Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Micro Machines

Funny thing: while John Cooper's former driver was off winning the World Championship in a car of his own design, a car developed by John Cooper was winning Australia's premier race.

Although the annual 500-mile test of showroom machinery was their creation, by 1966 Armstrong York Engineering were no longer behind it. They'd pulled out and gone home, taking their marketing budget with them, but this only showed the race had taken on a life of its own. Irish tobacco brand Gallaher stepped up to take over where Armstrong had left off, making it the centrepiece of their high-exposure push into the Australian market. Parallel to the naming rights change came a switch to defining the classes by dollars instead of pounds – not a huge ask, as all it required was to double the numbers and replace the pound with a dollar sign. The new classes were thus:
Class A – up to $1,800

Class B – $1,801-2,040

Class C – $2,041-2,700

Class D – $2,701-$4,000
Of greater significance was the wake-up call the organisers had received from the 1965 running of the race. Ford and their motorsport contractor Harry Firth had played the rulebook like a harp, building the minimum 100 hot Cortina GT 500s needed to qualify for the race, then walking all over the opposition for the third year running. Displeased that their mass-production showcase was being corrupted by these small-volume, largely hand-built "Bathurst specials," the organisers upped the minimum number of registrations for locally-built models from 100 to 250, the same as the imports. The GT 500 build programme in 1965 had been quite costly for Ford, so the prospect of another 250 this year didn’t stack up in the accounting department, especially when the all-new XR Falcon range had dropped only a month ago. Another Bathurst win for a four-cylinder British box wouldn’t do their marketing campaign any good; as a result, Firth’s plans for a Mark II Cortina came to nought, as Ford elected to have a gap year instead.

So, with no GT 500s on the grid, a quick scan of other potential race winners showed only one real contender – the Morris Cooper S.

In 1963, John Cooper of the Cooper Formula 1 team, with whom Jack Brabham had won his first two World Championships, had developed a hot version of the British Motor Corporation’s 1959 economy car, the "Morris Mini Minor" – initially, against the wishes of its designer Alec Issigonis. The golden idea behind the Mini had been to mount the engine sideways (ingeniously, placing the gearbox inside the sump of BMC’s A-series engine to save space) and make it front-wheel drive. The wheels were then placed at the corners to free up the rest of the car’s floorplan for passengers and cargo – standard practice now, but quite radical in 1959. This efficient use of space meant, even by U.K. standards, it could be built absurdly small – just 3 metres long and weighing in at 620kg, roughly half of a normal car’s imposition. This of course meant it could get away with having half an engine, so the 848cc four-pot of the initial launch proved adequate for ordinary driving, especially when its unique rubber cone suspension gave it the razor-sharp handling of a billycart.

Since small, light and radical was the Lotus formula for success, it occurred to Cooper to build a homologation special for British saloon car racing. He fitted fatter tyres and twin 1¼-inch SU carburettors that lifted the power from the new 997cc engine from 25 to 41 kW, which made 140km/h achievable and necessitated fitting 7-inch Lockheed disc brakes. Issigonis was displeased, but BMC boss George Harriman drove it and loved it, sealing a 10-year deal with Cooper on a handshake and a £2 royalty on every "Morris Cooper" produced. The car was good, but there was more to be had: by the time the Morris Cooper S was launched, the engine had gone up to 1,071c. This was basically one of Coventry-Climax’s Formula Junior engines, detuned for road use and fitted with two smallish pancake air filters for the twin SU HS2 carburettors. With a 9:1 compression ratio it liked a diet of 95 octane or better, but that was the only concession that had to be made to its racing and rally background.

But that wasn’t the end either: if you fitted a different crankshaft, you could stroke it out to 1,275cc, where it would give 56 kW at 5,750rpm (although the redline was a glorious 7,000). Packing the power of an FB Holden into a car with half the weight had some startling results: the car would pounce from 0-100 in 13.5 seconds and go on to a top speed of over 150km/h, depending on the gears. As a competition special, only 1,000 units had been envisaged by BMC, but the car was such a hit that soon they had to put it into full-scale production. For just £695, you got what was basically the fastest car in Britain, with extraordinary acceleration and an uncanny ability to weave in and out of traffic, both around town and on the track. Even on Britain’s new motorways you wouldn’t be overtaken much. If you could live with the cramped passenger compartment and the weird angle of the steering wheel, it was a genuinely brilliant, small, fast car, as equally at home picking up the kids and shopping as it was picking off the backmarkers around Brands Hatch. And if you resisted the urge to put the boot in, you could even do 8.4 litres per 100km.

But don’t let anyone tell you the Bathurst Minis of 1966 were British imports. Local production had begun as early as 1961, and 7,905 Cooper S’s were ultimately built by BMC Australia between its introduction in 1965 and the expiration of the licence agreement with John Cooper in 1971. These were put together at their Victoria Park plant in the Sydney suburb of Zetland, halfway between the CBD and Mascot airport. Far from mere knock-down kits, these cars had locally-pressed bodies and used local trim and glass; only the engines came as fully-assembled "crate" units. Deviations from U.K. spec included a seven-row engine oil cooler to cope with Australia's 45-degree summers, upgraded Hydrolastic suspension (in place of Britain’s rubber cone type), bigger 7.5-inch brake discs and callipers, 10x4.5-inch 145-series tyres, and distinctive winding front windows with the quarter-vent flaps so beloved of Australia’s smokers, which wouldn’t reach the U.K. versions for several years. Most significant was a (second) right-hand fuel tank, which wasn’t even available as an option in Britain, but came standard in Australia. The reason? A certain race held on a mountain west of Sydney...

After a slow start to sales in the early 1960s, the $2,280 Cooper S was a bombshell: Wheels magazine’s February ‘66 road tested titled "Sooper Dooper Cooper," found that it reached 100km/h in 10.6 seconds and covered the standing quarter-mile in 17.6. Although its top speed was barely 160km/h, they said, "...it is incredibly fast point-to-point. This is the car’s biggest feature – its ability to twitch and dodge and swerve and skip and change line and flick from one attitude to another at any speed right up to its maximum... Very rarely do you come across so much performance wrapped up in one small package." Modern Motor even said the Mini made the traditional sports car obsolete: here was a practical four-seater family car that could out-handle and outrun dedicated sports cars like the MGB and Austin Healey Sprite; the supposedly-hot Holden EH S4 wouldn’t see which way the Cooper went. And with no hot Cortinas on offer this year, it was the only game in town for Series Production, so 24 of the 53 cars entered for this year’s Gallaher 500 were Minis. Seven of them were either the Morris Coopers in Class B or the Australia-only Mini Deluxe/Morris Mini 850s contending Class A, but 17 of the 19 cars entered in Class C were the faster Cooper S. And three of those were works cars, entered by BMC Australia itself, painted dark green not because it was the traditional British racing colour, but in deference to main sponsor Castrol.

The factory’s driver lineup comprised local talents paired with Mini’s big-name international rally stars, here to compete in the inaugural Southern Cross Rally just a week after Bathurst. Irish Mini legend Paddy Hopkirk was paired with local Mini ace Brian Foley in the #28C, while European champion Timo Mäkinen was initially paired with Queenslander John French in the #23C, although Mäkinen was replaced by local man Steve Harvey before the race due to a clash with the Finn’s overseas rally commitments. The third BMC team car, the #13C, saw Finnish rally ace Rauno Aaltonen teamed with the real star of Bathurst 1966 – Sydney’s Bob Holden, who’d become good friends with BMC Australia’s PR boss Evan Green, and been invited to drive for the works team at Bathurst.

Seen here in his early 20s, because Australia is brutal. (image)

Born with what he described as "twisted feet," and having contracted polio while in hospital at the age of 5, Bob Holden had been told he would never be able to walk properly. But he did. Determined to "get mobile," he soon defied the doctors and started walking anyway; walking led cycling, which led to competitive cycling, until at 18 he was blown off course during the Colac to Warrnambool cycle race, landing in a culvert under several other unfortunate riders. The incident injured his knees and forced him out of the sport for good, but the end of a promising cycling career proved the beginning of a stellar, 60-year motorsport career. "I wanted to do something else," he said, "so I started playing around with motorcars." "Playing around" might’ve been a bit of an understatement: he had been building, racing and rallying Minis for a couple of seasons now, hence his friendship with Evan Green. Inexperience meant he’d missed out on Bathurst 1965 with the new 1,275cc Cooper S: "I had ace mechanic Peter Molloy [who later built the engines behind Allan Moffat's 1977 double-whammy] on my pit crew. He didn’t know you had to take off the second fuel cap to vent the system when refuelling. We spent 12 minutes in the pits and it cost us the race."” But the effort had earned him a place on the BMC factory team. Now, at age 33, he found he had the unique advantage of being the only qualified mechanic among the six works drivers. Hence, he was in a position to do something about it when, although theoretically equal, one of the three cars earmarked for Bathurst proved less equal than the others.
On Monday before the race all three cars went on the dyno. Dave Bradford, an English apprentice I knew well, rang me and told me there was a problem. Dave said: "One of the cars is down one and a half horsepower... and you know which one you will get!" – Bob Holden, AMC #91
One and a half horsepower might not sound like much – just 1.1 kW – but on a 56 kW engine, that was a significant deficit. The Mini just didn’t have that much power to spare. Thinking fast, Holden prevailed upon Green to let him take the car back to his own workshop and give it the once-over with his own hands. The catch was that if the other drivers heard about it, they would likely raise a fuss and demand the same treatment for their own cars, so it had to be done on the sly. So, after everyone else had gone home, Holden got into the #13C, drove it back to his workshop, rolled up his sleeves and started an all-nighter.

