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OUT IN FRONT: Scott McLaughlin leads championship rival Shane van Gisbergen into a corner opposite Newcastle beach during practice on Friday. Picture: Mark HorsburghThe crowd was down, but Ford driver Scott McLaughlin looked up to the task of defending his Supercars lead on the opening day of the Newcastle 500.

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Last year’s inaugural Supercars race in Newcastle drew a bumper Friday turnout, but the novelty appeared to have worn off this time as a relatively modest crowd filtered through the gates.

A howling north-west wind which gusted up to 87 kilometres an hour at Nobbys also might have had something to do with the thinner crowd.

Prime viewing spots such as Watt Street and Nobbys Road were fouror five deep with spectators on Friday last year but not nearly as busy this time.

Supercars representatives said practice-only days typically drew smaller crowds, and this year’s turnout was a more realistic long-term figure for Fridays in Newcastle.

Many traders in the race circuit reported numbers were down on last year, but they were still predicting a busy weekend for the two 250km races that will decide the championship.

McLaughlin, who is looking to atone for a horror Sunday race last year which cost him what would have been his first title, powered through the gale to top the time sheets in Friday’s second practice.

His main rival, Holden driver and fellow Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen, finished well down in seventh before Saturday’s qualifying session and first race.

Crowd down, wind up as McLaughlin blows away title rival in practice SMILE: The wind spoils Michelle Plain’s selfie with retiring Holden legend Craig Lowndes. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

BLOWN AWAY: A near-empty grandstand facing the howling gale at the start of pit straight on Friday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

LEADER: Scott McLaughlin powers up Watt Street during practice on Friday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

The crowd in Foreshore Park this year.

The crowd in Foreshore Park on Friday last year.

MAKING A STATEMENT: Scott McLaughlin at the top of Watt Street. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

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123456789101112131415 – McLaughlin, who leads the championship by just 14 points entering the final weekend of the season, stopped the clock at one minute, 10.47 seconds, ahead of seven-time series champion Jamie Whincup and Ford’s Cameron Waters.

Van Gisbergen was 0.35 seconds off McLaughlin’s pace, andretiring Holden great Craig Lowndes was 12th fastest.

A last-minute decision to cover the new light rail tracks in Scott Street did not appear to hamper the drivers, though workers performed some running repairs on the temporary covering midway through the day.

McLaughlin said the tracks had not affected his car at the start of the Watt Street straight.

“We’re half airborne there, anyway,” he said.

Whincup, who snatched the championship from McLaughlin in Newcastle last year, said he believed the covering had been added “so we don’t rip up the tracks” rather than to protect the cars.

The Holden driver said the strong wind had brought deposited dust on the track, increasing lap times.

Cameron Waters

Waters joked that he had run over“two hats and a palm tree” blown onto the seaside circuit.

McLaughlin’s teammate, Fabian Coulthard, described the Newcastle street circuit as a “tough little joint”.

“It’s a bit of a bull ring,”Coulthard said after the second Supercars practice session.“It’s bumpy and you’ve got to have a car set up for all elements.

“You can drive down the front straight and you feel the gusts of wind restricting the car a little bit.

“I’ve never felt that in a Supercar before.”

Lowndes said he had been busy meeting corporate commitments and was satisfied with a time only 0.4 seconds off pole in his special gold-coloured Commodore.

Newcastle’s Aaren Russell missed out on a drive in the premier Supercars class this weekend but topped practice in his SuperUtes debut.

He piloted his Mitsubishi Triton around the 2.6km circuit in one minute 31.3215 seconds, about20 seconds slower than a Supercar but a positive result nonetheless.

“It’s awesome to be racing at my home track and topping the time sheets today,” he said.“Hopefully I can stay there in qualifying.”

The wind is expected to drop on Saturday, giving the drivers no time to adjust their car set-ups to calmer conditions.

Saturday’s qualifying session is at 11.35am before the first 250km race at 3.45pm.

Off the track, many parents appeared to have heeded the warnings of doctors and covered their children’s ears with headphones while the cars were running on Friday.

A Newcastle ear, noseand throat surgeon, who asked not to be named, said on Friday that he would wear ear protection when he attended the race this weekend.

“I will be, for the same reason I don’t smoke,” he said.

He said the car noise had the potential to cause internal cochlear damage.

with AAP

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