Garry’s 2018 Sandown 500 Race Report

Following a couple of weeks away I returned to work on the Monday leading up to the Sandown 500 and the boys and girls at work had prepared a very special surprise for me.

The Sandown 500 has taken on a retro theme since 2016 and we have previously celebrated Volvo’s history in 2016 and Tander and Moffat’s heritage in 2017. I am not one that spends too much time thinking of my own Motorsport past because not much is achieved looking back, but occasionally a little reminiscing does put a smile on my face. I certainly had a big smile when our 2018 retro cars were revealed to me on Monday and to see our current cars in the liveries of my very first Bathurst car (A9X Torana) and the Soundwave Disco VH Commodore was very, very special. Thank you all.

The Sandown Motor Racing Circuit is steeped in history with drivers such as Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Fangio and of course Peter Brock, Allan Moffat, Norm Beechey and Garry Rogers (ha ha!) having raced on the circuit that first opened in 1963. In recent times rumours constantly circulate as to the future of the circuit and the likely re-development for a housing estate. I’m certainly one for progress and on occasions believe sentiment has too much of an influence on change. But, I would dearly love to see the Sandown Racing Circuit preserved as it is the last metropolitan Motor Racing Circuitremaining in Australia. I appreciate that there are massive economic hurdles that would need to be overcome to make this happen, but when it is gone we need to understand that we will never have a racing circuit in a metropolitan city ever again. 

There is only one member of our staff that doesn’t like traveling to Sandown and that is Joey (Joe Sullivan – Transporter Driver) as the temperature gauge barely leaves the blue zone on the Volvo Globetrotter on the short trip from our Dandenong South headquarters. Interesting though was that Joe was spotted by our security cameras arriving at the workshop on Wednesday evening and spending the night in the sleeper cabin before heading to Sandown on Thursday morning. Joey loves his truck!

Friday, and a couple of practice sessions for the co-drivers and only one session for the main drivers. The highlight for Friday was our retro lunch where Dom (our chef) prepared the most iconic of retro foods, The Chiko Roll! I loved the idea but was a little worried that I may not have workforce come Saturday, but thankfully there were no ill effects. To top it off the crew were served ham steaks with pineapple for dinner.

The Sandown 500 is the first of three endurance races in the Supercar Championship. The race format is quite simple, 161 laps of the 3.1klm circuit where the co-driver must complete a minimum of 55 laps. Garth was being joined by Chris Pither and James was partnered by Richard Muscat. The qualifying format is quite the opposite where following a traditional 20-minute qualifying session 2x20 lap races take place. The first with the co-drivers starting where the car finished following the qualifying session, and the second with the primary drivers starting where the co-driver finished. The final finishing place following the second 20-lap race is the starting position for the 500.

James (Bieber) did a really good job in qualifying and had the #34 in 9th following qualifying and GT was 2/10ths further back in 19th. Whincup (888) was quickest from Mostert (Tickford). The 20-lap co-driver race didn’t start as we hoped as Richard Muscat in the #34 wheel spun on the line and was swamped going from 9th to 18th. Pither was one spot in front in 17th. On lap 6 the Safety Car was deployed to retrieve the car of Jason Bright (Team 18) that was stranded on the main straight. The race restarted on lap 10 and the threatening skies above showered down hail in pit lane. The field at the time were at the end of the back straight and we along with 13 other cars chose to pit for wet tyres. This turned out to be the wrong decision as the hail only lasted a matter of seconds and only affected 50% of the circuit. Those that stayed out filled the first 12 places led by the Nissan of Aaren Russell. Chris Pither finished 19th and Richard Muscat 23rd. GT and Bieber then completed their 20-lap race and Garth moved a few places forward to 15th and James finished 24th. Pole for the Sandown 500 was won by Dave Reynolds (Erebus) from Whincup who did a sensational job to move from 11th to 2nd in a 20-lap race. 

Following Saturday’s activities, I couldn’t wait to get in the car and get the seat heater on, it was freezing. On the drive home I must admit I was disappointed as to our result, but realistic enough to realise that throughout the earlier sessions that we knew we had better speed than the result of the qualifying format delivered. 

Sunday and the weather although still cool, looked much more favourable than Saturday. I arrived at the track around 8.00am and the crowd was already building with many perched at the end of the back straight. The Sandown circuit is fantastic for fans as they can take their cars in and the vantage points around the circuit provide a view where most of the track can be seen. As much as the crowd interested me I was more eager to get myself to the GRM dining tent. I find it quite interesting watching the crew have their breakfast, there are many extremes. You have your “old timers” like Joey who has had marmalade on toast (that must be buttered after it is taken off the hot plate) with a cup of tea, to your more extreme eaters like Ears (Kieren Woodger - #34 Mechanic) who fries his toast (4 pieces) on the hotplate before smothering it in a thick layer of Nutella. The toast then sits next to him and goes cold while he devours a bowl of Nutri Grain followed by a bowl of pineapple, he then eats the toast! These young people amaze me, thank goodness for Joey!

