Can Anything Be Done About the Time-Certain Sandown 500?
This year's Sandown 500 was time-certain, just like last year's. This year it happened because the tyre barrier had to be repaired after Taz Douglas hit it. A lot of people complained about this. People expect Sandown to go the full 500km. It's supposed to be an endurance race after all. As the fourth biggest car race in Australia (Behind the Melbourne Grand Prix, Bathurst 1000 and Bathurst 12 hour).
The race was scheduled to start at 1:15 and finish after 161 laps or one lap after 4:48pm. If the track stays dry and there are no safety cars, it should be over by 4:15. That never happens, hence the extra half hour. The issue is that the last couple of years, there have been some big accidents causing big delays and half an hour isn't enough. An hour is the most common suggestion for extra time. Finding the extra half hour to provide a full hour isn't so straightforward. The reality of it is that there's probably nothing that Supercars can actually do about it.
The cause of most time-certain finishes is TV commitments. These apply at Sandown just as they do at Sydney Motorsport Park or Winton or anywhere else. Ten and Foxtel don't want the race to finish too early because they'll end up with a big programming gap. Ten wants the race to lead into the news at five or six, they don't want their audience to tune out. Foxtel has a dedicated motorsport channel and would have to fill out the broadcast until the designated end time. Ten can't do this because their audience is made up of more casual fans. But at Sandown, the world's only permanent metropolitan international racing circuit, there's another, bigger, obstacle to allowing the race to run later.
The City of Greater Dandenong imposes a 5:00pm noise curfew on the circuit, so the race has to be over by 4:48. They can't start proceedings earlier because the same curfew applies in the morning up until 9:15. They can't start just the main race earlier because the support categories are entitled to their track time. The support categories, just like Supercars, have their standard formats. They also have time-certain races, only theirs are much stricter. Moving the race earlier would involve a compromise from at least one support category or the removal of one altogether. The latter is unlikely considering that the support categories all use the same format at every round, and the latter would leave too many gaps in the schedule.
The Dandenong council is unlikely to relax its noise curfews. Other businesses would seek to take advantage of any blanket changes and exemptions for Sandown would generate angst in the community. Dandenong and Springvale residents are already unhappy about the noise at Sandown, and this would only anger them further. Any complaints would be directed towards Sandown’s owners, the Melbourne Racing Club. The MRC is already considering selling Sandown and this might be the last straw before they give up and sell. The most likely buyer, given Melbourne's soaring house prices, would be a property developer and Sandown would become a housing estate.
But would anyone really notice a noise restriction change? Most complaints would be made for the sake of complaining. They're already permitted to race until 5:50 on Saturday, why can't they do it on Sunday? Problem solved. This is an anachronism left over from the days of restricted Sunday trading hours. The rules for Sunday should be the same as Saturday. But given the animosity some residents have towards Sandown, a change to noise restrictions seems unlikely. It's a sad reflection of Melbourne's apathy to motorsport.
If the Dandenong council is unwilling to budge, and they won't budge, Supercars will have to ask the support categories to compromise. This year they had Super2, Touring Car Masters, Carrera Cup, and the Australian GT Championship. All of these series run the same format at each round. They all have three races The GT Championship has the longest races, at 40 minutes. The others are all a fixed number of laps but are time-certain to prevent the weekend from falling behind schedule. Carrera Cup has two 20 minute races and one 40 minute, Super2 two half-hour races and TCM three 20 minute races. Swapping out the GT Championship for something with a shorter format like Formula 4 or the Toyota 86 Pro-Am series would save time, but wouldn't have the same spectator appeal. Things would get even worse if Super 5000 gets up. Not every circuit on the Supercars calendar meets FIA and CAMS requirements to host the Supercar-engined open wheelers. Sandown is one that does. Supercars being the retro round, they can't cut TCM. Given that Sandown is one of the biggest events on the Supercars calendar and one of only six on free to air TV, support category places are in demand and some series’ may be willing to compromise in order to get a place. It might be possible to trim a few minutes from different sessions to make up time. Supercars themselves could lead by example and find time by cutting the races for the grid back from 19 to 15 laps each, saving 10 minutes
One out of the box solution would be to run the first practice sessions on Thursday. It wouldn't be the only four-day event on the Supercars calendar. The other one is Bathurst. It wouldn't be the only four-day motorsport event in Melbourne either, the other being the Grand Prix. Moving some sessions to Thursday would free up time for the final Carrera Cup race on Saturday. That alone would provide the extra time needed for the main event. That's assuming that the council allows them to hold practice on Thursday.
Another possible solution is to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to repair the tyre wall. This could be done by redesigning the corner where all the big crashes happen to make It safer, by increasing the run-off area or by replacing tyre barriers with a new type of barrier. TecPro barriers consist of one or two rows of interlocking cells that are faster to assemble than tyre walls. They have been used in Formula 1 since 1996.
In 2010 Mark Webber said “I knew there was a lot of run-off down there, so that was good. I was also happy it was a tyre wall and not the Tecpro stuff because that is not as good as the tyres. After Singapore, what happened last year, this was a nicer cushioning hit for me”. Remember a Supercar weighs twice as much as an F1 car.
Tecpro barriers have improved since then and are the preferred choice in F1, but they are very expensive and require Tecpro technicians to install. Their effectiveness is still debatable, especially when they are installed incorrectly. In 2015, Carlos Sainz tore a Tecpro barrier when he crashed into one at Sochi.
SAFER barriers are less appropriate than tyres for Supercars. They're good for ovals, which is why NASCAR and IndyCar use them, but NASCAR still uses tyres for road circuits.
It's worth remembering that Sandown 500 and its shorter predecessors have been run 47 times and only the last two have been red flagged. Until the long-term future of Sandown Raceway is guaranteed, Supercars and the Melbourne Racing Club would have a hard time justifying the cost of any circuit upgrades. Unless an agreement can be reached to allocate more time to the 500, we're stuck with red-flagged races being time certain.
Supercars has taken a lot of abuse for this, but they're not solely to blame. The barriers to Sandown unconditionally running the full 500km are all either difficult or impossible to overcome. If it were as simple as starting earlier, they would already be doing that.