Well, if you asked me a few weeks ago whether I would be racing at the Sandown 500, I would have laughed. However, due to the unfortunate and bazaar accident of James Courtney at Sydney Motorsport Park the race kit got dragged out of the cupboard, dusted off and I headed to Melbourne to race the #22 car for the Holden Racing Team with Jack Perkins. I must admit I have enjoyed the whole ride more than I thought. It was actually good going to a race meeting with no expectations and no pressure, so for once could actually just go there and enjoy driving a race car. It’s quite ironic teaming back up with the Perkins name after 20 years since the Perkins/Ingall name won our first Bathurst. It was also a special moment when Larry Perkins turned up at Sandown on Saturday. I spent a lot of time with him just catching up. He is definitely one of the all time legends of the sport and by the amount of people that were lining up outside the garage when they saw him, its great to see that he is still hugely popular. I have to say, even though I’ve only been out of the saddle for only 8 months, it still takes a little bit to dial back into the groove. By the final practice session on Saturday I pretty well felt where I should be with the car. Things have definitely moved on a bit as to how you approach driving the current generation of cars and I got a great insight as to how the top guys get their speed.
Jack did an excellent job to qualify 12th position so gave me a better opportunity to make places in my heat race on Saturday and to make sure Jack had a good starting spot against the main game drivers. The starts and first laps have always been my strong point so picking up 6 places on the first lap made the rest of it pretty comfortable throughout the qualifying race.
With Jack starting in 6th for his qualifying heat, put us in great shape. I knew if Jack got a good start he could hold his own, as he proved at Sydney Motorsport Park a few weeks earlier. The boy got off the line well and was holding down 6th position. We knew in the pits he needed a couple of laps just to get the tyres up to temperature and it was looking good to hold that position or not far off. Unfortunately Lowndesy was a bit too eager to get past and ran in the back of Jack at Dandenong Corner spearing him off down to last position. It was a real frustration for all of us as we had such a dream run up to then. Don’t get me wrong, I have been no angel in the past and I’m sure Lowndes didn’t do it on purpose, but it still doesn’t help with the disappointment.
Starting off last on the grid for Sundays main race, the only real strategy was to pit very early and depending on how good my start was dictated that. Fortunately a good start is exactly what I got, picking off six cars by lap 1 and a further couple in the next few laps. That opened up our pit stop window a bit further which ultimately led to a perfect call from the team by the time the first of the pace cars came out. Doing a 77 lap stint reminded me how hot these damn cars get. Probably paid the price a little bit by having a few too many vinos with Skaiffy with my Fox commitments this year! Saying that, I was still very pleased overall considering I didn’t have much of a lead up to get match fit so all in all to complete half the race straight up I didn’t think was too bad an effort.
The other part of it which the general viewer probably doesn’t see is how hard every driver pushes the car. The pace is super quick in these endurance races which means you are driving the car on the edge a lot more hence the odd mistake by drivers. It’s certainly a very competitive Championship and a credit to all the teams that build these cars that you can push so hard for so long. Handing the car over to Jack in a reasonable position and probably the freshest of all the drivers made our strategy work quite well. Jack has come a long way with his driving and definitely a lot more relaxed. Considering he was up against some class drivers, he didn’t let them get on top of him. Finishing 9th from where we started was a great effort all round and bearing in mind the events that happened leading up to this, it was almost a perfect result.
Big thanks to everyone concerned. I certainly enjoyed my time in the car and now will sit tight and see how JC’s recovery process goes in the next few weeks and makes a call whether he is going to race at “The Big One”. I will have helmet in hand in case I get the call up but in an ideal world it would be great to see James back in the #22.
On a personal note, I would very much like to thank everyone for your support in my return behind the wheel and especially Holden Racing Team for making me feel welcome and of course Fox Sports for giving me a leave pass and Mark and Jess for taking up the slack on the telecast.
Cheers for now