ABU DHABI // Jamie Whincup's motorsport journey resonates to a familiar-sounding tune. The reigning V8 Supercars champion's first flirtation with the screeching tarmac setting of a race track, like so many other pedal-to-the metal world-beaters, began in a single-seater go-kart.
Long before he achieved track stardom, Whincup, then seven, took delivery of his first kart. Regular glances in his V8 Ford Falcon's rear-view mirror aside, the 28-year old from Melbourne has never looked back. Having watched the majority of his racing friends and rivals filter towards Europe, their fledgling dreams dominated by Formula One and Ferrari fables, Whincup - who has raced outside of Australia's borders only in his trusty V8 - remains with his chosen path. And with good reason.
He would never admit it, but the humble-to-the-core Whincup strolled through last season. All he needed to crown a second successive championship in the year's final fixture was last place. But this natural racer's pride repressed the notion to drive timidly. A title-costing retirement averted, Whincup finished fifth to complete the job. "I'm Aussie born and bred and have raced go-karts for years," said Whincup, as he finalised his preparations for the V8 Supercars series' debut on Yas Marina Circuit this weekend. "My parents were heavily involved in motorsport anyway and they bought me my first go-kart.
"I raced that for a few years then went straight into Formula Ford and then V8s. A lot of my mates went over to Europe and tried to make the Formula One dream happen, but most of them didn't make it. The Whincups are not a wealthy family and I had no opportunity to go overseas, so I just tried to do the best with what I had in Australia." That mission has been accomplished. Whincup may not be a household name beyond the realms of Oceania, but establishing himself as the best driver in the all-power, all-aggression world of V8s, Australia's leading motor-sport series, has made him a big deal Down Under.
"To win the biggest championship in the country for two years running makes me very proud," said Whincup, who believes he is in his prime. "Not only for myself but for my folks too. It's my seventh year in V8s but a lot of the opposition have been around for 10 years plus. I feel like I am in the middle; we've got the new guys, the middle lot, like me and Will [Davison, last season's runner-up] and the older guys."
The Supercars' arrival at Yas Island - they head north for Bahrain's Desert 400 a week later - represents one half of a spectacular Middle East double-header to ignite the new V8 season. Having previously contested rounds in Bahrain and China, Whincup is relishing the opportunity to play his part in the latest expansion. "We're an Aussie show but we're open to new audiences and exciting things to keep at the top end of international motorsport," he said.
"The sport would still exist if we stayed in Australia but to come over here, put on a race and show everyone in Abu Dhabi what we're all about, and at one of the richest tracks in the world too, is something we're really excited about." The even V8 playing field, which features only two models of car, should make Whincup and Co's V8 show a genuine treat for the emirate's auto racing fans. "There is very little difference between the cars," admitted Whincup. "We all run under a scheme called Project Blueprint which ensures the Ford and Commodore cars are pretty much identical.
"Ultimately, it all comes down to the drivers, the engineers and the teams doing the best job on the day. At race meetings there are 28 cars all with the possibility of winning, it is a question of who rises to the occasion on the day." Or, to be more specific, two days. The qualifying and racing format for the V8's Abu Dhabi debut is designed, insisted Whincup, to create drama. "Twenty-eight cars go into qualifying on day one, we eliminate the slowest eight to condense it down to the top 20," he said.
"Then we go out for another 15 minutes where the fastest 10 go into a shoot-out: one lap where the quickest time gets on pole for the race. On the second day, it's a 20 minutes, all-in qualifier which determines the grid for the race." Whincup, meanwhile, is typically laid back about his three-in-a-row prospects. "He who talks about it the most generally goes the least," he smiled. "So I'll let my driving do the talking." @Email:email@example.com
Today 2.10pm - V8 Supercars qualifying 3.00pm - V8 Supercars qualifying shoot-out 4.55pm - Porsche Middle East Championship Race 1 6.05pm - V8 Supercars Race 1 Tomorrow 10.20am - Gulfsport Radical Cup Race 1 11.00am - Chevrolet Supercar Middle East Race 1 11.50am - UAE GT Championship Race 1 3.10pm - V8 Supercars qualifying 3.50pm - Porsche Middle East Championship Race 2 4.45pm - Chevrolet Supercar Middle East Race 2 6.05pm - V8 Supercars Race 2