Wednesday, 29 June 2016

On This Day... the Lusty-Allison Winton Roundup

Round 9 of the Australian Touring Car Championship for 1986, the Lusty-Allison Winton Roundup at Winton Motor Raceway. Ocker name, but at least it wasn't named after Motorcraft.

Winton is a smallish club circuit in the middle of the Hume wasteland between Melbourne and Albury-Wodonga. And I do mean "wasteland": it was in this landscape (albeit a bit further south) that George Miller filmed the original Mad Max back in 1979. No, not the one with the Lord Humungus, the one before that with Immortan Joe as the bad guy, except he was called Toecutter back then.

No joke, same guy.
If you haven't seen it, don't expect much in the way of production values – it's basically a student film Miller financed himself – but in my opinion it's worth the price of admission just for that opening Nightrider scene. Even then Miller knew what he was doing, crafting some genuine tension on what would've been the catering budget for a real movie. And as for that ending... well, let's just say the Saw franchise owes him a big cheque.

Anyway, Winton. It had only joined the calendar the previous year, and the only date they could get was really early in February, aka right at the peak of summer. In his book, Dick Johnson put it like this:
The flies were relentless. Swarming, they darted across my face, catching nothing but the sweat on my brow as the heat burnt my skin through the suit. The stinking hot breeze blew dust everywhere, although it didn’t deter the black plague of pests. I began sneezing uncontrollably, my body shuddering with each sneeze, which was enough to shake the flies off for a moment.

Welcome to Winton in summer: flies, 40-degree days and filthy pollen-laden winds.
After that, for 1986 they rescheduled for June, putting the race in the first month of winter. I can't imagine that made it much more popular – there's not a lot of frost out here because it's too dry, but it still gets pretty frigid at night. You'd have to be pretty keen to camp, and Winton itself is just a rural town, way too small to for mass hotelling. Today not a few elect to stay in Melbourne or Wodonga, but that still set you up for a couple of hours' commute each way. Ergo, by the time it returned to the calendar after a year off in '87, they'd compromised and put the race on in early autumn, finally making it feasible to attend.

The circuit itself wasn't have the long version we know today – see the long loop off to the left in the top photo? That wasn't there in 1986, so they just used the smaller circuit to the right, what we now call the Club Circuit. As you can see, it's the very definition of tight and twisty. In-car commentary from Dick Johnson revealed he had the lowest diff Ford would supply, and even then he wasn't getting into top gear. He even gave one of those trademark Dick one-liners: "It’s like Robert de Castella running a marathon around his clothes line!" – referring to the Aussie marathon champion, who a month after this race would go on to win his second gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

The Commodores loved their long straights and sweeping bends, so they were all thumbs at this place, which partly explained why Graham Lusty qualified dead last. It must've been embarrassing, because his business Lusty Engineering were the ones that had stumped up the cash to hold the race. Today Lusty Engineering still makes semi trailers, and you can see their logo on the side of some of the log trucks around here. Owning a business like that allows a man to dabble in expensive hobbies, and Graham Lusty was a keen amateur racer, even sharing a Commodore with his brother Ken at Bathurst last year. There the Commodore had made sense; here at Winton, not so much. Graeme Crosby was fighting tyre wear all race long, even Peter Brock struggled to get a lap time, and Graham Lusty qualified in last place for his own race. Oh dear.

Free plug, because I support anyone who supports motor racing.

So, what car would you want to be driving at a circuit like this? Top marks go to those who answered, "an Alfa, a Corolla or one of the BMWs." If you said "anything turbocharged," go stand in the corner. The lack of straights made power pretty much irrelevant, especially laggy power, and the tight corners favoured cars with grip and handling – and with their undersized tyres, Group A cars never had much grip. So sure enough, Colin Bond had himself some fun and flung the Alfa Romeo GTV6 around like it was the last race he'd ever have, and the BMWs did well too. In their unwieldy turbo cars, Robbie Francevic collected a few more points, but so did George Fury, setting up a decider in the final round at Oran Park. But the shock of the day was that the race was won by Gary Scott in one of the Nissan Skylines – his first win in the ATCC.

