Adelaide is a vibrant city that knows how to organise an entertaining event, so it was no surprise that after Melbourne 'stole' away the Grand Prix in the mid-1990s, the street circuit was revived for the local V8 Supercars. The event became a four-day festival of speed and music which was unsurpassed even by the Grand Prix.
Sadly, after many successful years, crowd sizes started to decline somewhat - albeit still very healthy by most event standards - and the political support for the event ebbed away. After the final event of the pre-Covid era opened the 2020 championship, it was announced that the race was not to return, marking an anti-climactic way to bring proceedings to a close.
It wasn't the final chapter however; local elections in 2022 were won by the opposition Labour Party and the race was resurrected as a key pledge by new State Premier Peter Malinauskas. It returns as the season finale for the Supercars Australia series.
The idea of hosting a Formula One race was first mooted in the early 1980s. Businessman Bill O'Gorman put together a proposal with the the backing of South Australia's Premier John Bannon, the aim being to liven the state capitol's slightly dull image, compared with Melbourne or Sydney. A meeting in London with Bernie Ecclestone followed, with the delegation emerging with a seven year contract to host Australia's first Formula One event.
With the contract secured, the State put senior civil servant Dr. Mal Hemmerling in charge of the project. Various laws had to be passed to allow racing to take place on the streets and a site around Victoria Park Racecourse was chosen as the venue. Engineer Bob Barnard was engaged to create a course which incorporated a purpose built section of road in the centre of the racecourse and the surrounding city roads.
Various federal and state grants were obtained to fund the works, which saw the construction of 2,142 concrete barriers, over four miles of wire fencing and temporary pit buildings and grandstands. All were designed in such a way that they could be quickly assembled each year for the race, before being packed away and put in storage.
In its eleven-year history as a Grand Prix circuit, the Adelaide event was the scene of some of the most dramatic moments in motor sport. Keke Rosberg's win in the inaugural race was followed by Nigel Mansell's tyre blowing loss of the World Championship in 1986. Rain-soaked events in 1989 and 1991 were notable; Ayrton Senna crashing out of the former but winning the latter, which was red-flagged after just 14 laps to become the shortest race in F1 history.
Senna took his final victory at Adelaide in 1993, while Michael Schumacher took his first championship on the South Australian streets a year later in controversial style. After running in the lead from the start, Schumacher ran off the road and damaged his car against the concrete barriers. Rejoining ahead of nearest points rival Damon Hill, the pair clashed at the next corner when Hill tried to overtake. Both were out of the race, and Schumacher was champion. Hill made amends the following year, lapping all the finishers at least twice on the way to victory in what turned out to be Adelaide's last F1 race.
Supercars revives the race
Political manoeuvrings saw Formula One switch to Melbourne's Albert Park from 1996 and Adelaide's streets fell silent. While some of the infrastructure for the race was sold to Melbourne, there was still a desire in Adelaide to continue racing in some form. On 1 September 1998, the Government of South Australia announced the conclusion of successful negotiations with the Australian Vee Eight Supercar Company (AVESCO) for the staging of a V8 Supercar race to be known as the Sensational Adelaide 500.
The first race on the revived circuit took place in April 1999. The circuit had been shortened slightly, with the section from Hutt Street and Rundle Road bypassed in favour of a new straight along Bartels Road. Craig Lowndes emerged a popular winner, having raced through the entire field, after a penalty for a collision in the first leg relegated him to the back of the grid for the Sunday finale.
At the end of 2000, a second event was added, with the long-form of the course revived for a round of the American Le Mans Series. Held on New Year's Eve, the event was titled the 'Race of 1000 Years' and was won by the Audi R8 of Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish. Over 135,000 fans attended the race meeting, with almost 70,000 of them in attendance on race day. The event was the first of a nine-year deal with the Don Panoz organisation, a precursor to a planned Asia-Pacific Le Mans Championship. When this never materialised, the contract was cancelled.
Since 2001, Adelaide has concentrated on the V8 Supercars. Strong support from sponsor Clipsal has ensured the event has built year-on-year and is second only to the Bathurst 1000 on the V8 calendar. It is also one of the most gruelling, the frantic nature of the race and the traditional summer heat proving a tough test of endurance for the drivers.
The circuit remained largely unchanged, save for modifications to the Turn 8 area. This was converted into a fast sweeper in 2002, proving immediately controversial; with concrete barriers at the perimeter and no run-off, the perils of getting the corner wrong are high. There are no small accidents here, a fact tragically illustrated in 2008 when Ashley Cooper died after crashing during the Fujitsu Series race, his car seeming to clip the inside curve before slamming into the outside wall.
Changes were made to the corner the following year, narrowing the entry and moving the outside wall closer to improve any angle of impact at the exit. The wall on the inside of the corner was also moved back to improve sight lines. Elsewhere, over $20 million worth of circuit upgrades were made, including shade for grandstand fans and a new pit building.
