PEAK PERFORMANCE

COULD THE BATHURST 12 HOUR BE AUSTRALIA’S NEW GREAT RACE? WHEELS GOES TO THE MOUNTAIN TO FIND THE ANSWER

WORDS PETER MCKAY PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR

THE cool, murky dawn, with sun-up still 15 minutes off, a pack of hard-accelerating, jinking cars responds noisily and furiously to the start of the 2015 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour at Mount Panorama, a sacred site for the motor sports faithful. Blazing headlights dart about manically in the near darkness; a cacophany of varied exhausts – all of them wondrously loud – cut through the dense air.

Leading the charge are the dominant, speedy and exotic GT cars: Audi R8, Mercedes SLS, Bentley Continental, Aston Martin Vantage, McLaren MP4-12C, Lamborghini Gallardo, Ferrari F458, Porsche 911 and Nissan GT-R. There are 50 cars in all, twice as many as last year’s fabled race in October, the Bathurst 1000 for V8 Supercars.

The Great Race has the storied history, the crowds, the atmosphere and the local hero drivers; the emerging 12 Hour boasts the plumper grids, the international flavour and the stunning poster cars from the bedroom walls of kids everywhere.

“V8 Supercars have got the jockeys [the star drivers], but we have the horses,” is the candid evaluation by Tony Quinn, the feisty racing rich-lister who owns the rights to run GT racing in Australia.

“We’ve got 13 makes and they’re great makes. It’s global and it’s growing.”

John Bowe, who has won both the Bathurst enduros (twice each), dismisses suggestions the 12 Hour is a threat to the 1000: “They’re differently flavoured races.

The October race will always have a life – it was a big deal before V8 Supercars came along. People love it.

Drivers love it.

“The 12 Hour has the potential to become a significant event, too. It’s already there when you realise it’s part of a world of GT racing that includes Spa, Le Mans and Nurburgring. The 12 Hour is like the 1000 was 25 years ago, with a different audience, manufacturers and corporates.”

Even with its momentum, the 12 Hour still lags massively in public recognition, paid spectators and television audiences. But V8 Supercars Australia is worried, and even banned its drivers from competing in the 12 Hour this year.

Only a few years ago it would have been laughable to suggest the Bathurst 12 Hour could put the frighteners into the hard nuts of V8 land. Today, the thought is not so crazy, helped by the changing motoring landscape in Australia and a recent unfathomable own-goal from the under-siege V8 Supercars hierarchy.

In a panicky move, they scheduled their annual free-admission pre-season test in Sydney on the same weekend as the 12 Hour, effectively preventing their big-name drivers from racing in the rival event. Left steaming mad were Craig Lowndes, Rick Kelly, Shane van Gisbergen and others denied chances to do what they love – race – and show their talents to visiting GT team bosses and a global audience. Imagine a Socceroo not being able to play at the World Cup. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, Lowndes wouldn’t be drawn to comment publicly. You’ll have to wait for his memoirs.

Rick Kelly, the twice Bathurst 1000 winner and now co-owner/driver of the factory-backed Nissan team, understands that V8 Supercars must protect its assets, but was disappointed he was prevented from returning to the 12 Hour with the ultimately victorious Nismo team. “I try to do as many things in motor sport as I can, but I couldn’t do the 12 Hour this year because politics got in the way,” he lamented.

Kelly hopes there will be no clash next year and that the Nismo opportunity will be on offer again. “V8 Supercars’ off season is so short and very tough on our staff. I’d expect the test day to come a bit later and on a different weekend to the 12 Hour. I’d love to do it.”

While V8 Supercars Australia maintained the clash was inevitable due to the programming demands of

V8 Supercars Australia is worried, and even banned its drivers from competing in the 12 Hour this year

its new partner Foxtel, fans sided with the underdog, venting their anger on social media. Already miffed over a shift from free-to-air TV to a mix of pay-to-view Foxtel and Network Ten, fans believe the men in suits, with pockets lined by their hard-earned gold, are too arrogant, too precious. Bullies, basically.

The sympathy vote may or may not have translated into a bigger crowd for the Bathurst 12 Hour. While it didn’t get close to Bathurst 1000 levels, the attendance was pretty darn good.

Happy campers were everywhere on the Hill, including the occupants of an elegant old Bentley T Series. Missing were the jammed car parks and mild mayhem of October, but clearly evident was a noticeable blend of premium cars, and an absence of dodgy behaviour. Merchandising marquees did a roaring trade. Not the strident, sometimes beer-fuelled passion of the marauding red and blue armies in October, but premium brand followers in discreet team wear. There were family groups in the spectator areas; no sightings of the stereotype of chardonnay and brie on a picnic blanket, but not a great catchment area for tattooists, either. Corporate hospitality was impressive, with superior brands that V8 Supercars would love to cosy up to.

