From The Stands...Bathurst 12 Hour PDF Print E-mail
Written by Colin Brassington (aka Brash)   
Thursday, 19 February 2015 20:02

A couple mates and I took the opportunity to road trip up to the recent Bathurst 12 hour. What started as an off-the-cuff remark last November culminated in an epic 7 days of travelling, sight-seeing, junk food, iced coffee, racing and beer drinking. We took our time getting to Bathurst, stopping and viewing all sorts of cool stuff on the way. And because one of the guys was a bit of a military buff, when we just happened to be in Cowra, he insisted that we visit the site of the WWII POW breakout. Which was awesome, and totally worth seeing if you’re in the area.

Bathurst 12Hr.PorscheRX8Audi
Image by Adam/Photogrid. I took some shots with his camera, but we don't know which ones...

I won’t bore you with all the details of the trip itself, as that’s not what this story is about. Suffice to say that a drive of significant distance such as what we did that week is so much easier than it was in the past, thanks largely to improvements in both the cars we drive and the roads we’re driving them on.

Anyway, when we arrived in the town of Bathurst, NSW on Friday morning, qualifying and practice day for the 12 hour carnival was underway. We were camped at the Max Cameron campground, which is adjacent Hell Corner. Once checked in to our campsite and set up, we went to the National Motor Racing Museum, which is next to the track. That is certainly worth doing if you’re in the area, but to be honest I was sort of expecting more. As you would expect the main focus is on the Great Race and the associated V8SC/Touring Car history, and many of the other exhibits are almost there as an afterthought. There are plenty of significant eras not represented, but for the most part it is a good run-down of the history of the track and racing occurring there. But having said that, I know that many significant cars are now in private collections, such as the Bowden’s collection and as such may not be available.

Some of the cars are unrestored, with the faded paint obvious on the Marlboro HDT 05 Commodore, winner of the 1984 race. And the 888 Falcon of Lowndes and Whingecup (the newest car present) appears to have been driven from Parc Ferme to the museum floor, which is a nice touch.

For somebody like me, I was busily studying the differences between the cars, specifically the roll cages fitted over the different generations. Even as recently as Larry Perkins’ 1995 Great Race winning VS Commodore had what we would now call a fairly basic cage. Though it’s the same as any other old race car I think – when I look at how basic things used to be I wonder how we didn’t kill more racing drivers in the early days.

Saturday dawned a beautiful sunny day. First up on the schedule was practice for those participating in the 12hr, and the session began at 7:45am sharp. Let me say now, that there are few ways better to wake up than waking up to a gaggle of GT3 cars at wide open throttle!

Seriously, I was sort of half awake in my campervan, when an Audi R8 pierced the morning silence. Followed in quick succession by an AMG-Mercedes SLS, Ferrari 458, Lamborghini Gallardo Nissan GT-R, Bentley Continental and a couple of Aston Martins for good measure.

Breakfast cooked, we headed over to the track to watch for a bit. I sort of expected some games to be played in the practice sessions, but it appeared that these guys were having none of that, with seemingly every car out trying to get maximum laps prior to the all out the final qualifying session later in the day.

Session over, and the Formula Fords came out to play. Formula Ford, Improved Production and the Radicals provided a great support act for the 12 hour competitors; with improved production especially the source of much amusement (but for a totally different reason).

Between sessions we walked around the pit paddock. Standing at the back of the garages, looking in at all the work going on is always a bit of fun, but the sheer preparedness of many of the teams started to show through. A few teams were having autograph sessions behind their pit garages and this was an added bonus. The Pirelli and Michelin tents were busy with tyres being mounted on rims, analysed, allocated and sent out. I’d like to throw in a comment about the sheer number of tyres used by teams in the race, but I can’t find the number. To be honest, more impressive was what I found out chatting to a racer in the pub after the race (more about that later), that some of the teams were quad-stinting their tyres, meaning they ran the same rubber for some 850km at race pace. This is unheard of in many categories, but par for the course in endurance racing. You see, when the car is being refuelled, they are not permitted to do anything other than change the driver, so if you don’t need to change your tyres then you don’t do it.

The final qualifying session was a ripper. The session was split in two; first half had all cars on the track, and second was just for the A class (GT3) cars. And what a session. When the dust settled, Laurens Vanthoor, driver of the Pheonix Racing Audi R8 LMS Ultra (the one with the kangaroo on the side) set a blistering lap of 2:2.55 to edge out the Lambo by six tenths of a second, with the R35 GT-R another tenth behind. The top 5 qualifying spots were taken up by 5 different cars, with 4 different engine combinations. (Temptation is to wax lyrical about how much I love GT3 racing for this reason…)

Walking around the campsite Saturday night was great, and there was an air of anticipation around the place. We had planned (and so had virtually everyone else) to get up at 5:30am and watch the start of the race (5:45am) then once the race had settled a little then go back and have breakfast. But that plan was thrown out the window a little when the first safety car happened after only about 5 laps. A kangaroo hopped over the fence on Conrod Straight and was hit by the #42 BMW M3 GTR, which put the V8 Bimmer out of the race after less than 20 minutes of race time.

