Bridge crash raises questions about Sandown safety

Matthew Holt’s damaged HSV Clubsport. Picture: Stan Sport

A shocking incident in Round 3 of Australian Production Cars brought to you by Liqui Moly has raised questions about the safety of the Sandown circuit.

Race 3 at last weekend’s Shannons Motorsport Australia Championships event was cut about a quarter of an hour short when Matthew Holt crashed just past the 45-minute mark.

Holt lost control of his HSV Clubsport on the wet kerb and/or grass exiting Dandenong Road and spun, before making rearward contact which left a fence damaged, hence the disruption to the day’s racing programme.

However, it turns out that the guardrails bent back in such a fashion that the rear of the car impacted the beam which supports the ‘bridge’ at that section of the race track.

According to Holt, a flag marshal pointed out to him that the bumper of the HSV had become embedded in the bridge structure, about two metres above the ground.

Indeed, footage from the Stan Sport stream of the event supports that account, except that it appears that a piece of the car’s floor is attached to the bridge, rather than the bumper (See image below).

Certainly, the damage to the boot section of the vehicle suggests it has impacted a firm, upright object, rather than a relatively flat surface such as a series of Armco fencing rails.

Motorsport Australia is a key stakeholder in the matter, as both the promoter of the event and the sanctioning body.

In response to an enquiry from regarding the incident, it provided a statement which read, “Motorsport Australia will fully debrief on all incidents from the weekend, as it does after every event.

“We will provide any updates in due course and work closely with circuit management on any track modifications, if they are required.”

Worth noting from the onboard footage which Holt supplied to and the Stan Sport stream is that the vehicle, once it climbed the sagging fence, appeared to be on a trajectory towards the marshals’ post.

While marshals are protected from debris by catch fencing, it would seem highly unlikely that such fencing would be an adequate barrier against a vehicle with a kerb weight of around 1700kg, travelling at sufficient velocity to have already damaged an Armco barrier, and having partially left the ground.

It is thus not inconceivable that the consequences of the incident could have been far more severe had the bridge not been in the way.

Worth considering also that the car’s dashboard showed it to be in only third gear when it broke traction while accelerating away from Dandenong Road, and thus nowhere near its top speed.

The incident therefore raises serious questions about the adequacy of Sandown’s safety furniture, and indeed, the suitability of certain types of safety furniture at certain venues.

Track activity had been disrupted on both the Saturday and Sunday of the event due to weather/circuit conditions, with red flags in each of the two Fanatec GT World Challenge Australia Powered by AWS races.

It would therefore be no surprise if it turns out that the fence was compromised due to soft, waterlogged ground.

However, such a problem should reasonably be anticipated given the frequency of rain in Melbourne and Sandown’s proximity to a natural watercourse.

Indeed, Mile Creek flows through the infield of the car and horse racing tracks, running under the former at the exits of Turn 4 and the final complex of corners.

Note the object lodged on the end of the bridge. Picture: Stan Sport

Sandown International Motor Raceway has become notorious for spectacular incidents which cause delays to track activity in order to repair/reset barriers.

The end of the back straight was a hotspot for such drama until an investment in recent years to significantly increase and tar the previously small, grass run-off area, and install better barriers.

While there is conjecture about whether or not the change blunted the challenge and/or thrill of the downhill esses section, it probably saved a TCR car from serious damage when Luke King ran off with mechanical damage on Sunday, and hence perhaps also another unwanted delay in proceedings.

Ironically, the first Supercars event with that new run-off, the 2019 Sandown 500, saw a frightening incident in a support category race when two Toyota 86s made contact through those esses.

The vehicle of John Iafolla got airborne across the grass on drivers’ left, grazing the top of a fence before bouncing off a ute which was parked in the infield.

Although the nature of the incidents was different, his car came to rest metres from the section of fencing which Holt happened to hit.

It was also only last month that a Repco Supercars Championship race at Sandown was delayed in order to repair barriers after several cars piled into the fence at Turn 3 in a Dunlop Super2 Series encounter.

That a barrier needs to be repaired after a crash is generally accepted as reasonable, although whether at such frequency as occurs at Sandown is up for debate.

History also shows that steel fencing can be fatal if improperly installed/maintained, as evidenced by the death of Francois Cevert in the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and the serious injuries sustained by Robert Kubica at the Andorra Rally in 2011.

Armco fencing does have merit relative to concrete walls, in so much that it is able to absorb some of the force of an impact whereas concrete has little to no give at all, depending on where/how it is installed.

Furthermore, Armco may well be adequate at some locations if correctly installed and maintained.

However, it is now almost a decade since the fence on the outside of Mount Panorama’s main straight was replaced with a concrete wall, in conjunction with the installation of debris fencing.

There is, of course, unlikely to be a desire from competitors, track operators, fans, or perhaps even Motorsport Australia to see circuits ‘neutered’ with expansive, tarred run-off areas around most corners.

That is not necessarily practical and, as the aforementioned Mount Panorama case shows, improvements can be achieved without turning race tracks into glorified car parks.

Still, while not all of the causes of Holt’s impact with a bridge are necessarily known yet, the incident presumably provides cause for consideration among regulators and circuit owners about the suitability of certain types of safety furniture going forward.

It also serves as a reminder of the need to consider ‘freak’ accidents with significant consequences, one which motorsport’s insurance underwriters have presumably noted.

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