Monday, 30 October 2017

Bathurst, Pt.2: The Dance of the Green Bottles

Ten green bottles hanging on the wall,
Ten green bottles hanging on the wall,
And if one green bottle should accidentally fall,
There'll be nine green bottles hanging on the wall...
From the moment the marshals flagged the field away for the 1987 James Hardie 1000, the clock was ticking on most of the cars. Many of them would never see the chequered flag – indeed, a surprising number wouldn't even see their first scheduled pit stop. But of course, not many in the crowd understood those anyway these days – this year the race was a round of the inaugural World Touring Car Championship, and that meant WTCC rules, including a curious innovation called the Pace Car.

The Pace Car changed everything for Bathurst. Hitherto, once the green flag waved, nothing halted the race until somebody won it; staying out of trouble for the duration was your job. Fuel economy was the biggest concern in the production car era, when treaded road tyres had to be used and those lasted basically forever, which meant some completed the (admittedly shorter) distance with just two stops – which explains why back in the day you could buy a Charger with an enormous 155-litre fuel tank that completely filled up the boot.

Fuel economy, tyre life and sheer speed were the big factors in the equation until 1986, but the addition of a Pace Car shifted those parameters somewhat. Now the skeleton key that unlocked it all was what modern-day commentator Mark Larkham calls the Crucial Lap, the earliest lap at which you could refuel the car and make it to the finish. Exactly which lap that was varied quite a bit in this field, depending on how thirsty each car was – the Sierras were expected to run stints of 35-37 laps, the Commodores and Skylines more like 40-42, and the economical BMWs to run stints of up to 50 laps if they were cautious. It would take a brave strategist to try it, however – although it had nearly worked at Sandown, Sandown's added twists and turns now made it very unlike the fast and flowing Mount Panorama, where you spent much more of the lap at full throttle. Sandown was no longer a true preview of what to expect in the Great Race: nevertheless, over the distance the BMWs could expect to make one less pit stop than everyone else. With pit stops taking 35-40 seconds in those days, that meant the BMWs could effectively give away a quarter of a second per lap and still come out ahead – something for the other drivers to bear in mind as they checked their pit boards.

Added into that of course was the requirement that the co-drivers each drive at least a third of the race distance – a minimum 54 laps – which was a bit of a headache to those whose co-drivers weren't really of the same grade as the prime drivers. The #35 Miedecke/Smith Oxo Supercube Sierra was a prime example of this: Andrew Miedecke, with his open-wheel and sportscar experience, was capable of running seconds a lap faster than Don Smith, and Smith knew it. Knowing when to put Smith in the car to minimise the penalty of his mandatory 54 laps would all be part of the strategic game today; again, the European teams had a big advantage, since most of their drivers were full-time professionals anyway. There would be no 54-lap penalty in getting Klaus Ludwig out of the car and putting in Klaus Niedzwiedz in instead.

And as for the weather, well, the gods only knew. For the race strategists, Bathurst 1987 would be like a military campaign – they had to have a plan, but they had to be ready to abandon it in at a moment's notice.


They See No Rollin', They Hatin'...
For all the fuss about the new Pace Car, it stayed resolutely in pit lane when start time came around. Despite furious begging, cajoling, threats and bribery, the Europeans didn't get their longed-for rolling start. No doubt they saw this as a cynical attempt to cripple some high-geared European entrants right at the start, and throw the race to an Australian – which, let's be honest, it probably was. If there was an opportunity to cite "tradition" and throw the locals a bone, you'd take it too. Nevertheless, the 2 minute board was shown, then the 1-minute board, then the starter held up ten fingers to signal 10 seconds to start; the revs rose to a 43-car crescendo as the Australian flag was lifted, then suddenly flung downwards. The race began.

The Commodores all made quick starts, but the Sierras rather less so, most of all the #7 of Klaus Niedzwiedz, who deliberately made a slow start to preserve his suspect diff. Yes, I rolled my eyes at the "deliberately" part too, but one of the British commentators later revealed he'd informed them he'd be doing that before the race, so I can only suppose it really was intentional and not just a poor start. Niedzwiedz it seems was the team tortoise, leaving team hare duties to the sister car of Steve Soper.

