Bathurst 12hr 2014

B12hrSat_Sun 1115It’s easy to become complacent but our very own Mount Panorama circuit, just two hour’s drive from Sydney, is firmly up there in the small handful of the world’s truly great circuits. The only problem is that if you’re not a dedicated V8 Supercar fan, there isn’t really a lot of other top-class racing that happens there to attract your attention. Outside of the main game it’s mostly a calendar of club racing and corporate drive days.

B12hrSat_Sun 1100That was, however, until the arrival of the Liqui-Molly Bathurst 12hr and its rapidly growing momentum. Finally The Mountain is now graced with a sports car event exploiting the most of its undulating, twisting, climbing and dropping 6.2km of smooth, freshly laid tarmac. An event/circuit combo that attracted 13 top level international teams, building a bumper field of 44 cars.

a_B12hrSat 1204There have been endurance races for production cars at Bathurst before (notably the 12hr events of the early 90’s and a pair of excellent 24hr races in the early 00’s), but those races never really managed to gain the traction the current 12hr has. That’s probably because of a few factors, the primary of which being that we now have a solid international GT3 class which enables these cars to be raced all over the world under the same rules. That’s a big deal for manufacturers, because the likes of Nismo Japan can build an R35 GTR for Le Mans and also get race mileage (ie promotional value & return on investment) from it in other smaller events.

A_B12_Sat 1283The other factor is a canny scheduling move by the race organisers. Not a lot of motor racing happens in the European winter, so holding our 12hr early in the year avoids any potential scheduling clashes. Not only that, but a lot of European teams already freight their cars to the Middle East for the Gulf 12hr in December, so it makes sense to piggyback another race on the same trip and tick Bathurst off, since they’re already halfway here. The plan seems to be working.

a_B12hrSat 1184The decision for us to go to Bathurst was a late one, largely spurred on by memories the breathtaking finish of the 2013 race, watched eagerly on the live internet stream. Michael Busby (left) and Luke Jaksa (right) made up our road trip-threesome, which presented the problem of which car to take. Busby’s WRX was out (1200km sitting on boost is bad for fuel economy and the booming exhaust wouldn’t be exactly relaxing), as was Luke’s Mini panel van (tiny, cramped, uncomfortable, only 2 seats) and my MX5 (for the same reasons). A few calls were made and a borrowed Hyundai i30 was organised (thanks Kenny!) and whilst not the most exciting steed, it ticked all of the necessary boxes.

a_B12hrSat 1186Time sadly wasn’t on our side this trip, so at 7pm on Friday we pointed the little Korean rocket Eastwards and put the pedal to the metal, burning through the night and stopping only for fuel and junk food in equal quantities.

HayPlainsDarkness 1248Fatigue wasn’t a problem, and as we crossed the Hay Plains under the cover of darkness we each had our roles – the driver drove, the front passenger supplied primary conversation and had left side roo watch, the rear passenger supplied drinks and snacks whist monitoring right side roo watch. We thankfully had no encounter with any of the many furry friends and rolled through the final hills and into Bathurst just as the sun was rising, 13 hours and 1200km later. Such was the level of conversation that somehow we escaped having any real sleep.

a_B12hrSat 1211The plan was to catch a couple of hours’ sleep upon arrival at the track, however we got there just half an hour before the start of the first races of the day. How could you sleep through an Improved Production race at Bathurst? We sat there in awe of the older turbocharged cars, the thundering V8’s and the howling M3. We were feeling a little woozy, but we weren’t sure if that was from lack of sleep or the strong E85 fumes from a full IP field.

a_B12hrSat 1201Sleep was not forthcoming after that session either, because straight away was qualifying for the 12hr cars. And anyway, it is a scientific fact that it is impossible to sleep when you’re at Bathurst and there’s a factory Nismo R35 GT3 lapping right in front of you.

a_B12hrSat 1200The qualifying session was one of the most exciting I’ve had the privilege of witnessing. There was the thrill of seeing each car in person for the first time, especially the factory Abarth 500’s which were almost the slowest cars on the track but still carried huge speed and qualified with a 2.31 lap. That’s 28 seconds slower than the fastest car at the 12hr, but look at it this way: that time would have put the 500’s on pole for the 1992 12hr (quicker than the RX7’s, 968CS’s and R32 GTR’s) and is four seconds faster than Alan Moffatt managed in the GTHO Phase III in the 1972 500, even with the 5 second penalty dealt by the Chase.