The race was littered with safety cars, which sort of goes with the territory at Bathurst to be honest. In the end there were 20 of them, though I can’t point to any that weren’t genuinely needed. At Bathurst there are few places if any where a local yellow will do an appropriate job of slowing the race enough to remove a stricken race car, so organisers have got smarter with how they do it. The trucks and medical cars were staggered around the track, and moved around as needed, so once the trigger had been pulled in Race Control the delay was only as long as it absolutely needed to be. People have complained about the excess safety cars, but to be honest, last year’s Great Race had nearly as many SC periods in a race two thirds the length. And an hour long lunch break, but I needn’t discuss that here…

Mount Panorama is one of those circuits where if you stand in the right place you can see quite a lot of it, so we found out. Hopping in the car and cruising up the access road to the top of the mountain, we were standing at the Cutting when the #92 MARC Focus V8 went into the wall, and during the subsequent clean-up noticed that you could see most of the way down Conrod and the Chase from that vantage point. Vision of the bottom section of track is even better when you go further up. Standing on the hill at Sulman Park you see them come down and around, they disappear up to McPhillamy and there’s a small gap before you can see them again, about half way down Conrod. But move further around to Skyline, you can see them come from McPhillamy, across, down the Esses and the start of The Dipper, Conrod, The Chase, Hell Corner (you miss Pit Straight because of the buildings) and parts of the run up the Mountain.

Bathurst 12hr
Image of the start by Adam/Photogrid. I took some shots with his camera, but we don't know which ones...

But I must say that my favourite vantage point was at the Chase. Just before they go under the large bridge at the exit that has been a fixture of Bathurst for as long as I can remember. (The bridge, not the Chase – that was added in 1987) You see them come down the hill, round to the right before they hammer the anchors and go back to second for the left hander then back on the power and as they move to the right again they pass you at full noise, before heading under the bridge and down into Murray’s Corner to begin another lap. It’s brilliant, and a great place to notice the differences in engine noise between the combinations.

And the engine noise is one of the things that really gets me excited about GT3 racing. Here we have normally aspirated V10s in the Audi and Lambo, the turbocharged V6 of the Nissan, the beautiful sounding aspirated V8 of the Ferrari, the absolutely brutal sound of the AMG 6.2L V8, the twin turbo V8 Bentley (which makes the AMG sound a lot less brutal), the flat six of the Porsche 911 and the sweet sounding 6.0L V12 Aston Martin. These, plus the lower class cars, which included the MARC Focus V8s, the rotary powered Mazda RX-8s, the Ginetta and Daytona coupes…I could go on for hours. (And have already to be honest)

During any race, you end up with your favourites sooner rather than later. And early on, when the Pheonix Audi was out front I thought they had it wrapped up. But after a succession of safety cars they ended up third or fourth, with the Craft Bamboo Racing Aston up front and the Nissan GT-R second. I figured that this would also be acceptable. The Bentley was in the mix too, and quite a few people were saying things like “it’d be nice to see the Bentley get up”. There are also the least favourite cars, and this gong went to the Mazda RX-8s, the only rotary competitors on track. Built for IMSA competition in the US, they came out here and ran in the Invitational category, but seemed excessively slow and from our various vantage points, they always seemed in the way of the faster cars. I’m not sure how it works in GT racing, but at the high end endurance racers (LeMans for example) the slower car stays on their line and it is up to the faster car to get around them - but I don’t think there is enough of a performance gap between the GT3 cars and the Invitational cars to have gotten away with that here.

The closing stages of the race were watched by us from the bar of the Rydges. The large hotel at the Chase had the sign up all weekend ‘Cold Beer, Hot Food, Good Coffee’ and that was enough for us. This also had the added advantage that we could watch the telecast, and the live timing at the same time; but admittedly it was a bit of a copout having travelled all that way to watch the race on the tv screen…

Towards the end of the race we struck up conversation with another that was holding the bar up, and this gentleman was one of the drivers of the #7 Mercedes AMG SLS. Their race ended on lap 171 when they had an altercation with the #10 Bentley at the Chase, and came off second best with the concrete wall. The Bentley was handed a pit lane penalty for their part in the collision, but the fact remained that the #7 was only out of the race because the #10 pushed them out of the way. Veteran sports car racer (and previous 12hr winner) Peter Fitzgerald, who was driving the #2 Audi R8 said the same thing when the same car punted him off at the entry to the Chase, though fortunately he was able to recover and finish the race.

Anyway, as the 12 hour time limit grew near our new friend left, not wanting to see the car that punted them off the track and out of the race win. Well inside the last hour now, and the #11 Bentley stopped on the run up the Mountain, and the safety car was out. Then, with the crowd already at fever pitch the #4 Porsche 911 spun off at Murray’s Corner. When that car spun in to the sand, many hearts sank, fearing that the race would end under safety car. Mercifully they got the Porsche out of the sand quickly, and the green flag was shown one more time.

