Supercars' return to night racing

Hopefully this time it sticks around

I didn’t get to watch last Saturday’s Supercars night race at Sydney Motorsport Park live. It was the first Supercars night race since 2011, the first in Australia since 1997 and I missed it. Adding insult to injury, it was apparently a good race. So Monday night I watched the repeat. I needed something to write about this week.

Supercars last raced at night in 2011 at Abu Dhabi. This was mostly done to compensate for the time difference. Racing at night made it easier for Australian viewers to watch the race live. Abu Dhabi is so well lit, however, that it wasn’t a particularly dark race. To find the last time Supercars raced at night in Australia, you have to go back to 1997, when the series was still called the Australian Touring Car Championship. In 1996 and 1997, the opening round of the championship was run under lights at SMP (Then known as Eastern Creek) and Melbourne’s Calder Park, respectively.

Night racing is something that Supercars has been toying with for a couple of years. The venue was always going to be SMP. Although the circuit does not have any permanent lighting, its owners lobbied hard for it, and have been pushing for state government for funding for permanent lights. A Supercars race under temporary lighting was an important proof of concept for SMP. A lighting test was conducted last year with Fabian Coulthard and Simona de Silvestro cutting demonstration laps.

Contact on lap one between Fabian Coulthard and Jamie Whincup highlighted the reduced visibility that comes with night racing. It's not just a matter of getting on prime time TV and seeing the brake discs glowing. Racing at night, with cooler temperatures and reduced visibility, makes for more exciting racing. As well as being the only night race on the 2018 calendar, it was the longest single-driver race in 2018. This was out of necessity. Racing on Friday night would have left no time to practice at night, and no other major winter sporting code in Australia plays on a Sunday night. It’s assumed that no one will go.

The long race forced teams into three-stop strategies, and more stops almost always means greater variety in strategies. Rapidly cooling track temperatures threw another spanner in the strategy works. In the dying laps we saw Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup hunting down Scott McLaughlin on newer tyres with higher than usual starting pressures.

The single race format may not survive into next year. One alternative suggestion came from Triple 8 team principal Mark Dutton. He floated the idea of compressing the entire round into a single day event. Supercars teams only had 40 minutes of practice on Friday, so it would not be a huge loss. In a one-day round, teams would practice in the morning, and qualify in the early afternoon as they did this year. Dutton suggested a 100km race at 5:30pm and a 200km race at 8:30. Support classes would need to be accomodated somewhere, but there would potentially be room for two categories to run a single practice, qualifying and race.

In terms of crowd numbers, 22,120 people turned up to watch the Supercars race at SMP. That’s more than any single day at SMP last year. It beat the combined total of 15,879 for the two NRL games being played at Sydney that night. On those numbers, the one-off Sydney night race should become a permanent fixture.

“It has been a fantastic response,’’ Supercars CEO Sean Seemer said. “The crowd has been wonderful and the atmosphere nothing short of special. After 21 years it has been a big and successful welcome back to Supercars night racing.’’

Tickford team principal Tim Edwards says the night race’s success comes down to families having a lack of time during the day. "People are time poor. So many fans that we've spoken to [at the track] have had kids at basketball or netball or whatever in the morning, then they've gone home, got changed, and come racing”.

"They can't do that when they've essentially got to be here at 9am for a day event. I think it has some appeal from that perspective, people can slot it into their lives a bit better."

It's unlikely that any additional rounds will be run at night next year. The format has been well received, but there are few tracks capable of hosting a night race. SMP was already partially lit and it was still expensive to set up. Larger circuits like Phillip Island and The Bend are prohibitively expensive to light for one weekend a year and the owners of smaller ones, such as Winton and Queensland Raceway have a hard enough time providing facilities to race during the day. SMP is also arguably the only track in an appropriate location. Close enough to a major capital city to draw a crowd yet not so close that noise restrictions become an issue, like Sandown.

Barbagallo, near Perth, is the most likely candidate for a second night race. The short circuit already has lighting, and it wouldn’t take much to illuminate the last 700m of the full circuit used by Supercars. A planned resurface later this year will reduce tyre degradation to something more acceptable for a single 300km race. The only drawback to night racing at Barbagallo would be the late TV scheduling on the east coast, where most Australians live. With greater awareness, crowd numbers will rise, but TV viewers, even under the current deal with unpopular pay TV provider Foxtel, will always outstrip live audiences. Symmons Plains, near Launceston, Tasmania, has also been suggested as a night race venue. Symmons Plains doesn’t presently generate the same attendance figures as Barbagallo, but it can attract a larger TV audience at night. Being relatively close to Melbourne, the novelty of a Saturday night race might even draw people over from Victoria to the Apple Isle.

Barbagallo already hosts state-level racing at night

Barbagallo already hosts state-level racing at night

The first Supercars night race in seven years was more than successful enough to prove that night racing is the way forward. What we need now is a concerted push to sustain it. Bring it to Barbagallo and Symmons Plains next year, and keep pushing for permanent lighting at SMP.

Image credits: Supercars, Fox Sports, Daily Telegraph, Wanneroo Times

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