Visiting teams and drivers insist the 12 Hour is already one of the world’s must-do endurance races, held as it is on a circuit revered alongside Spa and the Nordschleife. “It’s not just that the teams are here,” race winner Wolfie Reip declared on the Friday before the race, “they want to be here.” They’re also amenable to the idea of expanding the race to 24 hours...

There’s no doubt the Bathurst 12 Hour is on a roll, although the bare numbers highlight the size of the leap it still needs to make. Organisers say the race day crowd was about 12,000, a fraction of the Bathurst 1000’s circa-90,000. The television figures, confirmed by OzTAM, showed the 12 Hour’s day-long coverage live on Seven and 7Mate peaked at 730,000, and averaged 218,000 viewers across the five capital cities compared with 1.35m for the 2014 Bathurst 1000.

However, that hard-to-ignore back story of the provocative date clash for a meaningless V8 test ended in a victory for the 12 Hour. By the length of Conrod Straight. Schadenfreude comes in different packages.

An average of just 18,700 watched the nothing test on Fox Sports. V8 Supercars cannot and will not attract the same audiences on subscription TV. It has swapped eyeballs (on Seven) for Fox Sports’ cash.

Launched in 2005, GT racing has expanded rapidly.

Globally, GT3 cars now participate in 27 different series – either exclusively or in a distinct class.

Bring the Platinum Amex

A NEW ready-to race GT3 car costs less than $500,000, with customer technical support guaranteed but not cheap. Along with a GT3 car, you need a CAMS licence, money and competency. Then you can race in the Bathurst 12 Hour.

The V8 Supercars category is structured so that only those who hold a costly REC – a Racing Entitlement Contract – can enter a car, and only for the full series. No cherrypicking.

No weekend warriors. A V8 Supercar costs about $600,000 to build or buy and a couple of million to run per season.

This is already one of the world’s must-do enduros, on a circuit revered alongside Spa and the Nordschleife

Gentlemen, start your engines!

GT3 racing uses a curious system of grading for its drivers, relative to their credentials.

It distinguishes between seeded (well qualified pro) drivers and unseeded often “gentlemen drivers” whose wealth has provided the car.

There must be at least one unseeded driver among the three sharing a GT3 car.

This means the works teams have two hired guns plus a red-hot young speedster who doesn’t have enough on his CV to warrant being categorised as a seeded driver.

V8 Supercars has hit some potholes lately, and the imminent demise of the local car industry will only make the road rougher s e t e r

About 20 different brands have GT3 machines on the track. The beauty of the production carbased category are rules allowing a wide variety of car types to be homologated, with almost no limit on engine size and configuration, or chassis construction or layout. GT3 cars are successfully regulated through a procedure that adjusts limits on horsepower, weight, engine management and aerodynamics to prevent a single manufacturer from becoming dominant.

From the get-go, this year’s 12 Hour was a crowd gripper. The international pros immediately went manic, led by Markus Winkelhock – the same man we let loose in an S1 on the Nurburgring this issue (see p.110) – in the Phoenix Audi that a day earlier, in the hands of Laurens Vanthoor, had left the crowd gasping with a 2m 02.55s blinder for pole. Later, Vanthoor slammed in a 2m 03.3091s to top van Gisbergen’s 2014 lap record in a McLaren MP4-12C.

That’s more than four seconds faster than the V8 Supercar record.

An only-in-Australia conflict between a kangaroo and a BMW results in the race’s first retirement after six laps. The foreign media laps it up.

Broken into a series of sprints by a welter of safety-car interventions – 20 in all – the race comes down to a dramatic, brutal scrap to the flag between the five survivors on the lead lap. With an astonishing burst of turbo-speed from third, the Nissan GT-R blasts by the second-placed Audi and then the leading Bentley on the penultimate lap.

It is a memorable win that conjures up echoes of Godzilla’s 1992 win in the Bathurst 1000, this time without the crass booing. Smiling 12 Hour spectators are not so crazily tribal, delighting instead in different technology and relishing the mix of brands. Seven different marques fill the first seven places. That says a lot. About the racing, and the race track.

Still, the Bathurst 1000 is a tough act to match.

It has been part of our lives for more than half a century. It enjoys a sacred place in the psyche of Australians who have any affection for cars. And last year’s 1000 was also a compelling contest, unpredictable until the last few corners when Jamie Whincup ran out of fuel and young gun Chas Mostert scored a remarkable last-lap win for Ford.

V8 Supercars has hit some potholes lately, and the imminent demise of the local car industry will only add to the task of retaining a dynamic Australian image, but it is clearly still the top category of Australian motor sport, and with a squattocracy that controls the motor race that stops the nation.

Captivating, yet intimidating, the strip of tarmac that is wild, wanton, wonderful Mount Panorama is a glorious anachronism, a road circuit created in an era before antiseptic, safe layouts were popularised by F1 track designer Hermann Tilke.

The Bathurst 1000 is Australiana with V8 noise, machines, theatre and even the occasional kangaroo and gum tree (hello Dick Johnson) in a unique, unpredictable mix. It is changing, though.

