Think of as many iconic endurance racing photographs as you can – sparks at night through Eau Rouge, light trails past the Ferris Wheel at Le Mans, blurred Porsche 956’s with Mt Fuji as backdrop and the kitsch motor homes of Daytona. These are long standing scenes from legendary races, but there’s a new event rapidly gaining recognition with an equally iconic trademark shot – sunrise over lap one, turn one of an international GT race. The Bathurst 12 Hour.
As Formula One gets lost in their pursuit of relevance and local touring car championships are obsessed with introducing a control everything, international GT racing is really kicking off. The cars are beautiful and fast, and the GT concept of having privateers funding the teams, buying state-of-the-art cars direct from the factory and employing the worlds best drivers to race alongside them finely treads the line of being sustainable yet exciting enough to attract spectators and viewers, and therefor sponsors. Throw in a worldwide calendar of fresh and diverse races and it’s a winning formula.
A race start in the calming, pre-dawn glow of a forthcoming hot day. To my knowledge, this makes the Bathurst 12hr relatively unique in modern endurance racing. Le Mans or Spa is all about surviving the night to race in the daylight and by dawn the event is over fourteen hours old. But when the sun is threatening rise at Bathurst it’s only lap 1, and the extended sprint pace of modern endurance racing means fighting for track position as soon as the flag drops.
And then there’s the sunrise itself – nature’s reward for getting out of bed before you really have to. The 12hr adds some of the most competitive international GT cars into the mix, and standing on the top of the mountain as the sun floods the valley with golden light is an almost spiritual experience.
For us, going to the 12hr again was never a maybe. As we were rolling away from the 2014 race we all knew we would be back, so the question of would we go again in 2015 was never asked. It was just assumed.
When I say ‘us’ I am referring to myself and friend of Any Given Reason, Luke Jaksa. Oh, and my old Subaru WRX hatch. Due to not needing it as my daily transport anymore the poor old Rex had barely moved in four months, and I had a little bit of work to do before she was ready for the trip. After a quick dash-out job to change a leaky heater core and a bit of a check over she woke up from her cryogenic sleep and was ready go, just like nothing had happened.
The question of whether to fly or drive was one I hotly debated with a friend who was making the trip in a plane. I still stand by my argument for the good ‘ol road trip. It is said that time is the greatest luxury of all, and in our busy lives it is rare to have the time to make a long distance trip in the car. Both Luke and I had come from a hellish week in our day jobs, and it was frankly liberating to just sit and engross ourselves in hours of conversation and just watch the world roll by with no real schedule to keep. We stopped at a craft brewery and bought the weekend’s beer supply. We turned our phones off; there were the odd questionably legal blasts when passing trucks and we stopped at every Vinnies store we saw. Luke bought a pair of two dollar happy pants, and I’m not even joking about that one.
We stopped at a random paddock in country New South Wales to photograph the sunset, ourselves the only ones for miles taking in this magical display of light and heat. It was quite late on Friday night by the time we arrived to Bathurst and the tent city was already in slumber; we quietly set up camp inside the circuit with a group of friends who had earlier come from Adelaide, had a celebratory beer and then fell into a deep sleep.
We woke on Saturday morning to the clatter of breakfast and milled around, still dazed from the fifteen hour drive and lack of sleep. But the sound of highly strung racing engines – Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley, Nissan and more – being worked to their maximum up Mountain Straight soon jolted us awake more effectively than even the strongest Turkish coffee could.
Qualifying for the 12hr started the day, and for us it was the first chance to see the cars that would make up the race. My favorite livery was on the Audi R8 LMS Ultra that Red Bull Stratos skydiver Felix Baumgartner would drive – an Australiana/crocodile theme that was more than a little reminiscent of the famous crocodile Audi R8 prototype that won the Le Mans Adelaide race in 1999.
The 12hr smashes the dichotomy that endurance racing is somehow pretentious or elitist, and an example of this is that there are no ‘gold’ or ‘restricted’ areas that split the haves and have-nots. A basic general admission ticket grants everyone access to everywhere they want to go, within reason, so once qualifying had finished we wandered around the GT pits.
