Sandown is, to put it mildly, a bitch. It’s tough, tricky and incredibly difficult to master. You can race here for years and still get it wrong. Yet it doesn’t look that hardcore. Built around a horse racing track in suburban Victoria, it’s basically just two long straights joined by a few squiggly bits in between. Easy, right? Not on your life. The long straights and simple layout may lure you in, but like any good siren, what lies beneath can be very dangerous indeed.
Part of the reason for this danger is the long straights and the turns at the end of them. By turn one, V8 Supercars are doing over 260km/h. And while not especially sharp, the first corner has very little negative camber and actually is positive camber towards the exit. It also turns downhill. Turn nine, on the other side of the circuit, is worse: it’s at the end of a similarly long straight, but with a downhill entry and a chicane just beforehand. There’s a reason photographers gather there.
But that danger, the difficulty to master it, is why drivers love it. It’s a challenge to even the most experienced steerer. And it’s why the V8 Supercars come back year after year.
This year, though, things would be different. 2013 is the first year of the Car Of The Future (COTF) platform, designed to modernise V8 Supercars and allow more manufacturers to participate. And it’s worked. We’ve gone from the fierce tribalism of the traditional Ford/Holden duopoly to having Nissan and even Mercedes enter the mix. Next year, we’ll have Volvo, too. Admittedly, the cars now use spec tube frame chassis, with little underneath resembling what you’d find on a road-going car, but that parity existed in the monocoque days too, via shared suspension designs and the like. It’s this parity, which V8 Supercars works hard to maintain, that gives the series its nose-to-tail racing the series is famous for, and why fans love it.
The truly gratifying thing was how many more fans loved it this year than previously. Truth be told, seeing a packed grandstand at Sandown in recent times has been rare, but this year, every inch of bench space was full. Whether the COTF chassis and its inevitable handling changes, or the inclusion of more brands, or another reason entirely was behind it, we’ll probably never know. But it was a good thing to see for a series that deserves success.
And the fans didn’t half get their money’s worth, either. 500 kilometres of biffing, bashing and hard racing, with pit dramas and safety cars all adding to the mix. It’s what makes this series great.
Despite what I just said, the race itself got off to a relatively clean start. Every car made it through the first few corners OK (all we photogs can see from turn one), and every position change was seemingly without drama.
That didn’t last, though. By the time I had manoeuvred myself into the stands to get a few crowd shots, the first safety car was called out due to a nasty accident at turn six. Ashley Walsh in a Ford Falcon (seen above on practice day) had hit the tyres hard at turn six, after pressuring Carrera Cup and GT legend Craig Baird in his E63. I couldn’t see the end result clearly, but the sight on the big screen looked nasty. Luckily, Walsh walked away from it.
The safety car brought the first flurry of pit stops, and with it, more drama. Due to what later turned out to be a team communication issue, Will Davison (above) ended up stacked behind his team mate, Mark Winterbottom, in the pits, losing valuable time. In the end, he fought his way back to third, and given his gearbox had literally no oil in it by the end (you can see below where it ended up) was lucky to get that. However, he may well have wondered what could have been post-race.
Things started to settle down after that, with the usual midway reduction of pace that comes in many enduros just to keep the cars in one piece.
That’s not to say that biffo (as we call physical contact in Australia) didn’t happen. The most notable piece of damage being to Kiwi Greg Murphy’s rear bumper, which caused him to be black flagged twice for loose bodywork.
When the team did eventually get rid of the flailing plastic, you ended up with a great view of the metal underneath a V8 Supercar’s body, though!
Other notable pieces of damage were the slightly misshapen front-end of Frenchman Alexandre Premat and Greg Ritter’s Holden Commodore…
…and the total suspension collapse of James Moffat and Taz Douglas’ Nissan Altima.
I’m not entirely sure what caused this, but given their weekend started with a loose wheel nut and resultant flying wheel on Friday…
It was hardly the race that Nismo wanted.
At least the other Nissan cars fared better, if not brilliantly. Todd Kelly and David Russell ended up 11th, while brother Rick Kelly ended up in 16th. Given this is the team’s first year of competition using Nissans, though, (the Kelly brothers have many years’ experience racing Holdens) it’s a fair effort. Especially as both the Nissan and Mercedes DOHC engines use more fuel and generate less power than their technically more primitive, but in reality much more developed, OHV Ford and Holden rivals.
Indeed, the disparity in fuel economy has been the source of a bit of controversy recently, as one attempt to redress the balance by letting the Nissan and Mercedes teams use a more fuel-efficient E70 blend at the previous Winton round (as opposed to the standard E85) led the Nissans to score a 1-2.
Given all the teams had signed off on this experiment, it seemed a bit rich for one rival boss to suggest afterwards that Nissan should be stripped of the win, but irrespective, it led to a compulsory four pit stops at Sandown to try and ensure everyone used to same fuel but also never ran short on gas.
Speaking of pit stops, they were far from done deciding the finishing order. Midway through the race, a late decision to change drivers during a stop saw the Triple Eight Racing machine of multiple champion and series leader, Jamie Whincup, stuck in second gear and spinning its wheels. Given V8 Supercars states wheels must be stationary during a pit stop, this meant a drive-through penalty and put Whincup down to 25th.
However, Whincup isn’t a multiple champion for nothing. He worked his way through the pack and, with only a few laps to go, overtook team mate Craig Lowndes, who was on dying tyres, for the win.
On his way, Whincup passed another possible winner in Ford star Mark Winterbottom. Winterbottom had been leading coming into the final stint, but a cross-threaded wheel nut (his seventh of the season) cost him eight seconds and any hope of victory.
Even for a man nicknamed Frosty – thanks to his surname – it must have been hard to keep his cool in such circumstances.
The top three having been decided, that left the battle for the minor placings. And in many respects, this gave us the story of the day. Lee Holdsworth and Craig Baird’s E63 AMG has been mid pack at best all season – and often worse – yet Sandown saw them emerge from the carnage in fourth place. For a new team that has none of the factory support Nissan does (it gets help from AMG, but only as a customer – Mercedes has publicly distanced itself from the effort), it must have felt like a win.
All in all, the Sandown 500 will likely go down as one of the most memorable of recent times. It was the first endurance test of the new COTF. The first to see a capacity crowd for a long while. And along the way, provided us with all the super-close racing and good-natured panel rubbing that you expect from V8 Supercars. Gotta love that.