History shows that the event has achieved remarkable attendance figures since the debut of the V8 Supercars. Attendance figures peaked in 2008 with 291,400 for the 10 year celebrations. The 2013 Clipsal 500 Adelaide introduced new initiatives that saw a massive crowd of 286,500 patrons over the four days with the first ever sell out on the Sunday of the event.
Declining numbers lead to the axe
Racing continued through to 2020, though after 2017 the race faced a name change after the loss of long-time title sponsor Clipsal. After a year without a major sponsor, the event became known as the Superloop Adelaide 500 from 2019.
Stormclouds were gathering, however, with the attendance numbers starting to decline and rumours beginning to circulate that the funding of the race was in jeopardy. The 2020 event was run once again as the season opener, though with a somewhat gloomy atmosphere prevailing following the announcement by General Motors of its decision to axe the Holden brand. It was perhaps fitting that the factory Red Bull Holden Racing Team driver Jamie Whincup should take the Saturday race win. It was almost a team double, as Shane van Gisbergen dominated the Sunday race in the sister Red Bull car, until a late pitstop allowed DJR Team Penske's Scott McLaughlin through to take victory for Ford.
Spectator numbers were considerably down, with just 66,000 heading through the turnstiles for the Sunday race, down from 91,500 in 2019. In all, just 206,000 people attended across the whole event, the lowest figure since a four-day format was adopted in 2004. A key factor seemed to be the choice of headline act for the associated evening music festival; from the Red Hot Chillies in 2019, event organisers plumped for local act the Hilltop Hoods, with an associated drop-off in interest.
World events and the Covid-19 pandemic meant that all racing engines would come to a halt for many months and provide a further pretext to cancelling the Adelaide 500. With Supercars trying to organise a revised calendar for 2021, it was initially agreed that Adelaide would forfeit its season-open slot and instead become the season closer. The reasoning was simple - it would be hard to organise a street race in lockdown and moving the race to later in the year would buy more time for pandemic restrictions to ease.
It proved a false dawn, however. In October 2020, State Premier Steven Marshall announced that, with declining numbers a spiralling Covid-19 bill for taxpayers to foot, the race was a luxury that the State could not afford. The 2020 event had been its last and the race would not be revived.
Work began with almost undue haste to dispose of the circuit infrastructure, with one of the pedestrian bridges gifted to The Bend Motorsports Park. The pit buildings, grandstands and start lights were all auctioned off to the highest bidders and it seemed the race was dead and buried.
Seizing on this, several local councillors who had been long opposed to racing put forward redevelopment plans for Victoria Park. These would have seen the race track and paddock concrete torn up in favour of more trees being planted, the theory being that park users required extra shade to cope with climate change. The plans caused a backlash from the public and were much amended and downscaled by the time they came to a vote at the City Council; more trees would be still be planted but the track and paddock areas would be retained. Going further, in a close vote, it was actually decided to heritage list the asphalt, in recognition of the way in which the Grand Prix and later Supercars events had placed Adelaide in front of a global audience. It was scant consolation for race fans.
Political winds change and the race returns
As events would transpire, tThe ruling Marshall Liberal Government had miscalculated the overall popularity of the event that it had just cancelled. As a 'Save the Race' movement gained popularity, it provided a perfect issue for Labor opponent Peter Malinauskas to campaign against. He promised local people that, should he be elected to power in 2022, he would return the event as the season finale. To demonstrate his intent, he signed an agreement to this effect with Supercars bosses.
While it may not have been the defining issue of the election, it no doubt played into a perception that the Marshall government had underestimated public feeling. When the votes were tallied, what had been expected to be a close election race turned into a landslide for Labor; the race was back on.
Experienced sporting administrator Andrew Daniels was quickly appointed to chair the reformed South Australia Motorsports Board, tasked with organising the revived event. Daniels had previously been deputy executive director of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix Board when F1 raced in South Australia, and then CEO of the Motorsport Board from 1998 to 2008.
The task list for reviving the event was huge; not only would all of the sold off infrastructure need to be re-purchased (amid global supply shortages) but the track itself would need resurfacing. AUS$18 million was allocated in the June budget for the event revival.
In preparation for the resumption of racing, around 70% of the roads forming the course were resurfaced, beginning in early August 2022. The work is necessary to ensure the track's FIA re-certification, with the original homologation having expired in February 2021. The affected sections included Turn 9 all the way back to Turn 7, with just the sections either side of Turn 8, sometimes referred to as ‘Adelaide Straight’ and ‘Brabham Straight’, untouched. The pit paddock area will also be updated, with the concrete pad extended for the first time since it was originally laid in 1985. Dirt paths around Victoria Park will also be hard-surfaced, creating a legacy for users outside of motorsport.
The resumed Adelaide 500, with naming rights sponsorship from LED lighting manufacturer VALO, will take place on December 1-4 as the season finale of the Repco Supercars Championship.