Dismantling the car, Holden found the factory’s preparation was basically sound, but he was acutely aware of the rather wide engineering tolerances of mass-produced vehicles and their ability to shake a car to bits over the course of 500 miles at the redline. He and his crew set about perfecting each rotating component of the Cooper S in record time.
I picked it up at 6pm Monday and took it to my garage at Pymble. Dave was there organising things. We stripped the car back to the bodyshell and balanced everything. We balanced all gears, brake drums and discs, axles and driveshafts, as well as checking the blueprinted motor. The parts went to Lynx Engineering for balancing and then back to the workshop. I returned the car to the factory on the Tuesday morning; no-one knew it was gone! – Bob Holden, AMC #91
On the Tuesday night, he collected it again and took it for a several-hundred-kilometre thrash at maximum speed (no open-road speed limits in those days, remember) to bed everything in and see if anything would break. Nothing did. The car was fast and held together beautifully.
I got the car again on the Tuesday night and I drove it all night to Canberra and Yass. On Wednesday Dave put it back on the dyno and found it was up one and a half horsepower, so I told him to wind back the distributor!

I was just looking for an edge, and the edge just happened to be that it had to be as perfect a car as you could possibly get. – Bob Holden, AMC #91

In qualifying, the V8s predictably ruled the roost, the speed trap recording Conrod speeds nudging 190km/h. Since pole position had to go to a Class D car, it ended up falling to Studebaker driver Warren Weldon with a lap of 3:16.7. Chrysler Valiant V8 driver Digby Cooke was next-fastest with a 3:17.9, just ahead of the Nougher/O’Keefe Valiant at 3:18.3. Bob Holden, however, was keeping his powder dry for the race. His teammates had to be kept in the dark until the start of the race, so he and Aaltonen borrowed an idea from Harry Firth and recorded their practice laps at different reference points on the track to those of the official timekeepers.
You had to sandbag because if you were fastest you might find the numbers on your car had swapped overnight. There were no logbooks then. Rauno understood the team politics. I told him we shouldn’t show our full speed in qualifying and we should just back off after the Castrol Tower at Skyline. We were timing half laps and working out what a quick lap would be without setting one. – Bob Holden, AMC #91
Even so, the Minis were generally lapping in the 3:11-3:13 zone, making life hell for the big cars wallowing across the top of the mountain, and especially under braking for Murray’s. In fact, one of the Minis recorded such an astonishingly fast practice time that the race organisers came over and gave the Valiant drivers a dressing-down!
I do remember in practice quickly catching up to a good mate of mine, Bill Stanley, in his Cooper S going up the Mountain and his lap time dropped by a ridiculous amount, like about 8 seconds, because I shoved him all the way to the top! Jack Hinxman from the ARDC pulled me aside after that and said: "That Mini you were following did an amazing lap time, an extraordinary lap time, so if I catch you doing that again during the race I will black-flag you!" – Digby Cooke, quoted in Mark Oastler’s 1966 Bathurst 500: The Valiant V8 automatics that conquered The Mountain

At the green flag, the class-based grid ensured that even though they weren’t the fastest, the big Class D cars like the V8-powered Studebaker Larks and VC Valiant automatics led the field away. The Weldon/Slattery Studebaker leapt off the line with the two Valiant V8s in hot pursuit, but it wasn’t long before they were being dive-bombed by the swarm of Minis that were soon here, there and everywhere. Where the big cars were getting on the brakes at around 300 metres from the end of Conrod Straight, the fastest Coopers were still wide open on the throttle right up to the 100 metre board! Brian Foley talked about it in a 2005 issue of Mini Experience, which was recalled by Australian Muscle Car #91:
Timo [Mäkinen] and I were back in the pack. We were slipstreaming each other and then we’d change over so things wouldn’t overheat. Charlie Smith had got away to a fairly good lead. Then Timo and I got out out of the pack and were slipstreaming each other down Conrod and I can still remember to this day our cars were touching and when I looked through his rear window I could see his instruments. The old needle was wrapped around the end of the gauge. Anyway, here’s Charlie going down Conrod doing 104mph and Timo and I just drove past him at 114mph! He was furious and shaking his fist.
I'm not sure why he remembers Mäkinen being there when he wasn't; I guess memories get rusty after half a century. Regardless, within a few laps the big cars had already run out of answers to the speed of the Minis, which ran off into the distance in their private battle for outright honours. Aaltonen took the lead on lap 2 and held it until a stunned Foley, driving right on the ragged edge, managed to catch and pass him by lap 10. From there the two works drivers engaged in a furious dice for the lead as they sped away from the pack, setting a cracking pace as they slipstreamed each other down Conrod at 180km/h, often with barely a flicker of daylight between them. It all came to an end after only 25 laps when Aaltonen’s speed finally broke him, Foley limping into the pits with fading engine oil pressure caused by a crankshaft bearing failure. The other BMC entry of French and Harvey had already suffered wheel damage in a collision with the Eiffeltower Valiant, leaving the #13C the works team’s only hope. But Holden’s sleepless nights had paid off. Aaltonen’s pace in the opening stint was so great that the Finn was able to bring the car in for the first of two scheduled pit stops, change a single tyre (the hard-working right-front), refill the tanks and it hand over to Holden without losing the race lead!

Bob Holden nevertheless had a fierce rival to contend with during his stint, when the fast but underrated Ron Haylen in a privately-entered Cooper S found himself right up with the race leader after the first round of stops. Like Aaltonen and Foley, Holden and Haylen engaged in a ferocious duel for many laps that ended when Haylen’s car blew a tyre at the dauntingly fast McPhillamy Park and suffered a race-ending collision with the wooden fence. The driver escaped unhurt, thankfully, and was left to wonder what the hell Holden had put in that Cooper that it could run the opposition into the ground over and over again.

Without Haylen behind him, Holden was left a lap and a half clear of the 2nd-placed car when he made his second and final pit stop. Aaltonen climbed back behind the wheel right and, with the #13C running perfectly, emerged from the pits still well in the lead and cruised to a dominant win. After 130 laps, Aaltonen crossed the finish line a full lap ahead of the 2nd-placed Fred Gibson/Bill Stanley Cooper S, and two laps ahead of the 3rd-placed Cooper S driven by Bruce McPhee and Barry Mulholland. In fact, Coopers filled the top nine places outright, with the highest-placed non-Mini the Eiffeltower Valiant of Nougher/O’Keefe, a sobering six laps behind.

Even so, the two Valiant teams and a Hillman Minx (Class B) driven by Lionel Ayers and Max Volkers unwittingly became joint winners of a manufacturer’s team prize – the PBR Trophy – which they knew nothing about until it was awarded to them. The fastest race lap was a 3:10, a new record, set by open-wheel ace Frank Match in another Cooper S. Total race time this year was 7 hours, 11 minutes and 29.1 seconds, nearly six minutes faster than last year, clocking up an average speed (including pitstops) of 112km/h. Sadly, the whereabouts of the winnning Mini today are unknown: it was returned to service as a daily driver (NSW plates EFK-167) shortly after its historic win; one of the conditions was that it couldn’t remain in Castrol green, so it was repainted white. It was sold to Bob Holden himself, who then sold it on to another racer.
One of my customers ended up with the Bathurst winner. John Millyard raced the Mini [the white #45C] at Bathurst the following year with Andy Frankel, who was one of [rally navigator] George Shepheard’s guys and ran my office.

