Following another off-season of change, the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is set to offer an array of intriguing subplots in 2019.
Outside of the chase for the title, the key team-mate battles again loom as tantalising prospects.
Jamie Whincup will be looking to get back on top of Shane van Gisbergen at Red Bull, while Fabian Coulthard must at least close the gap to Scott McLaughlin at Shell V-Power Racing.
Chaz Mostert and Rick Kelly are the men to catch at Tickford and Kelly Racing respectively, while Anton De Pasquale will be eager to make ground on David Reynolds at Erebus.
The Nick Percat/Tim Slade battle at Brad Jones Racing should again be hard-fought, while contract years for Scott Pye and James Courtney spice up the battle at Mobil 1 MEGA Racing.
They are the constants, but what are the new, occasionally left-field, head-to-head fights to keep an eye on in 2019?
Changing places: Mark Winterbottom vs Lee Holdsworth
Success in motorsport is very much about being in the right place at the right time.
Winterbottom’s jump to a Triple Eight-built, Team 18 Holden after 13 years in Tickford Fords is a big enough story on its own.
But the fact Team 18 outcast Holdsworth has landed in Winterbottom’s place aboard the new Bottle-O Mustang only adds to the intrigue.
On paper, it’s a change that could genuinely benefit both drivers, who appeared desperately in need of a refresh after tough 2018 seasons.
But having walked out on Tickford just as the long-awaited Mustang comes online, Winterbottom is clearly the gambler here, and the pressure is on him to win out.
Unexpected team-mates: Richie Stanaway vs James Golding
Stanaway’s shock arrival at Garry Rogers Motorsport puts both second-year drivers under instant pressure.
The Kiwi has everything to prove after a horror rookie season at Tickford Racing, and is fighting to resurrect his career.
For Golding, gone is the benefit of Garth Tander’s experience and the comfort of trying to close the gap to, but not necessarily beat, a highly-rated team-mate.
Both youngsters have shown potential but are facing a tough task to lead the team’s set-up and development direction with their lack of Supercars experience.
Here, Stanaway’s pairing with engineer Richard Hollway – who guided Craig Lowndes and Scott McLaughlin early in their careers – could be key.
Contract Cup: Fabian Coulthard vs Chaz Mostert
The 2019 season is yet to get underway, but Mostert is already being touted as a likely replacement for Coulthard at DJR Team Penske next year.
While there’s nothing concrete yet, the facts are that Mostert is a red-hot, soon to be out-of-contract talent, and Coulthard fell a long way short of expectations in 2018.
DJRTP has had the wood on Tickford Racing over the last two years, and if Mostert is beating Coulthard early in 2019, speculation over their futures will only intensify.
Mostert winning this battle is by no means a certainty, though, with the new Mustang expected to better suit Coulthard’s style than the on-the-edge Falcon FG X.
Few are tipping Coulthard to beat McLaughlin in 2019, but if the Shell Mustangs are as strong as early signs suggest, it could still be a strong year for the #12 entry.
The rookies: Macauley Jones vs Garry Jacobson
Few drivers have embarked on their maiden Virgin Australia Supercars Championship seasons as well prepared as these two.
Jones and Jacobson have four and six full seasons of Dunlop Super2 action under their belts, as well as PIRTEK Enduro Cup experience.
Just as their rise has been a grind, they will likely be fighting it out towards the back of the 2019 grid, adding to the interest in their head-to-head battle.
Jones steps into the #21 Brad Jones Racing-run Holden previously driven by Tim Blanchard, while Jacobson replaces Michael Caruso at Kelly Racing.
The equipment will be familiar to both – Jones having spent his career in BJR cars, and Jacobson spending 2018’s Super2 Series and Enduro Cup in Altimas.
The customers: Jack Le Brocq vs Todd Hazelwood vs Mark Winterbottom
Having three teams running Triple Eight-built ZB Commodores with customer support in 2019 sets up another mini-battle worth tracking.
Le Brocq was the top rookie in 2018, but faces a tough second year amid major upheaval at Tekno, including the loss of team manager Adrian Burgess and engineer Campbell Little.
Hazelwood meanwhile had a rough rookie campaign with Matt Stone Racing; last of the full-timers in the standings after a year that included a mid-season switch from Ford to Holden.
Now armed with Whincup’s 2018 chassis and technical support, there are considerably increased expectations, and the other Triple Eight customers loom as good benchmarks.
For Winterbottom and Team 18, beating these two is an absolute must, as they aim to snap at the heels of Triple Eight’s factory-backed Red Bull Holden Racing Team cars.