It’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.
That 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.
There 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Time 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.
Fatigue 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.
The 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.
Sleep 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.
The 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 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.
There 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.
Coming 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.
It 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.
We 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.
With 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.
The 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.
As 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.
Except 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.
It 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…
We 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.
We 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.
The 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.
At 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.
Just 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.
The 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.
The 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.
But 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.
We 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.
Approaching 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.
By 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.
Maybe 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.
… 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.
SVG’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.
With 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.
The 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.
He 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.
It 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.
The 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.