Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Bathurst, Pt.1: Worlds Collide

So we came to it at last: the Great Race, 1987 Edition. The European teams had been hearing stories about this place for years, how fast it was, how narrow, how unforgiving, how incredibly good were guys like Brock and Johnson to tame it. Bathurst had them all nervous – well, excited – and even while running their new World Championship over in Europe, at the back of their minds they'd known this would be the linchpin of the whole season.

They came, they saw, they conquered. And they didn't get the warmest of receptions.

Great Things are Done when Men & Mountain Meet
The Mt Panorama Circuit itself had been modified since its last race, at last settling into the form we know today – a ribbon of tarmac draped over the Mountain, lined with ripple strips and street-circuit concrete walls in place of the wooden fences (and, God forbid, barbed wire) of old, with a proper series of pit bays in place of the old corrugated-iron sheds.

I love this photo (Source)

The layout itself have been altered too. Since the World Touring Car Championship was being run by FISA, and FISA had recently decided you couldn't have a 2km straight, Conrod had been reprofiled with a massive right-left chicane called Caltex Chase, helping to ensure the heavy braking at the bottom of the hill would be done amidst acres of kitty-litter rather than right in front of the carpark and main road back into town. Despite that, the new Chase was arguably more exciting than the layout it replaced, since the chicane created an extra passing opportunity and the initial turn was taken absolutely flat out, at close to 290km/h. Only at Bathurst could such a corner be called a safety upgrade.

The new Chase also bypassed the second hump in Conrod, where the cars used to fly, so if you're around my age and wondering what the old race reports were talking about, that's why it's not there anymore. Alas, the Chase had been planned before the death of Mike Burgmann and was not, as is sometimes assumed, cooked up in response to it; the modifications simply came along too late to save poor Mike.
Mate, there's nothing there that’s the bloody same as the early days really. It never used to have fences or anything. The straight used to go straight down. The pit buildings were an old wooden contraption that was basically a carport. There was no doors or anything and there was no fence between the track and the pits.

It had no sand-traps or anything like that either. Across the top of the Mountain if you made a mistake you were stuffed. You'd simply go bashing off into the trees or fall off the face of the planet and your car would roll for bloody 500 metres.

But when they upgraded the circuit in 1987 they built all the fences and that. Obviously the FIA required higher rules so whatever had to be done was done then. – Dick Johnson, Auto Action: The Great Race
Other changes were less obvious: for one, the notorious Dipper had been flattened out considerably. It was still a stomach-turning drop, but it was nothing compared to the two-wheeling, windscreen-popping monstrosity it once was. The bad bump on the entry to Reid Park also seemed to have gone the way of the dodo, allowing the drivers to hug the racing line a little tighter as they no longer had to allow for the wheels bidding the tarmac farewell. Overall the Mountain seemed to've abandoned all pretense of being a scenic drive that could be used as a racetrack; now it was a permanent racetrack that just happened to be open to the public for 51 weeks of the year (with a firm 60km/h speed limit and frequent police patrols, in case young SS drivers got any ideas).

All that meant that, while experience still counted, it arguably counted less than it used to – all those little bumps and camber changes so familiar to the old hands were now gone, or at least greatly reduced. In effect, the track was new for everyone, which was partly why the Europeans were immediately as fast as the Australians when practice got underway.

They're a Weird Mob
If you want to comprehend the impact of the Sierra RS500, consider that it had more power than an early V8 Supercar, yet weighed some 300kg less. And in October 1987, it was only a handful of races old with plenty of untapped potential. We'd got used to seeing the four Sierras rock up to the race meetings this year – the two scarlet Shell cars of Dick Johnson, and the two slightly orange-ish Oxo Supercube cars of Miedecke Motorsport (the #35 being chassis MM3, a new car built in a huge rush to replace the MM2 that had been rolled at Sandown) – but that didn't prove much. Dick Johnson could do no wrong as long as it was done in a Ford, while Andrew Miedecke triggered the "battler" weakness in the Australian brain, so whatever latent objections there were to these cars stayed latent. But as I said, all four of these cars were still basically Rouse kit-cars: now we had the real thing, as Andy Rouse himself had made the trip on the expense account of one Allan Moffat.

Photo taken at Calder Park, but the story was much the same anyway...

"In 1987 I was at the start of my ANZ association and I hired Andy Rouse and his whole team," Moffat told Australian Muscle Car not so long ago. His sponsorship deal with the ANZ bank seemed to mean deep pockets, which are always appreciated in this business. The problem was the car Rouse'd brought over was chassis ARE RSC 0587 – the fifth built by Rouse in 1987, intended as his second car in the WTCC races, and therefore "slightly used, one owner, only driven on Sundays." This would come back to bite Moffat on race day, as we shall see.

But impressive as they might be, even one of Rouse's own cars couldn't compete with the sinister black Texaco Sierras of Eggenberger Motorsport, the official works team of Ford of Europe. Even compared to the best Rouse Sierras, the Eggenberger cars were just on another level, living up to the finest stereotypes of Swiss build quality. John Bowe has inspected one for Unique Cars, with memories of driving the equivalent DJR machinery at the time, and commented:
You know what? There was surprisingly little difference in how we and the Europeans did things. Their roll cage was a little more complex, particularly the under-bonnet area where the cage runs forward to the strut towers – it has a little more bar work compared to our DJR cars. That would probably make it a little more rigid – a little more tied together. The workmanship is lovely, but then so were Dick's cars!
With the WTCC to focus on, with its endless slog of 500km races and the Spa 24 Hours, Eggenberger cars tended to run softer springs than Rouse's, and used slightly less boost with the aim of gaining more engine life. Inside the cockpit the difference was graphic, as Rouse cluttered up the office with dozens of gauges, where Eggenberger used a state-of-the-art (for 1987) digital switchboard with an LCD readout. If you want to gaze under the bonnet, I recommend Speedhunters' article Up Close And Personal With a 'Group A' Great, which has some great photos – though remember to lock the door, and wash your hands afterwards.


The drivers for these magnificent machines were strangers to the Australians lining the track, however. The #6 was to be handled by a Belgian named Pierre Dieudonné together with British Saloon Cars regular Steve "Soperman" Soper. At the wheel of the #7 would be a pair of Germans, Bonn's Klaus Ludwig to be partnered with the Dortmunder Klaus Niedzwiedz. Both had driven turbo Capris for the Zakspeed team in DRM, back when Zakspeed was the Ford works team, making them roughly analogous to career Ford men like Johnson, Moffat and (later) Glenn Seton... but again, we didn't know any of that at the time. Indeed, most of us were probably scratching their heads wondering how "Niedzwiedz" was even pronounced ("needs-wits," more or less).

And although he's probably the least well-known here in Australia, Klaus Ludwig was the real rock star of the team. Just check his biography on Wikipedia – two-time DRM champion, three-time Le Mans winner (the first time in a road-based Porsche 911, against dedicated prototypes), and after this season due to take another three DTM titles and the FIA GT Championship in 1999. That's a biography I'd like to read. He was also, when he stepped off the plane in Australia, leading the World Touring Car Championship by 10 points (total 175, thanks to 4th places at Jarama, Dijon and Silverstone, and wins at Brno and the Nürburgring). 2nd was his own teammate Niedzwiedz, but the real threat to Ford was BMW's Roberto Ravaglia (or "Bob Ravioli," as he'd been dubbed on his first visit in 1985), 3rd on 140 – and with a maximum 160 points still on offer, no-one was in a position to relax. Indeed, with points handed out on a 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 basis for both class and outright places (so any car could earn a maximum 40 points), and the Sierra and M3 competing in separate classes, it was sure to be a bitter and hard-fought lunge to the line. Eggenberger's mission here at Bathurst was simplicity itself – win it or bin it.


3 million M3s
Casual race reports usually mention "a fleet" or "about a zillion" BMW M3s showing up for the race, but in fact there were only nine of them – a hefty increase on the two or three JPS cars we were used to, but not all that many considering (in comparison, there were sixteen Commodores). What they represented was the hard core of BMW's works-backed cars from Europe, plus the local works cars from JPS Team BMW, but minus the usual complement of European privateers and owner-drivers.


Their mission was to break the Eggenberger cars before they could see the chequered flag, a mission they would go about with characteristic German seriosity. Having tasted their style in Europe, Allan Moffat spent the Sandown broadcast warning that the BMW drivers didn't believe in conserving the machinery: at the green it was, "For the Fatherland!" and then it was foot-to-the-firewall, smash-it-over-the-kerbs action from the first lap to the very last. If the car broke, well, so be it, they'd fix it for next time. The Bavarian giant of course had the budget to do things that way, though with the long straights and steep climbs of the Mountain against them, they honestly had little other choice.

