Adelaide GP circuit
Adelaide is a sleepy little place that has a lot of churches. That’s the stereotypical view of the South Australian capital held in larger centres such as archrival Melbourne. But while Melbourne likes to think of itself as the sporting capital of the world, it was Adelaide which secured for Australia the seemingly unattainable holy grail of world motorsport – a Formula 1 grand prix.
Where Melbourne and Sydney had failed, in 1985 Adelaide unexpectedly succeeded in bringing the World Drivers’ Championship to our shores. The circuit the South Australians devised to host the first Australian Formula 1 grand prix was thrown together in a ridiculously short timeframe, but it turned out to be a magnificent venue, something unlike anything F1 had experienced before.
For 11 years Adelaide played host not merely to the final round of the championship but an end-of-season F1 party that just about took over the entire city.
Melbourne has the GP now but, as good an event as the Albert Park race is, it’s just not the same. Adelaide was small enough for the grand prix to be the biggest thing in town; in Melbourne, it’s just another event.
But while Adelaidians were miffed to see the grand prix fly east across the border, things turned out all right in the end. The annual Group A support races had shown that the Parklands circuit was a great place for touring car racing. So when V8 Supercars Australia kicked into gear in the late ’90s, and wanted to put on a city street race extravaganza, the old F1 circuit was the obvious choice.
A whole new event was born on a shortened version of the GP track. The Adelaide 500 might have lacked the glamour of the F1 race but it had real homegrown appeal – it was kerb-jumping, wall-crunching Holden-vs-Ford muscle car action at its best.
The Adelaide 500’s success provided the Tony Cochrane-led V8 Supercars circus with the template for future growth and, rightly or wrongly, state government or territory event funding. But none of that would have happened had the Adelaidians not got things so right with the original, full 3.78km circuit. This is the story of that first, longer track.
the proposed New York street race finally falling over, Ecclestone had gaps to fill in the ’85 F1 calendar.
It left the South Australians just 10 months to stage the race on a venue that didn’t yet exist – they didn’t even have a firm location at that point!
They (quickly) settled on the Victoria Park horse racing track end of the vast Adelaide Park Lands. Bob Barnard devised a 3.8km layout that combined existing city roads with a new section of bitumen that crossed inside the horse track. The main straight and F1 pits were thus located on the inside of the horse track, in the style of the old Warwick Farm, but unlike ‘the Farm’ (and Sandown), the Adelaide track utilised almost none of the horse racing facility’s existing grandstands (while the horse track is now gone, its majestic 1880s-era grandstand remains in place today, where it always was, about 50 metres too far away to provide what would have been a magnificent vantage point of the car track).
While the series of left/right bends from Wakefield Street through to Hutt Street and East Terrace were set to a backdrop of Adelaide city buildings that left no doubt that this was a citystreet circuit, elsewhere it had the look and feel of a permanent road course.
The sweeper onto Dequetteville Terrace was a big, fast open corner, and the following sequence of specially-laid track, culminating in that wild first-corner chicane, made it a street circuit with a difference.
The ’85 race was an unqualified success. Finally, F1 had arrived down under, and the South Australians had done their country proud. The event ran like clockwork, it attracted a capacity crowd, and was rated by F1 drivers and Ecclestone alike as the best grand prix of the year.
The event left its mark on the locals, too. If we’d had to wait a long time for F1 to reach our shores, it arrived at the right time, as this was bang in the middle of the brutal mid-’80s turbo era, where special one-lap qualifying engines with insane boost levels exceeded 1000 horsepower.
Of course, it wasn’t just F1 cars that raced in the Adelaide Parklands. The local touring cars were there from the beginning – and they made for spectacular viewing. It was at that first event that Dick Johnson scored his one and only race victory in the two years he ran the Greens-Tuf Mustang.
Among Dick’s opponents was emerging F1 star Gerhard Berger, the Austrian having a bit of fun in a BMW 635 CSi in the Group A races before jumping into his Arrows-BMW for the GP. Hard to imagine Daniel Ricciardo lining up in a Red Bull HRT Commodore in the Supercars races at Albert Park, but [ED: before the elitist F1 scene became too precious] they used to do things like that back in the day...
