They say every driver runs their own race. Which means logically, within any race, there must be tens of others doing the same. And that doesn’t include the races within races for certain positions. Or the races within teams to get cars and themselves shipshape before the main event. There are races within races within races. Raceception, as it were.
Nothing showed this better than the recent Sandown 500 endurance event. Held at my ‘home’ circuit, just 40 minutes away, the Sandown 500 is, as a race, just one within many this season. But it’s an important one, because it’s the first of the Pirtek Enduro Cup, which includes Bathurst in a few weeks’ time and the Gold Coast 600 after that. Thus, it’s a race within a race for the Pirtek Enduro Cup, which is just one mini-series within a larger championship. It’s enough to make my head hurt, and we haven’t even got to the drivers, teams and their own individual battles that weekend. Or the support races.
Speaking of which, these always provide some of the best entertainment of the weekend, with crashes, gravel trap excursions, great overtaking moves and a fantastic mix of cars and drivers, many of whom are ex-V8 Supercars racers in themselves.
Two of the biggest of these ex-V8 Supercar names are actually both in the Touring Car Masters category, which combines old-school muscle and pony cars (plus the odd Porsche) with a few modern upgrades in the engine, brake, tyre and suspension areas and lets them loose on the track. Unsurprisingly, being former top level drivers, these two are consistently near or at the top of the tables each time, with ‘Gentleman’ Jim Richards taking the round in his Falcon Sprint …
… and traditional rival John Bowe close behind, despite some not so perfect finishes. At least he was able to compete this year, having been disqualified from the round last year for accidentally driving over an official’s foot.
Further back in the field, crowds also saw some other great tussles, with Sven Burchartz in the cream TransAm taking the Pro Sports sub-category after Cameron Mason in the red fastback had a tyre blow-out …
… and Carey McMahon holding off a large pack towards the tail end of the field in race three.
In the traditionally hard-fought V8 Utes category, there were generally two main races within each sprint. There was two-time, and defending, champion Ryal Harris, looking to three-peat, and everyone else behind. It was kind of scary how much faster Harris was in all bar one race – the reverse grid event – in which he placed third anyway.
Of course, the racing behind still kept to that wonderful V8 Utes style of using your own car as a battering ram, but this was considerably toned down from last year, after the drivers got told off for going too hard even by V8 Utes standards.
Sadly, next year will be the last we get to see the Commodores and Falcons go around like this, as with the end of local car manufacturing in 2017/17 (depending on manufacturer), the series will move to a spec chassis and more popular ute bodyshells, such as the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger.
Similar to the current V8 Supercars regs, this ‘silhouette’ format will allow more body styles, but unlike V8 Supercars, there is discussion of letting a lot more engine types in, including diesels! Whether this will mean huge smoke plumes à la truck racing, I have no idea, but it makes for an interesting prospect.
The Australian GT battles also saw the field split into different races. Up front, the most dramatic of those occurred in race three between current championship leader, Richard Muscat in the Erebus SLS, and Tony Quinn in the Aston Martin Vantage GT3. The lead swapped a couple of times until Quinn led coming into the final few laps. Muscat was having none of that and went for one last desperate lunge around the outside of turn 11 …
… but it didn’t stick and sadly he had to end up with second for the race and the round behind Quinn. Muscat still leads the championship going into the final round in NZ, but by a smaller margin than perhaps he’d like.
Further down the order, the battle of the Lambos easily went to Justin McMillan and V8 Supercars enduro/Carrera Cup driver Steven Richards, who scored two podiums and a pole to get third …
… with daylight separating the pair from Ross Lilley (seen here) and the Team JJ racing entry.
In the Challenge Class, Ben Foessel took out the round with a trio of victories from Brendan Cook and Matt Kingsley, after their car suffered a series of spins thanks to brake bias problems.
Perhaps the biggest news of the round, though, came from Tony Quinn’s son Klark, the defending champion crashing his McLaren in qualifying to end his title chances.
Of course, one of the biggest stories of the entire weekend came from the Carrera Cup, where where Nick McBride got turned around into the path of several drivers, including Duvashen Padayachee …
… and ended up being hit so hard by two others that his engine fell out.
The funny thing was that aside from that incident, the Carrera Cup races were hard, but not brutal.
Ex-V8 Supercars driver, Michael Patrizi, won both completed races and was leading the other when it was stopped due to the aforementioned accident.
Behind him, all-round superstar, Warren Luff, who also drove a Holden Racing Team car that weekend alongside Garth Tander, battled other enduro co-drivers, Steven Richards and Craig Baird, to decide the minor placings. Richards suffered some bad mechanical luck in race three, with a driveshaft breaking on the warm-up lap, but otherwise went well. Baird scored a fourth and a third and Luff ended up with two fifths.
