Verdict: Was S5000's debut a success?
The V8-powered S5000 series is finally here, but is it here to stay? Here's what we learnt from the Sandown debut.
Three years of development, a breakaway series, a merger, a chassis change, a four-month delay to the first round... the build-up to the debut of Australia's first top-level open-wheeler series in decades was a rollercoaster.
Many said it would never happen. At times I was one of them. I'd wager that, at some point, even those deeply embedded in the project had their doubts. Probably as recently as this year.
But it did happen. And, as corny as it sounds, it was worth the wait.
For starters, the cars look absolutely spot-on. It may be an F3-style chassis, but in full S5000 trim the cars look big, long and menacing. The retro wheels and the shiny chrome detail flanking the rear crash structure add to the old-school feel.
The on-track behaviour of the cars is enticing, too.
Nothing is more off-putting to spectators than cars that look too easy to drive. Thankfully, that's not an issue with the S5000s. Very good drivers were left grappling with the out-of-fashion tiny front, massive rear tyre configuration, all while trying to get 560 horsepower to the ground.
As teams hone set-ups and drivers log more miles, the cars will get a little easier to drive. But it still doesn't feel like we're going to see PlayStation style silky-smooth on-board vision any time soon.
And the sound. It's magical. Had earlier iterations of the 'new 5000' concept gone ahead and the cars had ended up with Supercars-spec engines, it would have been a shame.
Yes, Supercars sound awesome. But with three tiers of Supercars racing now in existence, a point of difference is welcome as well.
The deep rumbling of the Aluminator V8 is a fresh change – and a perfect fit for these cars.
Another big big tick drivers were giving the cars was the ability to race wheel-to-wheel.
A timid start to the Sandown weekend was widely-predicted, given the lack of chassis and spares currently available. And then Tim Macrow, John Martin and James Golding destroyed that theory by going three-wide into Dandenong Road in the opening heat race...
Dirty air doesn't seem to be a huge problem with these cars; drivers were positive about the ability to follow another car.
It's worth noting that Sandown is very stop/go, so not overly aero dependant, particularly mid-corner. The Bend will provide the real test for the sensitivity of the downforce.
But, in a world where even Supercars create too much wake, early signs are good.
As you'd expect for a brand new series, there's room for improvement too.
The radical qualifying system is admirable, but not quite right. Getting rid of the confusing grid draw after regular qualifying is a must. The TV package just isn't there to support it. It felt too amateur for a series positioning itself as a big player.
Instead, qualifying order should set the Top 10 for the first heat race, and then that is simply reversed for the second heat race. Combined points determine the grid for the feature race. Done.
All in all, it's hard to label the Sandown debut as anything but a success.
Not seeing the feature race play out in its entirety was a shame, but the upside is that Alex Davison's huge shunt proved that the 'death trap' reputation that plagued the old Formula 5000 has no place in the modern version of the category. These cars are safe.
Round two at The Bend will be a new challenge, with no Rubens Barrichello factor to drive the promotion. The physical demands of the South Aussie circuit means the field is likely to be more spread out, too.
The reality is, there's a lot to play out before the series cements its place in the notoriously tricky Aussie motorsport landscape.
But it was a captivating debut at Sandown, and with both the Australian Grand Prix and a trip to Bathurst already on the 2020 calendar, it's hard to not be cautiously optimistic about the category's future.
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