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Apr 3, 2017

Craillsy's Preview: Sandown, 99 and not out


Shannons Nationals' long-time friend and commentator Richard Craill previews the season opener at Sandown this weekend.

Round 1 of the 2017 Shannons Nationals is here and it’s a good thing, too, because it means another trip to Sandown.

I always feel lucky going to that fantastic place nestled quietly into Melbourne’s suburban South East. Lucky that it’s still there. Lucky that it’s such a bloody good track. Lucky that I am able to follow in the footsteps of some of the biggest names in the sport who have raced there. Lucky that the Sandown Park hotel is right next door for a cheeky Friday night Parmy ... you know - all the important things.

There’s plenty to look forward to this weekend, with five categories all ready to launch into a new season.

With that in mind, here’s a quick-fire run through of some of the things you need to know about this weekend.

1. An Olympic legend is racing.

John Steffensen is mates with Usain Bolt, which makes him cool. But he’s also an Olympic medallist and Commonwealth Gold winner in his own right – which makes him even cooler. What’s more, he’ll make his debut in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Australia presented by Pirelli this weekend and that just about pops the cool-o-meter up to 11.

But don’t think he’s just another celebrity diving into motor sport thinking he will go out and win his first race. For starters, he has he linked with Zagame Autosport for his Porsche debut which means that along with a shiny Porsche 997 GT3 Cup Car, he gets the likes of Cameron McConville and Michael Almond as coaches as part of the bargain.

Plus, former professional athletes have a habit of jumping into cars and doing the business – there’s something about the mindset and mental aptitude needed in all professional sports that is transferrable from the running track to the circuit.

John told me last week at the Grand Prix that ‘My body won’t let me race on foot but my brain is still sharp.. this is a way to keep the competitive fires burning,’ so you can bet he’ll have a red-hot go. I suspect that when we go back and list the ‘biggest improvers’ of the year – his name will probably be near, if not on, the top.

2. Two rounds for the price of one.

The decision to run two rounds of the CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 Championship at the one event is actually, very smart. It’s common knowledge that one of the largest cost outlays in motor sport is in the travel and accommodation required for drivers and crew–let alone trucking cars around this vast brown land. So when all the cars are gathered at a track already, why not race them some more?

What it will do is create a very interesting championship dynamic – because if one or two drivers come out of the box and dominate at Sandown, they’re going to have a handy leg-up in the championship points battle.

But I doubt that will happen–in fact, it’s more likely the six races will each have a different winner across the course of the weekend. This is a good thing. Sandown is an unpredictable beast and a paradise for open-wheel slipstreaming battles so hold on to your hats.

Other things to watch? The titanic battle between Team BRM and AGI Sport, the debut of Zagame Autosport, and the progress of young Queenslander Cameron Shields–who unlike a lot of his fellow teenage rivals already has an established open-wheel strike rate.

I could barely add one plus one when I was fifteen or sixteen, so these kids are mighty impressive to be doing what they’re doing!

3. The GT3 boom continues

In the same way that the Kumho V8 Touring Car Series supports the Super2 Series and Supercars Championship as a place for older cars to go and race, so too the Australian GT Trophy Series supports the GT Championship and CAMS Australian Endurance Championsip in the same way.

Formed last year, the series’ went through growing pains but in its second season it looks like a healthy grid and competitive racing is in store between a bunch of very cool cars.

What’s also appealing about the GT Trophy is that we get to see some of the more ‘classic’ GT cars back on track: It’s odd to think of a 458 GT3 as ‘Classic’ given it won the 12-hour only a few years ago–but the fact is it’s too old to compete in the main GT game now.

Which is good for us, because I am a big fan of its normally-aspirated howl, which is amplified down Sandown’s long straight when sitting in the cavernous grandstand.

4. Prototypes galore

So GT racing is growing around the world, but part of that growth has been spurred on by the recent success of the World Endurance Championship, and the WeatherTech Series in the states.

Australia hasn’t had a focused Prototype Series since the Sports Car Championship fizzled out in the late '80s, so the debut of the Australian Prototype Series this weekend will be of keen interest. It’s an evolution from an existing platform that has been a Shannons Nationals staple – but it evolves the brand with modifications to the rule and eligibility book and some new machinery.

The addition of the WOLF CN cars will be fascinating and add international relevance, as will the influx of Radicals that are taking part because not only will the APS be racing this weekend–the entirely separate Radical Australia Cup will be as well.

So there’s two prototype-style series for the price of one, which strikes me as outstandingly good value – because these cars are fast and highly entertaining to watch.

5. 99 not out...

A big milestone for the Shannons Nationals this weekend, as the series inches its way to the big 100th round celebration that will be May’s adventure to Phillip Island, but more on that soon.

This weekend marks the 99th round the Nationals has staged since its foundation at Wakefield Park in 2006.

Ninety-nine is an important number in Australian sport, mainly because of Cricket and the ability of players to get out for one run less than the big ton.

An Australian was the first ever to be dismissed for 99 in test cricket, actually: Left-handed Adelaide batsman Clement Hill was dismissed for 99 against the old enemy, England, at the MCG on 1 January 1902.

In the intervening 115 years a lot of players have fallen just short of waving the bat, including some notable Australians that include Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich and, famously Michael Slater (who had a knack for getting out just short of a century).

However, perhaps the most famous incidence of 99 in Australian sport is held by an iconic Victorian, the one and only, Shane Warne.

The great leggie was caught off the bowling of Kiwi spinner Daniel Vettori when 99* at the WACA in late 2001 and, much to his chagrin, would never go on to make a test century.. Lucky, then, he was an alright bowler.

Still, there will be no such stumbles for the Shannons Nationals, as we swing the bat into a New Year and loft short-pitched off breaks into the grandstand with aplomb on our way to 100 and more.

Ninety-nine not out will be a nice way to build up to our 100th celebration in a month or two. Enjoy the weekend!

- Craillsy