And indeed, as they stormed up Mountain Straight for the first time, Soper was on the charge, passing the orange Commodore of Allan Grice over the hump, with Perkins and Brock right behind. But leading the field up the mountain for the first time was Andy Rouse, with Andrew Miedecke chasing hard. Rouse had the distinction of leading all the way around lap 1, but down into Murray's Soper put a move on Miedecke, cleanly depriving him of track position for the final turn and so not needing to push his brake pedal too hard. The next 25 laps were the familiar sight (to British fans) of Soper and Rouse going at it hammer-and-tongs for the race lead, the pair swapping the lead back every few laps, with a small gap to Miedecke who was hell-bent on catching them up.


The body language of the cars was at odds with the stopwatch, however, as although there was every sign they were milking the cars for all they were worth, the lap times were only in the low 24s or high 23s – some eight seconds behind Ludwig's pole time. That was silent confirmation of what both Rouse and Miedecke would be telling us later in the day, that this was a pace that was expected to carry the Sierras right the way through the full distance – incredible, given they were already pulling a huge gap on the rest of the field.



But while it was all looking rosy for the Poms, it was already going horribly wrong for the Aussies. Heading into The Cutting on lap 2, Neville Crichton in the #18 Shell Sierra tripped over Larry Perkins in the #11 Enzed Commodore, pushing them both into spins that scuffed the concrete retaining wall – hard enough to lift the wheels off the ground. When he came back to the pits for a chat with one of Channel Seven's on-the-spot interviewers, Perkins was understandably less than happy.
Larry Perkins: Well... I was driving along quite merrily, and Neville Crichton in Dicky Johnson's car appeared to have enormous brain fade and hit me in the rear quarter at a hell of a velocity, and put me into the fence and he went with me.

Richard Hay: For the man who’s had the most consistent Commodore all season you must be very disappointed?

Larry Perkins: Exceptionally disappointed. I've been to Bathurst [for the] tenth time. Managed to keep out of all the hassles, never bent a panel, and to get taken out in someone else's... I think, just sheer stupidity is... uh, it’s so disappointing.
In one of those "not even on a dare nowadays" moments, the marshals simply pushed both cars against the walls and considered them out of the way. Never mind that they’d just turned The Cutting into a makeshift chicane...



In truth, it was a bad start to the day for Johnson too, but it was about to get worse: only a lap after Crichton hit Perkins, the #17 car with Johnson himself at the wheel crawled to a halt between Sulman and McPhillamy with a broken diff. Johnson confirmed: "That was the worst Bathurst we ever had."
Shell had so many customers there... to spend the next six hours with them trying to pacify the situation in Year One of a contract – it was a long day in hell, I can tell you. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
Indeed, the TV footage showed him staying with his car at the top of the hill for quite a while afterwards, in no hurry to face the music at the bottom...

On lap 11, soon after, Graeme Crosby was in the pits for what was "looking like an extended stay," the #21 D.F.C. Commodore having lost oil pressure. On the same lap, Colin Bond was seen lifting the bonnet of his Caltex Alfa Romeo, not in the pits but halfway up Mountain Straight, having found a nice driveway before the hump that he could use as a makeshift pit bay. At first it was speculated to be a gearbox problem, but when Bondy got it going again he brought it back to the pits, on what was lap 13 for the leaders.
Peter McKay: Colin Bond, very bad luck, into the pits at this stage of the race, what's the problem?

Colin Bond: It's got a flat battery, that's the only problem at present. The alternator's not charging and the computer system just stops the car, and I looked at it and the volts were way down, I just let it stay for a while, and then finally it started, and then it just kept cutting out and kept turning on and off, and just had enough power in the battery to get back. I think that if they change the alternator and the battery, everything's gonna be fine again.

Peter McKay: I've just looked at the tyre that's come off the front-right of the Caltex Alfa, it's very badly chopped up. What's the problem there?

Colin Bond: [laughing] It had a wobble!
Yes, Bondy laughed, and honestly what else could he do? His car would rejoin soon, but he'd lose so many laps in the meantime that all hope of a result was already gone. He'd won this race for the first and only time way back in 1969, and then never again since, despite driving for some of the biggest and best teams in the country. Bond, who'd never gained as much silverware on tarmac as he had in rallying, had no illusions about the nature of this game. So yes, he laughed.