On the surface, then, the cars themselves seemed a little mixed up. Consider their numbering:
#40 Emmanuele Pirro/Roberto Ravaglia (Schnitzer Motorsport)
#41 Gary Brabham/Juan Manuel Fangio II (BMW Motorsport)
#42 Johnny Cecotto/Gianfranco Brancatelli (CiBiEmme Sport)
#43 Altfrid Heger/Olivier Grouillard (Bigazzi)
#44 Jim Richards/Tony Longhurst (JPS Team BMW)
#45 Robbie Francevic/Ludwig Finauer (JPS Team BMW)
#46 Markus Oestreich/Roland Ratzenberger (Schnitzer Motorsport)
#47 Anette Meeuvissen/Mercedes Stermitz (BMW Motorsport)
Don't see it? Well, allow me to unpack it a bit. Besides the usual WTCC entry of works outfit Schnitzer Motorsport, BMW had commandeered two extra cars from the private Zakspeed and Linder teams in Germany (which had contested European and domestic German events, but not the WTCC) and entered them under the name "BMW Motorsport." The #41 still carried CiBiEmme markings, however, suggesting the project had been undertaken in great haste; the actual CiBiEmme #42, meanwhile, was only one race old, having competed in the Nürburgring WTCC event, while the Bigazzi car (#43) was a new one built to replace the one Olivier Grouillard had rolled in practice at Silverstone. In short, unwilling to leave it to chance, BMW had scrounged up eight of the newest and freshest M3s they could lay their hands on, and thrown full works support behind all of them. As the numbering above revealed, this was really one huge eight-car works team.

There were also some stories in the driving lineup that we can only touch on here: Fangio II was the nephew of the Formula 1's Grand Old Master, best known for racing IMSA prototypes in the U.S.; Roland Ratzenberger was the same one killed in qualifying at Imola the day before Ayrton Senna, and so was fated to be cast forever into the shade; and the #47 was indeed to be handled by an all-female pairing of Anette Meeuvissen and Mercedes Stermitz (and never mind that she was a BMW driver named Mercedes!), following a tradition established by Sandra Bennett and Christine Cole in 1970, and preceding Sabine Schmitz by a couple of decades. It was they who were given the ex-Zakspeed car, though thankfully, since David Reynolds was only 2 at the time, he wasn't around to call it the Pussy Wagon.

Left, Meeuvissen. Right, Stermitz. (Source, Source)
The ninth of the eight M3s was the #53 Viacard M3 of New Zealanders Trevor Crowe and Ian Tulloch, the same one built by Frank Gardner's crew early in the year then sold to make way for more up-to-date machinery. The same process had produced the #38 Gulson entry, though as an outdated 635 CSi it wasn't likely to be a factor. No, the one you had to keep an eye on was the #44 of Jim Richards and Tony Longhurst. "One of Frank's missions in life was to beat the German cars at their own game," said Jim, and Gardner's car-building programme this year culminated in the brand-new M3 they were racing here at Bathurst. This machine utilised all the same updates the Europeans had been getting (including a new engine map that took the redline up to 8,500rpm), but rolled on Pirelli tyres adapted to our warmer climate, and would be driven by a (then) three-time winner, and co-driven by a future two-time winner. Ravaglia was good, but he had the championship to think about; a betting revhead would put their money on Richo and Tony.

The JPS team practice their spare car.

The Skyline Princes
Then we come to a contingent that had no European equivalent, more's the pity – the handful of works and semi-works Nissan Skylines. Since they'd been BMW's main competition in Australia this year, it seems a shame there was no NISMO team out of Omori challenging for the World Championship, especially when two Sandowns in a row suggested the 500km distance was right in their sweet spot. Exactly why they didn't is anyone's guess: it couldn't have been money, because Japan was just reaching the peak of the late-80's bubble economy, when all the land in Tokyo was worth more than all the land in the U.S.A. More likely it was Japanese insularity ("Meh, who cares if the Roundeyes like our cars?"), or perhaps it was just that the competitiveness of the DR30 took head office completely by surprise. In the Sandown broadcast there was discussion of a works Skyline team heading to Europe for 1988, but the same discussion opined that with the RS500 hitting its stride, Nissan might've missed the boat.

No matter, they were certainly here now. Reigning Sandown victors George Fury and Terry Shiel were back in the #30 Peter Jackson Skyline, while their less fortunate Gibson Motorsport teammates Glenn Seton and John Bowe had something to prove in the #15. Backup would be coming from the private #14 Netcomm entry of Murray Carter, with co-driving to come from another regular among the privateer ranks, Steve Masterton. Completing the Nissan attack was the Gibson-supported #24 Team Nissan Racing NZ car of Graeme Bowkett and Kent Baigent.


A fifth Japanese entry came in form of the #16 Ralliart Mitsubishi Starion, to be driven by last year's pole winner Gary Scott with relief from the supremely talented Mitsubishi team driver, Akihiko Nakaya. As we've noted before, however, the Starion had fundamental issues – the fuel injectors didn't work down low, and the turbo didn't work up high – so it wasn't likely to be a factor in the race either. That left Nakaya-san the only Japanese driver in the race, and unlikely to defend the honour of the Land of the Rising Sun – dammit, Nissan, why wasn't there a "NISMO Team Europe"?!

No Italian Jobs
The situation at Nissan highlighted that once the RS500 arrived, the mouth-watering three-way title fight between Ford, BMW and Alfa Romeo had evaporated like spit on a hotplate. Countering the BMWs had been tough enough, but once Ford revealed the long-planned "big turbo" version of their car, Alfa knew their day was done. They couldn't hope to match Ford's investment with yet another Evoluzione of the 75, and certainly not in time. There was already blood on the walls in the accountancy department in Torino, and the sharks at Fiat were circling close. Realising it was all over, and despite an encouraging 3rd place outright for the Giorgio Francia/Nicola Larini #79 in Silverstone's RAC Tourist Trophy, team boss Cesare Fiorio shut Alfa Corse down before the overseas rounds, leaving behind some comprehensive Italian curses and wild arm waving over the dirty politics plaguing the series.


Francia himself actually made it out to Australia, sharing the #100 Alfa Romeo 33 with Daniele Toffoli in the tiddler class (i.e. racing against the Toyota Team Australia Corollas and Mark Skaife's Nissan Gazelle), but their absence left a lot of empty spaces on the entry list. The sole Alfa Romeo 75 to enter the race ended up being that of the local boy Colin Bond, the Joe Beninca-fettled Caltex #57 (7-5 reversed, since the racing #75 was reserved for a car in a lower class), with co-driving duties to come from the talented but hot-headed Italian youngster, Lucio Cesario.
Lucio was a typical Italian. You'd go testing with him and he would drive fantastically all day and not put a foot wrong, but put him in a race and the red mist would descend. He was certainly talented but trying to control the "Italian" in him was the problem. – Colin Bond, Mark Oastler’s Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo Evoluzione: A Need For Speed, Shannons Club

That, however, wasn't the end of Italian representation in the race. There are always oddballs, as the Americans call them, and in the entire history of Group A there could be no ball as odd as the Maserati Biturbo. And yet, when Alfa Romeo couldn't afford to make the trip, the part-Chrysler, part-De Tomaso Maserati apparently could. It came with the #1 on its doors – ambition surging far ahead of endowment, surely – and its drivers were to be the former F1 and Indy star, Bruno Giacomelli; the German Armin Hahne, who'd co-driven to victory here with John Goss in 1985; and local institution Kevin Bartlett, whose career-defining moment had come when he'd dropped his massive Chevy Camaro on its lid here at Bathurst two years in a row. Amazingly, the Biturbo made an even deeper impression than the Camaro.
"It was just frightening to drive at Bathurst," [Bartlett] told us, "Giacomelli told me it was the worst car he’d ever driven, that he’d never been so frightened in a car. It was on its bump stops the whole time."

While the problems didn’t begin and end with the suspension setup, it was probably the outstanding issue with the car. "There wasn’t enough suspension movement at all, neither in bump or droop. This meant that it would keep breaking things, axle flanges, driveshafts and so on. The bodywork was scraping over the Dipper, that’s how bad it was!"
If you want to read through the whole sideshow, you can get it here. One wonders what possessed Big Kev to sign up to drive such a machine in anger (or, as one blogger quipped, "in mild aggravation at least"). One suspects the reason started with a dollar sign, and that they perhaps "forgot" to remind him to convert from lire first...

Seen here at Brno, but it appeared much the same at Bathurst

Can't You Hear, Can't You Hear the Thunder
And then at last, Australia's Own: the Commodores. There were quite a few of them, divided about evenly between the older VK and the newer VL, but most didn't really do anything memorable. This is why there were no BMW privateers: at Bathurst, the privateers drove Holdens, whose unstressed mechanicals (and local manufacture, which allowed them to be bought with pre-Mining Boom dollars) presented a strong economic case, as long as you didn't mind losing. The most notable of the bunch was the Lansvale Smash Repairs team of Trevor Ashby and Steve Reed, who handily owned a panelbeating business that made minor scuffs no obstacle. "We never worried about the panel damage," said Ashby, "but the mechanicals were another matter. I used to hate ripping a wheel off, but slapping the side of the car was no big deal for us." So we can imagine the consternation in their little pit box when they brought their shiny new VL out for first practice, and...
From memory it was Wednesday practice and the left-front wheel came loose [on the entry to Griffin's]. The car came back to the pits and it was really bad; it was all but destroyed. There were a couple of late nights to rebuild it, as we brought guys up from Sydney from our workshop to repair it. There were kinks in the tunnel through the floor of the car; so much of the shell was mangled. – Trevor Ashby, AMC #90

While the Lansvale car was being repaired, attention returned to the big men of Commodore racing this year – Allan Grice and Larry Perkins. Perkins had been the one to bring the results for Holden this year, stubbornly sticking to the well-developed VK and finishing highest in the championship of all the Holden runners, hoping his ongoing partnership with  former F1 champ Denny Hulme would yield results. But it had been reigning Bathurst champ Grice who'd been getting the crowds excited this year, frequently lapping as fast as the Skylines in a car that really shouldn't have been up to it. It was a happy continuation of Grice's association with Les Small's Roadways operation, but his wring-it-like-buggery driving style came with a steep tax on the machinery – usually the overworked Salisbury diff, which had to be fitted with its own oil cooler. One might've hoped his Sandown dance partner Win Percy would act as a calming influence, but before practice was over this car too needed the aid of the TAFE smash repair crew. Percy lost it on the kerb at McPhillamy in Friday practice, which fired the Englishman into the left-hand wall at Skyline. That the car made the race on Sunday is a credit to the determination of the TAFE and Roadways mechanics alike; that it also made Hardie's Heroes on Saturday was simply stunning.

