It’s his 10th year in V8 Supercars with Ford, yet Mark Winterbottom says something feels different about 2015.
The veteran driver has finished third in the championship five times and once as runner-up, but the coveted title has long eluded him.
Heading into this weekend’s round in Darwin, the fifth event of the season, Winterbottom holds a slender 12-point lead over Holden rival Craig Lowndes.
It’s a position he’s been in before – and as recent as last year.
But having won four of the past six races and a result no worse than 15th, he is cautiously optimistic about his chances behind the wheel of the Falcon FG X.
“Last year, I didn’t really feel like that; I was always hoping others had a bad round so I could maintain my lead and I was pretty desperate for every point,” the 34-year-old told AAP on Thursday.
“That’s the difference this year – it feels like we’ve got a car that’s consistent, it’s tuneable and it’s fast.
“That’s something we haven’t had in the past.”
Between Winterbottom and teammate Chaz Mostert, Prodrive Racing Australia (PRA) has taken the past six pole positions in a row – a feat not achieved since 1988.
If either do it again first up on Saturday, it will be a streak not achieved since Peter Brock’s Holden Dealer Team did it in 1980.
“We’ve got the form, but the new surface is going to be the big question mark,” said Winterbottom, adding that the five-week break since the last round in Winton would also be a factor.
“Some people are definitely going to have gained, while others are going to have fallen further away. Hopefully, we’re in the right part of the equation.”
Holden Racing Team’s James Courtney, who sits fifth on the championship table, took a swipe at PRA and Winterbottom earlier this month – declaring neither a real threat to this year’s crown.
“They tend to step on their d*** at a number of points through the year and we’re just waiting for that to happen,” he told the V8 Supercars website.
“From a championship point of view, I’m more concerned about Craig than what I am about Mark.”
Defending champion Jamie Whincup, who’s had just one podium in the past six races and is fourth overall, takes a different approach.
“I hope they don’t fall over … we don’t want them to fall over,” the Red Bull Racing driver said.
“We want them to bring their absolute best performance to the track right through to the end of the year and we want to be able to challenge ourselves against them.”
Practice begins at 11.30am (AEST) on Friday, with Marcos Ambrose set to return to the wheel of DJR Team Penske’s Ford for the first time since stepping aside as their main driver in March.