Reigning champion Mark Winterbottom has predicted the closest V8 Supercars series in years as he prepares to debut in the No.1 Falcon.
Winterbottom will roll out onto the season-opening Clipsal 500 street circuit on Friday as the reigning champion for the first time.
Last season brought a drought-breaking win for Winterbottom and Ford, with Jamie Whincup’s four-year domination ended.
But there’s no reason that Whincup, or a host of other contenders, can’t take up the fight to the newly-crowned Winterbottom.
Team champs Triple Eight have expanded to three cars, adding Shane van Gisbergen’s No.97 to the powerhouse duo of Whincup and Craig Lowndes.
Holden Racing Team boasts two former champions in James Courtney and Garth Tander, both eager to return to past glories.
There are contenders in Falcons too; Chaz Mostert is looking to make up for lost time after his broken leg at last year’s Bathurst 1000 and Fabian Coulthard will bring the heat at new home DJR Team Penske.
Scott McLaughlin is just one tune-up away from turning serious qualifying pace into race wins, and a string of other drivers looking in fine shape have convinced Winterbottom that retaining his championship could be harder than winning it.
“It’s a very open year,” he told AAP.
“Chaz is very fast, he’s going to be a contender.
“Triple Eight, HRT, Volvo, Nissan, Tekno, you can rattle off a heap of teams and they’re all capable of winning it all.
“It’s a seriously open championship this year and more than ever.”
For his part, there’s plenty to like about Winterbottom’s chances.
The 34-year-old feels reinvigorated by a relaxing off-season and assured to come back to the same engineer for the first time in four years.
The rotating door in the Prodrive Racing garage has stopped turning, with Jason Gray committing to support Winterbottom again after winning the title in his first year as lead engineer.
Winterbottom said his new-look Green machine had impressed him so far.
“It looks fast, it’s got No.1 on it and the test day went really well so life feels pretty good at the moment,” he said.
“But the honeymoon’s over and it’s time to start.
“We’re improving the set-up, trying to maximise the car speed and it seems to be handling well.
“Hopefully we can defend this thing.”
A win at Clipsal would be the perfect way to remind the ambitious Supercars field of who’s boss but Winterbottom will need to break his Adelaide hoodoo to do it.
“I’ve been second a few times but it’s the only track I haven’t won at on the calendar,” he said.
“History’s there to be broken.”