For a decade, demand for the big family Commodores and Falcons has been in free-fall. V8 Supercars belatedly reacted to the changing market, introducing a Car of the Future template that allowed brands other than declining Holden and Ford to play, but only with 5.0-litre V8s. Nissan was coaxed in, Westfield heiress Betty Klimenko entered non-works Erebus Mercedes AMG E63s, and last year along came Volvo.

Not all the news was good, though. Ford announced it is out from the end of 2015, which is an enormous blow to traditionalists. Grid numbers slipped to 25 cars – the overflow Bathurst grids of 60-63 cars seen in the 1970s and ’80s are long gone – and, even with money from the new TV deal, some teams readily acknowledged they’re financially rocky. They’re dreading their sponsors reacting badly to the inevitable slide in viewers this year.

Still fighting to shake off its beer and bogan past, V8 Supercars late last year announced another blueprint aimed at broadening its appeal to more manufacturers. Turbo fours and V6s would be considered from 2017. Did you feel the Earth shake?

An unabashed evangelist of both races is lanky, amiable Brit Oliver Gavin, four times a Le Mans class winner and for 13 years a factory Chevrolet

driver in the US. Gavin raced in the last two Bathurst 12 Hours and drove a Holden to third with Nick Percat in the 2014 Bathurst 1000.

“I completely fell in love with Bathurst when I did the 12 Hour last year,” says Gavin, who has watched the Bathurst 1000 on TV from afar since the mid-’80s.

“Driving the Audi R8 gave me a lot of confidence, but when I came back for the 1000 I found you have to treat the V8 Supercar with so much respect. The sweet spot is so small, so when you fall into it, it’s a fantastic buzz. I’m a purist, so I love the rawness of driving a V8 Supercar at Bathurst. No traction control, no ABS, no paddles, and you use the clutch on the downshifts.

“So many guys [from Europe and the US] want to race at Mount Panorama. Bathurst is unique. It’s not sanitised. A tiny lapse and you’re in the wall.”

On the other side of the Armco, many seasoned Bathurst fans miss the huge 1000 grids, the variety of the machinery, the class wars, and the punchy international flavour of the big names from Europe, Japan and the United States.

James O’Brien, the usually chilled-out promoter of the 12 Hour, has been careful not to pick a fight with V8 Supercars. When the media was reporting on the ‘feud’ over the clash of dates, O’Brien (and, to be fair, V8 Supercars boss James Warburton) said nothing inflammatory publicly. “We concentrated on our own event,” O’Brien said. “Yes, we’d rather have had Craig, Shane and Rick in our race, but really the loss was minimal, and outweighed by the positive publicity the clash generated.”

But David White, the respected former head of sport at Network Ten and now managing director of sports marketing company WSG Australia, disagrees with O’Brien on the value of the absent local heroes: “Trust me, if Lowndes, van Gisbergen and the others were racing up front for the victory, the TV numbers would have been much higher.”

He’s set for 2016 and has a 20-year agreement with the Bathurst City Council. “Our February date is locked in and hopefully there will be no clash with any other event in motor sport. If there is, we’ll get on with it…” There are often strange machinations behind the scenes in motor racing, but Tony Quinn – who has an imposing stake in motor sport with a handful of GT cars and also sponsors the Tekno V8 Supercar of van Gisbergen – was rocked in late 2014 when approached by V8 Supercars to buy the GT series in Australia.

The motive for the attempted buyout of the GT circus hasn’t been revealed, but it takes no stretch of the imagination to appreciate that V8 Supercars wanted control of its biggest rival, and one with a welter of tantalising corporate support. Shrugging off the takeover attempt, Quinn says he wants to work with V8SA through its difficulties. His GT series is on the bill at four V8 Supercars rounds this year.

“V8 Supercars has the show, but they haven’t got the strong corporate support or our stunning cars,” says Quinn in his frank way. “GT cars look different, sound different and behave different.”

And the glamour keeps coming. Heading to the track in the future are new GT3 versions of the Audi R8, Mercedes-AMG GT, BMW M6, Lamborghini Huracan, Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911, Lexus RC F… The world of GT racing is feeling the love and the Bathurst 12 Hour is on the surge just as V8 Supercars and the Aussie-spiced Bathurst 1000 are under a serious ideological challenge. The days of the Aussie V8 are coming to an end, so can a category that’s synonymous with them survive? The next few years will be crucial to its future. The ladies and gents of V8 Supercars know they’re in a scrap.

“Bathurst is unique. It’s not sanitised. A tiny lapse and you’re in the wall” – Oliver Gavin

Power in shapes and sizes

THE top four spots in the Bathurst 12 Hour were filled by cars with four distinct engines driving the rear wheels. The winning front-engined Nissan GT-R sporting a twinturbocharged 3.8-litre V6, the second-placed Audi R8 LMS Ultra a mid-located 5.2-litre V10, the third-placed Aston Martin Vantage GT3 a soaring twin-cam 6.0-litre V12, and the Bentley Continental utilising 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 power.