That just left the main game that everyone was waiting for.
After a relatively calm start, the race settled into a series of races within races. For the Ford Performance Racing boys, there was the inter-team race to see who would get the highest spot – young gun Chas Mostert, ably assisted by a much older head in Paul Morris (above), or Mark Winterbottom, partnered up with Steve Owen. For Winterbottom, there was the additional race of the championship to consider, as he came into the middle of the season leading it, and after a disastrous run between Townsville and Sandown, ended up second. Would he fall further, or rise again?
In the end, he fell, but seemingly not by his own doing. Damage to the car early on meant he described it as ‘undriveable’ and despite qualifying fourth – qualifying being his big weakness this season – he ended up tenth and dropped to third in the championship behind Craig Lowndes.
Mostert and Dumbrell proved to have the better luck, despite complaining of damage similar to Winterbottom’s. An alternate pit-stop strategy left him with a shorter final fuel fill and fresh tyres that only had to go 28 laps to the end. Despite qualifying 16th, the number 6 Falcon ended up seventh, proving once again that Mostert, despite a rocky start to the season at FPR, is a future star.
Across town at Holden’s factory outfit, the race between team mates was much closer, almost to the point of contact. After securing third early on, co-driver (and possibly the only V8 Supercars driver popular enough in his home country of New Zealand to have a brand of meat pie named after him) Greg Murphy kept his Holden Racing Team car towards the front and thanks to his lead position within the team, got into the pits first. This meant the second car, driven by Warren Luff and Garth Tander, had to be ‘double stacked’ behind, waiting and losing time while the first executed its stop.
Obviously incensed by this, Garth Tander took over from Luff and set about rectifying the damage, closing up, especially under safety car, to the point where collision was a real risk. Thankfully it didn’t happen, and Courtney and ‘Murph’, as he’s known, took second ahead of Tander and Luff. For Murph, it was redemption in a way for putting the car into the wall at Bathurst last year, and for Luff, it was a nice demonstration of his talent to Red Bull, who dropped him from their co-driver list without public explanation last year, despite a string of enduro success with his former partner Craig Lowndes.
Speaking of Lowndes, he obviously didn’t have the greatest day, finishing up in fourth behind the two HRT cars thanks to a car that just wasn’t right all weekend. He and new co-driver Steve Richards could only qualify ninth and while their race pace was better, it wasn’t by much. Apparently the biggest problem was fuel economy. Thanks to somehow being thirstier, the 888 car ended up not being able to conserve when needed and push when necessary. It was hardly ideal, although the fourth place result was enough for Lowndes to leapfrog Winterbottom to claim second on the ladder going into Bathurst.
As for Whincup and Dumbrell in the other RBR Australia machine? They walked away with it. Fastest in qualifying and easily the fastest in the race, there was no catching the pair once the lights went green.
Others tried. As mentioned above, Murph did a great job to get his HRT up to third early on, and Jonathan Webb, who hasn’t raced all year, showed seat time isn’t necessarily the key to being fast by starting in the VIP Petfoods car and moving from seventh to second very quickly. He held that position, too, passing it onto Kiwi ace, Shane Van Gisbergen, only for SVG to suffer power steering issues and drop to sixth by the end.
David Reynolds, the only ‘main’ driver to start the race, also showed pace early on, passing Murphy for third, and co-driver Dean Canto kept it there, but spinning the wheels whilst up in the air for the final stop meant the team suffered a drive-through and they finished in ninth.
The other Ford to do well, that of Scott Pye and Ash Walsh, struggled at first on Walsh’s stint, but thanks to a stunning drive from Pye, ended up fifth. Scything through the field, Pye was the only driver apart from Whincup, Van Gisbergen and Mostert to lap in the 1:09 region and did so in a car that could only manage 19th in qualifying. With Penske taking over the Dick Johnson Racing team next year and bringing Marcos Ambrose along for the ride, only one seat remains , and Pye is racing to ensure that spot is his. With performances like that at Sandown, plus other great drives during this year, you’d hope he’s done enough.
If we’re talking races within races, though, you couldn’t go past the newest cars on the grid – the Garry Rogers Motorsport Volvo S60s driven by Scott McLaughlin/Alex Prémat and Robert Dahlgren/Greg Ritter. These cars have been the talk of the paddock all season due to flying off the line at the Adelaide season opener and staying at or near the front (at least in the hands of McLaughlin) ever since, but at Sandown, there was more to prove. There was the race to show these cars’ successes this year in the sprint events could be replicated over a longer distance.
There was the race between Swedish import Robert Dahlgren in car 34 and team mate McLaughlin in number 33 to prove, for Dahlgren at least, that he could hack it here, after a string of disappointing results all season, due mostly to struggling to adapt to the car, the track and the series in general.
