2023Competition ReportsNews

Grand Prix Greats!

Report by Chris Ralph. Pics by Marshall Cass, Autopics.com, A. Daniher & Unknown

Australian Historic Touring Cars have raced in Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix support events no fewer than seven times: four in the Adelaide parklands, and three at Albert Park in Melbourne – but the story goes back much further…

The ‘run what yer brung’ days

In the early 1950s Australian motor racing mostly comprised racing cars, the majority being Australian home-built specials, and production sports cars. Racing for tin tops was usually on dirt ovals between pre-war bangers in ‘demolition derbies’, but as saloon cars quickly evolved with better engines, suspension and brakes they starting to appear on bitumen tracks. Money was tight and cars were usually newish and too important to risk in racing – but motor racing passion has never listened to logic!

From the UK came the Jaguars, Ford Zephyrs, Austin A90s and Vauxhall Veloxes as well as stove-hot Morris Minors and 10 hp Fords, from France the Simcas, Peugeots and Renaults, VWs and Mercedes from Germany while Australian built Ford Customlines and – of course – the multiplying numbers of 48-215 and FJ Holdens, helped create decent fields and exciting if sometimes loony racing.

Going centre stage

Partnering the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne was an Australian Grand Prix, with international stars and cars, as well as a 100-mile Australian Tourist Trophy race for sports cars. And for the first time – a frontline showcase for the everyday mum and dad family cars in their very own feature races…

Often the tow cars of racing and sports car drivers and with a complete absence of rules (proper Championship rules came in 1960) the four-door fliers headed by the hotted-up Ford Customlines of Len Lukey and a 23-year old ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Beechey lurched around the makeshift circuit, with victory going to the younger man.

From this stealthy start, touring car racing would eventually grow to replace purpose-built race machines as Australia’s foremost racing category, but it would be three decades before these iconic touring cars graced an F1 billboard again…

Fast forward 30 years – Adelaide

When F1 returned to Australia in 1986, it wasn’t to Albert Park but to the leafy eastern parklands of the Adelaide CBD. With the booming popularity of the new historic touring car category it soon found a place on the card.

Back-to-back in 1988-89 and twice more in 1993 and 1995, packed 40-car grids gave the Adelaide crowds their money’s worth, gaining an international tick of approval when F1 crews were seen hanging over the pit wall to watch the unique spectacle.

The relaxed parklands paddock atmosphere featured legends such as Jackie Stewart wandering through telling Cortina drivers he cornered them “always on three wheels, often on two wheels, and sometimes ONE wheel!”

Those halcyon days were not to last as big, bad Melbourne stole the event back to return it to Albert Park exactly 40 years after the 1956 event.

Nineties into Noughties – Melbourne

The Historic Touring Car Association of Victoria lost no time in lobbying the Australian Grand Prix Corporation for the 1997 event.

The ‘ten undeniable reasons’ why the AGP Corp desperately needed us included proven popularity, emotional connections, huge fields diversity of sights and sounds – and of course, fantastic racing. Persistence paid off and after full dance cards in 1997/1998, we were considered for 1999.

We promised something different from stickered-up one-make racers whizzing around in a bunch, leaving two minutes of nothing until the next lap.

We would offer in-field battles between cars as diverse in sight and sound as Galaxies and Minis, right round the circuit, all the time. Plus, we’d self-manage, minimising AGP admin time. Whatever, it swung our way.

Curating the field – herding cats

Your writer, foolishly volunteering to manage the category, was assailed with requests – nay, demands! – for inclusion on the grid.

Each state was given a quota of cars drawn from different capacity classes. Only known combinations would be acceptable: fast, reliable, presentable cars in experienced hands. We had a reputation to make and uphold!

Drivers were made fully aware that we were on show, oil spills and crashes would ban us from the big stage forever.

With a Wednesday bump-in and Monday bump-out it was a big commitment. But everything went according to plan with a top report card.

Christmas call-up

The phone rang late December 01 – an international sports car category had pulled the pin, said the AGP, could we please fill the hole at short notice? Could we! The 2002 event swung into action and this second time it seemed a bit easier, the show we put on even better.

Newer, faster V8s had been built in the meantime to add to the spectacle but the successful recipe was unchanged – diversity and constant action around the track was our unique attraction.

Once more with feeling

In 2004 historic touring cars again graced Albert Park for what would be their final AGP appearance.
It was even bigger and better than two years prior, but competition from other categories had become much more intense. As amateurs we had no sponsor to stump up the required entry sponsorship, so our time in the sun had come.

Today, with the recent explosion in F1’s popularity and the inclusion of F23 and F3 on the card, other well-funded local categories have now had the same ‘use-by date’ experience.

The world moves on, but Australia’s historic touring car clubs can feel proud and grateful for the seven years in the spotlight at the biggest and most spectacular events in the land. It was a blast.