John Millyard was a muso who played at a nightspot in Martin Place, and one night the Mini was stolen from outside the venue and he got the insurance money. – Bob Holden, AMC #91
If Martin Place sounds familiar, that's because it was more recently the site of the Lindt cafe siege. Anyway, that was all she wrote as far as the car went. There’s a slight chance it’s still around somewhere, and there were even rumours of a red Mini that raced at Oran Park in the late 1960s, which came to grief exposing white paintwork under the red – and, so the story goes, green under the white. But it would be impossible to verify today; more likely the winning car was taken for a joyride and ended its life a burned-out wreck abandoned in the scrub. A great shame, because it was a truly historic car – the last naturally-aspirated four-cylinder car to win Bathurst outright and, discounting the Super Touring events of the 90s, the only front-wheel drive one. Minis would win their class another five times, including 1975, the last year they were eligible, as the Victoria Park plant closed down in ‘74, costing 6,800 jobs. But overall, it was a losing battle. The Australian car, and indeed Australia itself, was changing, and next year would see the debut of an entirely different kind of machine. It was the end of an era.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Half a Century and Counting

While I've been busy chronicling the events of 1986, Auto Action, Australian Muscle Car and Shannons Club's Mark Oastler have been busy covering the events of 1966 – the Formula 1 World Championship victory of Sir Jack Brabham, in a car bearing his own name, and the sole Bathurst win of the Mini Cooper S.

On his way to victory at Reims.

With 20/20 hindsight, the Brabham team's two championships in 1966 and '67 are owed to a pair of gap years when customer F1 engines temporarily ceased to be. With Coventry-Climax out of action at the end of 1965, and the Cosworth DFV not available for anyone to buy until the start of 1968, privateers were pretty much left to fend for themselves. So the origins of Jack's third and final World Championship really trace back to November 1963.

This was the day the teams held a meeting with the FIA to request a bigger engine for Formula 1 than the then-current 1.5-litres. Brabham himself had been one of the biggest critics of the switch, saying, "There’s no way you could call those 1,500cc machines Formula 1." And he kind of had a point: by 1965, sports and GT cars were faster than Formula 1, and thanks to its big 289ci engine, Dan Gurney had been able to take the new Ford Mustang around Watkins Glen very nearly as quickly as a Formula 1 car – a standard production car, which you could buy off the showroom floor, without needing any kind of special licence. This wasn't Grand Prix racing. Something had to be done.

So, something was. The teams had their game plan worked out when they walked into the meeting: talking among themselves beforehand, they agreed they’d like a 2-litre limit.
We agreed that whatever we asked for, the FIA would reduce. Someone said, "Let's ask for three litres. They will cut that down as they always do. They cannot make it 2.5 – as we’d just had such a formula – so they will give us two litres."

We agreed the tactics and that Colin [Chapman, Lotus team boss] should do the talking. There was a long rambling introduction, then the FIA president asked: "What would you gentlemen like?" Colin said, "Three litres." The president looked round his colleagues, nodded and said, "Done. Thank you for your time, gentlemen." That was that. We filed out, absolutely thunderstruck. – Tony Rudd, Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator
Problem was, Coventry-Climax boss Leonard Lee then announced his company wouldn't be building any 3-litre engines. Their designer Wally Hassan was nearly 60, and about to commence work on a new Jaguar V12: it was decided he couldn’t effectively supervise both projects at once, so Climax withdrew from motor racing instead. Both of the projects in the pipeline – the Climax FPE, a 3-litre V8, and a supercharged version of the 1.5-litre FWMW flat-12 – were cancelled.

What a shame.

This was a huge blow to the contingent of privateers then involved in Formula 1. We don't often hear about the, because they didn't usually win (or even finish) races, but back in the day a solid third of the grid was usually made up of nobodies and locals out for a laugh. In the 1960s even a top-spec F1 cars was a fairly simple and cheap thing to build, so Formula 1 was open to anyone with a car and the appropriate paperwork – and getting a car was just a matter of money. You bought a chassis from Lotus or Cooper, or indeed, Brabham; a gearbox from Mike Hewland in the U.K.; tyres from Dunlop or Goodyear (unless you were a top-tier talent, in which case they'd give them to you for free); and an engine from Coventry-Climax. Climax engines had powered four major teams in the 1.5-litre era – Lotus, Brabham, Cooper, and Rob Walker (scion of the Johnnie Walker whisky dynasty) – not to mention innumerable minor ones. For an entire era, the Climax was basically the "control engine" of Formula 1.

So when they took their bat and ball and went home, about half the grid was royally screwed.

Their customers went in a variety of directions in search of a solution. Bruce McLaren, who'd picked a particularly tough year to start up his own team, turned to the 4.2-litre quad-cam Ford V8 taking over in American IndyCar racing, lining it down to meet the 3-litre limit. Dan Gurney had commissioned the Britain's Weslake Engineering to build him a V12, and BRM was busy screwing together a sixteen-cylinder monstrosity, but neither was going to be ready until very late in the year, leaving them to join Lotus in scrounging for leftover Climaxes. Cooper even dragged out the 2.5-litre V12 from the Maserati 250F, modified it for fuel injection and hoped for the best.

Stewart took the season-opener in Monaco, thanks to a Tasman-spec Climax V8.

But Jack Brabham, he looked a bit further afield – about 17,000km further, in fact. Like most of the drivers, he spent his summers racing in the Tasman Series in his native Australia, and one of the best Tasman engine builders happened to be Repco – the Replacement Parts Company of Melbourne, Victoria, whose meticulous methods had made them his preferred supplier back in his RAAF days, when he'd repaired Beaufighters. They had their hands on the block of the stillborn Oldsmobile 215, whose "aluminum" construction made it the lightest stock V8 in existence (a mere 144kg). It had obvious potential for racing, and they already had plans to build it into a 2.5-litre V8 for Tasman customers. Jack quietly mentioned that if they wanted to stroke it out to 3-litres as well, that mightn't be such a terrible idea...

The end result was a brilliant demonstration of the kind of improvised hot-rodding Australia was good at in those days: the Oldsmobile block was fitted with alloy heads, fuel injection, Alfa Romeo single overhead camshafts to replace the shared pushrod arrangement and, with Daimler 2,548cc concords, they reduced the stroke to 61mm, meeting the 3-litre F1 restriction. The custom exhaust system was even provided by Lukey Performance Exhausts, the company of Brabham's old quarter-mile dirt-oval midget rival, Len Lukey (who later also owned the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit; Lukey Heights is named after him, and has nothing to do with the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor). It was a peculiar arrangement: officially these engines were on loan to Brabham, and if they were sold the money went to Repco, but it was a small price to pay. The Repco V8 was only modestly powerful, barely making 225 kW, but it was reliable and the torque was there from 3,500rpm all the way up to the redline at 8,000, making it extremely drivable.

Adding to the improvised, spit-n-duct-tape feel of the whole project, the car Brabham drove hadn't even been intended for this engine. The Brabham BT19 had been designed around a Climax flat-16 that never eventuated, so it remained a one-off; the BT20 was built for Repco V8 power from the start, but Jack decided not to drive it, deciding to let his teammate Denny Hulme find out how reliable it was. Jack stuck with the BT19 – like Jenson Button's Brawn in 2009, a brilliant chassis compromised by an engine it had never been designed for.

The rest is well-documented history: after a slow start to the season, Jack won the French, British, Dutch and German Grand Prix on the trot. His car failed at Monza, but so did those of title rivals Graham Hill and John Surtees, and by then there weren't enough rounds left for anyone else to catch up. Jack Brabham had his third and final World Championship, and it had come in a car built in his own workshop with his own hands. It would never be done again.

Intriguingly, however, the last issue of Auto Action brought my attention to the fact that Jack won the title at least partly because Ferrari lost it him.

Enzo's Scuderia had started the season with the relative luxury of two engines – the light and proven 2.4-litre "Dino" V6, which had been kept in development thanks to the Tasman Series, and a new 3-litre V12, derived from the 3.3-litre unit taken from Ferrari's Le Mans-winning 250LM sports car. That should've been a huge advantage, leaving them an underpowered-but-lightweight engine for the twistier tracks (Monaco, Brands Hatch) and a beefy-but-strong unit for the long fast ones (Spa, Reims, Monza). They were also to be led by their 1964 World Champion, John Surtees, so they could be sure that if the results weren't coming the problem wasn't the driver.

Surtees, on his way to victory at Spa.

Unfortunately, being Ferrari, these advantages were countered by some equally severe disadvantages. For one, despite all its power (270 kW at 10,000rpm), the new V12 managed to have the excess weight of a Le Mans engine without any of the excess reliability; crude manufacturing meant it tended to break down. For another, Ferrari was neck-deep in a pissing contest with Ford over the Le Mans 24-hour race (this being the era that gave us the GT40), so the Grand Prix effort was neglected, as Surtees later explained:
At Ferrari in those days, you started with a handicap. Until Le Mans was over, you couldn’t really do the work you wanted to do – and needed to do – in Formula 1.
Le Mans was in late June, so by the time Ferrari turned his attention back to Grand Prix racing, Brabham had sorted out the kinks and was ready to begin his sequence of four wins in a row. Ferrari was forced to do his development against a rival who'd done his homework months before. Hence, by the time he got it all in one sock, the title was already gone.

