THE Adelaide 500 has been the host for many momentous happenings across Repco Supercars Championship history.
One of them is the time that a V8-engined Nissan led the championship standings, and the car responsible will return to the South Australian streets at this year’s VAILO-backed event later this month.
Michael Caruso emerged from the 2016 edition of the ‘500 as an unlikely championship leader.
That year marked the first time the factory-backed Nissan squad entered a season with an unchanged aerodynamic package since the company’s return to the championship in 2013, having undergone rehomologations for both 2014 and 2015.
Caruso’s was the flagship for Nissan among the team’s four-car fleet, carrying both the factory NISMO colours and logos as well as the company’s traditional #23.
The Altimas were contenders across the weekend; Rick and Todd Kelly annexed the fourth row for Saturday’s opening 125km sprint and finished the race inside the top 10, while Caruso made one spot from his grid position to finish 13th.
Caruso led the Nissan quartet in the second race, held later that afternoon, converting his sixth-place qualifying effort to the same position at the chequered flag.
Searing heat had prevailed throughout the weekend, but a change rolled in with a series of thunderstorms just as the 250km Sunday race was set to get underway.
Heavy rain prompted officials to start the race behind the Safety Car and Caruso, who’d started 11th, was one of a host of cars to make an early pitstop for fuel while the race remained under yellow conditions.
It proved a pivotal move.
Caruso made steady progress forward once the race went green on Lap 7 and, with the rain halting and a drying line forming, continued his march into the top 10 as the field switched to slicks.
However, the circuit didn’t stay dry for long. Another light shower moved across the track, and a crash for Chaz Mostert at Turn 8 triggered another Safety Car period.
Initially, Caruso didn’t pit. The call moved him up to fourth but increasing rain suggested slicks were the wrong tyre to be on, so he and a host of other cars pitted as the race restarted on Lap 32.
Falling to 16th, he was soon back on the cusp of the top 10 a few laps later as the rest of the field conceded and switched back to wets.
The rain continued to intensify, and on Lap 36 the Safety Car was brought out once again.
This time, several teams saw the writing on the wall. Not only was the race unlikely to make it to the scheduled 78-lap distance, there was a possibility it could be red-flagged and not restarted due to the conditions.
Complicating matters for race engineers throughout pitlane was the compulsory 140-litre fuel drop rule; failing to complete it carried a 60-second time penalty.
Caruso’s engineer, Steven Todkill, brought the #23 Altima in on both Lap 36 and 37 to satisfy the fuel drop. Although it initially dropped him back to 17th, other cars also had to pit to put fuel in.
By the time the race was red-flagged on Lap 42 due to lightning strikes near the circuit, Caruso sat 12th on the road but was just the second car in the queue to have completed the fuel drop.
The conditions improved enough that a restart with a handful of laps of racing was possible before the time-certain finish was reached, and most of the cars ahead of him pitted prior to the chequered flag.
Caruso crossed the line fourth behind upset race winner Nick Percat, Fabian Coulthard and Scott Pye, but the two DJR Team Penske cars hadn’t satisfied the fuel rule and copped penalties that elevated the Nissan to second place.
“To be honest, I had no idea what was going on,” Caruso said.
“The boys were pretty busy, they were telling me they didn’t have any information, I think it dropped out halfway through the race so they weren’t sure what was going on. I just tried to keep it on the road like the rest of the boys.
“A very good result, not just for me personally but for the team because they’ve been working really hard in the off-season and we seemed to start the season well.
“We work really hard together as a four-car team and we consistently improve. I’m really happy that the work, particularly that I’ve been doing with my engineer in the background, is really starting to pay off.”
The topsy-turvy nature of the weekend meant that Caruso’s combination of 13th, sixth and second gave him the most points for the weekend and the championship lead.
It marked the first time a Nissan had headed the points since the final round of Mark Skaife’s championship-winning season in 1992, and the first time Kelly Racing had topped the standings in either its original Holden iteration or since its rebranding as Nissan Motorsport.
It was a remarkable turnaround from 12 months earlier when Caruso endured a disastrous first day of the 2015 season, ending Saturday in Adelaide with a trashed racecar and a negative points tally.
The dramas had all struck in Race 2, when a tangle with David Reynolds drew a 25-point penalty, and damage that led to a heavy crash at Turn 8 a few laps later.
With just 14 points from a lowly 21st-place finish in Race 1, Caruso ended the day on -11 points.
“It’s clearly a lot different to where I was last year,” Caruso said after the 2016 race.
“To be leading the championship – I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect to come out leading it, but I knew that we were in a much better position this year than what we have been in the past.”
Topping the standings was just one aspect of this particular Altima’s racing life.
It was the car Caruso drove to victory later in 2016 at Hidden Valley, it was one of the Nissans that Simona De Silvestro raced for the squad, and it will once again be racing on the Adelaide streets later this month in Super3 in the hands of standout rookie Cameron McLeod.