a_B12hrSat 1193With only a small window of opportunity and lots of traffic to deal with, the competition for a clean lap was fierce.

a_B12hrSat 1208Not everything went smoothly. Here the driver of the #77 AF Corse Ferrari 458 flicks the bird to the driver of a slower Lotus, who must have blocked him on the descent.

a_B12hrSat 1206A few laps later and the same driver was lucky to escape when he clipped the corner of the #60 Marc VDS Ford Focus V8 with a daring duck down the inside through Forests Elbow. The luck soon ran out when just a few laps later the front of the 458 was heavily damaged in another accident, a shame given the team had come from Italy for the race. The story goes that AF Corse then offered $200,000 cash to the Vicious Rumour Racing team to purchase their 458, which had been written off with a heavy rear-end impact the day before. The plan was to cut and shut the two crashed 458’s into one good one, and was only cancelled when the team calculated that there weren’t enough hours left to perform the work before the race start the following morning.

a_B12hrSat 1187There was no such quandry for the Skwirk team, who’s Audi R8 LMS was so heavily damaged in a qualifying accident with Jason Bright behind the wheel that there was no chance of them making the race start.

a_B12hrSat 1190Coming through the traffic unscathed to claim the Alan Simonsen Memorial Pole trophy was last year’s winner, the #1 Erebus Racing AMG SLS GT3. The #88 Maranello Motorsport 458 Italia claimed second, with the #37 Darrell Lea McLaren MP4 12C rounding out the top three starters.

Museum 1249It was late morning by this stage, and we had firmly hit out second wind. It was far too hot to sleep in a tent during the midday heat, and anyway, who could possibly sleep when the Australian Motor Racing Museum is sitting right there at the bottom of Conrod Straight? We had a good look around and then retired to the local shopping centre for lunch and to indulge in some air conditioning.

A_B12_Sat 1280We returned to the track mid-afternoon to shoot some more of the support races, however the prospect of a few shady grandstand seats was just too good to miss so we put the cameras away and decided to watch the racing from there.

A_B12_Sat 1281Lack of sleep was starting to become an issue, and the combination of warmth/shade/sitting down and the gentle lulling of passing racecars won out in the end.

A_B12_Sat 1282It was quite an odd experience to jolt awake from a nap, only to look down and see a HQ pitting in front of an AMG SLS. Am I dreaming this? Does this ever really happen?

A_B12_Sat 1276Our powernaps did us wonders, and with a third wind now in full stride we went for an early evening stroll around the pits. The luckier teams were merely practicing their driver changes…

A_B12_Sat 1272… or polishing their cars…

A_B12_Sat 1284… however a disturbing number were left counting the costs of an eventful day.

A_B12_Sat 1285Precious metal lay strewn about, damaged and wrecked beyond repair.

A_B12_Sat 1274With no more track time available until the start of the race, teams were finding any open ground in the paddock for testing. This 997 was lucky to get out of first gear, and went up and back from first into second into first, again and again.

A_B12_Sat 1287The Daytona Sportscars team from Melbourne were left with a huge job ahead. They didn’t have a lot of the spares required to fix their car, so while an emergency driver was dispatched from their Melbourne factory with a rush delivery of parts, the team set about fixing things that couldn’t be replaced. The pits smelt of body filler and resin that evening.

A_B12_Sat 1264As fascinating as studying the details of endurance racing was, we left the teams in search of a decent meal and a few beers before an early crash into bed. We found an Irish pub that only employed staff with an Irish accent, and returned to the circuit to finally hit the hay after a long day.

A_B12_Sat 1254Except we didn’t get around to hitting the hay, not for a while anyway. At about 930pm we noticed that there seemed to be a lot of people in pit lane. We might never get this opportunity again, and we reasoned that sleep could wait. We found the hidden path and snuck into this normally locked-down area, filled with teams and international spec GT cars.

A_B12_Sat 1257It was such a relaxed atmosphere and the teams were more than welcoming of the fans inspecting their cars, surprising given that none of us should have been there. Some teams were making the most of the balmy evening to go through systems checks…

A_B12_Sat 1258… and others were doing yet more pit stop rehearsals in preparation for the race to come.

A_B12_Sat 1263Some teams seemed pretty relaxed, like Singapore’s Clearwater Racing who parked their 458 Italia outside and opened the engine cover so everyone could have a look.