… although Bathurst is an unforgiving place that punishes a wrong move severely. The driver walked away from this high speed crash, but it’s still not nice to see someone’s prized racecar end up like this.
The support races were of a very high quality, but with all due respect to their competitors it wasn’t anything we can’t see elsewhere so we headed back to the pits to immerse ourselves in the preparations for the 12 Hour.
The Nismo GTR was involved in a qualifying shunt that caused more damage than we expected, and at about 630pm we saw it on the back of a tilt tray heading to a local panel shop for chassis straightening. The team worked on rebuilding the car throughout the night and only finished final assembly at 430am Sunday morning.
It was already becoming obvious that the 2015 edition of the 12hr was far more popular than in 2014, and we were worried that the extra crowds might ruin the unique character of the event. Our fears were unfounded, and we were delighted that we could get into pit lane on Saturday night for our now-annual evening pre-race pit walk.
Around us the teams were practicing their driver changes and timing each run. Valuable time can be won here in the pits that doesn’t need to be fought for on the track, so it pays to have a slick routine.
The Trass Family Motorsport team have gone up miles in my opinion after witnessing their Saturday night attitude at Bathurst. Shipping and customs delays meant their Ferrari 458 GT3 had only arrived at the very last minute from New Zealand, but despite this they had their garage open and the crew members were talking to anyone who stopped by about their car the event. They even had a boom box set up in pit lane belting out some smooth dance/R&B, much to the dismay of the overtly professional M-Sport squad next door. I think this may have been on purpose.
It was just such an incredibly chilled environment. These kids were roaring around on their drift trikes when some professional media came along and set up a race, filming them as the crowd cheered the winner along.
By the time we finished in the pits it was getting late and we were super tired, but it is a shame to go to bed early when you’re at Bathurst and the weather was nice so we decided to walk a lap of the circuit. You don’t get a proper picture of the actual gradients from just spectating or even driving a slow lap – it’s mega steep pretty much everywhere and in places you don’t even expect it.
It was getting on toward 1130pm by the time we reached Skyline; pretty late given the race was due to start at 6am the next morning, but there was still a ton of people about. We ended up in this big conversation with a few different groups from all over Australia, with the twinkling lights of suburban Bathurst as backdrop.
We continued our lap on foot. It was past midnight now and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We were both tired but were buzzing from the atmosphere and didn’t feel like sleep, however we forced ourselves into bed knowing we had a big day ahead of us.
The start of the 12hr is always a slightly unsettling experience for me. Those who know me will testify that I am not much of a morning person, and despite my best efforts I’ve never been awake long when the 12hr starts. The early morning should be a quiet and peaceful time as you slowly ease yourself into the day, and I’m never quite prepared for the full blast of an entire field of GT cars at that hour. It wakes you up pretty quickly, though.
Standing at turn 1, it became readily apparent that these guys don’t muck about when it comes to racing. At the time this photo was taken there was still 11hr 55min to go and they were already racing wheel-to-wheel for track position.
We were just absorbing the moment, enjoying the sights and sounds of the 12hr. I really came prepared to hate the big Bentley’s but they impressed me more than anything else. When I first heard the plan to turn the Continental into a GT3 race car I thought it was daft, but I was wrong. And who would ever have thought that the day would come when The Dipper would wear complete Bentley sponsorship and a V8 Bentley would be fighting for an outright race win.
Probably the biggest disappointment of the 12hr is that the spectators don’t really get into the theme of driving fun and interesting cars to the race like they do at the Le Mans 24hr. There were a few exceptions to this comment, the best of which was this lovely little 356.
It was fun to look at the similarities between that old 356 and the 911 RSR’s out there fighting for track position. Different in almost every conceivable way, yet you can still just make out the lineage between these two varied cars.
