|Not pictured: Wanneroo Park|
Western Australia is a long bloody way from anywhere. Ronnie Johns, dressed as Eric Bana playing Chopper Reid, once quipped that, "You're so fuckin' far away, Perth, why don't you just fuckin' keep going?" I went onto Google Maps once and asked it to plot a journey from Steep Point, Australia's most westerly point, to Byron Bay, Australia's most easterly point. Computer said no. It's still cheaper to fly to New Zealand – an entirely separate country – than it is to Perth.
Which makes it pretty remarkable that Perth's Wanneroo Park managed to host an ATCC round every year. Remember that Australian touring cars in the 80's were run like Formula 1 in the 60's: the tracks did their deals with the teams individually, offering them appearance money to show up and then hoped to recoup the investment at the gate. The transport costs alone must've made WA an expensive round to attend, so only the big teams that had plenty of finance or a shot at the championship bothered to attend.
Case in point, there were only fifteen starters at Wanneroo Park: the established stars from Volvo, Nissan, Holden, BMW and Ford, plus the cream of the local club racing scene: Graeme Hooley, who'd made the trip to the civilised states a couple of times this year in a VK Commodore backed by Scheel seats; Tim Howton, in a blue #74 Mazda RX-7 (which I didn't know was even homologated for Group A, so who knows, maybe it wasn't?); and a white #12 BMW 635 which I think must've been driven by Simon Emmerling, though you don't need to remember that because he only showed up for this one round.
Oh, and Tim Slako. More on him in a moment.
Qualifying was one of those statistical anomalies that shows up every so often: young John Bowe had taken his first pole position in the Volvo with a 1:01.96, and both Peter Brock and George Fury behind him had set identical times, 1:01.97. At race speed, that worked out as a difference of less than a metre. That might be less astonishing than Jarama '97 because the stopwatches only measured times to the hundredth of a second, but it was still impressively close for three different cars by three different manufacturers, on a track where lap time was determined not just by power or aerodynamics, but by how confidently the driver could throw the car up through the Esses and over the crest at Barbagallo Bend. Everyone had been pushing like crazy – and until the stewards got better stopwatches, it literally couldn’t be closer.
The race was intense, showcasing some beautiful driving from Brock (seriously, watch the way he throws the Commodore up the hill – oversteer flowing like a fine wine), and the young guns Seton and Bowe. And Robbie Francevic recovered from a bad start to bank some valuable points. But for most of them the race ended at the side of the road: a distributor wire fractured in the #05, a pinprick let all the air out of Graeme Crosby's tyre, and then Bowe's Volvo went skit and what should've been an easy first win for Bowe became a DNF (Engine) instead. This was the new car from Eggenberger/RAS Sport, so unlike the older car it didn't have 18 months of local development under its belt, and nobody on the Volvo Dealer Team seemed to have a clue how it worked, as Bowe revealed to Neil Crompton in the interview:
Bowe: "I don’t know, mate. The engine went off and I reckon we maybe had the wrong grade of plugs in it or something. It’s a Swedish engine and we don’t know much about it. It just died altogether, like it cooked the plugs or something. It just definitely hasn’t got any fire though!"So after a lot of good, close racing, the win belonged to George Fury, 15 seconds ahead of his teammate Glenn Seton – Gibson Motorsport's first 1-2 finish. Apparently they knew how their engines worked just fine. Francevic, however, despite leading the championship on 133 points, went away from Wanneroo with some hard thinking to do about whether the frontrunning pace of the new #4 Volvo was worth the risk that it mightn’t finish at all.
Crompton: "There’s been some strange engine management problems, trying to get the ignition right. Has it been a bit of a worry?"
Bowe: "The only problem is that we really don’t know that much about it at the moment. We didn’t get any instructions with it or anything, so it’s done a remarkable job really. It just pisses me off that I was stroking along pretty easy!"
Spotlight Driver: Tim Slako
A Kiwi who'd made a new home in the wide brown land, Slako had plenty of experience in a number of racing disciplines, but none of them paid as much as touring cars. So, bowing to the inevitable, he'd taken support from his West Racing Motor Development business and bought an ex-Andy Rouse Rover SD1. To that he added backing from Alf Barbagallo, WA's answer to Bob Jane, and radio station 96FM, hence the #96 on his doors. And it was paaaank! With lime green bumpers! Because when you're driving an ugly car, a loud colour scheme just feels right.