Then there was the Mobil Holden Dealer Team. Once the richest team in the sport, now at the bottom of the slump that followed Holden's divorce with Peter Brock, a shadow of their former selves. To meet contractual obligations from Mobil, however, Brock had to enter a second car, so he threw one together with whatever parts he could lay hands on. "That particular race car was built by an apprentice out of second-hand materials," remembered Peter's brother Phil. "We had nothing! We had to go around to other race teams and beg for parts and things. We got a second-hand block, a diff from here, a this from there, so we were out there for the sponsors with this car and we didn’t think we had any chance whatsoever."

"We went to Bathurst with less than no money," confirmed commercial manager Alan Gow. "Our credit cards were full and our overdraft was overdrawn. We'd literally cobbled together a second car out of old bits that we had laying around. We didn't think the second car would make 25 percent of the race distance. Without any money, it got to the point that we couldn’t buy any bits or parts. We couldn't go and buy a fanbelt from Holden, because we didn't have any money, and neither did they want to supply us. Fortunately we had a free beer deal from Coopers and the currency we used to get through that race meeting was beer! Our team manager at the time, Mort [Graeme Brown], would go around the pits at night with a couple of slabs under his arm, using them to buy the parts we needed. That's how bad it was."

With the second car held together by chewing gum and hope, all the effort went into the lead #05 car for Brock and co-driver David "Skippy" Parsons. The cobbled-together #10, for Peter McLeod and John Crooke, got fuel put in it, an occasional set of tyres, and precious little else in the way of attention. This was the car that debuted at the Surfers Paradise ATCC round and gone on to do 12 of the Spa 24 Hours. The parts on it were well past their lifespan, so at Bathurst it was there for show only; the mechanics basically ignored it.

Seen here in practice, before FISA forced a switch to the mandatory black race numbers on a white background. Note also the Australian flag on the roof – Brock was never one to miss a chance to be the crowd favourite, was he?

Hardie's Heroes
So that was the field set; now let's see them in action.

It was a good lap from Ludwig, the kind of deceptively-slow body language that comes from being right on the limit, too close for the kind of over-driving Allan Grice had made famous. Only that momentary lose coming out of The Dipper gave him away, but that's the tantalising thing about this sport; even the best laps could always have been faster. Regardless, Ludwig's time was 7 seconds faster than Grice, the fastest Commodore runner, and 0.2 seconds faster than Gary Scott's pole last year, despite the distance added by the Chase.

Then, with qualifying done, some reshuffling happened. You'll notice there were three Texaco Sierras in Hardie's Heroes and not two; the #12 was of course the spare car, which was withdrawn after that qualy session, bumping everyone behind it up a place. The same thing happened when both Dick Johnson cars were bumped to the back of the grid after their fuel set off the hydrometer.
It began with qualifying when we failed a fuel check. We’d filled our churns in Brisbane, and although it was of a lower grade than the mandatory fuel and gave us less power, we were robbed of our time. It was a dumb decision to disqualify us but we copped it. Even without the penalty we would have qualified 7th, while the European Sierras took out the top five spots. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
By the time that happened there were already dark clouds over the Eggenberger cars, which had likewise seen their fuel samples produce some funny readings. It's probably worth pointing out that both those teams were sponsored by oil companies, so it probably isn't a stretch to imagine they got "special" batches of fuel from Shell and Texaco, respectively. The limit on a turbo engine is "pinging," after all, the phenomenon of fuel auto-igniting under compression alone instead of waiting for the spark like it should. Formula 1 had already seen boost pressures rise from 0.5 to 5.5 bar by using special fuel brews that met the chemical "fingerprint" required in the rules, but were radically different to ordinary pump fuel, especially formulated to resist pinging. Both Texaco and Shell were involved in Formula 1, and this year Rudi Eggenberger had miraculously unlocked power and reliability from the Sierra that no-one else on the grid could match. Are we really going to believe some of the expertise picked up in F1 hadn't been passed down to the touring car team that prominently displayed the company logo?

The same could be said for Shell - it's certainly true Johnson inherited McLaren's leftover fuel after Adelaide 1988, the last race of the turbo era, because Dick's told us as much - but his comment that this fuel was a "lower grade" is interesting. To me that suggests the incident was connected to their problems at Sandown: basically, it feels like they tried to correct the mistake this time, and erred too far on the side of caution. Either way, if there was no fuel treatment going on, why was Dick bringing his fuel all the way from Brisbane in the first place?

If You're Not Cheating, You're Not Trying
Motorsport is a bit like politics – cheating is the whole point, but you mustn't get caught, or at least have some mealy-mouthed excuse ready to go. As it was in Nuvolari's day ("Win first and let them lodge their objections afterwards has always been my code"), so it was in 1987. Way back at the start of the year, I said that a "World Touring Car Championship" was a daft idea, because touring car racing is heavily tied to the local market, and local markets tend to be local. The problem of filling the Bathurst grid with cars not even for sale in Australia hadn't really boiled over yet, but it was simmering away in the background even as the local teams adapted by buying used cars from overseas. So the clash of machinery wasn't the problem: what no-one had anticipated was a major clash of touring car cultures.

Only now, when the Euro teams came to God's Own Country, did we find out they didn't much bother adhering to their own rulebook. Keen for international credibility, CAMS enforced the Group A rulebook rather strictly, all dotted i's and crossed t's. The European teams, on the other hand, saw it more as a point to open negotiations. For just as a prophet has no honour in his hometown, so a rulebook has no credibility where it was written. The FISA scrutineers were mostly French after all, so they had better things to do. Sure, they could go to the trouble of laboriously checking every car, crawling underneath and taking measurements, then having arguments with the drivers and team bosses over what they found...

Such as a shopping trolley with aspirations.

...Or, they could find the nearest boulangerie ("...which is fun to go into, and to say even..."), crack open a Bordeaux, have some cheese and a baguette and leave all the rigmarole to the racers themselves. Their reasoning was no-one would watch the teams as closely as the other teams, and if everyone was cheating it would be almost like no-one was cheating, and it would all even out in the end. This we now know was almost exactly what happened, with the teams forming agreements along the lines, "We won't protest your X if you don't protest our Y," and so on. But even so, with that massive World Championship trophy on the table, it was touch-and-go at times.
"The whole thing was a political problem, because BMW and Ford were trying very hard to get the championship title, and BMW had some parts that were not really legal and the Ford had some parts that were not really legal, but this was in every championship race.

"I remember outside the front of the [scrutineer’s] office at the end of every race … there would be one guy from Ford and one guy from BMW waiting for a phone call from Munich or Cologne. If nobody went in then there would be no protest. It was like this at every race." – Klaus Niedzwiedz, Niedzwiedz: 'sorry' for cheating Bathurst 1987,
I love that they put quotation marks around "sorry," you can almost hear the world-weary sigh: Oh, you're "sorry" are you? "Sorry." Yes, well, we "accept" your "apology." Anyway, in that article Niedzwiedz overdoes it by calling Bathurst better than the Nürburgring, which is fooling no-one, but that's neither here nor there. The fact is that the BMWs were cheating, and Rouse and Eggenberger were cheating, and Tom Walkinshaw would've been cheating if he'd found a way off the couch with his new Commodores yet (witness the illegal fuel tank in his Bathurst-winning Jag). But none of the Aussies were cheating, or at least not with such spectacular cheek.

Exactly what was found that weekend is hard to nail down, because it's here we enter the realm of rumours – you know, "My Mate never lies, and his cousin's missus told him about their neighbour overhearing a bloke at the pub who was actually there, and what he saw was..." – but even the rumours can give you a feel for the atmosphere that weekend. There's a story of the TAFE rebuild crew being called in to repair the Stermitz/Meeuvissen M3 after practice, and casually asking if the BMW chief wanted it rebuilt to legal spec, or "how it was before the crash." Presumably, after telling them to keep their voices down, he said the way it was before the crash would be fine, thanks.

Similarly, some say the Eggenberger cars sounded markedly different from the other Sierras in the race, but that's rather hard to verify from the video-quality footage on YouTube. They were also supposedly careful not to park their Sierras next to the Dick Johnson cars – which seems unlikely, when there was every chance they'd be starting the race not far away – and then supposedly someone sent a set of tyres earmarked for the Eggenberger team to the wrong garage, and they didn't fit... and then all hell broke loose.

Have a gander at this:


Can you see it without having it pointed it out? I sure couldn't, but it's there, and it matters. On the left we have a close-up of the front guard on the Soper/Dieudonné Sierra, and on the right the equivalent Rouse-spec/DJR-assembled car of Johnson/Hansford. On the Johnson car, there is a definite gap between the top of the guard and the crease in the front quarter panel; on the Eggenberger car, the guard just touches the crease. Since the rules required all body panels to remain showroom stock, they should've been identical. Someone's car was clearly not kosher, and sorting it with any clarity out was going to be difficult given Sierras weren't exactly thick on the ground in the Mt Panorama carpark. Much of the technical information was locked away in the FISA offices in Paris, and getting anything off "a fax of a photocopy of a Gestetner copy of a blueprint" was easier said than done. Anyone who remembers the poor quality of late-80s faxes will shudder to think of the quality of the information streaming onto the thermal paper at Race Control.

