This weekend the Supercars circus returns to the state of Victoria after a Covid-induced hiatus for round two of the 2021 season at one of the category’s most historic venues, Sandown Raceway.
Following one of the most disjointed and peculiar seasons in Supercars history, 2021 looks set to have just as many plot twists and curveballs in store for drivers, teams, and fans alike. And, ahead of this weekend’s Penrite Oil Sandown SuperSprint, one question leads all others…
Will Shane van Gisbergen drive?
At the time of writing, series leader Shane van Gisbergen’s weekend prospects were still up in the air. The 31-year-old recently broke his collarbone in a mountain biking accident, resulting in a mad dash to get him back to health.
He was back behind the wheel of a race car on Monday and Tuesday to test how his body copes with the stress. Other treatments, beyond the permanent plate and nine screws now inside him, include time at Hyperbaric Oxygen Gold Coast.
Triple Eight COO Jessica Dane told Supercars.com yesterday that van Gisbergen is a “maybe 80 per cent chance” to race following positive feedback from his track tests earlier this week. If he’s unable to race, Garth Tander will strap in — potentially the best possible super sub in the series.
What’s the weekend format?
First thing to note is that there’s no racing on Friday, so no reason to call up a cheeky late sicky (save that for the next one). Instead the series crams 10 sessions into Saturday and Sunday’s on-track schedule, with one 36-lap race on Saturday and two 36-lappers on Sunday.
The first competitive session is qualifying for the weekend opener at 3.45pm NZDT on Saturday. The first race (race three of season) follows at 6.45pm. On Sunday, qualifying for both races kicks off at 12.30pm, with each race scheduled for 3.30pm and 6.30pm, respectively.
There’s a few support classes, but slightly less than usual. The S5000s are the big ones to watch, with Kiwi Kaleb Ngatoa hoping to build on his impressive series debut last weekend. Porsche Carrera Cup Australia gets its 2021 season underway. And some old-school metal will be on show via the Heritage Revival series.
Even if Shane’s not there, this place is still a Triple Eight paradise, isn’t it…
Well, yes. Sandown has long been a happy hunting ground for Triple Eight. In fact, the last time a non-T8 entry won a points-paying race at Sandown was in 2017, when Cameron Waters and Richie Stanaway claimed the 500.
Even if van Gisbergen isn’t better by Saturday, and most are tipping he will be, things still look good for the Red Bulls. Tander probably should’ve won the last Sandown 500 with van Gisbergen after a heroic drive in the opening stint of the race only for a suspension failure to kill their race late. Whincup, meanwhile, won every race at the venue in 2018 and 2019 — obviously barring the 2019 co-driver race, which teammate Craig Lowndes evidently won.
Should I even tune in if one team is just going to win everything?
It’s undoubtedly going to be quite as simple as made out above. While van Gisbergen is in incredible form (hopefully the additional plate won’t hinder his abilities this weekend), Whincup comes off a decidedly flat showing at the Bathurst series opener.
A sixth and seventh for his troubles represented solid points, but it was hard to not ignore the huge gap between the seven-time champ and van Gisbergen all weekend. Part of this likely stems from growing pains as Whincup melds with new engineer Wes McDougal.
It’s worth remembering that there’s another variable in this, too. Since the teams went on a Sandown sabbatical in 2020, there’s a small chance of rusty racing habits creeping in. It might sound a little simplistic, but there were certainly a few ropey team and driver performances at Bathurst so who knows…
So, Waters is also a good shout then?
As the last non-T8 racer to win at Sandown, Waters could be a go-to pick for those of a blue oval persuasion. However it’s worth noting that he’s struggled with pace and luck at Sandown in subsequent years, notching a best finish of 13th across 2018 and 2019. Still, he’s in the form of his life and will be wanting to make up for Saturday’s mechanical failure a few weeks ago.
I suspect Anton De Pasquale will be Ford’s quickest representative. He’s always been a gun at Sandown, even if luck has often deserted him there. The 2019 500 was one such textbook example; De Pasquale shunted to the back of the grid on lap one of the main-driver qualifying race, only to come from last to 13th.
Who else should I be watching?
In no particular order; expect Erebus Motorsport to repeat the strong pace its two rookies, Will Brown and Brodie Kostecki, showed at Bathurst. Chaz Mostert claimed second the last time the Supercars were here, it’s just a matter of time before he wins with Walkinshaw Andretti United. And, as a two-time 500 champ, Mark Winterbottom should be able to continue the great form he showed at the series opener (he currently sits a credible third in the standings).
I’m also keeping a keen eye on Brad Jones Racing to see if the four-car operation can recover from a fairly chaotic round one. It feels like a long, long time ago that we watched Nick Percat bring the team back to the winner’s circle. The 2020 Bathurst 1000 was an unmitigated disaster, and the Bathurst sprint round wasn’t much better — Percat forced to fight from the back of the grid twice thanks to issues in qualifying, and Todd Hazelwood lacking his usual pace.
Weather? Doesn’t it always pour in Melbourne?
It does, this is fact. However things are looking fairly mild for the upcoming weekend, with a 20 per cent chance of rain on Sunday being a lone wildcard.
Still, you don’t need rain for good racing at Sandown. Some of the best Sandown races were completed in dry conditions, like Jason Bright’s tussle with Rick Kelly in 2006, Garth Tander’s memorable 2016 win when he fended off van Gisbergen despite a clearly ailing car (before getting shown the door by HRT the next day), and the somewhat controversial Winterbottom versus Whincup clash in 2012.
How long does Sandown have before it’s leveled and turned into housing?
This is the elephant in the room. With Victorian urban sprawl well and truly engulfing the popular horse and car-racing facility, it’s tipped that Sandown will follow in Oran Park’s footsteps to be turned into some kind of housing estate in the coming years. For now, though, it’s still a dedicated race track, and we celebrate that.
Sandown’s history has had its longevity and success in part because the track is packed with character. Like a lot of older circuits, it’s effectively two long high-speed straights ribboned together with a few corners. Turn six into ‘Dandenong Road’ is one of the most hair-raising corners in Australia; the cars showing more attitude and suspension travel there than just about any other corner in the country.
And yes, there’s been plenty of shunts there too.