But that wasn't the whole story either, because added to the mix were problems unique to Ferrari. Being a road car manufacturer as well, Ferrari was relatively large by motorsport standards, with a long employee payroll. With so many people around, the close-knit feel of the British teams just wasn't there, and in its place came lots of gossiping, lying and backstabbing – which was only exacerbated by the Old Man running his team as a dictator, one who didn't bother attending any of the races. He was totally reliant on what his team manager told him, and he made it very clear that he wasn't interested in hearing that the car was no good. His car was always the best, so it must be the driver who wasn't delivering.

Added to this was a faction who were always outraged that Ferrari wasn't being led by an Italian driver. Phil Hill and Niki Lauda faced the same thing; they tolerated you, barely, until you got the house in order and the car was winning again. Once that happened, they called for you to be fired so an Italian could slide into your seat and reap the glory – which would see the team start to decline, and the whole cycle would start again. In Lauda's day, the Italian was apparently named Maurizio Flammini, whose Italian F2 title in 1976 turned out to be the high point of his career. For Surtees, it was the double-whammy of Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti: Bandini was a capable, race-winning driver, but he didn't have the force of personality to rally the Scuderia behind him, while Scarfiotti was better known as a sports car driver, and so far had yet to win a Grand Prix at all. Together they'd actually won Le Mans in 1963, but at Le Mans in those days the key was to win as slowly as possible, so second-tier drivers had a shot in a strong car. With them standing behind him, Surtees had to work overtime merely to justify his position in the team. Wrangling decent engines, tyres, gearboxes, etc required further effort, and then there was the need to develop the car and find the time and money to go testing. It was all too much for one man, even a workoholic like John Surtees. At Le Mans, where Surtees wanted Mike Parkes as his co-driver, the Ferrari team manager forced Scarfiotti on him instead in a cynical effort to guarantee an Italian win. Surtees threw a tantrum and quit the team, never to return.

Ironically, the #20 ended up being shared by Scarfiotti and Parkes.

The intriguing part is what might've happened if he hadn't. Rewind to the season opener in Monaco: Surtees wanted to use the Dino V6 but was made to drive the unsuitable V12 instead. He led until he retired with a broken differential, and although the win went to Jackie Stewart (irrelevant to the title fight), 2nd place went to Bandini, driving the longed-for Dino V6. The V12 held together long enough for Surtees to win at Spa and take 2nd in Germany, and he also won the finale in Mexico driving for his new team, Cooper-Maserati. Then consider that the Ferrari V12 also won at Monza, with Scarfiotti driving (the last Italian to win the Italian Grand Prix). If Surtees had been driving that car instead, then the championship table starts to look rather interesting – 36 points to Brabham's net 42. From there it would only have taken one more sneeze – like Ferrari bothering to send a team to Brands Hatch – and history could've been completely rewritten.

Despite a big, underpowered Cooper-Maserati, Surtees ended 1966 with a win in Mexico City.

Maybe, maybe, maybe, but lucky victories count too. Ferrari might have dropped the ball that year, but it was Brabham and no-one else who picked it up. That year was the World Championship of Striking When The Iron Was Hot, and the best at that was not the bickering, divided Italians in rosso corsa, but the Australian Green & Gold.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

On This Day... Tourers in Adelaide

Seeing V8 Supercars and Formula 1 back-to-back is one of the greater pleasures in life. If nothing else, standing by the track in Melbourne taking in the sight of the monstrous Aussie tintops – which have 450 kW, can nudge 300km/h, and still corner at more than 2G – being made to look as clumsy as drunk mastiffs does wonders to remind you just how fast F1 really is. That's why I get annoyed that they paint over all the white markings on the road when they turn Albert Park into a track each year. I know the white hi-gloss is slippery and dangerous, but if you lose that reference point you lose your feel for how crazy fast it's all happening.

Back on topic, tourers and F1 always made a great double-header, and probably never more so than in 1986. The long-neglected Australian Grand Prix had gone through some hard years – from the glory days of the Tasman Series, it had hung on as a Formula 5000 and Formula Pacific race – until it got a shot in the arm in 1980 with the World Championship of Alan Jones. Some quick rule changes allowed Jonesy to race his title-winning Williams FW07 against whatever F5000 and FP machinery was lying around – mothballed local open-wheelers against a modern, championship-winning F1 car. The only other F1 car in the race was Bruno Giacomelli's Alfa Romeo 179; F1 star Didier Pironi had to scrounge a local Elfin MR8 Formula 5000 car (also in an MR8 was a very young John Bowe, who was about to hit the big time as a double Australian open-wheel champion). So of course Jones won by a lap. It wasn't smooth, but it was poetic; his father Stan Jones had won the 1959 race at Longford in a Maserati 250F, making them the only father-and-son duo to claim the title.

It brought the Australian GP back from the brink, and by 1985 it was where it belonged – part of the Formula 1 World Championship. And with it came the touring car support race, which in '85 wasn't a classic event, but was a significant one for two reasons.

Firstly, it was the race that got Dick Johnson noticed by future sponsor Shell, and it happened entirely by accident. Sitting on the grid waiting for the start, Johnson realised they'd put the starting lights up too high for him to see. In an open cockpit F1 car it wouldn't have mattered, but when you were strapped well back in a Group A Mustang with a roof and a narrow windscreen, the lights were completely obscured.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and leaned across the dash. With my arse out of the seat and my body stretched across the cabin, I could see the start lights. But I couldn’t reach the clutch and could barely touch the wheel. I thought about giving it a go, but I wasn’t too keen to blast down the straight without a seatbelt on.

The panic grew.

I stayed there, full of indecision, until the first light came on. Almost a natural reaction, I jumped back into my seat and clipped the belt back in. Again I could see nothing. I decided I would guess. I counted to three and dropped the clutch.

In a minor miracle it was the best damn start I had ever had. I had timed it to perfection. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
From there Dick won the race easily, against admittedly feeble opposition – most of them were leftover cars from Bathurst a couple of weeks earlier, often with both drivers' names on the windscreens, even though, as a 15-lap dash, this was a decidedly one-driver affair. But the titans that year, Frank Gardner's John Player BMWs, had stayed home, so apart from a following Peter Brock Johnson had the track virtually to himself. And so he won it by miles.
What was significant about that race is that a guy from Shell who was coming back to Australia after running Shell in Ireland was there. John Rowe was a motor racing freak and had returned to head up Shell in Australia.

We were trying to put together a deal going forward and he was at the race in Adelaide and I’ll never forget it because he was standing over the fence every lap and I won the race which just blew them away. I won the race and my name was up in blazing lights. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
The road to the Shell Sierras started there.

It was also the last time an F1 driver pulled double-duty at a race meeting. In the old days it had been the norm – once upon a time, it wasn't unusual for Jim Clark to claim the Formula 1, Formula Junior, small-capacity sports car and touring car races all in the same weekend – but as F1 got more organised and professional, a rule had been introduced forbidding a driver to take part in a "major event" in the 24 hours before a World Championship race. Mario Andretti had fallen foul of it in 1968, finding himself barred from that year's Italian GP because the day before he'd flown back to America to take part in the Hoosier Hundred, a USAC-sanctioned dirt oval race at the Indiana State Fairground. It delayed his F1 debut by a month, and ensured it came at Watkins Glen rather than Monza as he'd dreamed.

Apparently though, a non-championship touring car race at the arse-end of the world didn't count as a "major event," so special permission had been given for the young Austrian Gerhard Berger to take part. As a driver for the Barclay Arrows team, which used BMW engines, a deal had been worked out for Berger to drive the Bob Jane T-Marts BMW 635, which had been built by (and technically still belonged to) BMW's works team Schnitzer Motorsport. Putting one of F1's rising talents in the dominant car of the season really put the wind up the Aussies, especially with the eyes of the world on them for the first time.

But on race day, it all went to hell in a hurry. Apparently Dick Johnson wasn't the only one who'd had to guess when the lights went green, because the Holden Dealer Team's second driver John Harvey jumped the start by seconds and passed three rows of cars before the others got moving. The stewards penalised him, obviously, but they took their sweet time doing it and in the meantime he fell into a battle with Berger – and, in a moment of colossal brain fade, bashed him off the road into the Turn 1 chicane. "Not against an Aussie!" laughed TV commentator Allan Moffat, who’d seen it all before. "He’ll be up against politer drivers tomorrow," was Murray Walker’s prim comment.