But the wiggle room was there, and the discovery triggered instant protests, spearheaded by Larry Perkins, Fred Gibson and (most of all) Frank Gardner, who now worked for BMW and had everything to gain from a successful protest. I can't help wondering if there was more to it as well – although a ruthless and unsentimental bastard, Gardner had raced in Europe for a decade and knew these people all too well, so one wonders if he had an axe to grind from somewhere before 1973. Since Frank was about as talkative back then as he's been since his death in 2009, we'll probably never know for sure.

Either way, that's how it was: the biggest race of the year – for Them as much as Us – was due to start tomorrow, featuring the greatest array of talent ever assembled at the Mountain, and already carrying more baggage than the carousel at Kingsford Smith. Only the racing gods knew how this was going to end.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

13 September: Sandown Stormer

The 1987 running of the Sandown 500 was like an old drainpipe – long, hard and broken up by moisture.

Because this was the "international" layout, track length was 3.9km and the total distance would be 129 laps. Heading into the race, then, the big question was pit strategy. Like the Wellington 500 back in February, it was a question of balancing raw speed against fuel economy, and judging whether it would be faster to take one, two or three pit stops. With no ultra-thirsty Jags in the race there weren't likely to be any 3-stoppers, which would see the first pit window open after lap 33, but might work for some who were using super-sticky high-deg tyres. A 2-stop strategy, which was far more likely, would see the window open after lap 43 or so, with the co-drivers typically given the middle stint to give the prime driver a break while also giving him maximum distance at the wheel. Only the super-efficient BMWs were likely to take the 1-stop option, approaching the race as two huge 250km stints and giving the prime and co-driver equal seat time, but it had the advantage of needing only one stop for tyres, which was one less chance for things to go wrong. It was thought the 1-stop option was out of the question for the Commodore runners, but there might be a few who ran a sort of hybrid strategy of a treating the race as a 1-stopper with a short splash-and-dash near the end. The advantage of this was partly that the late fill-up would be much briefer, but also that it would probably require only two sets of tyres – at $1,800 a set, always a hefty part of the bill when you were funding your racing out of your own pocket.

From the moment the flag dropped the pace was hot: the Nissans and BMWs all made slow starts, by Gricey got his Commodore off the line like it was spring-loaded and surged into the lead before they could even blink. By the first turn he was through and gone, with the field settling into a leading pack of Grice, the two Nissans, Perkins and Brock, with the rest of the peloton somewhat behind.

Grice's spice was appreciated, but it was also sadly brief: as early as lap 2 he was slowing, something going wrong with his engine, and he toured back to the pits and watched helplessly as Les Small and his crew lifted the bonnet and plugged in one of these newfangled engine diagnostic computers – which he later revealed immediately crashed on them. Eventually the problem was located – a broken rocker stud – and the car was later sent out with Win Percy at the wheel, to give him some seat time ahead of Bathurst, but by then the race was half over. The car was never a factor again.

This merely cleared the field for the real mover and shaker in the early laps, Dick Johnson. Whatever he'd put under the bonnet of that Sierra, it was doing the job: every time the #18 arrived at the start of a straight, Johnson just planted his foot and watched the whole field go backwards. Passing cars, especially on the long uphill at the back of the circuit, was done with startling ease. Peter Brock was no obstacle, a brief dice through the first complex of turns to what used to be called Peters Corner, then a simple waft of horsepower to fly by up the hill. Future RS500 owner Allan Moffat was moved to say:
Talk about horses for courses! That's horsepower working for you. ... And you must bear in mind it is a significant hill up the back straight. It doesn't look it on the camera angle, but that's a decent climb up the back straight and an indication of just how well they will climb the Mountain in three weeks' time.
A few laps later Johnson had hunted down George Fury, then 2nd place in his Skyline behind teammate Glenn Seton. Another lap and Johnson had split them, but Seton soon proved a much tougher opponent to pass. He was holding his line and making the superior handling of the Skyline – or at least his longer experience with its unforgiving quirks – work for him through the twisting infield section. Demonstrating an already formidable racing brain, Seton showed he knew just where to place the car on the road, and at one point cleverly nipped past Daryl Hendrick in the #86 Gemspares Gemini, then left Johnson bottled up behind him through a crucial couple of corners. But long-term it was a storm in a teacup: after four-odd laps of wrestling with the future Ford hero, the established Ford hero got the traction out of the final corner he needed, and powered past on the grandstand straight. 7 laps down, and Dick Johnson was leading the race. 7 laps, 14th to 1st.  If there were any lingering doubts about the RS500, they were well and truly banished now.

Seton still wasn't giving up though. He got a little messy trying to out-brake Johnson into the first turn, getting up on the kerbs and generally out of shape, but he made the braking performance of the Skyline work for him as they entered a new complex of turns, re-passing the Shell Sierra and regaining the race lead. Coming back onto the grandstand straight Seton hugged the inside line, but it was a lost cause as once more the red Sierra was visibly, awesomely faster in a straight line. Johnson surged past and pulled a gap of several car lengths in only a few seconds.

That pass seemed to settle the matter, but it left one question open, namely that there is a difference between skill and craft, and the mark of a great racing driver is the use of his superior racecraft to avoid situations requiring the use of his superior racing skill. Recognising the futility of resisting Johnson, Fury had just let him go, electing to keep his powder dry for the end of the race. Seton had elected to fight him, and it was anyone's guess whether it was a good idea to push his car that hard so early in the race.

It seemed the thought had occurred to Johnson, because after a nice 15-lap stretch in the lead, Seton began inching back up. Whether it was tyre deg or Johnson deciding to turn the boost down, we didn't know, all we knew was that Seton was soon actively being held up and looking for a way past. We didn't get an answer until the end of the lap, when Johnson abruptly peeled off into the pits.

The team were sluggish attaching the hoses that ran the onboard air jacks, so it wasn't the best stop ever seen – almost exactly 30 seconds stationary – but that didn't seem to matter. Lap 22 was way too early even for a 3-stop race, but we got our explanation when Johnson climbed out and Neville Crichton climbed in. That showed Johnson wasn't really interested in winning today, he was more concerned about giving his co-drivers some seat time ahead of Bathurst. "Croaky" Crichton – so named because he'd suffered throat cancer a decade ago, and become one of the first people in the world to be implanted with an artificial voice box – had been campaigning an outdated XR4 Ti earlier in the year, but the RS500 had an awful lot more power which made it critical to get him out on the track and familiar with the on-off boost action of that long skinny pedal on the right.

So that left Glenn Seton leading, with George Fury circulating 2nd, and the rest of the field strung out behind them. As the laps built up toward the first 2-stop windows, Channel Seven's Peter McKay stopped to talk strategy with the Nissan team boss.
Peter McKay: Well Fred Gibson, last year the Nissan Skylines produced the big 1-2 here in the Castrol 500. This year the cars weren’t as favoured, but there they are – around about lap 34, up front, running 1-2?

Fred Gibson: Long way to go yet, Peter. It’s only early days for the race. We’ve done our homework over the last few months and we hoped that we were going to be competitive here. It looks like we are competitive, but whether we can keep it all together for the end of the race I don’t know yet. We aim to come in about lap 40, we’re going to break it into two pit stops, and put fresh tyres on it and let the guys go again. I think it’s a changing sort of fad these days, instead of having hard tyres and try to get through on tyres, it’s better to change to a softer tyre and go as quick as you can for a shorter time, stop and put new ones on again. That’s what we’re trying to do today anyway, Peter.

McKay: So you’re not too surprised that the cars are up there at the front of the field?

Gibson: Not really. I think it’s better being at the front – we seem to like being at the front at some of the longer races. As long as I watch Jimmy and see what Jimmy’s doing, he’s the guy I think we have to try and beat.

McKay: Well then Jim probably has one less pit stop than the Skylines. That means you guys have got to pick up one minute. Can you do that?

Gibson: I think so, now we’re 20-something seconds ahead now ... It’ll be interesting toward the finish of the race.
On lap 40 Seton did indeed come into the pits – but when he did, the mechanics immediately pushed him to the back of the garage! Such an aberration warranted a second visit from Peter McKay.
Peter McKay: Well Glenn Seton was bowling along very nicely at the head of the Castrol 500 today, when suddenly the lights went out. What happened?

Glenn Seton: We think it’s done a turbo. Until we get it back and pull it to bits we don’t really know, but we’re pretty sure it is. We were having a fairly good run up until now, hopefully one day we’ll fix our turbo problems.

McKay: How were the tyres hanging out? You were running a softer compound today, but seemed to be holding onto the pace pretty well?

Seton: Yeah they were fairly good. The car was fairly slidy in the back but the tyres were holding up fairly good. We only have five laps to go until we were having a pit stop.

McKay: So can the Skyline, the lone Peter Jackson Skyline hang on and win this race here today?

Seton: I think so. George is looking fairly comfortable at the moment. We’ve still got another stop yet so anything can happen, but I think we can do it anyway.
So that was Glenn Seton joining Grice on the DNF list – he fought with Dick Johnson, and Johnson won.