The following year we were treated to the spectacle of Allan Grice at perhaps the peak of his powers. Fresh not just from victory at Bathurst in the Chickadee Commodore, but also a season of European Group A that sharpened his skills and provided Grice with personal vindication of his trademark forceful driving style (for which he’d often been criticised in Australia), Grice was unstoppable. No one attacked the Adelaide kerbs quite like Gricey…
The final-round, end-of-term party feeling that made the Adelaide GP so much fun for the visiting F1 circus also permeated the local touring car fraternity. It was the last race of the year – except when it was a round of the South Pacific Touring Car Championship, not that anyone cared much about that – so the result essentially counted for little other than bragging rights.
It meant that sometimes what happened in Adelaide was a bit out of kilter with the rest of the season. This was true of 1988, when Larry Perkins and Denny Hulme finished first and second in their HSV Commodore VLs, with daylight third after the Adelaide summer heat took care of Johnson’s turbo Sierras. At Bathurst only a month or so earlier the new TWR Group A VLs had been totally outclassed.
Adelaide was, for most, the first experience of street-circuit racing. Needless to say, there were plenty of mishaps. One of the most memorable unhinged moments came in 1990 when Mark Skaife banged the inside kerb at the Sweeper a little too hard and put the new Nissan GT-R on its lid. Two years later Peter Brock emerged unscathed from a big impact with the wall at the chicane after ‘something broke’ on the Mobil Commodore VP.
The following year, at the end of the first full season of what we now call Supercars, Perkins accused Glenn Seton of not trying in the Adelaide races, in what Larry supposed was a sandbagging attempt by the Ford driver to avoid a parity adjustment. That same weekend saw Wayne Gardner claim his first touring car race win, in what was also the former motorcycle champ’s last outing with the HRT before he went off to assemble the Coca-Cola backed Wayne Gardner Racing.
John Bowe had had to wait 10 years to win at Adelaide when he topped the tourers in ’94 – but then went back-to-back the next year. Just as a DJR Ford had won the first Adelaide GP touring car event, so too did one claim the final race. To the dismay of most South Australians,
the dreaded Victorians had negotiated in secret with Ecclestone to steal away the race. The AGP would now be held in Melbourne, but not before an Australian one day sporting attendance record was set, officially 205,000.
That seemed to be the end for the 3.78km grand prix layout.
However, the track was revived in 2000 to host the grandly named ‘Race of a Thousand Years’. This innovative concept called for a 1000km enduro for Le Mans and GT-type sports cars – on New Year’s Eve (hence the name), the unfurling of the chequered flag planned to roughly coincide with the stroke of midnight as 2001 was summoned in with a trackside fireworks display.
It was a great idea and it attracted a big crowd – even if they were forced to prematurely end it at 850km so the race could finish before the end of the year…).
It was part of a planned Asia-Pacific Le Mans Series (APLMS), but when the APLMS failed to fire, the Adelaide race was shelved – even though the intention had been to run it over the next nine years.
Not that too much sleep was lost over the premature demise of the Race of a Thousand Years. By then, of course, the Parklands venue had been reconfigured as the home of an entirely different event – one which today has endured even longer than the original Adelaide AGP.
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Top: Adelaide comes alive in ’85 with the first Australian F1 GP Above and left: F1 star Gerhard Berger raced in the 1985 F1 GP and the local touring car support race. Inset above: The original proposed layout. Below: Adelaide was packed to the rooftops.
Left: The old layout saw cars (like Piquet’s Brabham) passing the Adelaide Fruit and Produce Exchange. Main: Hitting the streets was an unique facet of late 1980s/early ’90s touring car racing. This is 1991. Below left: Same year, the HRT Commodores of Brad Jones and Tomas Mezera embarrassingly clashed. Bottom left: Grice attacked the kerbs like no other. Bottom right: The early years of ‘Supercars’ (‘94 seen here) was a future glimpse of the Adelaide 500. Below centre: It finally ended for the GP track with the innovative Race of a Thousand Years in 2000.