Nearly three years after his bizarre and stunning disappearance from motorsport, Kiwi driver Richie Stanaway ended his Supercars exile on the biggest stage of them all: Mount Panorama.
And despite having hardly driven in anger in years, the 30-year-old stunned many rivals – teams and drivers alike – with a sensational weekend at the Bathurst 1000.
The big question now is whether the immensely talented Stanaway can be coaxed back to the sport, years it chewed him up and spit him out.
Watch every Practice, Qualifying & Race of the 2022 Repco Supercars Championship Live & Ad-Break Free During Racing on Kayo. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >
Stanaway was a supremely gifted young driver, touted as a future Formula 1 competitor. After impressive results in NZ and Australia, a shift to Europe brought more success – and competition against the likes current F1 driver Valtteri Bottas. But a horrific crash in 2012 changed the course of his career. Renault’s interest waned. Stanaway fought back, even going on to race in GP2 in 2015 – now Formula 2, the key feeder competition for F1 – and won a couple of races.
There were still high hopes that he would become the first Kiwi to race in the elite category since 1973. But a lack of financial backing proved too steep a mountain to climb.
Stanaway would race in the Le Mans 24 hours and win multiple prestigious endurance events with Aston Martin, before a move to Supercars in 2016 after realising his Formula 1 dream was dead in the water.
His talent was undeniable. In 2017, co-driving with Cameron Waters (third at this year’s Bathurst 1000), the pair won the Sandown 500 from pole. They lead the Bathurst 1000 that year before an unfortunate incident.
Stanaway was picked up by Tickford Racing for a full-time drive the following year. A retirement in the opening race at Adelaide was a sign of things to come. The gun driver would rarely threaten the top 10, much less a podium. Finishing the year in 25th place in the drivers standings, he was burned out and demoralised by the brutal reality of fighting for scraps in a car that couldn’t challenge for the top.
The next year was much the same, despite a move to Gary Rogers Motorsport and a Holden Commodore ZB. An old neck injury flared up, forcing him to miss seven races mid-season. The hunger seemed gone, despite being just 27 years old. When he missed an autograph signing, the team slapped him with a suspension – and when the 2019 season was finished, he was unceremoniously axed.
Stanaway walked away, returned to New Zealand to his family’s business. One of Supercars greatest what-ifs had become an afterthought, a sad and sorry tale.
But one man still believed in Stanaway. Peter Adderton from Boost Mobile, a long-time figure in the Supercars paddock who had also sponsored Stanaway’s Supercars drives in 2018 and 2019.
In 2021, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Adderton hit the phones. How about a one-off attempt at Bathurst? Stanaway was hard to convince. But Adderton wasn’t about to pair him with an up-and-comer, a no-namer.
Adderton wanted Greg Murphy, the four-time Bathurst winner who hadn’t raced since 2014, his 22nd attempt around the mountain. Murphy was a fellow Kiwi who had been backed by Adderton since the start of his incredible career back in 1994 – a career highlighted by the 2003 ‘Lap of the Gods’ to steal pole at Mount Panorama.
Fans lapped it up, practically demanded that the drivers said yes. They did – eventually – only for Covid-19 border restrictions to shut down the dream.
A year later, Adderton – as determined as ever – ensured that the pair finally booked their place as one of the 28 competitors for this year’s Great Race, racing an Erebus Motorsport Commodore.
“We were never going to give up,” Adderton said.
Despite just a handful of test days ahead of Bathurst, the pair blew all expectations out of the water – even with mechanical issues robbing them of crucial practice time early in the weekend. Stanaway did just six laps on Thursday before missing half a session on Friday.
But he lit up the timesheets with supreme displays in the wet. He finished fourth in the chaotic, crash-filled Practice Four. Then, in even worse conditions on Friday evening, he qualified fifth. It was his first qualifying session in 1048 days, and nothing short of a simply remarkable result.
Stanaway had out-lapped both of the full-time Erebus Motorsport drivers, Brodie Kostecki and Will Brown. And three of the four drivers who qualified in front of him would end up on the podium after Sunday’s race.
“It feels awesome,” he said after qualifying. “I was sort of quietly hoping to get into the Shootout, coming back. Just stoked to make it in.”
Five-time Bathurst champion Mark Skaife was blown away by Stanaway’s effort.
“Unbelievable. To come from nowhere and be out of the cars and to be starting on the second row of the grid, incredible performance,” said Skaife.
“When we came into the weekend – great performance for all three Erebus cars to be in the top 10 – but I never would have said Murphy and Stanaway would be the fastest of the Erebus competitors.”
But two members of the paddock weren’t surprised at all: Adderton and Greg Murphy.
“I’m super impressed, but I’m honestly not surprised,” Murphy told Speedcafe.com.
Adderton told Supercars.com: “I’ve never seen Richie smile so much. He deserves this moment.
“I almost teared up yesterday, and I’m pretty unemotional when it comes to these moments.
“When I saw his mum with tears in her eyes… it was overwhelming.”
The pair started fourth on Sunday after Shane van Gisbergen’s qualifying penalty, but the parade of safety cars, a mis-timed pitstop, and technical gremlins cruelled their chances of challenging at the very top. Nevertheless, they came home in 11th – still a sensational result for a wildcard duo who had been out of the game for so long.
Adderton said, per Stuff (NZ): “I could not be happier, we started on the second row of the grid and the guys finished just outside the top 10.
“These are guys who haven’t been here for years and they were racing against guys who do this every week.
“They came in and killed it in a car that wasn’t as good as everyone else’s car.”
It was clear from the smile on Stanaway’s face after qualifying that his love for motorsport had been reignited. But whether it is enough to convince him to return to Supercars in 2021 is a different story.
Almost all seats on the grid have been taken, leaving Stanaway likely looking at a co-driver seat before a return to full-time racing in 2024 – and Adderton has all-but-promised to throw his financial heft behind such a move.
On Sunday morning, Murphy said: “That’s what this was all about.
“This is what Peter Adderton from Boost Mobile wanted to do was just give an opportunity back to Richie to get back in a car. If this is the last race that he does, then it’s been a great way to step away.”
“He should be driving a race car. He’s proven again that he’s deserving of that because he’s got the skills and the talent. It’s just about finding the right opportunity if there is one.”
Adderton was equally effusive after the race.
“He’s way too much of a talent,” Adderton said.
“He’s running out there with guys who are racing full-time, beating them, going faster than them, or at least matching them, in a car that’s not as good as theirs. With not the same engineering group or team. So I’m super happy with the whole thing.”
One of the greatest rising stars in New Zealand motorsport burned out and fell into a sad exile. Now all eyes are on what happens next.