THE traditional Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 warm-up race will this weekend return to where it should be, Melbourne’s Sandown Raceway, with the running of the Dick Smith Sandown 500.
The return to Sandown follows four years at the Phillip Island circuit, which is where the ‘Great Race’ originated in 1960, and ran for three years until it moved to Bathurst in 1963.
Before its move to Sandown, it went to the Queensland Raceway near Ipswich as the Queensland 500 in 1999, but it was revived at Sandown again in 2001 as an event for Nations Cup.
Then the V8 Supercars were back in 2002.
The original Sandown circuit length was 3.10 kilometres, until it had a complete facelift in 1984 for the first of two world sports car championship rounds that was conducted that year (the second was held in 1988).
The new international circuit was extended to 3.878km, and included two first gear corners that, frankly, were ridiculous.
The 3.878km international circuit was later abandoned and the track reverted to 3.1km – not by using the original eightturn layout, but a modified 13-turn course.
This happened by doing away with the very unpopular tight and twisty infield section that had been used since 1984 and using only the re-configured international (outer) circuit.
As a driver, the Sandown circuit always ran a close second in favouritism to Mount Panorama for this scribe, for it was a really technical and high speed track.
Many drivers enjoy the 500km race at Sandown, including Craig Lowndes, who, writing for www.carsguide.com.au, said he grew up with the Sandown 500 as the dress rehearsal for Bathurst.
“So it just feels right that we return to Melbourne this weekend for the first of the enduro events. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Island. It’s an amazing driver’s track with fast and flowing corners,” Lowndes wrote.
“But Sandown is an amazing spectator track stuck right in the middle of the suburbs with plenty of great vantage points and a massive grandstand that runs along most of the main straight.
“It's a hard race for drivers and cars; hard on brakes and hard on the suspension, because we hit every kerb.
Basically it turns into a hard-charging sprint from start to finish, which makes it a fantastic race for the fans.”
Put the history aside, and Lowndes must also be happy to be returning to Sandown for it’s a circuit where he has enjoyed a lot of success, having won the endurance race four times.
The then ‘Kid’ won with Greg Murphy in HRT Holden Commodores in 1996 and ’97, and followed that up with victory in 2005 driving a Triple Eight Ford Falcon with the Frenchman Yvan Muller, and then again in ’07 in a Ford, but with Jamie Whincup.
He did not have such a happy time in the sprint races during the past four years, although he was only once out of the top 10 and won a race in 2008.
Long-time followers of the sport cannot remember the points ever being so close at the pointy end of the field, so in some cases co-drivers could go a long way to deciding the championship.
While TeamVodafone and Ford Performance Racing between them have won every race conducted thus far in 2012, this just may be the race that will end their domination in 2012.
Having said that, neither of the team’s co-drivers are too shabby. Lowndes will have Warren Luff with him in the #888 TeamVodafone Holden, while championship leader and defending champion Whincup has the services of Paul Dumbrell in the #1 entry.
At the Ford Performance Racing camp, Mark Winterbottom has his old teammate Steven Richards with him in the Orrcon Ford, and Will Davison has the services of Kiwi John McIntyre, while David Reynolds has experienced endure driver Dean Canto driving with him in the FPR Bottle O Racing Ford.
Lowndes has another reason to do well this year, and that is to equal a record, as he has currently scored 99 podiums. A top three finish this weekend would put him equal with his late mentor Peter Brock. That would give him extra motivation to then break that record in Brock’s favourite race at Bathurst.
This year’s 500 has a different format yet again, as grid positions for the 500km enduro will be determined by two Saturday sprint races, as seen previously at Phillip Island, though the rules have been tweaked.
A qualifying session for either driver will determine start positions for the first sprint, which will be for co-drivers only.
The regular drivers will then start their sprint race from the position their co-driver finished in.
There will be no compulsory pitstops in either sprint race.
The new system eliminates confusion for fans who needed a pen, paper and calculator just to work out which pairing had accumulated the most points.
It seems as if it is a year of celebrations. Sandown Raceway held its first race meeting in 1962, and as such it is its 50th anniversary this year, while the Bathurst 1000’s 50th race is being celebrated as well.