A_B12_Sat 1253We checked in with our new friends at the Daytona team. The front end was largely back together and the guys had almost finished rebuilding the nosecone but the much needed parts weren’t scheduled to arrive until 1am. They had a big night ahead of them.

A_B12_Sat 1259We could have spent all night there but by this stage it was 11pm and we still had to set up the campsite. We pulled our tired feet away and finally fell into the tents at 1130pm, after some 40 hours straight of being awake. I don’t know about the other guys, but that was a new no-sleep record for me.

A_B12_Sat 1269The race was due to start at 615am on Sunday morning, so before first light we were up again and back into the pits for a quick look.

A_B12_Sat 1252The sound of racing cars being warmed up in the early morning air is one incredible alarm clock, and surprisingly given our lack of sleep, we were all wide awake and ready for the day to come. In the morning darkness the pits looked almost exactly like they did when we had departed six hours earlier, but there was a different kind of tension in the air.

A_B12_Sat 1251Some teams were like us – calm, relaxed and ready for the race to come…

A_B12_Sat 1250… while others were still fervently working. The Daytona team had only just got their car running, and with less than half an hour to race start were starting to run through their systems checks.

A_B12_Sat 1249As the cars lined up on the grid a warm glow began to rise from the hills behind, promising both a spectacular sunrise and a hot day to follow.

B12hrSat_Sun 1122Our new friends in the Daytona cut it so close that they missed the grid and the formation lap, lining up to start from pit lane with just minutes to spare.

B12hrSat_Sun 1121At 6.15am on the dot, the field took the green flag, commencing twelve hours of flat out racing into the unknown. The Erebus SLS lead into the first corner, and the baritone thump of its deep V8 was the first to disturb the peace across the top of the mountain.

B12hrSat_Sun 1117Just 15 minutes into the race and the BMW F10 M5 Safety Car was circulating around for the first of many excursions. Both Jack Le Brocq in the #63 Erebus SLS and Peter Kox in the #23 JBS Lamborghini made contact with the same kangaroo across the top of the track. Le Brocq was able to limp back to pits, but the incident put Kox out. I don’t think the kangaroo was able to watch much of the race from then on, either.

B12hrSat_Sun 1113The light at this time of day is simply breathtaking, and you can see why they call it the Golden Hour. That hazy orange light just draped over the scene, creating strong silhouettes making even the most mundane appear spectacular.

B12hrSat_Sun 1112The only problem was that this light only lasted for a few minutes entirely occupied by the safety car period. We fired off a few shots of the empty track and spectator mounds then jumped in the Korean Rocket to head up the mountain.

B12hrSat_Sun 1110The vista that greeted us was so perfect that we would have just sat there and watch the sun rise over the valley, even if there were no racing cars.

B12hrSat_Sun 1107But there were racing cars, so it was a moot point anyway. In the limited number of endurance races I’ve attended it’s been my observation that daybreak is the best time to watch racing. Not only do the heavens turn on a spectacular show for you, but the air is cool so the cars are fast, and you can often have an entire corner to yourself.

B12hrSat_Sun 1095We didn’t just have the corner to ourselves, it felt like we had the entire top of the mountain to ourselves. Look left, look right. We counted a grand total of less than ten people in both directions.

B12hrSat_Sun 1105It was readily becoming apparent that traffic would play a big part, and this early on the leaders were already lapping the slower cars with daring moves combined with their outright battles.

B12hrSat_Sun 1067Bathurst is a truly awesome track to drive and to spectate at, but the downside of this is the fact that you have to be a mountain goat to actually get anywhere.

B12hrSat_Sun 1083Making the decision to trek down to Forests Elbow is not a light one, because there’s only one way back – and that’s up. Get down there and decide you want some water? Too bad.

a_B12hrSat 1210But the view you get as the cars brake and downchange on the steep downhill, then round bend and accelerate fast onto Conrod Straight makes it worth the hike.

B12hrSat_Sun 1079Approaching the six hour mark, and Shane van Gisbergen in Tony Quinn’s McLaren MP4 12C put in one of the most remarkable drives of recent times to catch and pass Bernd Schneider in the Erebus SLS for the race lead, and Mika Salo in the Marenello Motorsport 458. Attempting moves that would even be considered too risky for a sprint race, SVG managed to break the outright lap record, setting the bar at 2.03.85s – more than five seconds faster than a V8 Supercar has ever lapped the mountain.