And it was here that the epic finish unfolded right in front of our eyes. During the final yellow period, the in-car showed Chiyo-san, the driver of the #35 Nissan GT-R turn a dash mounted knob. Then the Mercedes Benz safety car pulled into the pits and they were away. Chiyo-san pulled alongside the Pheonix Audi up Pit Straight, passed into Hell Corner and after getting good exit speed got alongside the #10 Bentley on the run up the Mountain, getting past into Griffins Bend. The GT-R was never headed, and Chiyo-san created a 2.4 second gap for himself between then and the chequered flag.

But there was more drama to come. On the final lap, on the run down into Murray’s, the #15 Phoenix Audi dove around the outside of the #10 to take second place. At the same time, the #97 Craft Bamboo Aston Martin Vantage made a move for a gap that may or may not have been there to take the final spot on the podium and relegate the Bentley to fourth.

What a finish!

Bathurst 12HrWinnerSelfie
See if you can spot me in the crowd! The winning team on the podium. Image from Katsumasa Chiyo's FB

(It also serves as a great big FUCK YOU to V8SC, for Nissan were among the biggest opponents of the clash between the V8SC test day and the 12 hour. V8SC weren’t willing to move, and by enforcing all their drivers be present effectively banned any V8SC drivers from attending the 12 hour. So Nissan won the race anyway, without any of the gun V8 drivers)

We hopped over the bridge and watched the podium celebrations, and were even standing close enough to get in the background when Chiyo-san took his selfie with the crowd from the top step. Pretty amazing stuff.

After the presentation was done, we headed back past the pit entry where all the cars were held in Parc Ferme (which is French for ‘leave it the fuck alone until the officials are done with it’). The bonnet was off the #97 Aston, and one of the crew was removing the air intake restrictors under the watchful eye of a scrutineer. Mr Mechanic stayed on for a while and answered all manner of stupid questions from the crowd about what sort of fuel they ran (102-octane unleaded by the way) and he even took the time to implant some conspiracy theory thoughts about the convenient timing of the demise of the #11 Bentley.

After this, we went back to the pub for one last round before heading back to camp. While there we bumped into a couple of older guys wearing team shirts for the #33 Clearwater Racing Ferrari. This car, referred by us all weekend as the “Dragon Ferrari” because of it’s chrome livery that featured a massive dragon on the rear of the car had been one that we had enjoyed watching, if for no other reason than it was a Ferrari that wasn’t simply red.

Anyway we chatted with these two blokes (father of one of the drivers) about their experience in Australia, and they were keen to see how far we’d travelled to be at the race. Just then, the driver came down, and we straight away started on him. And we got the responses that we probably expected of one of today’s media and PR-groomed drivers: ‘We went well today, qualified well and finished pretty good so that’s a win for us…” At that point one of my mates asked him about the RX-8s, and it was like a switch had been thrown. I won’t repeat the conversation, but he was glad that people on the hill had also noticed that the little rotary Mazdas always seemed in the way, thanks to their lack of torque and exaggerated race lines. The cars also needed to be picked up on the back of the tilt tray and brought back to the pit area a number of times. ‘Every time we saw one on the back of the truck we prayed we wouldn’t see it again!’ our new friend exclaimed. Which made our weekend to be honest – that one of the drivers thought the same thing as we did from the hill!

In previous years, I’ve joked that the Bathurst 12 hour has had everything except tv coverage. That changed this year, with channel 7 picking up the race. They flicked between 7mate and 7, meaning that most of the race was broadcast in HD, but the closing stages weren’t (but were able to be viewed by a significantly larger audience apparently). Either way, this is a great improvement over the last few years where the coverage has been available via live stream only.

As much of a cliché as I know it is, this race really had everything. Except for maybe weather, but at Bathurst the weather is either perfect or stormy, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the middle. And with the epic manner that the race finished, I don’t think I could be happier with the result.

They call the V8SC race in October the Great Race and have done so for many years. The 1000 has been held at Bathurst since 1963 (ignoring the 500mile versions in the pre-metric days) and, despite my very anti-V8SC opinions the race deserves to continue being referred to as such.

But V8SC is such a locked down category. The only people racing in that event are those who have been able to get a main game ride, after starting in karts when they were 4 years old. Normal people don’t have a chance. And that’s another of the appeals of the Bathurst 12 hour. It is open to anybody who owns a current(ish) GT3 car, and holds the appropriate licence (which you can’t obtain without being a kinda good racer). The two classes at the top – one for Professional drivers and one for non-professional “Gentleman” drivers demonstrates this well. In fact, the race was won by an Amateur driver team. And that’s what motorsport should be - inclusive not exclusive. And while I can comment about V8SC –the best way to do this is to point out the stupidity of the clashing test date and effective banning of all their drivers from racing, it perfectly backs up their exclusive mentality.

Perhaps for this reason, (among all of the others) we should henceforth refer to the Bathurst 12 hour as The Greatest Race.

I’ll be back there for 2016, hope to see you there!

Bathurst 12hrWinner
Terrible iphone quality photo of the winning car at the end of the night. Just sitting outside, waiting to be loaded after it's tremendous day. I bet you slept well that night, I know I did!



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