And finally, Alex Prémat in car 33 was racing to prove he, too, was not just another European driver who couldn’t adapt, as he drove for GRM back in the Commodore days, and like Dahlgren, struggled. His recall to the enduros this year was his chance to show his true speed, especially on tracks he now knew. He succeeded, too, holding fifth for much of his stint and rising to fourth prior to his pit-stop.
The pit-stop was where things went a little wrong, though, as Prémat was boxed in by the awkwardly-placed Commodore of Oliver Gavin and lost several places having to wait. This meant McLaughlin had to fight his way back through the pack during his stint, eventually getting back up to fifth, but without the pit incident (which left McLaughlin suggesting Prémat should simply have pushed Gavin out of the way), it was clear a podium was on the cards for the young Kiwi and his French team mate.
As for Dahlgren and Ritter, they managed a creditable 17th, with Dahlgren proving he’s getting quicker, albeit a little over-ambitious at times. This move on David Wall, for example, after the second safety car of the day, looked good …
… until he discovered Wall was, well, a wall – unmoving no matter what. However, Dahlgren showed fight at Sandown that has been lacking at the start of the season, so hopefully this, along with perhaps some better results before year’s end will save his seat.
The other relative newcomers to the V8 field – Nissan Motorsports and Erebus AMG, both had races to forget. The number 360 James Moffat/Taz Douglas car ended up retiring early due to a dry-brake fuelling issue that threatened to have E85 pouring all over pit lane …
… while team mates Michael Caruso and Dean Fiore copped a drive-through penalty for spinning their wheels during the pit-stop, similar to David Reynolds and Dean Canto, and finished 18th. At least their new enduro livery looked awesome.
Indeed, of the four cars in the team, only one, that of Rick Kelly and David Russell, finished on the lead lap. The other, of brother Todd Kelly and Alex Buncombe, came home 20th.
But at least Nismo didn’t have the problems Erebus had.
Not only did their only surviving car, that of brothers Will and Alex Davison, come home 21st and second-last, their other car, driven by Lee Holdsworth and Carrera Cup champion Craig Baird, had easily one of the biggest crashes I’ve ever seen.
Ominous signs appeared a few laps beforehand when Holdsworth reported feeling something amiss with the rear of the car after jumping in. Sadly, on lap 131, whatever suspension component was causing the problem let go entirely.
And it did so at 270km/h coming into the turn 6-7-8 flip-flop, spearing Holdsworth across the track and into the tyres at an estimated 230km/h or more.
Amazingly, he walked away, severely shaken, but otherwise seemingly OK. The car, however, did not fare so well. Looking to me like it was destined for the scrap-heap, I was stunned to learn prior to writing this that the team had managed to repair the car and will use the same chassis at Bathurst. The strength of modern top-level race cars, eh?
Being an enduro, Holdsworth’s was hardly the only accident on the day, but it was the most major, and led to end of another car’s miserable race as well. All-round nice guy, Jason Bright, and co-driver Andrew Jones suffered a horrible Sunday, with initial contact in the opening laps, while Jones was at the wheel, ripping off a door skin …
… then another impact with Ritter’s Volvo damaging the radiator.
This led to a couple of incidents at turn nine for Bright later in the race, and just when he thought his luck couldn’t get any worse, he hit an errant tyre from Holdsworth’s crippled Mercedes, which punctured the radiator entirely and ended his race.
One driver who suffered back luck but managed to keep the car going to the end was veteran Russell Ingall. His Commodore dropped onto seven cylinders in the final 20 laps or so, but despite intense pressure from cars behind him due to his track position prior to the Holdsworth-related safety car, and easily the worst-sounding race engine I’ve ever heard, he held on for 14th.
Speaking of the safety car, the fact Holdsworth’s accident took an understandably long time to clean up, combined with the fact it happened towards the end of the race, meant the final 20 laps conducted under green were essentially a sprint for the line. And no one tried to make the most of it more than Craig Lowndes. Of course, we now know he wasn’t successful in his chase to overtake Garth Tander, but it did provide some memorably close racing towards the end.
As it was, even with the final sprint meaning a few passes on some lapped cars, Whincup eased away to a comfortable win, and showed just why he’s a five-time champion and leading the race to net a sixth title. He may not be the fastest every day, but he wins and places well when it counts, and love him or hate him, you have to respect that.
All that was left afterwards was the arrival in victory lane of the top three …
… the champagne …
… and the tidy up.
Oh, and peering into the pits to see things like this fascinating ‘brake pad oven’, which some teams were using to heat the pads before they went in.
As always, the Sandown 500 proved to be an exciting spectacle, one that the fans enjoyed, and one that proved what an excellent series V8 Supercars is. Long may it continue that way.