This clip shows the best of SVG’s charge, and is well worth the watch.

B12hrSat_Sun 1076By half race distance the action on the track was heating up and so was the ambient temperature, rapidly. We were wilting in the heat so decided to retire back to the air conditioned shopping centre for lunch, and live streamed the race on our phones while we enjoyed our sushi in the cool.

B12hrSat_Sun 1061Maybe it was the creeping tirdness or maybe we’re just lame, but upon our return to the track we just couldn’t face the heat anymore. Then Busby came up with a great idea – given we were sitting in a mobile grandstand (the i30), let’s go and park at The Chase for a little while.

B12hrSat_Sun 1065It was the perfect idea – why would we ever leave? We had icy air conditioning, beers on ice, we had the commentary on the radio and the live timing running on our phones…

B12hrSat_Sun 1057… and we had a commanding view out the windscreen from where I could still take photos in complete comfort. We could see the racing, and we were 100% up to date with what was happening around the rest of the track.

B12hrSat_Sun 1066Luke was even able to take a nap!

B12hrSat_Sun 1054SVG’s McLaren charge was brilliant but the rest of his team wasn’t able to match his pace, so as the race progressed the orange Mac slipped down the order allowing three other cars (#88 Maranello Motorsport 458, #84 HTP AMG SLS, #63 Erebus AMG SLS) to develop a battle for the lead.

B12hrSat_Sun 1060With 20 minutes remaining this was all that separated the top three cars. SVG was back in the McLaren for the final stint and was on fire, although calculations determined that he only just wouldn’t have enough time to catch the lead pack. What we needed was a safety car to bunch the field up…hmm.

B12hrSat_Sun 1053We all leaped for joy (as much as you can sitting in a car) when an incident occurred and the Safety Car was called out with just 10 minutes to go.

B12hrSat_Sun 1052The field bunched right up, however The Giz still had to pass about 5 lapped vehicles before catching the lead pack and he had only three laps to do it. He was again racing right on the edge, and it was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever witnessed. The Bathurst 12hr delivers again.

B12hrSat_Sun 1047He was catching them fast but in the end ran out of time to make a move. It didn’t matter that he didn’t make it, because the race came right down to the wire and it was a deserved victory by the Maranello Motorsport Ferrari 458 Italia dream team of John Bowe, Craig Lowndes, Mika Salo and Peter Edwards. The HTP Motorsport AMG SLS of Harold Primat, Thomas Jaeger and Maximillian Buhk claimed second, leaving third to the Erebus Motorsport AMG SLS crew of Will Davison, Jack le Brocq and Greg Crick.

B12hrSat_Sun 1048It was a special experience to see the Scuderia flags flying high at the Mountain, reminding us that Australia isn’t just a meat & three veg, V8 Supercar-only country.

B12hrSat_Sun 1045It was an emotional victory for Maranello Motorsport who flew Danish flags on the podium in memory of Alan Simonsen, their star driver and close friend who was entered to race for the team at this years 12hr but sadly died in an accident in the Le Mans 24hr last year. The crew were in tears, and proud that they managed the top step of the podium for Alan.

B12hrSat_Sun 1044And just as quickly as it came, it was over. Garages were emptied…

B12hrSat_Sun 1041… and entire campaigns were dissembled and put back into the shipping containers, next to be opened on the other side of the world.

B12hrSat_Sun 1040Racing cars, just a few hours prior the focus and attention of a half-day of wheel to wheel racing…

B12hrSat_Sun 1039… sat motionless and unattended. The show is packed up and moved on out.

B12hrSat_Sun 1098The mountain always holds a special place in Australian motor racing, and the chance to see international spec GT cars raced exactly as their makers intended on our shores is a rare one. The Bathurst 12hr is rapidly gaining momentum and is becoming not just an unmissable race on our local calendar, but an unmissable race on the world stage too. We’ll certainly be back next year.

B12hrSat_Sun 1038Words and photos by Andrew Coles

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4 Comments

  1. Dirk A Davidson March 4, 2014 Reply

    They have Sushi in Bathurst? My how times have changed!

  2. Jed March 5, 2014 Reply

    We should book a bus for next year and replicate this weekend.

  3. Big G March 9, 2014 Reply

    Another great account of your travels and one that makes others think of going to this event.

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