But if the race so far was an anthem of catastrophe for the Australians, at least it wasn't a paean of triumph for some of the Europeans either. At the end of the parade lap, BMW had brought two of their cars – the #43 Bigazzi car of Heger/Grouillard, and the #46 Schnitzer car of Ravaglia/Pirro – back in to start from pit lane. This would force them to wait until the peloton had cleared the pit exit, but it would give them the luxury of making nice gentle starts, again seemingly thinking of preserving their high-geared drivelines. If that was so it was just as well, as by lap 12 the #40 BMW of Ravaglia/Pirro, the other Schnitzer car, was in the pits with its bonnet up, mechanics crawling all over it and disconnecting plugs, suggesting it was an ignition problem. This was swiftly confirmed by Hay.
Richard Hay: The problem with the car at the moment is that they’ve brought the car in with a misfire. It’s not been a good day for the works BMW team so far. The #46 car came in earlier on, which is the car which that was repaired after it was written off by the TAFE guys. The TAFE guys repaired it, it came in though with bodywork rubbing on the wheels, the wheel arches had to be hammered out which is a problem they had before the start of the race as well. This car’s come in, it’s got some damage on it as well but it’s also come in with a misfire. That’s the problem here at the moment. You might have wondered why the little Nissan Gazelle stopped earlier on – apparently it was overheating. Perhaps Neil Crompton can explain to me why you should stop a car that was overheating and not bring it straight back to the pits?

Neil Crompton: I don’t know, I’ve never stopped...

Mike Raymond: He drives them until they stop!
Given their JPS stablemate Jim Richards had just passed Johnny Cecotto to become the highest-placed BMW driver, it was already looking like a long afternoon for BMW. But the ensuing struggle between BMW and Nissan soon provided some welcome entertainment – Glenn Seton was really hustling his Skyline, with its awkward handling and horribly vague recirculating ball steering and frightening tendency to get light over the hump on Conrod. As they skirted Cecotto's #42 CiBiEmme BMW, Richo and the Peter Jackson Skylines were fighting for 7th, 8th and 9th – a sign of how far the field had moved on since last year, when the Nissans had been the pacesetters.


Into Hell Corner Seton had a buttock-puckering moment, the back end letting go and forcing him to get all crossed up to save it – but save it he did, and immediately got back to chasing Richards. It took another full lap, but eventually Seton got Richards lined up just right, swooping through on the inside at Griffin’s Bend. Seeing an opportunity, Fury likewise put the move on Richards, but this time Richo wasn’t so accommodating. Up the short chute to The Cutting they were side by side, Fury’s inside line converted to an unfortunate outside line. And then as they swung through The Cutting they were side by side, and up the steep climb to Reid Park the Skyline finally got past to take the place – but the speed of the black BMW had the commentators gasping. That little 2.3 four-banger very nearly had the torque to shove that light chassis up the hill as fast as the turbo-boosted Skyline!



So that promoted Seton to 7th and Fury to 8th, while dropping Richards back to 9th, with Cecotto remaining a hapless 10th. Niedzwiedz, meanwhile, was past Allan Grice on lap 20 and up to 4th place – not bad when he’d dropped to 14th with his slow start.

But then the next casualty was the #22 Lusty Commodore, which arrived in Forrest’s Elbow way too fast, got out of shape under braking and slammed into the earthen bank (as the commentators said, for the second time in two days). In another "hadn't they invented safety yet?" touch, the orange VK was simply left to sit there under green flag running, as it was off the racing line and therefore, so the marshals thought, out of everyone’s way – even though the braking for Forrest’s was taken while pointed straight at it.

On lap 27, New Zealand's Graeme Bowkett came into the pits and parked the Team Nissan NZ Skyline in its pit bay. The mechanics lifted the bonnet and the commentators started speculating that Kent Baigent probably wasn't going to get a drive today, which seemed confirmed when they pushed the car back into the new pit garage. In fact the car would rejoin later, but multiple laps down and well out of contention. The #24 Skyline was effectively done for the day.

By lap 22, however, the Sierra threesome at the front had become a straight one-on-one as Rouse's ANZ Sierra lost boost and dropped out of the fight between Miedecke and Soper. As Rouse dropped back to create a 7-second-and-growing gap to the leaders, Miedecke was fighting hard – and then he passed Soper on the pit straight, to lead the Great Race for Australia. It didn’t last, of course, the two destined to swap the lead continuously for the rest of this stint, but what a performance it was for the man from Port Macquarie! The pace was so hot that by lap 32, they were lapping Peter McLeod in the #10 Mobil Commodore. In fact, by this stage of the race, barely an hour in, there were already only ten vehicles on the lead lap.


But on lap 33, disaster, as Andy Rouse abruptly slowed on pit straight. Since it was his job, Richard Hay took a running jump into the lion's den to interview a sour-faced Allan Moffat.
Richard Hay: Allan, have you any idea what the problem is with the car at the moment?