Earlier the night before the race, a good friend of AGR called saying he had organised a late morning helicopter ride for Luke and I over the circuit with a friend of his, Dave. Just before lunchtime we arrived at the helipad and were greeted with a hearty smile and a strong handshake. It seems the camera hanging off my shoulder did not go unnoticed – ‘oh, you’re a photographer are you’, asked Dave through his broad Scottish accent. Before I even had a chance to mention that I was a rank amateur at best, Dave was already well into the task of removing the doors of his helicopter. ‘You’ll get much better photos this way’. Luke and I nervously climbed aboard.
This was Luke’s first time in a helicopter and only my second, so it was a pretty exciting experience for both of us. The most nerve-wracking time for me is just after takeoff when you watch the ground slowly fall away beneath you, getting further and further away.
But we had nothing to worry about and not long into the flight we were both relaxed and enjoying the experience. Dave is a veteran with over 10,000 flight hours, is a CASA delegate and examiner, a helicopter test pilot and specialises in flying for film and cinematography work. He’s flown Mark Webber, is the sole helicopter pilot used by Pilatus in Australia and for those who follow cycling, he did all of the television camera flying during the recent Tour Down Under bike race in this very machine. We were in the safest of hands.
We did a couple of laps of the circuit and seeing it from above gave a whole new perspective. From the air The Chase is very obvious, and when you can see all of Conrod Straight at once it seems almost comical that the chicane never used to exist. Cars are topping 300km/h into The Chase today – imagine what speed they would arrive at Murray’s Corner if it wasn’t there!
It’s funny how viewing the track from the air seems to level out all terrain and elevation change, like seeing a 1:1 scale map of the circuit drawn on a gigantic sheet of paper. Having walked it the night before we knew first hand just how steep it is in this part, but it almost looked flat from the helicopter.
After their mammoth repair effort before the race from their qualifying accident, it was a shame to see the MARC Cars Mazda 3 taken out by a rather aggressive passing move from Felix Baumgartner in the Phoenix Audi R8. Like all 12hr’s before it, the 2015 edition had plenty of carnage. There was a record 20 safety car periods and the longest time of racing without a safety car was just 65mins.
The 2015 Bathurst 12hr received a lot of lead-up publicity due to the much hyped clash between the race and the V8 Supercar pre season test day, dubbed the V8 SuperTest, which was taking place at Sydney Motorsport Park just a few hours away. It was made out to be some kind of war of vengance between V8 Supercars and the GT Championship but in reality it just came down to television rights. Bathurst 12hr organisers announced the race date a long time ago, however Channel Ten/Fox have the V8 rights and had to fit their broadcast into an already packed television schedule made up of the rugby and soccer World Cup. Channel Seven, having just lost the V8 broadcast rights, then threw their full backing behind GT’s and broadcast the entire race free-to-air. And it worked spectacularly for Seven – the five-metro average audience peaked at 368,000 viewers and averaged 97,000 for the duration of the 12hr race. The V8 test day averaged just 19,000.
We were all the biggest losers of this battle, though. In 2014 we witnessed a close duel between Craig Lowndes and Shane Van Gisbergen for the race win, however in 2015 all series V8 Supercar drivers were contractually obliged to attend the entire test day, ruling them out of participating in the 12hr. It did get nasty – teams were suggesting helicoptering drivers between the two events, but V8 Supercars quickly put a stop to that idea. This really hurt Nissan the most who were banking on using local ace Rick Kelly in their GTR. Judging on comments made in the media from motorsport figures and teams in both categories, I would be very surprised if the date clash happens again.
Like we did last year, we headed down to The Chase to watch the closing laps of the race. There’s something pretty awesome about seeing these cars repeatedly slowing down from close to 300km/h. The pace was absolutely cracking – driving an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, Markus Winkelhock set a new lap record for closed wheel cars of 2.03.30, over four seconds quicker than the V8 Supercar lap record and just half a second off the outright lap record. In fact, the top ten cars at the 12hr were all faster than the V8 Supercar lap record.
We headed into the pits for the final few laps of the race. It had been a tough exercise for some, and there were cars just waiting in pit lane to go out and limp the final lap to be classified as a finisher.