Berger was given a lot of credit for the sang-froid with which he eyeballed that tyre barrier sidling up to him, but at the same time, that footage probably explains why no-one else has been allowed to do it since. The following day, apparently unrattled, Berger drove his Arrows A8 to 6th in the Grand Prix, taking the final points-paying place of 1985 – which wasn't a bad effort in a car he described as "the biggest shitbox I ever drove in my life."

My only question is, what the hell had got into Harvey? That kind of thing wasn't like him at all. Forgive me Slug, but you were never that fast, and kept your job on being a good lieutenant and a safe pair of hands for the enduros. So what the hell was he doing dicing with an F1 superstar-in-the-making when he was technically out of the race already? The stewards didn't get around to applying his penalty until lap 14 of 15, and even then it was only adding 60 seconds to his race time. On our first day in front of an international audience, it wasn't a good look for Aussie motorsport.

Anyway, that was 1985; I have no idea how the 1986 touring car support race went, because I haven't had the chance to watch it yet for download limit reasons. Consider this saving it to watch later. I was intrigued to find out it was Round 2 of an attempted resurrection of the South Pacific Touring Car Championship, though, the first round apparently being the Calder Park enduro the week before. In the early 70's the South Pacific championship was an off-season dress-rehearsal in support of the Formula 5000 tour, which only drew a small entry list. I have no idea why anyone wanted to bring it back, but I suppose Group A was as good an opportunity as any; to really make it sizzle you'd want to include the Wellington street race too, though, and maybe a support bracket for the New Zealand Grand Prix... but there'd be plenty of that sort of thing coming in 1987.

In the meantime, you got to see Aussie touring car stars hammer it around the streets of Adelaide, followed by the legendary '86 Australian Grand Prix, when a shred of rubber was all that separated Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost from the coveted World Championship trophy. It was a good year to be in Adelaide.

Spotlight Cars: the Australian 2.0 Litre Touring Car Championship
While we're focusing on the obscura, it might do to mention the Australian 2.0 Litre Touring Car Championship, run for the first time in 1986. Class racing had always been the norm in Australia, and Amaroo Park's AMSCAR series had once functioned as a separate championship for the smaller cars, but it wasn't until 1986 they officially got their own silverware to chase. It was a brief five-round series: Round 1 was run as a support race for the Sandown ATCC event; the next three rounds, at AIR, Calder and Oran Park, were run concurrently with the ATCC round. And the finale, at Brisbane's Lakeside Raceway, was a standalone meeting on 27 July, unrelated to the main-game meeting a month earlier.

All five races were won by John Smith, who took a clean sweep and the championship in a Corolla hatchback built by Toyota Team Australia, a two-headed monster that also competed in the Australian Rally Championship. Toyota were rather well represented in this class, with six out of the nine entrants driving Corollas, including Smith's teammate Drew Price, and touring car stalwart Bob Holden, who'd had already been an established racer at the first ATCC in 1960! Holden drove a Sprinter Trueno to promote his dealership in Manly Vale, and ultimately this car would have the record for the most starts at Bathurst, taking its first in the Group A class in 1984, and its last in the "leftover Group A cars" class in 1993. And besides those punishing 1,000km bouts, he also raced it in sprint rounds across the country, and even managed the Spa 24 Hours earlier in the year. God only knows how many kilometres were on the poor thing's overworked odo by the time he retired it. Toyotas, man...

Other possible rides in this series included the Isuzu Gemini ZZ – which was assembled locally rebadged as a Holden, although the sporty ZZ model had to be imported, as Holden focused on their V8 Commodores – and later, the Nissan Gazelle. It went to show how quickly things were changing. When Glenn Seton made his ATCC debut in 1984, it was at the wheel of a Ford Capri Mk.III, because his father Bo built the best Ford V6s in the country. Fast-forward two years and Glenn is about to become Nissan's strike weapon for the ATCC, and the small class is dominated by Japanese hatchbacks. The times, they were a-changin'...

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

On This Day... Triumph & Tragedy II

One of the immutable laws of racing is that the race always goes on. Mike Burgmann might have lost his life, but it was only lap 5; there were still 158 to go. It's not over until they wave that chequered flag.

So let's get one thing out of the way first: this should've been Nissan's year. The Peter Jackson Nissan team and their driver George Fury had pushed hard for the Australian Touring Car Championship, and had only just been held off by Robbie Francevic and the Volvo Dealer Team. And by Bathurst, there was no more Volvo Dealer Team. Not really. At the warm-up Castrol 500 at Sandown, Francevic'd had a huge row with team manager John Shepherd over the way he was running the team (a feud which had been simmering beneath the surface since Shepherd had taken over back in March). As a result, the reigning champion had been fired for his trouble. Francevic told Speedcafe in 2011:
Group A was a development series so of course you had to keep developing the car, which John wouldn't do. When Sandown came I always said that I wanted 17-inch wheels. John said he'd trial this on John [Bowe's] car. I wanted the same and said that it's the only way to go, they would be so much better. We were seven seconds a lap slower, which was ridiculous, and he wouldn’t do anything about it.

I went up to top management and said that we were in trouble and that we were not going to win Bathurst. I also told them that they should have teamed me with Bowe. On 17-inch wheels we could win. They wouldn't do it and John sacked me. He didn't tell me verbally but told the media.
Apparently all Francevic had said was that it would be better to scratch it than carry on tomorrow and complete an expensive failure. The car was duly withdrawn and Francevic left the circuit, unaware that Shepherd was telling the media he had quit the team. "I’ve never struck a more difficult guy to work with," Shepherd said. "Obviously we were looking to work through to Bathurst, but in some ways I’m glad it's all over now."

Scorned, Francevic returned to familiar pastures with Mark Petch, the Kiwi businessman who'd founded the team in the first place and had now bought compatriot David Oxton's Ford Sierra XR4 Ti (the same car that had taken Andy Rouse to the 1985 BTCC title). As I've said, the Sierra was not the moon rocket it would become later, so that left him out of contention for the rest of the season. It also left the rookie John Bowe the senior driver at Volvo, and although history would show he had oodles of talent, he didn't yet have the experience to carry a whole team on his back at a race as important as Bathurst. Petch was less than impressed: Shepherd had been given the car, the trained mechanics, the spares, the sponsors and the driver on a silver platter – and had still run it into the ground in a matter of months. But, ask Harry Firth, he’d made a career out of that sort of thing...

So that had left Sandown to be won by George Fury and his young protege, Glenn Seton, who were also driving together at Bathurst. But there used to be a curse about Sandown – whoever did well there never had any luck at Bathurst. And sure enough, when they arrived at Mt Panorama, Fury found his number had been put on the side of a brand-new car – and it didn't work as well as the old one. Said Fury in 2010 (again to Speedcafe):
There was one year that we really thought that we had a great chance, it was 1986, the team built a brand new car for me for Bathurst.

The old cars had a different roll cage design and the new chassis was a lot stiffer and our spring/shock package didn’t work at all on the new car.

We could not get it to handle well, if we’d had run the old chassis we had the chance to win Bathurst, that was our year.
Seton concurred, telling Australian Muscle Car in Issue 80:
They were a nightmare to drive. It was only when I drove the car again, at Oran Park in 2008 in the farewell event, that I realised just how bad they were.

I'll never forget the first year at Bathurst with George Fury and me. It had a steel cage, and we were always talking about Conrod and coming over the humps and wondering whose barbecue we were going to join. They just jumped sideways.
Fury had been driving the wheels off them all year, so we can only imagine how bad it must've been that it now spooked him. But the upshot was plain to see: the second Nissan took pole thanks to a stunning Hardie's Heroes lap from Gary Scott (and tyre warmers provided by the McLaren F1 team, who shared their Phillip Morris sponsorship). Fury, who'd taken the far less tractable Bluebird to pole only two years earlier, could manage only 3rd, 1.9 seconds slower.

For the first time since its inception, however, Peter Brock had failed to make Hardie's Heroes. The man he had to thank was his co-driver, Allan Moffat. Yes, really: the former Ford hero had been mostly without a drive since Mazda had pulled out at the end of 1984, leaving him a free agent. Despite their long rivalry – or maybe because of it – Brock had a strong appreciation for his value and offered him a drive with the Mobil Holden Dealer Team, the pair taking victory in the season-opening Nissan-Mobil 500 in Wellington. Twelve Bathurst wins in this one car alone should've made the rest of the field nervous, except that in Friday practice Moffat had a moment and put the car into the wall. Said Moffat in Issue 78 of Australian Muscle Car:
I was shadowing another Commodore [Crosby] in Friday practice, not doing anything stupid, but there wasn’t daylight between our bumpers. I was actually looking through his back window to see where I was going. It had been raining in the morning and there was a rut in the sand at McPhillamy Park, parallel with the edge of the circuit. I got a little wide and the right rear tyre dropped into that rut and instantly, instantly, the car turned 90 degrees left and then up onto the concrete wall. I felt like I was going to be Australia’s first astronaut with nothing but blue sky in front of me, but eventually it fell back onto the highway at Skyline.