Allan Moffat: Well I think to stop so suddenly it would have to be in the transmission or the diff, but until Andy gets back we won't be certain.

Richard Hay: That's fairly serious then, it looks as though the car might not go out again today?

Allan Moffat: Well we can't get it in. You have to be able to get it back to work on it and you’re not allowed... Andy’s not going to change the transmission by himself. I’m afraid it's the end of the day for our ANZ car today.
It took a few laps for Andy to complete his walk of shame back to the garages. When he got there, Crompo took interview duties.
Neil Crompton: I have Andy with me at the moment in our pit studio, and as you know the ANZ Ford Sierra was performing literally flawlessly, it was going great guns. And then all of a sudden, Andy, you just lost a couple of hundred revs on the straight and things started to degenerate from there?

Andy Rouse: That's right, we lost a bit of straightline speed because the turbo boost had lowered itself for some reason. That was alright, I was going quite nicely and we didn't want to be going too hard anyway. But then coming around the corner onto the pit straight, suddenly a big bang and there's no drive, so the transmission has broken somewhere. It's always been a worry for us, that particular thing, and this track's very hard on the transmission, a lot of low-gear work and over bumps, and I'm afraid it's taken its toll.

Crompton: So what does that lead you to think about later this afternoon, with your opposition – say for example the Eggenberger cars? Are they going to be in the same sort of boat?

Rouse: Well they're certainly subject to the same sort of risk. They probably realise now that it's more of a problem than perhaps they thought in the first place, so they'll probably learn from what's happened to us I think.

Crompton: The sort of pace that you were running early on was around about 23s and low 24s. It’s considerably slower quite obviously than your qualifying setup, but was that a pace that was designed to take you right through one-thousand kays?

Rouse: That’s right, we planned to run 23s and 24s as long as everything was good, but with the drop in boost of course that slowed us down – over a second. It changed the handling of the car a little bit, but I was happy enough, you know we could've just fixed the boost as soon as I came in for the pit stop. But unfortunately we didn’t get that far.
In later days, Moffat told the story a little differently.
In 1987 I was at the start of my ANZ association and I hired Andy Rouse and his whole team. The Englishman started the race and I never had to worry about getting into the car. The gearbox blew up before I got a chance.

After the race I told my chief mechanic Mick Webb to get the Rouse guys on the booze and find out why the car had stopped. When he told me what it was I told them all to get out of my sight. It was a goddamn Spa 24-hour gearbox with more like 36 hours on it. I was never so incensed about anyone in my life, considering what it had cost to bring his team to Bathurst. – Allan Moffat, AMC #78/79
As was pointed out in Part 1, the car Moffat had leased – the one he'd brought over on the understanding that it would remain here and become his ride for 1988 – was was chassis number ARE RSC 0587. This was the car that had raced at Spa as the #17 of Alain Semoulin/Thierry Tassin/Jésus Pareja, which had finished the full 24 hours with 464 laps completed. Rouse's own car, the #8, had suffered a rim failure about halfway through and ended up in the weeds, which ironically would've made it the better buy. In other words, when approached by a driver with deep pockets looking for a Sierra to drive next year, Rouse had made sure to load it up with junk parts that were already well past their lifespan. Andy Rouse now had the privilege of screwing over both of Ford's hero drivers in Australia.

Keep walking, mate.

In the background, while the ANZ team were looking anguished, Peter Brock also quietly pitted from 6th place. The car was given fuel and tyres, and co-driver David "Skippy" Parsons climbed in for his first stint. This was about 7 laps early by the pit strategies, so something was up there, and the commentators spent a little time wondering aloud what it could be.

A lap later and the #10 Mobil Commodore also pitted for service, rejoining with Peter McLeod still at the wheel. The TV cameras then swung back to show Andrew Miedecke still leading the race, but he was driving through a cloud of smoke – smoke coming from Skippy Parsons in the #05 Mobil Commodore! Something had clearly gone catastrophically wrong, and Skip did what he could, limping back to the pits at an agonising pace so the mechanics could look it over. They squirted some oil in the top and generally fussed around with it, but then one of them reached in and unplugged Skippy's radio headset, and unbuckled his harness, and then Skippy climbed out as the car was pushed to the back of the garage. His time at the wheel had lasted just 2 laps.
Neil Crompton: The situation with David, he came into the car, he was only there for a couple of laps. Peter came in, I think, about one hour and ten minutes into the race, and it was about 7 laps early. Skip, what happened?

