done so at that point.
It wasn't just the strategy that fell his way either. Despite the windscreen wiper dying on the warm-up lap, the car was a rocket in the wet. Percat was able to recover track position after each stop. When the race was red-flagged on Lap 42, Percat was sitting sixth. He feels that was on merit, and the strategic advantage was the cherry on top.
"That was about where I thought I would be," he says. "The car was seriously good in the rain. I kept the thing in a straight line and figured out pretty quickly where the big puddles were. We didn't have any fogging on the windscreen. The wiper wasn't working, but it didn't fog.
"As long as there's no mud you're okay, and on a street track there's only a little bit of mud. When it got dirty I'd just follow the car in front when it went hunting for water down the straight, to get the spray and clean it off.
"When the race was red-flagged and we were all lined up, Chris came to the door and said 'don't do anything silly here, you're in the top six'. I said 'this thing is fast, I'm going to try and win it'. He looked at me and said 'just keep it on the island, we're in for a good result for this team'."
When the race restarted Percat didn't bother trying to pass the cars in front, knowing that he'd satisfied the fuel drop and had the range to get home. As expected, he filtered his way into the lead as others stopped, the race coming down to a thrilling battle with DJR Team Penske's Fabian Coulthard.
Percat actually didn't need to beat Coulthard to the line, as the Kiwi hadn't taken on enough fuel and was destined to cop a post-race penalty. But he did anyway, ensuring LDM's maiden win was won on track, not thanks to a stewards report.
"When I watched the replay back I laughed at how soft the thing looked compared to Fabs' car, when we were having that battle," says Percat. "It was pulling the inside front wheel up into the second-last corner and things like that. By chance our dry set-up was way too soft!
"When I was having that battle with Fabs, I knew that even if he sent it up the inside, there was a very high chance I'd just drive back past on the exit. That was my thing all race; I'd just turn under people into Turn 7 and then just drag race them up to Turn 8. I had that much rear grip."
To win in Adelaide, and in a Holden, was something special for a proud South Aussie with a family history long-connected to the brand.
"It was the full fairytale," he says. "With the Holden connection through my family, winning in Adelaide was huge. My dad and grandad could not believe it.
"I'd been going to that event since I was born, I was there in 1988 when it was still the Formula 1 race when I was three months old. I used to watch the cars going around as a kid and think about how cool it would be to drive anything around that track, let alone be on the grid racing Supercars. It was a very surreal moment."
Perhaps even more special than the win itself was sharing a hug with Dumbrell amid the celebrations.
"When we got to parc ferme I could see how happy he was," says Percat. "The level of effort he put in just to get his arm around me... that was special.
"I know how limited his movement is, so to see him get the big wind up to make sure he could get some shoulder movement to hug me was amazing."
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