On lap 41 Fury came in for his stop; Terry Shiel got in for the lunchtime shift, fresh tyres went on and the tank was brimmed once more. It was a quick and tidy stop, and Shiel rejoined in 5th, just behind Larry Perkins. With the Peter Jackson Skylines among the earliest to pit, that put them out of sequence with everyone else and promoted Jim Richards to the race lead, shadowed by Kent Baigent in the #25 Team Nissan NZ Skyline.

On lap 50 some of the promised Melbourne weather at last started to make itself felt – only a brief ten minute episode of light misty rain ("liquid sunshine," Moffat insisted), but enough to blow a cold wind through the strategists on pit lane. Their race plans had assumed a dry race, but if the rain was going to start making extra stops for tyres necessary, all bets were off. Peter Brock chose this moment to bring his car in and hand it over to Skippy Parsons. "One of the benefits of experience," laughed Peter when questioned by Peter McKay. "When it starts to rain, you put your co-driver in!" Then more seriously, he added: "He'll go well though, because after all he drove the car at Oran Park a couple of weeks ago in the wet, and hung onto Richo very well. So yeah, we're happy."

"Is a tenth victory here at Sandown out of the question?" McKay continued. "Are you starting to think you could pull one off?"

"Yeah, " Brocky said with a smile. "Always optimistic. I'm the eternal optimist! We know Sandown produces a high attrition rate, so keep the car in one piece and you're in with a chance."

His confidence boosted by the relaxed and talkative Brock, McKay felt cocky enough to go after the most punishing interview in the whole of pit lane.
Peter McKay: The Castrol 500 is probably going as planned for the JPS BMW team, you can’t get better than first, Frank Gardner?

Frank Gardner: Well at this stage there’s an awful long way to go, we’re not even halfway so you can slip out of this one real quickly – there’s an awful lot of good cars still running out there very healthy.

McKay: The second car, the car of Ludwig Finauer and Robbie Francevic had some problems, into the pits for a lap or so?

Gardner: Yeah it had a bit of a slip off the road and it’s done some damage on the radiator and the front spoilers. It’s not handling all that clever but it’s soldiering on, you just hope there’s no more ramifications out of it. Should make one stop for fuel and that should be about it for the day.

McKay: So what’s the strategy for Jim Richards and Tony Longhurst? They should be due into the pits fairly soon I gather?

Gardner: In about the next eight laps they’ll be in to take on fuel and I’ll slip Tony into the cockpit and we’ll take it from there. With the weather hanging around we could have another stop on our hands for wet weather tyres or, we just don’t know. It’s just a long day.
An exchange that makes me wonder if Gardner had a bet with someone in the pits that he could slip the word "slip" into the conversation at least three times. My money's on Longhurst.

The race carried on, the laps ticking away, Richards continuing to lead over Shiel, Baigent and Crichton. On lap 71 the rain came back, just to make a nuisance of itself, requiring windscreen wipers but not proper wet-weather tyres – at least not right away. But the change was enough to catch some out – Neville Crichton was seen facing the wrong way, having spun the Shell Sierra when its brutal all-or-nothing power delivery caught him out on a wet piece of road. He rejoined safely, but the car's front bumper was now hanging slightly ajar.

It was now, just as the rain started to set in and the track started to get a little bit soaked, that Richards came in and the black M3 at last made its sole planned pit stop. 72 laps all by himself, more than halfway, to pit from the lead at exactly the moment track conditions were changing – Richo had every right to look smug. Although we missed the stop thanks to an ad break, the replay revealed a team running a perfect drill, the JPS mechanics refuelling, re-tyring and Longhursting the BMW in disciplined haste. And yes, they'd fitted a set of Pirelli wets – full wets, not intermediates.

It was a solid 25-second stop, and Longhurst seemed set for an easy run to the flag... but then came an off note when the engine refused to restart. It took several seconds before the team realised what the problem was, and put their backs into it to give the car a push in gear to get it to turn over. As the car moved away, Longhurst had lost several seconds, so he rejoined in 2nd place, chastened but by no means out of contention. The only man ahead of him was Terry Shiel, and Shiel was effectively out of sequence, still with a stop to make before the end.

So all of a sudden, the whole race hinged on a man who barely even rated a mention during the season proper – could Terry Shiel drive through the rain, on slicks, for the next 10 laps or so, and build the one-minute gap they'd need to make a pitstop and still emerge in front of the #1 Beamer? Once Longhurst joined the race, the gap was only 31 seconds.

Peter McKay thought this was worth a visit to the dismounted Richards in the pits.
McKay: Well it’s Jim Richards weather here at Sandown. After threatening to rain all day it’s now coming down at a reasonable rate, but just when things got interesting, Jim Richards, you got out of the car and put in co-driver Tony Longhurst?

Richards: Yes, well we’d gone over halfway. We’d planned one one stop, so naturally Tony can take it to the end. I’m glad it’s raining, but I’d rather he was out there than me!

McKay: Did you do the right thing by him and put on some wet-weather rubber?

Richards: Oh yeah, yeah. We waited out long enough until we knew that the rain was going to stay, more or less, before we decided to pit. I think the rain’s here to stay until the end, so we’ve got wet-weather tyres and Tony’ll go to the end.

McKay: So everything’s looking pretty good for you guys – the car’s going well?

Richards: The car was running faster at the end than it was at the start. Once we get rid of a little bit of our fuel and warm our tyres up to the right temperature, then we can start to lap fast. Early in the race we can’t do that because we’re carrying too much weight in fuel.
As if to demonstrate Richo's words, a handful of laps later and Shiel's lead had grown slightly, to 38 seconds. Clearly Longhurst's tyres were taking their time warming up, and were only going to take a bit longer with all this rainwater sloshing around the track. Another lap though and the gap was shrinking again, back to under 30 seconds, and soon the Gibson mechanics could be seen readying a set of grooved Dunlop wets in the pits, with George Fury standing by with his helmet on. This was the big moment then: if they got this wrong and the weather turned fine, Fury would have to make another stop for slicks; Longhurst, in his 960kg Eurobox, could potentially trundle along and get home with no worse penalty than a ruined set of Pirellis. The Gibson team went ahead with the gamble. The stop was smooth, Shiel handed the car back undented and Fury rejoined 2nd, behind Longhurst but ahead of Parsons, Hulme and Crichton.

So of course, just a few laps later, the rain ceased and a dry line began to form where the cars were blasting through. Everyone on rain tyres found themselves staring down the barrel of another pit stop in 10 to 15 laps, however long it took the surface to dry; everyone who'd stayed out on slicks were suddenly rubbing their hands gleefully, waiting for their chance to pull the trigger.

Realising he had to make hay before the sun shone, Fury got the bit between his teeth and drove some of the most beautiful laps of his entire career, throwing the car into perfect and elegant drifts, just enough to swing it through the corner and line it up for the next straight, and not a bit more. It seemed conditions like this were tailor-made for Fury – the slippery surface didn't worry him in the slightest, as he'd cut his teeth in rallying and was perfectly at home with a loose back end. But it certainly seemed to be worrying Longhurst.

Before we could check the stopwatch again, however, we were distracted by the sudden retirement of Gregg Hansford, who'd just taken over the #18 Shell Sierra from Neville Crichton. All day the under-door exhaust had been disgorging beautiful yellow tongues of flame – a sign of how rich DJR was running it – but coming down the front straight it gave one last bright flash, just a bit bigger and longer than the others, and then fell quiet as Hansford coasted to an inglorious halt in front of the main grandstands. Car #18 wasn't quite out of the race immediately – Hansford was able to drive it to a grassy knoll and lift the bonnet to see if there was anything he could do – but it was clear the experience-gathering had ended for today. Moffat explained for us:
I think it’s a shame that for years at Bathurst, at least 15 years ago we woke up that turning the engines off was the most dangerous aspect of a pit stop. And now we’re back to turning them off again. And I believe what potentially happened at the last Shell pit stop was the heat soak that comes out of the turbocharger, which is absolutely enormous, in the five- to six-hundred degree area, has boiled the fuel; Gregg’s got in it, gone out and the engine’s hiccoughed. Perhaps by cooling it down slowly, getting in back to the pits, whatever tricks they’ve got, they may be able to get it going again but turning the engines off is not good news, and here’s another example of it.
Peter McKay, meanwhile, spoke to the boss for his view on it.
Dick Johnson: Poor old engine’s done that much work... It’s actually the engine we used on the dyno – it’s done fifty-odd hours on the dyno, and 200 laps at Surfers, and obviously some of the fuel we’ve put in it hasn’t been quite up to scratch.

Peter McKay: When the day started I guess we expected if the Sierras were going to have trouble, it’d be the driveline, but it hasn’t been the driveline?

Dick Johnson: No, that’s been fine.

Peter McKay: The day has ended early for you guys, but has it been a learning process? Have you come away from today with anything to do, anything to change?

Dick Johnson: I think we’ll regroup and have a bit of a look as soon as we get home – me and the guys’ll be leaving straight away. We’ll put a few engines together and do a couple of other slight adjustments to the car ready to go to Bathurst.
Meanwhile, by lap 90 George Fury had whittled Tony Longhurst's 17-second lead down to nothing, was sitting right on his bumper and in a position to think about relieving him of the race lead. Unlike the chase, the kill was easy – Fury simply out-dragged him down the front straight, then took him under brakes into Turn 1. With three-quarters distance gone, Fury was in the lead, and over the next laps got busy extending it as far as he could – 8 seconds by lap 94. But his searing pace hadn't been without penalty, and by lap 98 Fury was actively seeking out the wet parts of the track to keep his Dunlop wets cool and in one piece. It was a losing battle; as his tyres turned to marshmallows under him, Fury faced the agony of deciding whether to pit and leave Longhurst to face the same problem on his own, or carry on and hope Longhurst blinked first.