That afternoon I learned the gracious aspect of Peter Brock, because the crash was pretty hard for me to swallow. He couldn’t have been more gracious and he was already on the phone to GM in Melbourne and they flew everything from the windscreen forward up to Bathurst for the repair.

When I went out the next morning it was actually better than before. I told Peter I should crash them more often.
The repairs were still underway when Hardie's Heroes began, so for the first time ever, Brock was left twiddling his thumbs.

So, the Volvo Dealer Team, the Holden Dealer Team and the reigning Australian Touring Car Champion were all down for the count: it really should've been Nissan's year. Except for one thing – the car that had qualified 2nd, the only car even close to Gary Scott's pace. Allan Maxwell Grice in the #2 Chickadee Commodore. The remarkable thing about this outfit is that it wasn't a "team" in any conventional sense, more a loose association of individuals who'd agreed to work together for this one race. There was the usual complement of mechanics and support personnel, who as always go anonymous and unappreciated in these reports, but if you had to boil it down to the big three – the Holy Trinity – they'd be Allan Grice, the driving talent; Les Small, the technical brains; and Graeme Bailey, The Money.

Bailey was not a pro driver but a successful businessman, a frozen chicken magnate who just happened to have a very expensive hobby (like Mike Burgmann, actually...). You don't seem to see it anymore, but when I was a kid Chickadee chicken was everywhere. I'm not sure what his Big Idea was that made Chickadee such a major brand, but it certainly seems to've made Bailey a wealthy man. He was like Saito in Inception, the man paying for everything who was therefore entitled to tag along in any capacity he liked. If he wanted to fetch the spare tyres, the team could hardly tell him to shove off, could they? As it was, the former Celica Group C racer annointed himself co-driver and left it at that.

Allan Grice on the other hand had a longer history, and a more complicated one. Although a professional racer for a decade now, his career highlights so far had been a series of 2nd places: 2nd in the 1975 ATCC, for example, and a 2nd place at Bathurst as well – and not an especially glamorous 2nd, either. If you know your history you may recall that Peter Brock and Jim Richards won Bathurst '79 by a whopping six laps in their Marlboro HDT Torana; well, the man six laps behind that day was Gricey, in his Craven Mild Torana, an allegedly identical car (fun fact: I had this car come in on a trailer when I was working at the servo one day. It was on the way to a shindig at Eastern Creek, and I got to speak briefly to the owner, who confirmed it was the real car and not a replica. Soooo cool).

Not the same car, and seen here at Phillip Island, but still.

But this year Grice really had his eye in, having spent the first half of the season racing the Chickadee Commodore's sister car over in Europe, where every waking moment had either been spent in a 500km race, or a 24-Hour race, or a never-ending Yokohama tyre test. With the possible exception of Brock, no-one on the grid in 1986 had covered as many kilometres this year as Grice. And let's not forget, in 1982 he'd been the first man to lap a Group C touring car around Mt Panorama at an average speed above 100mph, his laptime that day a 2:17.501, his average speed 161.604km/h. And in qualifying this year – proper qualifying, not Hardie's Heroes – he'd repeated that feat in a Group A car, stopping the clocks with a 2:16.16 – this time, a one-lap speed of 163.184km/h. Clearly, Grice hadn't lost his touch.
The '82 pole-winner; Grice collected $5,000 for his trouble.

Les Small and Roadways however were a bit more complicated. Originally Roadways was a Tasmanian road-surfacing company owned by Ian Harrington, who caught the bug when he was contracted to resurface the little-known (but dearly beloved) Baskerville Raceway, just north of Hobart. He bought a car and got track president Garth Wigston to drive it, saving on transport costs by forming an alliance with Norm Gown and Bruce Hindhaugh, who ran an engine tuning company in Melbourne, allowing them to store the car on the mainland. If those names sound familiar, it's because Gown-Hindhaugh was the operation Peter Brock drove for when he won Sandown and Bathurst in 1975; Les Small was one of their employees. The next decade or so was a blizzard of different mechanics, sponsors and drivers (among them Harrington's son Steve), and the lowest ebb undoubtedly came in 1980, when Bruce Hindhaugh tragically took his own life. But soldiering on, Roadways came back strong and ended the year with their breakthrough win, taken by Queenslander Charlie O'Brien in the Compact Tennis 400 at Surfers Paradise.

After that, Roadways was more or less the Holden B-team, the nominal backup to Brock and HDT, picking up where Grice's Craven Mild team had left off – so appropriately, from 1982 onwards Grice himself was a regular showing. He doesn't seem to've been actually contracted to the team, more like a hired hand who kept getting invited back, which probably suited Grice and the team just fine (Gricey was a prickly character). The following year the Re-Car (mobile truck repair) team folded and the leftovers were snapped up by Roadways – among them a returning Les Small.

At the end of 1984, when Steve Harrington headed off to the U.K. to try his hand at Formula 3 instead, his father elected to shut down the Roadways team rather than continue. In response, for 1985 Small established "Roadways Racing Services," a completely separate company, and set about helping to build Francevic's Volvo that year, among other projects. He also started building customer Commodores to order – and by most accounts, if you couldn't get your hands on ex-HDT machinery, a Roadways car was a pretty solid second choice.

By far the best cars Small ever built were the two VK SS Group A's of 1986. One of them was taken to Europe and raced at Monza, Donington and Hockenheim, as I've detailed before; the other spent the first half of the year in a modest NSW Central Coast backyard garage, being polished by Graeme Bailey's main man, Peter Pattenden. This was the car Grice and Bailey took to Bathurst that October.

The outcome was a stunner. The car was fast, nearly as fast as a well-sorted turbo Skyline on pre-warmed tyres. More importantly, unlike the Nissan, it was also bulletproof; the Chickadee Commodore took an early lead and never relinquished it, running fast and sure all day long.

Despite what I said above, Graeme Bailey wasn't exactly "tagging along" with the team. He took over for just 30 laps, it's true – just over an hour in the car – but he was able to keep Allan Moffat a steady 5 seconds behind him in the factory-built Commodore (although Moffat was nursing a sore wrist from the touch-up with the wall in practice). But it's also true he wasn't a driver of Grice's calibre, and knew it, so he knew their best chance to win was to keep Allan in the car as long as possible. Ergo, while Bailey drove his 30-lap lunchtime shift, Grice drove the rest – all 133 of them, longer than the whole race when Moffat and Brock won it solo! Grice spent some five-and-a-half hours in the car, in baking heat, standing up to 2 and 3g cornering, with only an hour's break to get hydrated and see a man about a dog. But it did mean he finally won that damn race. Clearly Grice's stamina matched the car's.

It was Grice's first Bathurst victory, at long, long last, and to this day he never hesitates to claim it as his greatest. As he told Speedcafe in 2010:
I think my first one was my favourite win, for a couple of reasons. It was the first time that I won Bathurst after many attempts, but it was a complete, 100 percent privateer effort that beat the factory teams. I think that is always something has been extremely hard to do – it has always been hard to do and rarely done.
It was the last time anyone won it on the old track layout, before they added The Chase, and also the last time it was was won by an "amateur" like Graeme Bailey, who wasn't a full-timer and "bought" his ride with money made elsewhere. No-one seems to look down on him as a "pay driver," though, because whatever else happened that October, he sure didn't screw it up. He kept the car clean and off the concrete walls ready to hand back to Grice, and that's exactly what you want from a co-driver. Professional could've done worse.

Best of all, the car is still around. It was raced a couple more times by Bailey's son, in Sports Sedan events, but other than that it was retained by the man himself. So not only is the car that won Bathurst '86 still running, and still in the hands of its original owner, it even still has the original engine in it! And if you get yourself to the right historics meeting, you can probably see it turn laps to this day, in the hands of the Baileys, father and son – or just maybe, in the hands of Iron Man Grice himself.

Monday, 3 October 2016

On This Day... Triumph & Tragedy

Thirty years ago today, the '86 edition of the James Hardie 1000 was run at Mt Panorama, Bathurst. It was the occasion of one of the most remarkable victories in the sport's long history – but also the day of the Great Race's first fatal shunt.