Scott was once more filling in for Glenn Seton, getting some handy acclimatisation ahead of co-driver duties at Bathurst, and I have a theory about why he won. I'm guessing that Scott drove the Skyline like Ayrton Senna drove his Toleman at Monaco in '84, treating it like a naturally-aspirated car and changing up just before the engine hit boost. If that was the case, the 2-litre engine probably would've been enough, and it would explain how he was able to make the tyres last, and hey, maybe even the handling wasn't so bad when the chassis wasn't being swamped by the turbo. If that's how he did it, full credit to him; it was a brilliant drive either way.

But it didn't stand. Post-race scrutineering revealed that he’d been running unhomologated
front brake callipers; the paperwork had been submitted, but they hadn’t been approved and signed off yet. So, heartbreakingly, Scott was disqualified from what would prove to be the only ATCC race he’d ever win. Instead it went to the man who'd finished second – Jim Richards in the #1 BMW 635. It could be a cruel sport sometimes.

Spotlight Car: the BMW 635 CSi

Hero-to-zero is a pretty common story in motorsport. Win the championship this year, and it's hard to keep yourself and your crew motivated to stay ahead next year. Human nature is to get complacent and relax, and meanwhile defeat has your rivals all fired up and while you're busy celebrating they leapfrog you. For JPS Team BMW and lead driver Jim Richards, it was especially painful: in 1985 they'd won 11 out of 15 major touring car races, including six in a row, to take Jimmy's first driver's title and BMW's first manufacturer's title. By contrast, in 1986 Winton would be their only victory all year, and even it had come from the steward's office on a technicality.

It would be hard to accuse any team run by Frank Gardner of getting complacent, but they were overtaken nevertheless. Gardner was a actually hugely impressive driver in his own right, a fact many Aussies don't appreciate because he peaked 20,000km away in the U.K., where he won the British Saloon Car Championship (as it was then known) three times – twice for Ford factory team Alan Mann Racing, in 1967 and 1968, and then again in 1973 in a Chevy Camaro Z28.

Even in those days he was renowned for his severe, some say humourless, demeanour, but despite his Bullshit-Free Zone mentality, or probably because of it, he was unmatched as a driving instructor.

When he took over management of Allan Grice's Craven Mild team, it took a prickly character like Gricey about five minutes to say "fuck this" and throw in the towel. But under Gardner's direction the team grew and matured, switching to Imperial Tobacco's other brand John Player, and hired Jim Richards to drive – and Gentleman Jim was a much more laidback character than Grice. Jim needed no lessons in how to drive, so Gardner ended up attracting other promising young talents like Garry Rogers (today one of the biggest team owners in V8 Supercars – sorry, Supercars) and former water-skiing champ Tony Longhurst. Both were young talents wise enough to park their ego, shut up and listen.

So, no doubt about it, Gardner ran a tight ship and would not have tolerated his people relaxing their guard; the real problem was that the BMW 635 was just getting old. It had been homologated on the older 5,000-model rule, and now it was racing against hot Evo specials homologated on the smaller 500-model rule – most notably the Volvo and the HDT Commodore. It had been successful in 1985 because it had effectively stolen a march on the rest of the grid. Where Group A had forced everyone else to start virtually from scratch, JPS Team BMW had simply removed the flares and put the old engine back in.

See, the BMW 635 had come about when BMW lowered the engine from their M1 supercar into the body of a standard 6-series sedan. If you don't know what that means, the M1 was the basis for greatet one-make series of all time, Procar, which supported the European F1 season in 1979 and 1980. Half the grid were German sports and touring car drivers, the other half F1 superstars. Under their right foot, one of the great engine notes of all time. Awesome ensued.

