Sunny skies and a picturesque setting underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the perfect scene for the launch of the 2020 Supercars Championship season.
It was a big weekend for the Supercars category, as the season of endurance officially began with the traditional pre-Bathurst event with the Sandown 500.
From major crashes to championships in jeopardy, here are the major talking points from the Sandown 500 weekend.
Hazelwood crash demonstrates Supercars safety
The big talking point after Saturday was certainly the horrific impact suffered by endurance debutant Todd Hazelwood, who was sent flying into the wall at turn four after being punted by Jonathon Webb.
With the Cooldrive Commodore left in such a state that it failed to make the grid for the 500km race, Hazelwood’s escape from any severe injury was something that had left onlookers in awe.
Such is the safety in the new generation Supercars that even after mega-impacts like that, a driver can walk away. In the Hazelwood crash, much of it can be attributed to the added protection around the legs for the drivers – which has been a recently introduced addition.
While Hazelwood was unable to contest the Sandown 500 alongside Tim Blanchard, the young driver was able to immediately step out of the wrecked Holden and score a podium finish in the Super2 race on Saturday.
Part-Timers still have what it takes
Drivers such as Alex Prémat and Luke Youlden who race very little in the build-up to the Enduro Cup always come under great scrutiny regarding whether they will be as prepared as drivers such as Paul Dumbrell, who spend the year driving in other categories.
Prémat, alongside Scott McLaughlin, was able to qualify on the front row following the two Sprint for the Grid races on Saturday. A solid stint on Sunday during the race saw the Frenchman on the podium alongside the Kiwi.
Youlden, who finds himself at this third team in as many years like Prémat, won the first qualifying race for Erebus, allowing David Reynolds to then qualify third.
These part-timers demonstrated that, regardless of whether they are racing full-time elsewhere during the year or not, they are professionals. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be co-drivers to the likes of championship contenders in McLaughlin, would they?
Waters and Stanaway make a bold statement
There was no doubting that, after making his Super2 debut at Sydney Motorsport Park, Richie Stanaway would be using the Enduro Cup as a springboard to a full-time berth in Supercars for 2018.
In only his fourth race start, the 25-year-old has achieved a pole position and a maiden race victory at one of the most difficult races on the calendar in the Sandown 500.
A composed start saw the Kiwi lead the race from the start before handing the car over to Cam Waters, who also drove a measured stint to the chequered flag and a maiden Supercars win.
The 23-year-old surely puts to bed the critics who, since his debut in the category last year, have been crying for blood over the lack of results. With a well-tuned car under his belt, Waters will surely be able to show form reminiscent of his Super2 title-winning campaign.
This pairing in the build-up to the Enduro Cup was listed as a left-field choice of this writer’s top five combinations for 2017 and wow, have they come out of the gates in a dominant fashion.
Van Gisbergen’s title defence in jeopardy?
So critical is the Enduro Cup in terms of the overall championship that losing points to your rivals is suddenly magnified by the amount of points available per race.
Thus, finishing fifteenth at the Sandown 500, in comparison to the championship leader who scored a podium, has surely hurt the Kiwi’s prospects of retaining his crown.
Van Gisbergen drops to fifth in the standings, with a 414-point deficit to McLaughlin. 300 points are on offer for the Bathurst 1000 and then 150 for each of the Gold Coast 600 races, so the pressure is very much on the Kiwi to claw back what he has lost.
Though it is near impossible to predict the outcome at Bathurst, it is clear that if van Gisbergen has another poor race result, it could be goodbye to his hopes for a second title.
What becomes of Sandown?
While Sandown is contracted to remain on the Supercars calendar until 2019, there has been plenty of talk about the safety of the venue over the weekend – particularly after the two shunts at the same corner.
With it unlikely that Sandown will remain a race facility beyond the turn of the decade, is it worth upgrading that portion of the circuit? Particularly when the fans are so close to where the wrecks occur?
In the 47 runnings of the Sandown 500, it has only been in the last two years that the race has been suspended due to a red flag. The unfortunate consequence is that the race becomes time certain and the 161 laps cannot be completed.
Scott McLaughlin took to social media to suggest that the race should be started earlier, to “give fans the full show.” Starting the race earlier would mean the allotted time is greater and would give the race more of a chance to reach the 161-lap target.