A hardy group owning 32 cars made the sojourn to Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia, for the running of the 2009 support races at the Australian Grand Prix. With a support staff of at least 150, this was the largest grid of F5000s ever assembled anywhere in the world, ever! Well, almost. In 1973 and 1974 there were often 30 or more cars running in the United States, with 35 cars at Riverside in April 29, 1973, where Brian Redman won in a Lola T330. Surprising perhaps is that the largest grid in Australia was not the 22 cars that lined up for the 1971 AGP at Warwick Farm, but the 24 assembled in 1978 at Oran Park near the end of the formula’s reign as Australia’s premier open-wheel category.
Lola remains the dominant force today as it was then, but there are enough other makes and various models stretching over a 9-year period to create a quite spectacular grid. The homegrown Elfin and Matich cars added some local flavor, and the Kiwis provided McRaes and Beggs as well as a McLaren. There were two Marches, one driven by regular Australian competitor Graeme Smith, to round out the most diverse collection imaginable.
The usual suspects put their cars near the front, as 67-year-old Kenny Smith parked his T430 next to 16-year-old Michael Lyons’s T400 on the front row after disrupted practice sessions. Sadly the veteran and his apprentice made a hash of it and the race was run mostly under pace car conditions. We finally got a two-lap green-flag dash at the end, with the results setting the grid for the main race Sunday.
With Smith unable to get his Lola repaired in time and young Lyons starting from the rear of the grid, it was down to first-race winner Englishman Mark Dwyer and Tony Richards to head up the rumbling rolling start.
While the front cars managed a safe getaway, there was an incident between Lyons senior and Roger Williams, which sent the latter spearing off into the inside wall and causing palpitations and loose bowels among all 20 cars who followed. In a fine display of defensive driving, no one else got caught up in a potential disaster, and the race finally settled. The freight train of nine cars at the front was soon whittled away as various maladies unheard of in F5000 racing took their toll. Who would have thought that 500-hp, 35-year-old cars would break half-shafts, U-joints, fuel pumps, engines, and gearboxes? Business as usual!
Of course, the Kiwis romped home with the first three places going to Tony Richards, Sefton Gibb, and group organizer David Abbott, with Ken James in the Elfin MR8 and your correspondent in the Chevron B24 fighting for 4th and 5th. Andrew Robson, Tony Floriani, and D’arcy Russell had all been running within sight of the leaders when they fell victim to various problems, but overall, this was the most Australian-based cars on track at one time since Oran Park in 1989. Nine local cars entered is our best showing for many years, but still well behind the marvelous effort our friends from across the ditch in New Zealand have managed with a concerted effort over the last seven years or so.
Kevin Bartlett has been our driver-standards mentor for some time, and was very complimentary of the presentation of cars. His presence and advice has been greatly appreciated by the competitors as, having legends like KB and Kenny, adds credibility to our group. Have we done enough to be invited back? Stay tuned.