Gold Coast 600

Surfers Paradise, Australia

In just two years, the Gold Coast 600 V8 Supercars event has cemented its place as a major international motor race that offers a wonderful throwback to how it used to be. Aussie tin-top regulars find themselves teamed with and pitted against a stellar cast of foreign talent, from IndyCar aces to sports and GT stars – and even the odd Formula 1 face.

But with the loss of Dan Wheldon hours before he was due to fly to Australia for his Gold Coast debut, 28 V8 Supercar regulars and their international cast of co-drivers were dealt a blow that drew a shadow over the contest.

Wheldon had been signed up to co-drive the No 1 Toll Holden Racing factory entry as team-mate to 2010 V8 champion James Courtney, so his crash at the Las Vegas IndyCar Series finale forced the organisers to find a number of last-minute replacements.

Britain’s Darren Turner, a two-time Le Mans class winner for Aston Martin, replaced his fallen countryman at Toll HRT , while Northern Ireland’s Richard Lyons deputised for the injured Will Power at the Prodrive-run Ford Performance Racing, and Denmark’s Allen Simonsen filled in for the grief-stricken Tony Kanaan at Kelly Racing.

With the IndyCar ranks depleted, the wills of Alex Tagliani, Wheldon’s Indy 500 and Las Vegas team-mate, and the Team Penske duo of Hélio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were tested as they made the trek to Australia.

Tributes to Wheldon marked the event and the V8 series unveiled the Dan Wheldon Memorial Trophy, awarded to the top performer among the international ranks.

Once track activity commenced on the 1.8-mile Surfers Paradise street circuit, a sense of normality returned as the revised format – with double the number of international drivers – gave fans a heightened level of competition missing from the inaugural event.

The presence of Tonio Liuzzi, the only active F1 driver in the field, the aforementioned IndyCar stars and other all-rounders from the worlds of open-wheel and sports car racing meant one style of driver would rise to the top, and in the twin 300km races versatility proved to be key.

Frenchman Sébastien Bourdais, drawing from his F1, Champ Car, IndyCar and LMP1 experience with Peugeot, claimed the Wheldon Trophy after helping Triple 8 Engineering’s Jamie Whincup to the win on Saturday and a fighting second on Sunday.

Lyons, with an equally diverse CV, played a pivotal role in Mark Winterbottom scoring his first win of the year on Sunday.

If those results were expected, the true brilliance of the Gold Coast 600 was found for the second year in the performances of lesser-known internationals, with BMW’s Joey Hand and French super-sub Simon Pagenaud treating the fans to staggering displays.

Hand led the chassis set-up efforts that took the Dick Johnson Racing Ford Falcon from 25th in practice to a fourth-place finish in Race One on Saturday. He then set competitive lap times in Race Two – after experiencing a failure of the front brake calipers…

Pagenaud and Lee Holdsworth chased Bourdais and Whincup to take third on Sunday, despite the aspiring IndyCar driver’s lack of experience in such machinery. It took some convincing to get invitations for Hand and Pagenaud, but they can expect a bidding war for their services next year.

Behind the top finishers, a private battle between ACO-based GT drivers offered the best sub-plot of the weekend. With top drivers from the BMW, Corvette and Porsche factories fighting for bragging rights, Britons Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook looked like V8 Supercar veterans in their respective Holden (GM) entries, and American Patrick Long, the breakout star of the 2010 event, impressed again as the Porsche ace went on a passing spree during both rounds.

Comedic relief was provided by former British Formula Ford Festival team-mates Russell Ingall and Jan Magnussen, who used their Holden as a 1500kg bowling ball to deplete Ford’s stable on the Saturday and Sunday.

With a possible date change for the 2012 event that would allow NASCAR drivers to compete, anticipation for the next Gold Coast 600 is already starting to build.