There's no shortage of Peter Brock tributes in this, the tenth year since we lost him, but I can't recall seeing any for Mike Burgmann yet. He's... not exactly forgotten, just not mentioned very often. He was a Sydney-based accountant by day, and only came out to drive racing cars on weekends, as so many liked to do in those days. If you had the money and could demonstrate your fitness to hold a CAMS licence, there was nothing stopping you in those days – starting positions at Bathurst belonged to anyone the Bathurst City Council liked the look of, not to those with a Racing Entitlement Contract. So Mike raced, three times in fact, before he lined up for his final tilt at Australian motorsport's greatest crown, with rookie Mal Rose on hand to take over for the lunchtime shift. He went out to run the first stint of the day in his #33 VK Commodore, and never came back.

Dick Johnson tells the story in his autobiography:
I first spotted Mike Burgmann’s Commodore as it was attacked by Garry Willmington’s Falcon [sic: it was a Jaguar XJS]. They were coming down the straight at jaw-dropping speed; Willmington was doing close to 280km/h as he pulled alongside Burgmann, attempting a high-risk overtake. I’d seen such moves before, and I knew that the pass was fraught with danger. I kept on watching, aware that they were now both in an awkward position, and sensed that something was about to unfold.

You had to be really cautious coming down the Mountain when you hit the bumps – we didn’t have shock absorbers like you do today – otherwise your car would shimmy and shake all over the place. You were also likely to fly into the air as your 1,500kg machine smacked into the small bumps and sail towards the sky before returning to earth with a thud. There were no aerodynamics on our cars to speak of, nothing to pin them to the ground. If two cars were close enough to each other, a vacuum would be created that would suck the two vehicles together like gigantic magnets.

Both Burgmann and Willmington’s cars left the ground at the same time.

My heart was in my mouth.

In a split second the situation became deadly. As both cars hurtled through the air, the vacuum sucked them together and they touched – the impact sending Burgmann flying off the road in a violent spin toward the Dunlop Bridge.

When I came around to the Bridge, my fears were confirmed. Emergency workers picked him up out of the back left-hand corner of the car. They didn’t stop the race and they didn’t tell us officially until after, but we already knew Burgmann was dead.

These sorts of things can happen and I tried to shrug it off, even though I was a bit angry because it could have been avoided. Burgmann was a personal friend of the track promoter Ivan Stibbard, who was, understandably, in a bad way.

"You guys don’t believe me when I say these cars are going dreadfully fast now," I said. "Without aerodynamics they become aeroplanes." 
The cameras seemingly didn't capture the crash itself, but it must've been the stuff of nightmares: he sailed over the concrete retaining wall and had a head-on collision with an earth bank (only slightly mitigated by a layer of tyres) that was meant to be protecting the Dunlop Bridge, at close to maximum speed. The engine was ripped completely from the car and the fenders were crumpled like beer cans, right back to the firewall. The impact was so violent Burgmann's safety harness broke and he had to be retrieved from the back seat.

In retrospect, it's amazing it took 23 years for Mt Panorama to have this accident. Conrod Straight had been there the entire time, and touring cars raced there right through the 1960s and 70s, the danger era for almost every other form of motorsport – Formula 1, Indianapolis, Le Mans, you name it. And yet the Bathurst classic got away with its hands clean year after year. Yes, there had been quite a few fatalities in other categories – especially motorcycles, which is a whole different level of risk – but against that you have to weigh the effect of packing the grid with weekend warriors, year after year. I'm paraphrasing here, because I can't find the actual quote, but I seem to remember Pete Geoghegan summing up the Bathurst grid as, "A handful of full-time professionals, a few more who know enough not to be a danger to themselves and others, and the rest have never gone so fast in their lives!" So why did it take until 1986 for this to happen? I guess we were just amazingly fortunate.

You can see the footage from the day below, if you like, but be warned if you do you'll see his body on live TV. It's not especially graphic, but depending on your sensibilities, it could be very confronting. I don't know how much first-response medical care has evolved since that day, but I was a bit surprised to see them remove his helmet before pulling him out of the car. They don't do that nowadays for fear of spinal damage, so although officially he was pronounced DOA at Bathurst Base Hospital, to me that says he died on impact.

So Rest in Peace, Mike. You are gone but not lost.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Retirement is Harsh for Double-O's

I love the fan theory that "James Bond" is not just one person, but a code name that goes with the designation 007, although I prefer to imagine they overwrite his real name with "James Bond" just for the movies, "names have been changed to protect the guilty"-style, since using the same name all the time completely defeats the purpose of being a spy. Either way, it still opens up some fun possibilities for what the various Bonds got up to once their stints with MI6 were up. Cracked assumes they kicked their heels on a beach somewhere collecting a government pension, but I beg to differ.

For example, we know this one...

...got caught some time around 1968 and ended up in Alcatraz. He escaped long enough to return to active duty for that diamond-smuggling thing, but then he got caught by the Americans again and shpent longer in prishon than Nelshon Mandela. He was offered a deal to break back into Alcatraz to foil a domestic terrorist...

...and in the confusion made a run for it. Aiming for a comfortable retirement, at some point he seemingly turned his master infiltration skills to petty theft.

His replacement...

...liked the MI6 lifestyle so much he stuck to it even after he was discharged, eventually turning to the only other profession that required sociopaths with such a mastery of manipulation, disinformation and cold-blooded using of people – music management.

This one...

...went rogue and was kicked out of MI6, eventually returning to his home town to open a supermarket.

And this one...

...Christ, he was the worst of all, causing no end of trouble in Panama...

...and then getting booted on a Section 8 after filing after-action reports full of bullshit like invisible cars, Richard Branson-esque North Korean infiltrators and solar-laser satellites. But nothing could quite match the thrill of sleeping with women trying to kill him in exotic and dangerous locations, so he posed as a volcanologist and shacked up with a woman who'd spent time in a mental hospital after hallucinating about robots from the future coming to kill her.

So what's the future hold for this one?

No idea, but we can be pretty sure he won't slow down either, since he was a bit of a thrill-seeker even before MI6 recruited him.

Either way, it couldn't be worse than the intro credits for Spectre. I know Bond movies are supposed to be time capsules showcasing whatever was cool in those days, but seriously, Sam Smith? Sam fucking Smith? It was only last year and I still had to look up who he was, and imho his castrati-on-helium theme song was the worst since The Man With The Golden Gun. Luckily, we already had a replacement ready to go.

Yeah, much better.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Mille Milligrams

Well, this is embarrassing.

I'd planned a grand finish to my series on the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, but you know what? The Castrol Grand Finale, at Oran Park, doesn't seem to be on YouTube. Suffice to say George Fury won the race, but Robbie Francevic stroked home to a 6th-place finish, taking the points he needed to clinch the title, 217 points to 212. He wasn't the first New Zealander to win the title, but he was the first non-resident (he still lived in Auckland and commuted to every race and test session) and, at 44 years, 9 months and 25 days, he was the oldest champion ever.

So let's talk about the 1955 Mille Miglia instead.

If you don't know the story, the short version goes like this: the Mille Miglia was a sports car race run like a single enormous tarmac rally on the roads of northern Italy – an immense housand-mile thrash (hence the name), over 12 hours of driving for the pros and almost 24 for the amateurs. The 1955 running had a record 521 entries, covering everything from Le Mans-spec Ferraris and Maseratis capable of 300km/h, to tiny 247cc BMW Isetta and Fiat Topolino bubble cars, hilarious three-wheelers that this year had been given a category of their own. Only in Italy…

Thankfully, all 521 entries didn't take the green flag together and surge into one massive pile-up at the first turn. Instead, they left at 30- or 60-second intervals, with the numbers on the doors telling the spectators lining the route what time each car had left the starting ramp in Brescia. The relevant car to our story was #722, indicating a start time of 7:22am – almost ten hours after the slowest competitors had departed.

It was called the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, but it had nothing to do with the Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, the world's first supercar. The SLR in fact stood for Sport Leicht-Rennen, or Sport-Light Racing, and it was a dedicated racing car, a Grand Prix W196 with an open-top roadster bodyshell draped over the top. Its teammate, #658, was to be driven by the Grand Old Master himself, Juan Manuel Fangio; our #722 was to be driven by his protege, a 25-year-old Stirling Moss.

As noted above, for most people the Mille Miglia meant a full day and night at the wheel, so taking a second driver was essential to make it to the finish. But this year they were no longer mandatory, so neither Mercedes carried one. Fangio, attempting his fourth Mille Miglia, elected to drive without relief, so the other side of the cockpit was just sort of covered off, turning the SLR into a makeshift single-seater. Moss, however, didn't the route nearly as well as Fangio, so he elected to take Denis Jenkinson, today the doyen of motoring journalists and a legend in his own right, as navigator. It was a shrewd move: going over the route minutely, the pair made pace notes for every corner, every straight, noting speeds, distances, gears – all written on a continuous five-and-a-half metre roll of paper, housed inside an alloy container with a perspex window. Today pace notes are perfectly normal, but in 1955 this was revolutionary stuff, a real game-changer. Unfortunately in the deafening slipstream of an open-top sports car going 270km/h, speech was impossible, so they worked out a system of hand signals instead. Moss and Jenks had to trust each other completely.