David Parsons: Well, I believe that we ran a bit short on fuel, that's the message that we got back in the pits there, so it was a bit of a rushed driver change. I slid into the car and off I went. Which it wasn't any problem, all the temperatures and everything else was fine, but the car didn't seem to be pulling quite the same sort of revs it was earlier on the Saturday afternoon. Got up through The Cutting there and I noticed her getting slower and slower and what have you. And I came out of The Cutting there, and there was a hell of a rattle and a heap of smoke and it was all over.

Crompton: No idea what the problem was? Is it a crank, rockers, or what?

Parsons: Well, I'd nearly say it was bearings. Bearings I'd say, by the rattle in it.

Crompton: Alright mate, that's a bit of bad luck.
Speaking to Motorsport News ten years later, Brock revealed it had actually snapped a conrod in half. No matter, either way the car that had been given all the TLC had died barely an hour in, leaving the one made of pot luck leftovers the only one still running.

The following lap saw Miedecke and Soper make their first stops, both the race leaders at the same time! Pierre Dieudonné took the helm of the #6 Texaco Sierra from Soper, but Miedecke stayed in the cockpit of the #35, where he was interviewed (very briefly) by Channel Seven.
Peter McKay: Great to see an Australian up there at the head of the race. How's it going, okay?

Andrew Miedecke: No problems at all. We've just had the alternator light come on but I'm hoping that’s not too serious. So everything else is doing it comfortably – tyres are good, brakes are good, engine's running beautifully.

Peter McKay: Thanks, mate.
Grice likewise was heading for the pits, seemingly in dire straits as well, the gauges clearly showing diff and gearbox temps about as high as the gauges could go, and a few laps later the "Low Water" light started flashing as well. The diagnosis that the car was about to retire seemed confirmed when, on the way down Conrod, Grice started unbuckling his seatbelts – yet when he arrived in pit lane, Win Percy was suited up and ready to go.
Richard Hay: Win Percy is standing right alongside the car, dives into it. Gricey out, Percy in – all four wheels and tyres being changed again, they’re going all over the place. The Bowkett Nissan, incidentally, has just left the pits once again, that was gearbox problems with that car. But Gricey strapping Win into the car, and it's interesting to note that all of these cars have come in early, they’re all about 4 laps early. We were told Gricey would come in at 40 laps. The car's started up again, straight out of the pits, and maybe that wasn’t the quickest of pit stops but certainly everything got done okay and they didn’t seem to be any other problems other than the fact that it needed fuel and tyres.
Later, with Gricey miked up and free to talk, Neil Crompton took a moment to ask whether the car was genuinely in such bad shape.
Crompton: Now the situation with your car, we were looking earlier on at some fairly graphic shots on Seven's Bob Jane RaceCam. We saw some needles that were hanging up there in the red and I understand you were getting a Low Water light. But somewhere along the line, the computation isn't right?

Grice: Yeah that's right. The needle that’s in the red is the gearbox temperature – that's not unusual, because a race like this we start with a brand-new box with tight clearances, new bearings, etc. And it's not unusual the temperature starts high and as the race goes on the temperature comes down. The water temperature light, the Low Water light on the left that you saw flashing, that indicates that the water level in the head is low. But the water temperature is not high. So the only thing we can put it down to is a faulty connection.
As Percy swooped through the Chase to complete his outlap, Winni Vogt had his arm out the window of the #43 Bigazzi BMW, which was moving awfully slowly. Vogt was this year's European Touring Car Champion with Germany's Linder Rennsport team, but even the best seemingly weren't immune to BMW's troubles. The mechanics fuelled and tyred the car out of hope more than expectation, and then one of them shoved a couple of spare wheels underneath in case the air jacks gave way, then crawled bodily underneath to have a look – clearly something serious had gone wrong, surprising when this was one of the cars that had started from pit lane. It was still there 15 minutes later, and although it did eventually rejoin, it was multiple laps in arrears.

More pit stops came and went: the #15 Skyline of Glenn Seton had taken service on lap 35, with the #30 George Fury following a lap later, handing the car over to Terry Shiel rather than double-stinting like Seton. Then the #7 of Niedzwiedz also took service, likewise electing to hand over to Klaus Ludwig. Then, on lap 37, the #32 Commodore of Warren Cullen took a hit to its passenger-side door in Hell Corner courtesy of an over-eager Peter Jackson Nissan, tipping it into a spin that ended on the dirt just past the pit exit. That was game over for this embattled Commodore, as the shunt seemingly damaged something crucial. By lap 44 only the trio of leading Sierras were still on the lead lap, Ludwig ahead of Miedecke and Dieudonné. Best of the rest were Win Percy in the #2 VL and Jim Richards in the #44 M3, highest-placed of the BMWs, which would've put the ghost of a smile on Frank Gardner's stony face – but even so, they were a lap down.

