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.
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.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).
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
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)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.
#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)
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 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."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...
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!"
|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?|
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 AutobiographyBy 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 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.
"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
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.