Soon we got our answer – footage of Jim Richards standing in the pits with his helmet on. Clearly Longhurst wasn't cutting it, so unsentimental as ever, Frank Gardner called him in to put his faster driver back behind the wheel. Astonishingly, at the start of lap 100, both the Skyline and the M3 toured into pit lane at exactly the same moment! It would be a battle of the pit crews, and in case it wasn't close enough, Frank Gardner's team had to make a driver change but had the advantage of centre-lock wheel nuts; the Gibson boys could leave their prime driver in place, but they'd have to undo five studs on each wheel! It was nail-biting stuff.

Both cars spent some 23 seconds stationary – which must've felt like ice ages to the men inside them – but then, with a four-cylinder moan, it was the Skyline that emerged from the pits first. The dodgy starter motor on the BMW had come back to haunt them, and doubtless it was resting at a metal recycling plant by Monday morning. But that was for tomorrow – right now, there was nothing for Richards to do but get his head down and drive as fast as he bloody could.

The track continued to dry, and by lap 108 Richo's tyres were up to temperature and he was right on Fury's bumper, looking hard for a way past. Up the back straight they sandwiched a backmarker – Fury went right, Richo went left – but it wasn't quite enough to take the Skyline under braking. Into Turn 1, Lawrie Nelson in the #28 Capri Components Mustang briefly made things interesting, but it didn't fluster Fury enough to give Richards an edge. Although he was genuinely having to resort to defensive driving, the extra power of his turbo engine was almost perfectly offsetting the benefit of the draft he was providing to Richards – and so they remained as good as tied together.

Another series of backmarkers on the infield section could've proved a headache, but Fury dealt with them swiftly – all except Bill O'Brien in the #19 Everlast Batteries VL, who couldn't make his Commodore evaporate at a crucial moment. Fury fumbled it and nosed into him, pushing him wide, and that sapped his momentum coming onto the grandstand straight. The crowd, who'd been on their feet every time the two of them blazed past, stood once more and held their breath.

It was the best opportunity Richards was going to get, but somehow, it didn't come off. Fury kept a nose ahead down the straight, which translated the right of line into Turn 1, and therefore to shuffling Richo back into his place. On lap 114 he had yet another go, drafting the Skyline up the back straight ready for a death-defying late pedal application into the following left-hander. Yet once more he didn't quite manage it, mostly because Fury had forced him onto the outside line a kilometre earlier, when they'd first come onto the straight – with a little less canny, he'd have lost the place right there.

And then, just as we were preparing for a big finish, abrupt silence. The TV came back from an ad break with 10 laps to go, with Richards nowhere to be seen. He was in the pits, his oil pressure having dropped to nothing on lap 118. It wasn't immediately terminal – they sent the car back out one last time, but it was limping, clearly no threat to the leader – so it seemed the old adage was right: the Skyline's FJ20ET really WOULD eat other engines alive. Even driven by one of the gentlest, most experienced sets of hands in the business, the pace of George Fury had just been too much for the BMW's to handle.

So it was that Fury & Shiel took the chequered flag (and banked the $25,000 winner's prize for their trouble), with 2nd place falling to the #11 Enzed VK of Perkins & Hulme – who'd sat there like a rock in the landscape all afternoon, letting everyone else trip in their haste – and 3rd place to the #25 Skyline of the Team Nissan NZ boys, Graeme Bowkett and Kent Baigent, who despite the odd mishap had run fast and efficiently all day.


Fully 18 out of 40 starters had failed to make the finish, either by DNF or by failing to cover enough distance to be classified, which was much the same thing really. Among them was Peter Brock, who'd had a brake failure entering the first turn on lap 115 and skated off the road, and was lucky not to roll the #05 when the wheels dug into the sand. By contrast, Neil Crompton had partnered brilliantly with Jon Crooke, and the man everyone had dismissed as a PR stunt had brought the #6 Mobil Commodore home a highly creditable 4th. Even the rest of the Channel Seven team had to admit they were impressed; at long last, young Crompo might be able to abandon his nightmare broadcasting job and make his way as a rising racing driver...

But to the victor the spoils; Fury could be forgiven a smug little smile as he aligned from his unbent, unbowed & unbroken Nissan Skyline. After the presentation from the Castrol brass, Garry Wilkinson caught up for a post-race chat.
Wilko: Well George Fury, congratulations, what a race?

Fury: Thankyou. Well, it’s great to be here, the Nissan reliability certainly brought us home, and BP of course – keep on keeping on! [a bit of a dig at DJR's problematic Shell fuel there] ... I feel a bit sorry for Jimmy that we couldn't make a race of it all the way.

Wilko: It was a race for a while!

Fury: Yeah, it was really good and I think we both enjoyed it, but somehow he went out, I don't know what went wrong. But we just kept on going on like we usually do.

Wilko: He was really hounding you there, up until about 15 laps to go. He had you worried?

Fury: Oh he had me worried alright, but I thought I had him under control and it could've been anybody's race. But I'm glad I'm here now.

Wilko: I'm glad you thought you had him under control, nobody else did! But congratulations, a fantastic win.
So that was it; the final victory for the DR30 Skyline, and also the final victory for George Fury, the Hungarian-born ewe farmer from Talmalmo, who'd started out as a rally driver. Although he had many more kilometres to go between now and retirement, he'd never again rise so far above the field and put in such an impressive drive in such a difficult car. Now it was a question of how Fury, and indeed the whole of Australia's prize touring car scene, would cope with the coming invasion from across the seas. Bathurst always loomed after Sandown, but this year it was looming larger than ever.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

13 September: From Spa to Sandown

By September 1987, Allan Moffat's time in the wilderness was almost over.

Granted, his years away from Ford weren't always what you'd call "wilderness." After being abandoned by Broadmeadows following their steamroller year in 1977, Moffat had made himself front-and-centre for a new manufacturer seeking Bathurst glory (and ironically one that was partly owned by Ford) – the Mazda Motor Corporation. In 1983 they'd given Moffat his fourth ATCC title (one more than Peter Perfect) but that hungered-after Bathurst win never came, and with the advent of Group A in 1985 Moffat had once more found himself abandoned by his patron. Until he got a phone call from Peter Brock, and suddenly found himself, against all auguries, a Holden driver.

Which of course fell apart when Peter started listening to the indigo children.

And so he'd spent the first half of 1987 driving for his own Allan Moffat Racing, but in a HDT-built VL Commodore, on the wrong side of the world. After that stunning and unexpected win at Monza, however, Moffat and co-driver John Harvey had found the inaugural World Touring Car Championship hard going – once the BMW M3s were sorted, the results dried up in a hurry. At the Jarama 4 Hours, Moffat and Harvey ran as high as 8th before a wheel stud broke during a pit stop, leading to retirement; in the Burgundy 500 at Dijon, venue for Villeneuve-vs-Arnoux, Moffat found himself dicing for 9th spot when a conrod broke, again ending his race. With two DNFs in three races, the Aussies decided to give the Nürburgring Touring Car Grand Prix, disappointingly held on the three-year-old GP-Strecke rather than the awesome Nordschleife, a miss to focus their efforts on Spa instead. Commodore numbers were maintained, however, thanks to another Holden runner making his belated WTCC debut – Tom Walkinshaw, with a new Herbie Clips-sponsored VL built in his own TWR workshops, using parts flown over by Holden themselves. HRT fans, take note – the road to the Lowndes/Skaife golden age began right here, in Germany.

Appropriate for a modified Opel.

The Spa 24 Hour was the final highlight of Moffat's WTCC campaign. In theory the powerful, unstressed Holden V8 would be in its element on Spa's ultra-fast straights, especially the long climb from Stavelot to the Bus Stop Chicane, theoretically giving it the edge over the fragile Fords and underpowered BMWs. It seemed others agreed, because there were three other Commodores entered for the race – one entered by Dutch team Jeroen Hin Racing; one entered by "Formula 1 Invest. Ltd" and headlined by Michel Delcourt, Allan Grice's Belgian co-driver from the previous year (the car must've made an impression); and one entered by the Mobil Holden Dealer Team, driven by Peter Brock, hired Tasmanian gun David Parsons, and former JPS team sidekick Neville Crichton.

But the weekend was not without its complications. A 24-hour marathon meant three drivers rather than two, so Moffat and Harvey drafted in Tony Mulvihill to complete the trio, a capable driver but better known for being the loose cannon on the Channel Seven broadcast team (a Mulvihill joke that only works when spoken: Q. What's brown and comes out of Cowes backwards? A. The Phillip Island ferry). Luckily (or not), any chance of a podium complication were eliminated when Mulvihill failed to qualify. The car had made the race, but Moffat and Harvey would have to look after the driving duties alone. "The longest drive I've ever had," was Moffat's weary comment. "It was 14 hours at the wheel and it rained all day." Brock's car blew a piston with 206 laps completed, or just over 1,400 kilometres on the car's overworked odo – remember that fact, because this car would become important later.


But Moffat and Harvey kept going throughout the night and all the next day, and took the chequered flag with the full 24 hours completed and 468 laps on the chart – agonisingly, just short of the 469 of the 3rd-placed BMW. It seemed nothing could live with the M3's absurd tyre life, even on a power circuit like Spa-Francorchamps, and the Bavarian screamers took a 1-2-3 finish... but 4th was a deeply impressive result for a team with such limited resources. Deciding to end on a high, Moffat and Harvey wisely called time on their WTCC fling and started heeding the siren song of home. Australia's season of endurance was about to begin, and given the machine FISA was about to rubber-stamp, the Commodore's time at the head of the grid was surely nearing its end.

