Supercars Championship and Sandown Raceway officials are under increasing pressure to address safety concerns at the historic Melbourne circuit after Brad Jones Racing co-driver Todd Hazlewood had a terrifying accident in Saturday afternoon’s opening Qualifying Race to help determine the starting grid for Sunday’s Sandown 500.
The leader of the feeder Super2 Series championship, Hazlewood – co-driving Tim Blanchard’s #3 Team Cooldrive Holden Commodore – was tagged from behind by TEKNO Autosport’s Jonathon Webb on the last lap of the 20-lap sprint race on the approach to the circuit’s fastest corner, Turn 6.
Hazlewood slid uncontrolled across the corner’s tiny run-off at over 250km/h before slamming into the trackside tyre wall and being pitched into a violent roll that peeled the car’s roof and side panels clean off his VF Commodore.
Incredibly, Hazlewood emerged from his destroyed car uninjured, but clearly shaken. The car was a complete write-off and Brad Jones Racing has withdrawn the Blanchard/Hazlewood entry for the remainder of the weekend.
The accident is the latest in a series of similarly violent accidents at the infamous Dandenong Road corner in recent years. With approach speeds in excess of 260km/h, the left-hand corner is flanked by a small patch of grass run-off before a tyre and Armco barrier that serves to protect spectators seated on the grassy embankment.
At last year’s Sandown 500, James Golding plowed head-on into the wall in the early laps of the race after his GRM Volvo suffered a front-right puncture on approach to the corner. He was similarly lucky to emerge unhurt from the car he was co-driving with James Moffat:
In the 2014 event, Lee Holdsworth had a huge hit at the Dandenong Road bend when his Erebus Motorsport Mercedes suffered a mechanical failure on approach to the corner. Despite trying to steer his car through the corner’s inside run-off, he couldn’t scrub off enough speed and the results were disastrous to his car:
A year earlier, Ash Walsh – co-driving with Blanchard in the #17 Dick Johnson Racing Ford – swiped the same tyre wall when he lost front-end grip trying to overtake Craig Baird’s Erebus Mercedes on Lap 35 of the race:
The 2010 event – run in a Sprint round format due to Phillip Island staging the 500-kilometre round – saw double disaster for the Holden Racing Team. In Saturday’s race, Garth Tander crashed at the corner on the opening lap of the race and suffered major front-end damage to his Holden Commodore. This trackside fan footage shows how little reaction time and run-off there is to avoid a heavy hit:
A day later, his teammate Will Davison got airborne after hitting the barriers when he and Garry Rogers Motorsport driver Michael Caruso touched while battling for position. Both cars sustained major damage, but again the drivers were lucky to escape without injury:
In 2005, Simon Wills crashed heavily during practice for the event. The youngster amazingly was unhurt in his accident, which saw his car vault and roll onto the Armco barriers:
There are several more examples in other championships – GT racing, historics, and open-wheelers – that continue to highlight the clear dangers of this corner.
What, if any, are the solutions that circuit and Supercars officials can explore?
Undoubtedly, safety advancements have continued to play a role in reducing the risk to drivers being injured. Hazlewood’s car was fitted with the latest footwell crash protection structures mandated by Supercars, and the youngster credited this extra cockpit protection for not breaking his legs in his crash yesterday.
The circuit, which has been in operation for over 50 years, has arguably failed – or is unable – to keep pace with the sort of safety requirements that are de rigueur among more modern facilities.
Run on the perimeter of the famous gore racing course, the facility is hemmed in by surrounding housing and public roads. As seen on an overhead view of the circuit, there is simply no room to expand the circuit’s run-off area:
The cars cannot be slowed and the run-off cannot be extended, so perhaps the only solution is to consider a layout change to increase the run-off by shortening and slowing the approach to the corner.
Between 1984 and 1998, Sandown Raceway operated in its ‘International’ layout, adding an extra 910 metre sequence so it could meet the FIA’s requirements to stage World Championship-level events. The tight and twisty sequence started with a left-hand hairpin (still visible in the above graphic) and a further five slow-speed corners that bypassed the Dandenong Road corner and the Turn 7/8 chicane before rejoining at what is now Turn 9.
The additional corners proved unpopular with drivers and fans as it ruined the high-speed rhythm of the circuit, but it was – and still is – arguably safer.
It remains to be seen how Supercars, the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (the country’s governing motorsport body) and the Melbourne Racing Club (the circuit’s owners) respond.
The situation cannot blindly continue.
Images via Supercars Championship