And then, during the next commercial break, it happened – a steaming and crumpled Caltex Alfa Romeo was suddenly sitting in The Esses, having crunched the wall on lap 47. Erstwhile driver Lucio Cesario was seen making a sharp exit over the tyre bundles; the replay revealed Cesario had badly overcooked it into The Dipper, missing his braking point and virtually launching the car over the kerbs and sand trap. There was nothing he could do from there, as steering and brakes only work when the wheels are on the ground. The car was damaged badly enough to miss the Calder Park round the following week, but Cesario had already managed his bid for Bathurst immortality: "Cesario's crash triggered the first use of a Safety Car at Bathurst!" quipped Colin Bond years later.


Yep, there was no question about it now – Cesario had blocked half the track. It was at last time to summon the Pace Car. When it appeared, it was just a white Nissan SVD Skyline Silhouette R31, a more recent model than the one Seton and Fury were racing featuring sideskirts and a rear wing they surely must've envied. It also featured the mandatory flashing orange lights, and behind the wheel, 1976 race winner Bob Morris. This was where the trouble really started, because Bathurst had never seen a Pace Car before, and our inexperience with it would shortly be revealed – inexperience on the part of Race Control as much as the drivers.

A peculiarity of FISA's rules was that anyone who came in for a yellow-flag pit stop would actually find the pit exit closed to them, with a crew of marshals and a chain blocking the way, like the bouncers and velvet rope outside a nightclub. The idea was that, since the Pace Car meant the track was blocked, the drivers would have to wait for the train of cars to pass them by and then join sedately on the end, rather than exiting whenever they felt like it and tear-arsing around the track until they caught up. It was a typically opaque FISA way of doing things, so we were lucky Channel Seven had a microphone in front of Grice so he could explain it for us.
Neil Crompton: I think it's now time, Allan Grice, where your international experience will come to the fore. We've seen a situation where the yellow flag has come out and in some cases there's been a misunderstanding in the interpretation of the rules.

Allan Grice: Yes, there are two Pace Car techniques in different forms of racing in the world. One is the NASCAR Pace Car system whereby you can rush into the pits and get back on, as long as the Pace Car hasn't gone past you, you can catch up to the field and not lose a lap. But the FISA interpretation of Pace Car rules differs, as do all of their interpretations, and in this instance if you come into the pits you lose a lap because you're not allowed to rejoin and catch the field. So it means if you come into the pits, you have to wait until the Pace Car does a complete lap and of course you lose a lap. We lost a lap the same way at Spa in the 24 Hour race with the works BMWs, just missed getting out and, well, you lose a lap.
This led to scenes like the #42 BMW – now with Brancatelli at the wheel, Cecotto having handed it over – at the head of a queue of cars at the end of pit lane, waiting for the Pace Car to trundle by. Adding to the absurdity, the Ratcliff Transport team's pit box was at the very end of the lane, requiring them to push their car backwards so it could line up behind the #60 Nissan Gazelle of Grant Jarrett, who was waiting behind the Brancatelli BMW.


The marshals took advantage of the break to remove the crashed Crichton Sierra from The Cutting, although they left Perkins' Enzed Commodore where it was. But while they were busy, Andrew Miedecke bombed into the pits for fuel, tyres and a handover to Don Smith. It was a quick stop, just over 30 seconds, and if it'd been under green flag conditions they would've done themselves proud. But they weren't under green flag conditions: Don charged back into the fast lane, only to find the way blocked by that immobile queue of cars. Miedecke came trotting down the lane and stuck his head in the window to explain the situation, and since the car had only covered 15 laps since its last stop – less than half a stint – there was a lot of explaining to do. The lad from Port Macquarie had stuffed up badly. Before long, Crompton had a chat with a dejected – hell, completely gutted – Andrew Miedecke.
Neil Crompton: Andrew, there seems to've been some confusion. Gricey helped us out in explaining the situation, but it seems as if sitting in the pits was a chronically bad thing to do?