The result was astounding: car 722 became the first to defy the conventional wisdom that "whoever leads at Rome doesn't go on to win." Instead, they covered the thousand miles in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, to beat Fangio to the chequered flag by 32 minutes. Their average speed of 157.3km/h smashed the previous record by 15km/h, and established a record that would never be beaten. If you'd like to know more, here's a pretty good write-up of the whole event. It was genuinely heroic stuff.

But I want to focus on a tidbit that is very rarely mentioned, funnily enough – that Moss apparently took one of Fangio's notorious "little pills" just before the race. The nature of Fangio's pills has been much-discussed over the decades, some suggesting they were full of cocaine, others guessing it was the native Argentinian pick-up yerba mate, a caffeine-packed leaf usually made into a tea. Moss admits he doesn't know what was in his, but the little he has said is interesting:
Just ahead of the start Fangio gave me some pills to keep me awake. I have no idea what was in them but they certainly worked. At the time all the other drivers were taking them. To keep awake they used Dexedrine and Benzedrine, especially in rallies. They weren’t considered drugs then. The object was simply to keep awake, like wartime bomber crews. I'm not sure what was in the ones Fangio gave me but certainly today they would have been a banned substance.
It’s worth noting that after the win, Moss spent the evening driving his girlfriend Katie Molson to Munich for breakfast en route to lunch with the Mercedes brass in Stuttgart, and then driving home via the cross-channel ferry – all without sleeping. It probably wasn't No-Doz.

The most specific guess today is that it was something called Dynavis, an amphetamine – speed to you and me. But he's right, they weren't considered drugs back then. Benzedrine and Dexedrine were available over the counter, not becoming prescription-only until the following year (or 1965 in the States), and even then they were so popular the doctors were prescribing them in the millions. They were given to housewives as an appetite suppressant – gotta keep a trim figure for hubby, even after a dinner of steak and mash – and black market versions were popular with truckies on long-haul overnight trips.

A big part of the reason they weren't considered drugs is because the world was being run by the generation that fought WWII – only a decade in the past then, closer than September 11 is to us – who basically spent the whole war on the stuff. The British army handed out 70 million speed pills over the course of the war: the Soviets called theirs vint, the Japanese shabu, and the Germans, who made the best stuff, Pervitin. They put it in chocolate bars to hand out to their tankers and aircrews. The Soviets made a point of looting the stuff every chance they got, and the War Nerd reckons the West German economy missed a huge market opportunity there after the war: "They should have gotten Col. Klink to build on the brand identification they’d won on the Eastern Front and sell the stuff to the Warsaw Pact nations with some slogan like, 'The stuff that made Stalingrad fun!'"

Speed is good in situations like that, where you need to stay alert and keep your morale up through long, miserable hours. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find that my great-uncle, who I've written about before, would've failed a urine test the night he died. Many of the side-effects of speed wouldn't been such a big deal on the flight to Trappes – repeating simple acts, like pointing your guns all over the sky, or elevated body temps so you don't notice the minus-forty draft wafting through your bones because you had to remove the central glass panel to stop it icing up. Or even the general hostility and paranoia paranoia's a very, very desirable trait in a tail gunner. Certainly you don't want the relaxed, mellow bastard who tells you to relaaax, maaan, it'll be fiiiine.

Keep all this in mind next time you see an ad about our ice "epidemic." Ice is methamphetamine, a water-soluble version of speed, and the same stern, unsmiling hypocrites that are so upset about our terrible ice habit will hand the stuff out for free if they've got a war to win. I'm telling you, if China actually makes a move for those godforsaken little islands our backyard labs will suddenly get government funding. I haven't seen Breaking Bad, so I imagine I was the last one to know this, but I was flabbergasted to discover how easy it is to make. The ingredients, though vile, are amazingly common – hydrochloric acid, lithium, acetone, red phosphorous, anhydrous ammonia... so buy some batteries, matches, nail polish remover and a bottle of bleach, and you're most of the way there. Only the pseudoephedrine is even slightly controlled – buy too many boxes of Sudafed at once and you'll end up on  a watch list somewhere – but after Googling "how to make ice" and images of IEDs, I'm probably on several already.

Of course, knowing the basic ingredients is one thing, knowing how to combine them, in what order and in what amounts, is another altogether. That's a real skill set, one I don't have and don't intend to acquire, Mr Lowly Underpaid AFP Agent. And since most of the above ingredients are toxic and/or explosive if you combine them wrong, trial-and-error probably isn't the best way to learn. But I'm no longer surprised a high school chemistry teacher like Walter White knew what to do, and had the clean glassware available to do it.

Heh, funny thought, one of the people in my jobseeker class a few years ago had a master's in chemical engineering and found out, too late, that her degree actually priced her out of the job market. Imagine if she'd been diagnosed with Walter White's inoperable lung cancer; she could probably cook up something that would make ice look like your grandmother's chamomile tea. Is that really someone you want to piss off by calling her as a welfare queen?

That's a serious question, by the way, because the real reason I bring it up is this arsehole:

At first I split my sides at the thought of a truckie – a truckie! – scowling his disapproval of substance abuse, like an Andrew Bolt profile pic. Take notes Alanis, we've got your irony right here! But then I just sighed. Another spin on the old "dole bludgers are on drugs" merry-go-round. Having been long-term unemployed I try to defend these where I can, and when pushed a lot of my friends will admit, "Yeah, I know it's not all of them..."

But it's not not all of them. It's effectively none of them. It's a number so small it rounds down to zero. Apparently New Zealand brought in a scheme whereby they strip welfare recipients of half their payments if they fail a job-required drug test or refuse to submit to one. It's been decried as a waste of time and money, because out of 8,000 people sent for drug testing, only 22 failed, or refused to be tested. Apparently, then, Kiwis are using drugs on a massive, massive scale, because in the U.S. they need to test over seventeen times that many people to catch 22.

Luckily for the Americans, their Supreme Court decided this violated their 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, so mandatory drug testing is now officially unconstitutional. But Australia, I fear, can't be relied on to be that level-headed about it. Dole bludgers are an infallible rage-button among the rednecks in this country, and one the Coalition loves to push. Any time they need a DISTRACTION CARNIFEX, out comes the slander about those on the bottom rung.

But facts are facts. Do you know who's using ice? Truly? People with jobs. About 2.5% of Australians overall have used it in the last year – about half a million people – but that spikes to 4-6% in the hospitality, mining and finance industries. Which, if you'd just stop to think about it, makes perfect sense, because drugs are A) really fucking expensive, and B) really handy for getting through long, late-night shifts. Nobody depending on a Centrelink payment can possibly afford ice (and if they can, then their money isn't coming from Centrelink. More likely they're cooking the stuff in the first place, in which case leave them alone, they're making a valuable contribution to the economy. The black economy, admittedly, but you think cash stops circulating just because it's been spent on something illegal?). But when you're on a long night of making beds and sweeping floors, or digging holes for our Chinese overlords, or trying to make a profit on a machine-dominated ASX, a quick hit of meth can really help.

But isn't the stuff dangerous and addictive? Well, yeah, it overloads the pleasure centre in your brain and, like your Weight Watchers aunt with the bathroom scales, your brain's constantly adjusting the zero. Get used to meth and lesser pleasures like a nice cup of coffee, or a delicious meal, or great sex, will just never really touch you again. That's assuming you don't have a heart attack in the "tweaking" stage, when new users spend 3-5 days constantly taking more to keep the high going. So there are short-term gains and a long-term price, but that's not news. We humans have been failing that test for ten thousand years, as everything from the average smoker to climate change denial shows, and Christ, even water has an LD50.

But that's what happens when you can't go to the pharmacy and buy Dex over the counter. Declare something illegal, and all you've done is pushed it into the black economy where nobody can regulate it anymore. You've  done jack about reducing demand, which means ultimately, you've done jack about reducing supply as well. And as the War Nerd tells us, "what y’all call 'the horrors of drugs' aren’t drug horrors at all. They’re the horrors of Prohibition." Manufacture speed in clean, liable factories under the eye of government watchdogs and the result is, "the white picket-fence days, the whole Eisenhower-grin stuff. It helps if you remember those lean, smiling bores..."

Or the achievements of your heroes.