In a spectacular start to the first Sydney Telstra 500, Toll Holden Racing Team's Garth Tander emerged fastest over the course of three practice sessions for the V8 Supercar contenders.
In front of a huge first day crowd of 51,193, the unique layout around the precincts of Sydney's Olympic Park caught many drivers, with a bumpy and, at times, narrow concrete-lined track rewarding a curious blend of bravery and caution.
“It's a great challenge,” enthused Tander of the tough layout, “The braking area past the Novotel is one of the wildest rides I've ever had in a V8 Supercar. You have to treat this place with respect.
"Some places are in need of improvement, and others are better than I expected - places like turn one, the fast stuff around the back and the Train Station are great. My car had a different suspension specification to that of [team-mate] Will [Davison] and he complained less than me, so we went in that direction.”
The alterations clearly had a positive effect when Tander put on a better set of control Dunlop tyres to leap-frog to the top of the timing screens with only a minute remaining in the day. The former champion has openly stated that his goals for this weekend's two races were 'number one, to win the teams' championship over TeamVodafone, two to win the inaugural Telstra 500 and, thirdly, maybe beat Will for second in the championship.”
Demoted to second was the Garry Rogers Motorsport/Valvoline VE Commodore driven by Lee Holdsworth, who described the track as 'one of the toughest challenges I've had with the bumps, concrete and kerbs'.
"Driving around in a hire car at 40-60km/h, it looked narrow in some places, but nothing like it does at 200km/h," Holdsworth continued, "On a new track, you tend to find the hairiest parts then build up confidence to have a go at them. You are always on the edge and can't afford to make a mistake. Turn eight is the scariest as it is a very fast blind corner. Even though it is narrow in places, there are still a couple of good places to make a clean pass and some others where it will take a desperate [move] to get by.”
Fast throughout each of the sessions was young Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen's Stone Bros Racing/SP Tools BF Falcon, which ended the day in overall third.
“We had a long run early and didn't change the car much as the track was laying down rubber,” van Gisbergen said, “We then made a few little tweaks and the car responded. It is so bumpy in places and some corners demand you be precise, but others suit my aggressive driving style. A podium has been my goal all year plus I'm only 80 points behind Russell Ingall, so there is a chance I can finish the year inside the top ten.”