Ford Firepower – the Sierra RS500
The Ford Sierra RS500 – with apologies to Godzilla, the signature car of the Group A formula – didn't quite arrive with the calm efficiency of a plan coming together. The reality was more like everyone saw the pace of the BMW M3 at Monza, shat a collective brick, started badgering the factory for updates and forced Ford into a mad rush to get the thing on the market before it was too late. Whether for reasons of budget, logistics or simple expertise, the job was not undertaken by Ford themselves, but by a third-party tuner who would become familiar to Aussie Ford fans in later years – Aston Martin Tickford Ltd.

The Tickford name traced back as far as 1820, to the Salmons & Sons coachbuilding business based on Tickford Street in Newport Pagnell, near Milton Keynes. Like Holden, then, Tickford had its origins in the days when coachbuilding meant actually building coaches, and like Holden this had led them into the emerging automotive industry when buyers started coming to them with chassis, engines and ideas for exactly what passenger compartment they wanted to mate it all together. After WWII, this led them to pair up with one of the most prestigious names in the business – Aston Martin – until plunging fortunes for Aston led them, in 1981, to become a mere subsidiary of CH Industrials. A backward step for their prestige maybe, but it did leave them free to partner with other names like Jaguar, MG... and Ford.

Having sampled their work with the RS200 rally car, Ford felt comfortable awarding Tickford a £500,000 contract to convert the necessary RS Cosworths to RS500 spec. With time pressing, Ford simply delivered the final job-lot of Cosworths direct from the factory in Genk, Belgium, to Tickford's workshop near Bedworth, in the British Midlands. That meant the first task was the difficult de-waxing of vehicles that had stood in open storage for months. It also meant instead of getting half-assembled cars that merely had to be completed, Tickford were given brand-new, fully-completed RS Cosworths which then had to be party dismantled and rebuilt as RS500s. This included removing brand-new Cosworth engines, even though they'd never been run; nobody seems to know what happened to the five-hundred junked "Cozzers," but rumour says Ford took them back and recouped by installing them in early Sapphire Cosworths. Even more bizarrely, none of the RS500 logbooks were amended to reflect this change, so to this day every RS500 on the road has the "wrong" engine number.

They were also built in random order, which is why their chassis number bears no relation to the Tickford serial number placed low on the engine block. "Someone would just wander about the 500 cars in the car park with a set of keys in his hand until he found the car to which they belonged," explained Paul Linfoot, of the RS Owners Club. "That would be the next car that got built." Nevertheless, the job was done swiftly. Production began on 9 April, and within a couple of weeks Tickford was churning out 15 a day.

Compared to the standard RS Cosworth – which was already a pretty exciting piece of kit – the RS500 scored a thicker-walled cylinder block, upgraded oil and cooling systems, a throttle body widened from 52 to 76mm, larger air-to-air intercooler, and an upgraded fuel pump supplying fuel via two rails feeding a total of eight injectors (four of which weren't plumbed on the road version, as they just weren't needed). All of this was to feed the engine enough fuel-air mix to justify a huge Garrett T04E turbocharger, as big as a soccer ball and operating at 0.7 bar. The massive turbo was probably never going to be used to its full potential on the road cars – it existed solely to provide the race teams with a bigger measurement in their FISA paperwork – but the aftermarket tuners certainly appreciated it.

In the same vein, the revised rear suspension package included lots of extra brackets with nothing attached to them, so the teams could fit their own suspension components and still satisfy the rule that they were using "standard" attachment points. The fog lights were removed, but supplied in the boot, hidden beneath the new secondary rear wing and 30mm Gurney flap extension to the RS Cosworth's existing "whale tail" wing. Tickford claimed 90kg of downforce at 160km/h, which mightn't sound like much compared to the tonnes of an F1 car, but it was certainly enough to make a difference.


Perhaps most importantly, Tickford redesigned the front bumper with extra ducting to funnel lots of air through to the engine bay and keep temperatures under some semblance of control (hence the missing fog lights). This goes a long way to explaining why the RS Cosworth was the one you wanted to own day-to-day, and not the RS500 – all you got on the RS500 was about 10% more power (some 167 kW at 6,000rpm), no extra torque (281 Nm at 4,500rpm), lots of extra drag from that ventilated front end, and much, much more turbo lag. Ergo, on the road it was a cranky, unforgiving beast, a caged lion always looking for an excuse to lash out.

It also cost £19,950, or £4,000 more than the RS Cosworth, which was north of $37,000 in contemporary Australian dollars or just over $80,000 today. That was the U.K. list price, too, so for an Australian buyer there'd be import fees and taxes on top of that, a lot of money when, as I've noted before, you could get an XF Fairmont Ghia for less than twenty grand. But you certainly got a lot of car for your money: 0-100 took 6.2 seconds, the drag strip took 15.5, and the top speed was around 245km/h – respectable figures for a stock car with a boot and back seats, even by today's standards. (For comparison, the nearest Australian equivalent – Holden's VL Calais Turbo – boasted an identical time over the 400 metres, but was slightly slower to 100km/h (7.8 seconds); in theory it was capable of a similar 250km/h top speed, but because it was over-geared it was out of puff at 220 or so. On the upside, its local manufacture meant you could get one for less than $27,000.)

On the other hand, since that's exactly how the Group A rules worked, it took remarkably little aftermarket fiddling to liberate the engine's full potential – the crank, rods and valves could all remain standard, so throw in a ported head, hot cam, lowered static compression ratio and a new chip to crank the boost from 0.7 to 2.4 bar, and suddenly you had a 370 kW road car (for how long? That was up to you and your sense of restraint). Lest we forget, with a kerb weight of 1,240kg, that was more power and less weight than a Ferrari F40, and the sticker prices for those started at U.S.$400,000. No wonder so many tuning houses stepped up to the plate, and the car became a deity to teenagers of a certain tax bracket.

All were intended to be black, but the rush meant that wasn't possible; only 392 came in black, with 52 in Moonstone Blue and another 52 in Diamond White, including the four prototypes. But by the time the last car emerged from Tickford on 30 August 1987, the RS500 had already been homologated by FISA, and had already taken its first scalps. The #7 Texaco RS500 of Eggenberger drivers Klaus Ludwig and Klaus Niedzwiedz had taken a dream win on debut for the new car in the Grand Prix Brno, Round 6 of the WTCC, on 16 August. On the same day, Graham Goode had taken the car's first class win in the BTCC round at Donington Park. A week later, Mike Newman and Rob Speak took the car's first outright win in the following Oulton Park enduro. The writing was on the wall: the RS500 was far faster and more durable than the outgoing RS Cosworth, and relegated the M3 to a class car overnight. It would never win a round outright again.

Enter Sandown
So it was with some mirth that Allan Moffat fronted up to the Castrol 500 at Sandown International Raceway on 13 September – not to drive, but to join the commentary team with Channel Seven and witness the RS500's Australian debut. The other commentators (mostly Mike Raymond and Garry Wilkinson) needled him a little, trying to get him to spill the beans, but Moffat remained tight-lipped.
Allan Moffat: I think with the speed the Sierras are showing, Mike, there'll be a quite a number of people keen to campaign them.

Mike Raymond: What would you prefer to be lining up at Bathurst in a couple of weeks' time?

Allan Moffat: In a winning car, Mike.

Garry Wilkinson: Succinct!

Mike Raymond: Right. Clearly we're not gonna get anything out of him today, although we've got four hours to try... 
With 20/20 hindsight, it's clear Moffat had already done a deal with Andy Rouse for a pair RS500s at Bathurst, and it seems like the commentary team knew it too, or at least heavily suspected it. But for commercial reasons, perhaps, they weren't allowed to say anything – Moffat's main sponsor was the ANZ bank, and they weren't exactly without clout.

But the new ANZ Sierras weren't here yet, so that left just four of the new Fords entered for this year's Castrol 500 – the two Dick Johnson cars (DJR1, the right-hand drive car with Dick's #17 on the doors, and DJR2, the left-hand drive version with the #18) and the two Oxo Supercube cars (unofficially known as MM1 and MM2 for Miedecke Motorsport; they raced as the #34 and #35, respectively). All were Rouse kit-cars, although there's something of a question mark over the DJR entries: at some point Dick had a major falling out with Andy Rouse over the question of programming his own chips, which Rouse wouldn't allow as he owned the Zytek software that did the job, and selling chips was a major source of income for his team.
I was at my wits' end and grabbed Jillie and my passport and jumped on the plane to the U.K. looking to start a fight.

"This is bullshit," I said, striding into Rouse’s offices, trying hard to keep my cool. "I need to be able to have the machine in order to program the chips myself. I'm getting belted over there and this is the only way forward. I'm willing to pay you whatever you like so I can control things myself rather than rely on the customer chips you send out."

He shook his head.

"What do you mean no? I've spent a fortune on this!"

Rouse stayed silent and shook his head again.

I could feel my blood boiling.

"You are the biggest c*%t I have ever met in my life!" I screamed. "You can jam the whole deal right up your arse."

Jillie was there too and reckons that was the angriest she had ever seen me. I don't think I'd ever used the c-word in my life, and right there and then I blurted it out in front of my wife. I walked out of the office, feeling totally dejected, and with an icy breeze chilling me to my core, I looked to Jillie.