Andrew Miedecke: Yeah, I must say it looks like I've made a mistake. I've done very little in long-distance racing, the only racing I've done is Group C sportscars with John Fitzpatrick. And in that you dive in when the Pace Car's out and you can join on again at the tail, just like the way they do it in the States, and that's what I expected to be able to do. I couldn't believe that everybody else wasn't doing the same thing.

Crompton: I think your car is back in Position 11 at this stage, do you think in any way, shape or form the situation is retrievable?

Miedecke: Well, we can only try. The speed that we were going was very very comfortable for both me and the car. I think I can – well, I know I can go a bit harder, and as soon as we've got Don over with his statutory third of the race, I'll be going like buggery.
To be fair to Miedecke, Bathurst was a longer track than most of those on the WTCC and ETCC tours – the only longer one was Spa. And at circuits as long as Spa, they'd have two or even three Pace Cars standing by, so the rule made a little more sense as you generally wouldn't lose whole laps. But Australia wasn't quite as moneyed as Europe, so you could be sure that white Skyline had been supplied, not bought – and Nissan Australia had supplied only the one. Like a shadow puppet projected on an unfamiliar surface, European methods were producing some unexpected results when applied to Australia. Bathurst had popped its Pace Car cherry, but it had dialled Australia's best hope out of contention in the process.

Not that the Europeans were all benefitting. The  #47 BMW of Anette Meeuvissen was seen stopped beside the track, sitting in an open gate on the outside of Griffin's Bend. Apparently Meeuvissen had stalled after trying to make it through the Pace Car laps without refuelling. But the cherry on top of the fiasco pie was that the race abruptly and without warning rotated back to green-flag running, catching everyone napping. Channel Seven was deep in its Q&A with Grice,and the footage clearly showed the Pace Car (and the field) going past behind Gricey as he was saying the words "NASCAR Pace Car," with the lights clearly on – and yet by the time he was finishing talking about his warning lights, the race was back to green! It seemed no-one had briefed Bob Morris on Pace Car procedures either: he was supposed to complete one final lap with the lights off to let everyone know the next time around it would be green flag again (with the lights-out lap being the "lucky dog" window, where everyone a lap down could regain the lead lap, as long as they were between the Pace Car and the leader), but the race restarted so abruptly it seemed he'd simply switched the lights off and pulled straight into pit lane, and not necessarily even in that order.

It was time for some levity, and we got it with one of the funniest exchanges ever seen in a Bathurst broadcast – Allan Grice telling his co-driver to get a bloody move on already.


If you can't watch the video, the full exchange went something like this:
Crompton: Well Gricey, the situation now is that the Pace Car has moved away and the race is back on. Would you at all like to have a chat with Win, because we could probably arrange it for you through our Bob Jane RaceCam?

Grice: Yeah, I guess? It’ll take him a lap though to get back in the swing of things, he’s now got to get the car straight back up to race speed and try and stay with those Fords. Unfortunately the Sierras, with the enormous amount of grunt they’ve got in a straight line, it makes it easier for them to pass the cars.

Crompton: Nevertheless, you must be really thrilled at the performance of the car, you’re up to 3rd, the car was the short-wheelbase version as little as 24 hours ago. It’s flying!

Grice: Yeah there’s nothing wrong with the motor car. Obviously that blinking light’s a worry but we can only put it down to a faulty connection.

Crompton: Well let’s ask the man himself. Win Percy, what’s the situation at the moment?

Win Percy: Well I believe the situation is that we should stay behind the file for one lap after the flashing lights go out. Your guys are now displaying green flags. I don’t really want to take the risk of overtaking, that’s the problem.

Grice: Yeah, green flags has gotta mean “Go” though, Win.

Percy: ...You sure?

Grice: Yes sir.

Percy: Okay. I’m going.

Mike Raymond: Go for it, Winny!

Crompton: Well that’s the best cue I’ve ever seen. When the boss says go for it, you can get stuck into it.
And indeed the RaceCam showed Percy overhaul the white #19 Canam Commodore down Conrod. "Green flags mean 'Go' in any book in the world," muttered Grice as the race got back underway.

With the race back on both JPS BMWs made pit stops – first Francevic, handing over to the team's engine man Ludwig Finauer, then Richards to hand over to Longhurst – so close they almost ran into each other in the pit box. But they’d got about 50 laps done, not a bad stretch from the fuel tank, admittedly helped by the Pace Car, but the Meeuvissen car proved it hadn't been guaranteed. The JPS cars might've been giving away 10 kW to the European cars, but they got it back at the pump.

