Classic view of Aussie tracks

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A return to the Classic Adelaide Rally provided the perfect opportunity to explore the circuits that historically hosted the Australian Grand Prix

As I write I’m sitting here with heavy eyelids, lolling head, feeling decidedly peculiar. The plus side is that I understand the problem. This is what 36 hours travelling from Australia to England does for you. There’s the usual feeling of unreality. Pinch – did I really run for the 11th time in the Classic Adelaide Rally last week in a Ferrari 250 California? Pinch – check the photos and video, aah yes, those whiskers, shoulders and no-neck are definitely (regrettably?) DCN. So it’s true then. I really didn’t dream it.

Competitive classic rallying is often conducted in deadly earnest. No Australian of my acquaintance would contemplate any other way. While we Corinthian Brits lark about on the basis of ‘Who cares who wins?’ others remain intent upon victory at any cost. Having given the civilised world so many sports, Britain seems now to be in the post-sporting stage of evolution, leaving ambitions of actual victory to the comparative primitives who still care. At least, upon inspecting their respective records, that’s what one might expect our national teams to claim.

The Classic Adelaide included 33 fabulous special stages, all on closed public roads, contested over four days around the Adelaide hills and Fleurieu Peninsula. The area is dotted with past road racing circuits, one-time homes to the Australian Grand Prix. The nation’s ‘100 Mile Road Race’ which would subsequently become regarded as the inaugural AGP was run in 1928 on a bland rectangular circuit on Phillip Island, Victoria, not far from Melbourne [see p72]. That island course remained home to the AGP for seven more years, from 1929-35. On Boxing Day, 1936, the South Australian Centenary Grand Prix was then run on the state’s first real road circuit – a 7.8-mile (12.55km) course called Victor Harbor on bitumen-topped coastal roads to the west of Port Elliot. Its roadways survive to this day, from Nangawooka Hairpin clean round to the Chilton Straight and Hell Bend. Look up the area on Google Earth and the old course’s bathtub planform leaps out at you. This race – won by Les Murphy’s MG P-type – was also lumped into history as an ‘Australian Grand Prix’.

In 1938 what had become the formal AGP was moved to Mt Panorama at Bathurst, New South Wales, where it was won by England’s Peter Neild Whitehead in his black ERA. But for 1939 the race returned to the beautiful farmland of South Australia, using a fabulous 8.6-mile (13.8km) road circuit at Lobethal, 24kms east of Adelaide. Allan Tomlinson won in his MG TA from a field including Jack Saywell’s Alfa Romeo Tipo B Monoposto and Alf Barrett’s Alfa 8C-2300 Monza. Lobethal was a fantastically challenging course. It continued in use until 1948, and a retrospective is now being organised there for 2008. Post-war, the AGP resumed at Bathurst in 1947, then on wartime aerodromes at Point Cook and Leyburn, Victoria 1948-49. For 1950 the AGP returned to South Australia, to another road circuit at Nuriootpa. This was a 4.375-mile (7.04km) circuit on the eastern fringe of the little town, 50kms north-east of Adelaide. Doug Whiteford won in his Ford V8 Special – his years as a stylish Talbot-Lago, Maserati 250F and 300S pedaller still ahead of him.

The first AGP to fall to a rear-engined car was run in 1955 on a dreadful, barren artificial circuit built on salt-flats near Port Wakefield, SA. This 1.3-mile (2.1km) dead-flat travesty was a world away from the road racing glory of Lobethal, but it fell to Australia’s first truly professional racing driver, Jack Brabham, in the enveloping-bodied centre-seat Cooper-Bristol which he had built for his own World Championship debut in that year’s British GP at Aintree.

Not until 1961 would the AGP return to South Australia, on the abandoned airstrip at Mallala 40km north of Adelaide. The arrow-shaped circuit was 2.1 miles (3.38km) long, and Les Davison won there from Bib Stilwell and David McKay – each of them a great Australian racing name in Cooper-Climax open-wheelers.

Still there was yet another great South Australian road circuit, this one at Woodside – close to Lobethal and a replacement for it; a 2-mile (3.2km) course running into the township and the 90-degree turn at Institute Corner. Our Ferrari wheeled round it… in non-competitive road section manner, of course.

But on those wonderfully challenging, fine-surfaced special stages the Classic was absolutely red in tooth and claw. There were Porsche 911s dangling from the eucalypts like Christmas-tree ornaments. Here a wildly spinning Ford Falcon V8, there a Ferrari 308 50 yards into a field, here a Mercedes-Benz SL perched at a crazy angle up a bank. And then, I kid you not, as we queued for the start of another stage a kind-hearted marshal held his index finger to his lips. “Ssshh” he said, “Don’t wake the baby”. And 30 feet above us with his fluff-covered bum jammed in the fork of a tree was a kipping koala. Not the kind of scene you often see at Snetterton.