"We're stuffed," I said. "This could be the end because I really don’t know where to go now." – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
With their technical alliance over, Dick entered a period of chasing boost via "tricking" the engine management system, manipulating other parameters like fuel flow to get the result he wanted – with about as much success as your uncle jailbreaking his iPhone. Dick's autobiography doesn't give a precise timeline of events, but his performance at Bathurst that year – and here at Sandown – can certainly be read as engines that badly needed proper management. Yet it seems unlikely he'd have broken up with Rouse on the very trip that gained him the full RS500 upgrades. So I can see two possibilities: either Dick bought all the RS500 upgrades from Rouse, probably in the mid-year break between the ATCC and the endurance rounds, and then fell out with him soon after; or the falling-out happened in the off-season after his final race in Wellington. If the former, then it could be that Dick bought his RS500 kits not from Rouse, but directly from Ford Motorsport in Europe – the same people who would ultimately point him toward the person who would solve all his problems.

But that was all in the future. Right now, at Sandown, both the Shell Sierras and their Oxo Supercube rivals were right at the start of their development and were rated for around 335 kW – which was already more than the 5-litre Commodores, and way more than the 260 kW Skylines that shared the same weight class. Although this was still the "international" version of Sandown with the twisting infield section (built to attract a Formula 1 deal, which had instead gone to Adelaide), the long "grandstand" front straight and even longer uphill back straight were enough to give the RS500s a serious advantage, and they dominated qualifying. Andrew Miedecke set the pace in the main qualifying session, taking provisional pole with a time of 1:49.45 in his #35 Oxo Supercube Sierra – only for co-driver Don Smith to wreck the car in a spectacular series of barrel-rolls in the dying minutes of the session.

For anyone unable to watch the video, his comments (in true racing driver's monotone!) were:
Well, I was watching the times as I was going around, I was doing 51s and I thought, "I've gotta go a bit quicker than that." I knew I was losing time up here [the end of the front straight], not braking late enough and that. I just tried a bit later and missed third gear as I was changing down and locked up the back. It just sort of skated a bit, which I thought I had under control alright, and then I just clipped the ripple strip and it bucked the car up. I tried to get it back down, but it just started this slow roll business. I was starting to count them by the finish.
The wreck was later sold to a guy named Mike Ceveri, in whose hands it was rebuilt and returned to the track as a Sports Sedan. But that was the end of MM2 as a Group A car, and also the end of Miedecke & Smith's chances of winning this year's Castrol 500. For whatever reason, they hadn't cross-entered themselves in their other car, the #34 to be handled by ring-ins John Giddings and Bruce Stewart. So the owners behind the Oxo Supercube team would have to sit on the sidelines and watch their hirelings drive the most promising new car in the field without them!

This was not a problem that affected Dick Johnson, however. With Miedecke out of the way, Johnson stepped up and took pole in the Dulux Dozen, a Bathurst-style shootout between the twelve fastest cars in the main qualifying session. Nissan driver George Fury had posted an intimidating 1:49.43, so with the pressure on and one lap to make it count, Johnson stepped up and posted an incredible 1:47.59 to take an undisputed pole.

All was looking well, but then the engine on his #17 Sierra failed in the pre-race warmup, leaving it unable to take the start for the race.
The fuel that we had was made for hot temperatures. There were two types of fuel used then – winter and summer – and somehow we ended up with the wrong fuel in. It ended up letting go but that’s not to say that we weren’t running a bit too much boost or something. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
Seasoned campaigner that he was, Dick had made sure to cross-enter himself in both cars, so with 15 minutes to go until the race start he commandeered the #18 that had been earmarked for Charlie O'Brien & Neville Crichton, and strapped himself in (forcing the Channel Seven crew to hastily transfer one of their RaceCam units to the #18). So out of four RS500s entered, we'd lost two before the race even started. Sandown's notorious attrition rate was already creating casualties.

Other teams that had doubtless done their cross-entry due diligence were Gibson Motorsport and their brace of Peter Jackson-backed Nissan Skylines. Gibson's prime drivers George Fury and Glenn Seton had won this race last year, but this year they'd been put in separate cars, Fury to drive his customary #30 with relief from Terry Shiel, and Seton to share his #15 with former Volvo sidekick John Bowe. Both were therefore looking like strong pairings, but if they wanted to become repeat winners they'd have to beat each other – like the Highlander, there could only be one.

A curiosity was the Gibson team's third car – not a Skyline, but a Gazelle entered for Seton's good friend and sometime housemate, Mark Skaife. Paired with Sports Sedan racer Grant Jarrett, the 20-year-old Skaife had been racing the #60 Nissan Gazelle – basically a rebadged coupe version of the S110 Silvia, fitted with a 150 kW FJ20E engine (the same engine as the Skyline, but without the turbo) – in the Australian 2.0-litre Championship all year, and had clinched the title at Amaroo Park after winning three of the four rounds. Clearly young Skaife had talent, and there was already talk about how long it would be before Gibson would be moving him up to the primetime.

Other Skylines included a growing list of privateers, starting with the Nissan Racing NZ pairing of Graeme Bowkett & Kent Baigent, in a Gibson-supported #25 engineered by Ross and Jimmy Stone (of later DJR and Stone Brothers Racing fame). The other notable name was reliable old Murray Carter in the #14 Netcomm entry, a man who'd begun his career in Humpy Holdens in the 1950s, and believe it or not didn't finally hang up his helmet until this very year (2017)!

Their rivals for the ATCC, Frank Gardner's JPS Team BMW, were set to team their prime drivers Jim Richards and Tony Longhurst in the #1 BMW M3, with the #3 to be handled by their engine man Ludwig Finauer, and 1986 Australian Touring Car Champion Robbie Francevic. Francevic hadn't really been seen on our shores since the Volvo Dealer Team had imploded here 12 months earlier, so it was nice to see him back, apparently keen to sample the car that was the talk of 1987. Behind them were a further two M3s, the only one of note the #44 Viacard Services entry, a JPS-built machine owned by Trevor Crowe and co-driven by Jim Keogh – both highly experienced, if not necessarily blindingly fast. A curiosity in the field was a car from BMW's crosstown rivals, a Mercedes-Benz 190E in the hands of Phil Ward and Llynden Reithmuller – sweet-handling, but let down by an underdeveloped engine and insufficient weight-saving. Moffat commented that he'd love to see what'd happen if Mercedes fitted the car with a nice V8, and if you know your DTM history you'll be wondering if someone in Germany heard him... but that's a story for another day.

With the Mobil Holden Dealer Team now 8 months into their divorce with Holden, there was no "works" Holden team at Sandown (indeed, the official "works" team had last been seen at the Nürburgring!), but if Brock wanted bragging rights as the Holden spearhead he'd have to fight for it. Larry Perkins had been the one actually delivering the results this year, meagre as they were, in his outdated but highly-developed #11 Enzed VK. With relief driving to come from 1967 Formula 1 champion Denny Hulme, it was debatable whether the strongest Commodore entry was indeed Perkins, or the #2 Bob Jane T-Marts VL of Allan Grice. This car had been built by Les Small, the same man responsible for Grice's indestructible Bathurst-winner last year, and his nominated co-driver was the vastly experienced Briton, Win Percy. So, were Holden's hopes riding on Perkins, or Grice? It was a coin flip – certainly they weren't riding with Brock.

Brock had brought one new car – bearing his famous #05, but known internally as HDT 17, the third and last VL Commodore the team had built this year which had only debuted at Oran Park's Pepsi 250 a couple of weeks earlier – and an old one, a re-panelled version of the VK he'd shared with Moffat at Bathurst the previous year ("Slightly modified in practice," was Moffat's sheepish comment, all too aware whose fault those "modifications" had been). He couldn't race the newer VL he'd taken to Spa, because it was still being shipped back, and anyway the team just didn't have the money.


Indeed, Brock had seemingly scraped the very bottom of the barrel to find drivers with wage demands low enough for his impoverished bank account. David "Skippy" Parsons, here to share Brock's #05, had driven for the team back in the Marlboro glory days and was here mainly out of enthusiasm; Jon Crooke, co-driver for the #6, was the former Australian Formula 2 Champion making only his second start in a tintop. But the one that really set the cat among the pigeons was Channel Seven's own commentator Neil Crompton, nominated as prime driver for the #6. Some saw it as a cynical attempt to curry some favour with the TV people after a year that had seen more bad press for Brock than he'd ever had in his life, but even if so that wasn't the whole story. The reality was also that he was giving a hungry young driver a chance in a decent race seat... and of course as a Promoted Fanboy, Crompo came cheap.

Behind them was a sizeable contingent of privateer Commodores, fourteen of them in total, mostly VKs but with more VLs appearing at every race. Since they made up a fair percentage of the 42-car entry list, there was a feeling in the air that it was all going away for these guys. Sandown would be the last all-Australian race of the year; the next race was Bathurst, where half the world would be descending on the regional NSW town, and there was already some grumbling that the surge in entries from Europe were pushing the locals out of their own race. And after it would come Calder Park, Wellington and Mt Fuji, which would be more of the same – and since at this stage the inaugural World Touring Car Championship was looking like a roaring success, there was every chance they'd be doing it all again next year too. Sandown '87, it seemed, would be the last time the average Aussie privateer with his hotted-up family Commodore would be able to compete in the same race against his heroes in the big teams. This was the retirement party, the call for last drinks, the final hurrah. We would not see its like again, et cetera, et cetera. Or so we thought...