The race finished with seven different manufacturers fighting for the top seven places, punctuated by a four-way dogfight for the race win. The factory Nismo GTR GT3 of Wolfgang Reip, Florian Strauss and Katsumasa Chiyo took the race win. Have a look at the top right of this photo – after 12 hours of racing, the rest of the podium was decided on the final corner of the final lap. The M-Sport Bentley held second place, but was bumped back into fourth. Second place was claimed by the Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS Ultra, with third going to the Craft Bamboo Racing Aston Martin V12 Vantage.
This photo neatly shows just how close the finish was and how many different manufacturers were waiting to pick up the pieces. Nissan leads home Audi, Aston Martin, Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes and Lamborghini.
But on the day it was all about Katsumasa Chiyo – a graduate of the Nissan/Gran Turismo GT Academy, and the victory of the Nismo team. The car that was crashed in qualifying and was still being repaired just an hour before the race start had won the 12hr.
I made a point earlier about how spectator access at the 12hr is brilliant, and it’s worth mentioning that all of these photos in this story were not taken with any special media access or credentials – all were shot from regular general admission spectator areas.
Luke and I didn’t hang around for very long after the race. We already had the car packed that morning, and as soon as the champagne was spayed we piled into the WRX and hit the road again. A friend had a car in Mount Gambier and had no way of getting it back to Adelaide in time, so being the nice guys that we are we volunteered to pick it up on our way back home.
The geographically aware would of course realise that Mount Gambier is nowhere near the road between Bathurst and Adelaide; in fact it added about 500km to our return journey. We got a few hundred km done that night, setting up camp at Wagga Wagga at about 1130pm.
We continued on through Albury and Benalla, skirting north around Melbourne and through Bendigo, passing the Grampians through Arrarat and Hamilton and into Mount Gambier. It was certainly longer but the roads were greener and twistier and there was a lot more to see along the way. We both agreed that the extra distance was almost worth it to not have to cross the Hay Plains again.
It was nearly 5pm by the time we reached Carlin & Gazzard in Mount Gamiber to pick up the car; when we arrived Peter Gazzard insisted that Luke and I first take this 1965 Mustang GT-A V8 for a quick spin around the town. We really didn’t have time but it was such a cool looking Mustang and such a lovely afternoon – how could we say no?
And here we are, rolling down the boulevards of Gambier in a 65 ‘Stang like it ain’t no thing. It was only a short drive but it was pretty cool – I’ve never driven an old muscle car before but I can really see the appeal now. It was the perfect top down cruiser and it drove like a brand new car.
This Mustang has a bit of history; it was purchased by Kylie Minogue as a gift for her father, who carried out the extensive restoration on the vehicle and kept it in the stunning condition you see here. It’s pretty much as close to a brand-new 1965 Mustang as you can get, and I’m sure that Kylie must have taken a few rides in it herself over the years.
I’ve driven and written about the G63 before so I won’t go into too much detail (read that story here), but the trip home refreshed just how awesome this car is. Utterly, utterly pointless, but utterly awesome nonetheless.
That last stretch home watching the sun slowly set over the Coonawarra wine region from the comfort of the G63, still buzzing from coffee and slightly delirious from a lack of sleep, was one of the most memorable drives I’ve ever had. It was the perfect end to the trip.
There really is nothing like the open road, especially when it is occasionally punctuated by redline blasts from a twin turbo, 400kw AMG V8 with side pipes. I was on high alert for kangaroo’s but I didn’t see any – I think the exhaust note must have scared them all away.
It was 10pm by the time I arrived back in Adelaide. Luke had peeled off earlier to his home in the hills, and I did the last little bit solo to hand over the G63. In four days Luke and I had driven 2,853km and spent 32 hours in the car. We’d seen an international GT race, gone for a doors off ride in a helicopter, drank craft beer at midnight on Australia’s most famous track, practiced our photography, spent a weekend hanging out with friends and saw some of the best GT drivers in the world race some of the best GT cars in existence.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles
Thanks to Luke, Sebastian, Busby, Barry and everyone else we encountered on The Mountain for a top weekend away.