The 2016 Sandown 500

Last weekend I attended the Sandown 500, something I’ve done every year since 2013. Sandown Raceway has hosted more ATCC/(V8) Supercars events than any other track and is the traditional home of the 500km pre-Bathurst endurance race. So it was an appropriate venue for the new for 2016 retro round. Some of the cars  featured retro liveries, the marshals were in white overalls, the commentators were in retro clothes and Red Bull Racing wore retro uniforms.  

I made the two and a half hour trip to Melbourne on Friday morning, picking up my mate Tom and a parking fine along the way. We arrived at Sandown around lunchtime and were greeted by a fuller than usual for a Friday car park. The car park at Sandown provides a good opportunity for car spotting and it's about the only car park where my red Falcon blends in. After spending a few minutes having a look at an XR8 Sprint, we went in, collected our ticket lanyards, had lunch and sat in the grandstand to watch the practice sessions. Finding a program this year proved more difficult than in previous years. You used to be able to get them from the information booth but now they're in the generic Supercars section of Holden merchandise tent Triple 8 and HRT tents where you'd barely notice from outside. Also who’s buying this generic Supercars merchandise? The Sandown themed items I can understand but it's hard to explain the rest of it.

This year's support categories were Formula 4, the Toyota 86 Pro-Am Series, Carrera Cup and the Dunlop Series. This is a big departure from previous years, which along with Carrera Cup have featured V8 Utes, Australian GT and Touring Car Masters. The exclusion from TCM from the retro round seemed a bit strange. Including the Dunlop Series is a good idea because for a lot of the drivers, racing at Sandown as a co-driver is their first experience in the main game. Giving them a start at Sandown may help them land a co-driver role.

Away from the track everything was much the same as previous years, but with an emphasis on the retro round theme. The indoor car display focused exclusively on historic touring cars, featuring cars such as the Colin Bond Sierra, Steve Ellery’s Supercheap Auto Falcon and Peter Brock’s VP Commodore. The carpark car display under the grandstand featured only classic cars from the 60s, 70s and 80s. It's a surreal moment seeing these cars that you've only every seen on TV or YouTube in the metal. Brock's VP was what did it most for Tom. Not long ago he'd watched a video of Brock driving it and having gearbox problems. For me it was the Bathurst 24 Hour Monaro and Dick Johnson's Sierra more than anything else.  Other highlights included Alan Jones' world championship winning Williams F1 car, Alan Moffat's XC Falcon and Peter Janson's Commodore.

The Holden Monaro 427C that won the 2004 Bathurst 24 Hour

The Holden Monaro 427C that won the 2004 Bathurst 24 Hour

Friday practice showed that DJR Team Penske might have a chance at winning, with Fabian Coulthard being fastest in main driver practice, and Scott Pye having the fastest co-driver in the second co-driver session in Tony d’Alberto. Alex Premat was also better than people thought he would be, while Paul Dumbrell wasn't particularly fast on Friday. Steven Richards took the first co-driver practice session,

Sandown has a unique qualifying system. The main drivers complete a conventional 20 minute qualifying session, followed by two 20 lap races. The first is for the co-drivers, the second is for the main drivers. The starting order for the main driver race is based on the results of the co-driver race. Where the main driver finishes their race is where they start the proper race on Sunday. Chaz Mostert set the fastest time, putting co-driver Steve Owen on pole. Paul Dumbrell won that race, putting Jamie Whincup on pole for the second qualifying race. Whincup remained in front, putting Whincup and Dumbrell on pole for the 500 alongside Garth Tander and Warren Luff. A number of drivers seemed to forget that the qualifying races don't award any points and that they were qualifying for a 500km endurance race. Shane van Gisbergen ran Fabian Coulthard off the track, losing several positions. Even though he redressed the overtake, that should have warranted a penalty but he didn't receive one. Dean Canto made a very aggressive move that gave him a drive through penalty putting him at the back of the pack. To his credit though he had good pace all weekend and put in a very good effort on Sunday.

The first 100 people to arrive before 8:15 on Sunday in retro clothes would receive a free pit walk, but the cold and wet weather meant that not many people took up this offer. We had already bought pit walk passes before the retro round was announced so we got in without dressing up. It's something we do every year but this year the track officials seemed a lot more relaxed about it. You could get a lot closer to the garages than in previous years and I had a couple of photos standing (just) inside the DJR Team Penske garage. Quite a few people were doing it and the team weren't really bothered by it. Triple 8 however had put up a rope in front of their garage. On the walk we saw Triple 8 owner Roland Dane standing outside the Prodrive garage talking with Prodrive co-owner Rod Nash. That's something you don't see in other sports, when two football coaches come together before a game it's usually for a shouting match.

Inside the Prodrive garage during the pit walk

Inside the Prodrive garage during the pit walk

Before the start of the race, I was sure that Whincup and Dumbrell would win. But Dumbrell had a bad start and opened the race right up.The first safety car happened on lap one, when James Golding crashed. This turned into a red flag to repair the armco, leading to a time certain race rather than the full 161 laps.Then the rain came, and Canto and Richie Stanaway were caught having just pitted for new slick tyres. This turned out to be brilliant. The rain was much lighter than anticipated and both drivers moving from the back to fourth and third respectively. As a Prodrive supporter watching those two make their way through the pack was exciting to watch. But then the rain started up again on Canto’s last lap before he could hand the car over to Winterbottom. He came off on turn four in what he described as the slowest and most damaging crash he’s ever had. It triggered a safety car right on the co-driver minimum lap number, and everyone except Dumbrell came in. Triple 8 elected to leave him out to see what happened with the weather. Any advantage they might have gained from this was undone by a pit lane penalty for a seat belt infringement. After all the pit stops had been completed, Tander returned to the lead ahead of van Gisbergen, with Will Davison, Scott McLaughlin and Chaz Mostert in contention but unlikely to win. It was a very tense final stint. Tander’s right side fender was sticking out and the threat of a mechanical black flag looming. The marshals actually had the sign out with the number 2 on it ready to go. Nobody wanted that to happen. I’m a Ford supporter and I wanted to see Tander hold off an approaching van Gisbergen and win his first race in 18 months, a race that he needed to win to save his career, and that Walkinshaw needed to win to show that they were still competitive. In the end there was no black flag, and van Gisbergen caught up to Tander. The race ended with the second closest finish in Sandown 500 history after 143 laps, with Tander holding off van Gisbergen despite being slowed by his front fender and held up by lapped traffic. Following the race van Gisbergen said that if Tander had been black flagged it would have been a hollow victory. It also turns out the was no risk of the front guard falling off. On Inside Supercars on Tuesday night, Tander explained that the guard couldn’t be pulled off when they tried to on Sunday night.

For me, the best driver of the weekend was Richie Stanaway. The performance he put in in his Supercars debut (he hadn't even driven in the Dunlop Series) in the under-funded Super Black Falcon was incredible, making it all the way to third place before handing the car over. It was the first time that the #55 car of Mostert and Owen has had to double stack this year. Stanaway deserves a full time drive next year. Coulthard and Premat were two more drivers who exceeded expectations, and Canto put in an excellent performance but bad luck on his last lap meant he didn't get the result he deserved.

This year's Sandown 500 was excellent, putting my Prodrive bias aside it's the best one I've been to. If you haven't been yet, go next year if you can. Sandown is world's only permanent metropolitan international race track and land values means that it's under constant threat of sale to property developers. There are a couple of things the Victorian government could do to save Sandown, which I won't go into here, but the best thing you can do to save it is simply go to events there. The good news is that the contract for Sandown to host the 500 has been renewed for three more years, and as long as Sandown is there I'll keep going