Wandering through the crowd it was wonderful to see the effort that many had gone to embrace the retro theme but was a little put back when I saw Barry in his skimpy white shorts, white sports socks and terry towling hat. The disappointment was partly because of his awkward look, but more because I’m the lead “dresser upperer” at GRM and I don’t need my son trying to undermine my superiority!

The strategy for the Sandown 500 over recent years is to start the co-driver in the car and have them complete their 55 laps before putting in the primary driver for the final 106 laps. In years gone past it wasn’t uncommon for the primary driver to be many tenths of a second and in some instances, seconds quicker than the co-driver, but in modern Supercar racing the speed difference in drivers is very minimal and they are often within a few hundredths of each other. The main advantage of having the primary driver in the car longer and particularly in the closing stages is their familiarity with the car and their ability to race if a Safety Car period occurs late in a race. The variables that influence strategy are the minimum laps required by the co-driver, fuel consumption and tyre life. Throughout practice both Joe and Squid (Mitch Feeney) our tyre technicians analyse the tyre wear and assist the engineers with information so as a prediction can be made on tyre life and the optimal lap time that the driver can aim to do to give the tyres the best life. It is often thought that a race driver jumps in the car and drives as fast as they can. This is certainly true throughout the qualifying phase of a race meeting, but to be competitive in a race and particularly an endurance race, it’s important to have the car set up in a manner that allows the driver to reach each pit window with the tyres capable of maintaining reasonable grip. Fuel consumption at Sandown allows for a maximum 38 lap stint. 

Although I have been at race tracks for many, many years I still feel the excitement and anticipation as the cars grid up and the colour and noise of the pre-race activity builds as the race start approaches. Off the start line it was Paul Dumbrell in the 888 Commodore of Whincup’s who got the jump leading from Premat (McLaughlin DJRTP) and Canto (Winterbottom Tickford). From 15th Chris Pither got to turn 1 unscathed but through turn 3was tagged from behind and sent in to the tyre barrier. Chris did a reasonable job to limit any damage but was now 10 seconds off the back of the pack. Pither put together a stint of solid laps and was catching the field ahead at over .5sec per lap and by lap 13 was on the back of the train. In the meantime, Richard Muscat had moved up to 20th.

With fuel consumption providing for a maximum stint of 38 laps and the co-drivers having to complete a minimum of 55 laps, the window for the first pit stops opened around lap 17 and we were the first to pit with the #33 pitting, on lap 22 we pitted Muscat and when the race settled following the first round of stops it was the Dumbrell dominating out front with Steve Richards (Lowndes 888) close behind. The GRM pit crew along with Chris Pither’s solid stint saw the #33 move from last to 17th, Richard Muscat was also inside the top 20. As lap 55 approached the crew prepared for the #34 who had moved in front of the #33, as Chris had run the longest stint having stopped on lap 17 and the tyres on the #33 were giving very little grip. Richard Muscat handed over to James Golding in 18th position, and Pither to Tander on lap 56 in 21st. 

Tander put together one of those drives that he has a reputation for and he drove with confidence, aggression and decisiveness to slice his way through the field and by lap 161 he and Chris Pither had managed to salvage a respectable result, finishing 9th after the mayhem on lap 1. The #34 of Golding and Muscat maintained the position that Muscat had established during his stint and Bieber was sitting behind Will Davison (23 Red) from the moment he left pit lane on lap 56 and was right up behind him following the lap 60 Safety Car to retrieve the Team18 car from the sand trap. On lap 67 the #33 of Tander passed Simona DeSilvestro (Nissan) to be right behind the #34. I have always been adamant that we don’t have team orders and I like to allow the guys to race and, in this instance, the #33 and #34 go tangled up through turns 2 & 3. Unfortunately, this contact led to the front aero of the #34 been handicapped and Bieber could not drive to the limit that was required. The result was a finishing position of 18th. It was the 888 cars that dominated and led by Whincup/Dumbrell followed by VanGisbergen/Bamber and Lowndes/Richards they completed a clean sweep. 

Since the weekend I have heard a bit of talk regarding the dominance of 888 and of course I am frustrated by own results in recent times yet buoyed by what we were able to achieve over the weekend from what early on seemed like an irretrievable position. But, to Roland and the 888 Team I congratulate them on a tremendous effort. It’s very easy to throw the parity debate up every time somebody dominates, but to prepare, race and engineer three cars that qualified 2nd, 10th and 11th to win is something that should be celebrated.

I can’t wait for Bathurst!

MOMENT OF DISAPPOINTMENT – my Chiko Roll was cold!

MOMENT OF EXCITEMENT – Seeing the GRM crew in Stubbies shorts!

Garry

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