Spotlight Car: Rover SD1
The Top Gear boys have already covered this machine a couple of times. In S4E8, Richard Hammond bade farewell to the Rover V8 engine and went historic racing in an SD1, the best home the V8 ever had. Then Jeremy bought one for their British Leyland challenge in S10E7, which ended up costing him £978.
Interestingly, in the engine sendoff Hammond also provided an Australian connection when he mentioned the Rover V8 powering, "the Brabham single-seater." If that's the engine I think it was, he meant the Oldsmobile 215, which because of its light aluminium construction had been the basis of Jack Brabham's 1966-1967 championship-winning Repco F1 engines. Which is not to say the Repco V8 was was the same engine as the Rover V8: Formula 1, especially in the 60's, was a complete free-for-all and Repco thieved parts from Daimler, Alfa Romeo and local suppliers like Len Lukey to screw together the best hot-rod engine they could imagine. Rover would've had their own suppliers and would've ended up with a completely different parts list, compromised further by the Group A regs. But still, pretty versatile block.
Top Gear got some things wrong, though, starting with the looks. Hammond recounted that the designers were so pleased with their styling that they unveiled the prototype next to a collection of Italian supercars, and then referred to it as "handsome." I often worry about the Top Gear crew and how often they get their eyesightchecked, because half the cars they praise for their looks are utterly hideous, and the Rover SD1 was the most hideous of them all. The starting point was basically a cheese wedge on wheels, fer chrissake, which was stretched and melted and slung over the wheels all wrong and then the details were seemingly sketched in by the same design studio behind the Sinclair ZX81. It all added up to a shape that offended the eyes but didn't have the decency to be a wallflower. In the designer's mind it was meant to resemble the Ferrari Daytona, but the Daytona was not an especially good-looking car either. I'm sorry, but it just wasn't: it looked like it was styled by a Detroit sheet metal worker who thought the panels would be made from pig iron (which, being a 1960s Ferrari, they probably were).
|Rover SD1, Ferrari Daytona, Mazda RX-7 and the Gadgetmobile. See if you can tell which is which.|
Despite that, with a bit of actual care taken in the build process – say, if it was built by a racing team rather than the BMC crew at Longbridge – the SD1 could've been a pretty good racecar. That it wasn't (in Australia especially) is a bit of a mystery. With a 3.5-litre engine, it should've been basically the same car as the BMW 635 that had completely dominated the 1985 season, only with better aerodynamics (that radiator-less front end with the sloping windscreen didn't exactly spoil the airflow) and some 255 kW to the BMW's 240. Cramming in eight cylinders instead of six should've removed the long, ungainly crankshaft all straight-sixes are burdened with, and made for a powerplant that jumped up and down the rev range much more easily.
But that's not what happened, for a number of reasons. For one, the BMW's engine was unusually good (it had come out of the M1 supercar), and under the skin the 635 and the SD1 were nothing alike at all. Where the BMW was independently coiled all-round with a limited-slip diff, the Rover beancounters had forced the design team to bin their planned double wishbones in favour of cheaper MacPherson struts, with a live axle and Watt's linkage at the rear. In other words, at normal road speeds the Rover would give you a fairly comfortable ride, but out on the racetrack it'd be all thumbs. Where the BMW sniffed out every last skerrick of grip, the Rover was left skating, its camber settings changing when it hit a bump and its rear wheels unable to put the extra power down. Basically, when you leaned on them really hard, the BMW hung on and the Rover let go.
Mostly, though, the difference in results was the difference between a cash-strapped West-Australian/Kiwi privateer and a well-funded BMW factory operation. Tim Slako's Rover was originally a Group 1 car built by Patrick Motorsport in 1980, converted to Group A by Andy Rouse in 1982, and sold to Slako at the end of the 1984 season. It shouldn't be conflated with the Tom Walkinshaw factory-backed Rovers that were based on the 1984-model Vitesse, which was a sort of half-arsed evo model.
You can see the effects in the Motorcraft 100. On the swooping, up-and-down Wanneroo tarmac, Slako was lapped before the end, and you could see the Rover constantly stepping out at the back as the driver ran out of grip and had to fall back on talent instead. Slako had the talent, and managed to keep the Scheel Commodore behind him for most of the race, but in the end it was never going to hold up. The SD1 was far more competitive than a badly-built car from a tiny, broke manufacturer should've been, but in the end second is still the first of the losers. Despite running BMW and Volvo ragged for the 1985 and '86 ETCC titles, Rover would pull out at the end of the year, disillusioned with the politics and unable to bear the expense of failed championship tilts.
And before you accuse me of chauvinism, yes, under the skin the Commodores were pretty much the same as the Rover. But they also had a lot more power.