But the stop went wrong, taking a full 50 seconds as the bonnet was briefly lifted for some oil to be squirted in – and then, just like at Sandown, the car refused to fire up again. The boot lid was then lifted for the mechanics to stuff around with the fuel tank, breaking the dry-break filler on

"Well they’re trying to break the dry-break system,” said Grice in the measured tones of a man watching a team for whom he nursed an old grudge drop the ball. "Maybe they're thinking they've pressurised the system and it's flooding the engine." The mechanics attached a vent bottle, and then someone physically stuck their hand into the pipe and pressed on the valve, letting fuel come gushing back out. They put a plastic office container underneath in a token effort to contain the spill, but there was no getting away from the fact that they were pouring fuel all over pit lane, which gives the servo attendant in me the shivers – said mechanic didn’t even have gloves on, let alone a fire-proof suit! One of the rubber fuel lines was disconnected and someone blew into it to try and clear the system, while others were busy tipping soapy water all over the ground to dilute the spilled fuel – a sensible idea, but it was going to make their pit box awfully slippery next time. Just for once, Frank Gardner’s JPS Team BMW looked something less than slick and professional. It took nearly two minutes, but Longhurst eventually rejoined the race, chastened but only a single lap lost.

Source

By lap 57 there were only 36 cars still in the race, and only 3 were on the lead lap – the two Eggenberger Sierras, and Win Percy in the Bob Jane T-Marts Commodore, the Whinging Pom now assuming the role of Australia's Great Hope. 4th and 5th were the Peter Jackson Nissans, Bowe ahead of Shiel, but a lap down. Lap 60 saw Dieudonné bring the #6 Texaco car back to the pits for fuel, four new tyres, but no driver change. They'd planned 36-37 lap stints out of it, but under race conditions 30 was seemingly all it could do. By chance he rejoined right in front of the hapless Don Smith in the #35 car – who immediately passed him up Mountain Straight.

That must’ve been a slight balm to Miedecke’s wounds, but the respite was only temporary. On lap 68 Smith pitted the Oxo Sierra and climbed out. Miedecke didn't even have his helmet on when he pulled up, so clearly it wasn't a planned stop – and sure enough, the hinted-at alternator problem had reared its ugly head, and the engine was now misfiring. After some patching from the mechanics, Miedecke took over the car and rejoined, but that was yet another tactical error from the Oxo team, as Smith had not yet completed his mandatory third of the race and would have to do another stint. But with the alternator on the blink and retirement staring him in the face, it was doubtful Miedecke cared much right at this moment.

Win Percy made a scheduled stop on lap 74 – stayed in the car, fuel and tyres – but the team made no attempt to check the water, so clearly they weren't too worried. It was a very quick stop, and Percy returned to the groove almost as if he'd never left it, albeit in 3rd rather than 2nd. The onboard shots as he rounded the blind turns across the Mountain's brow were just stunning, the unearthly grip of a racing car (even one based on a common shopping trolley!) set to the soundtrack of that trumpeting Holden V8. The affection might not've been returned, but all the European drivers (or at least the ones who hadn't seen it already) were falling in love with the Mountain that day. Such is the way of racing drivers when you show them fast corners, elevation changes, and what Peter Brock always called, "a track with consequences."

Ah yes, Brocky; he'd last been seen on lap 62. The #10 Mobil Commodore had come it for its scheduled service and, as he and Perkins had done in 1983, Brock and Parsons took advantage of the cross-entry rules to commandeer the surviving car. Peter McLeod was turfed as Brock himself climbed aboard for the next stint, and although it would be a cliche to say he had a steely look in his eyes as he left the pit bay (you can't see much else when they're in a helmet, after all), there was definitely something behind those eyes as he rejoined in 10th. Of course, for them it was only lap 60, being two laps down, but you could never quite discount Brock when he had a bee under his bonnet.


And there was still the question of the weather. All day it had been chilly and overcast, and the stiff flags and shaking cameras gave away that there was a stern westerly blowing. For those in the know, that was a sign, as the weather in this part of the world comes from the west. Moisture got hoovered up from the Southern Ocean, crossed the Bight and completed a great arc from Adelaide right the way across to the east coast, blessing the farmers with everything from light sprinkles to walls of thunderstorms that would do the American Midwest proud.

The west wind was blowing, there was weather coming, and this race was only half over.

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.

Source
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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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 Jon 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, Motoring.com.au
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:

Source

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.