Putting that engine into an ordinary sedan was going to make it pretty special. Only two ever raced in Aussie Group C, and the first was an ex-Group 2 touring car imported from Europe. By the time they got around to buying the second, for the 1984 season, Group A had taken over in Europe so under the skin it was basically a Group A car. Which was good news for Gardner's team: BMW had taken no chances with Group A, working with tuning specialists Alpina and Schnitzer Motorsport to develop a "kit" for the 635 that would turn it into an all-out Group A racer. It was this lavish support programme that Gardner was able to dip into,sourcing Getrag 5-speed gearboxes with a vast choice of gear sets and diff ratios, AP four-pot brakes, 17x8 BBS centre-lock wheels (an advantge no-one else had at first), and engine, drivetrain and suspension components especially designed for the rigours of competition.

The local Group C rules allowed Gardner's team to fit fatter tyres, so they took molds of the old car's wheel flares to recreate them on the new car, and they were led up the garden path a little bit by trying to fit a more powerful 24-valve engine... but then 1985 rolled around, and they were able to remove all that junk. What was left was the proven Schnitzer/Alpina package, with the lighter 2-valve version of the 3.5-litre Procar engine with around 220 kW at 7,000rpm. With that they just steamrolled the 1985 ATCC, winning 7 out of 10 rounds (including six in a row, from Symmons Plains to Amaroo Park) – then steamrolled the endurance season as well, winning 4 out of 5 of those. The only major scalp they missed was Bathurst, thanks to the Walkinshaw Jags; if they'd bothered to turn up to the Formula 1 support race, no doubt they'd've won that as well.

By mid-1986, however, the team had sold off its title-winning car to Jim Keogh (who gave it a lush burgundy paint scheme, see above), and built an all-new car for Jimmy to drive, and it was this machine in which he won the Lusty-Allison Winton Roundup. It's a testament to how well the other teams had got it all together that this car was actually faster than the '85 car, yet was soundly beaten for most of the year.
The 1986 car was faster and nicer than the 1985 version, but you are talking minute details. In Group A our cars had a [German] Matter aluminium rollcage that bolted in, but the 1986 car’s cage was probably welded in and chromoly or steel. You couldn’t feel any difference from that alone, it was one of a number of things that made it quicker. It wasn’t as good a car for starts because it was made for rolling starts and had a tiny little clutch and a light flywheel, so it was hard to get off the line. And because the engines were tuned for maximum performance they weren’t much good below 2,500rpm. But it was a great car once you got going… You had to drive them hard though! A lot of engine weight was forward of the front axle so I think we had to run really heavy front springs, nearly 200lb I think from memory. The 1986 car was the best 635 I ever drove.
Today the car is part of the Bowden Collection in Queensland, and that arch-collector has a page on it here, which is worth a read. If you're interested in the broader saga of the 635 in Australian touring cars, Mark Oastler has a similarly worthy article here (you'll need a Shannons Club login, but once again it's worth it. Oastler's articles are solid gold). The 1985 car, though? Today it belongs to Kiwi enthusiast Peter Sturgeon, who's returned it to its unique 1984 Group C specification, rather than its title-winning Group A spec. Why? Because Group A cars grow on trees, especially BMWs, but the 24-valve car that raced in Australia, that's unique. It's been restored well – better than original, according to Richards – and the sound apparently gives all the goosebumps. Best of all, when it hits the track nowadays, it's in Jimmy's own hands. Aww, yes.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016


Recently saw this.

Twitter immediately cacked itself at the idea of a tradie supporting negative gearing and the big banks, and rightfully so.

Me, I immediately thought of this:

So it's official. If we get any kind of headline-grabbing international emergency between now and 2 July, it's because Malcolm Turnbull fucked a girl scout.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

On This Day... Motorcraft 100 With A Vengeance

Round 8 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, the third race of the year to be called the Motorcraft 100. Ford's Parts & Services division, Motorcraft had really shelled out on the races this year, probably because they had lots of spare budget to go around after not having to support any of the teams. The only Ford in the field was Dick Johnson's Mustang, and the only Motorcraft parts on that were the stickers that read, "Motorcraft." Despite  that, it ended up being the race of the year.

It was Lakeside Boogaloo.

Lakeside, just north of the Queensland capital of Brisbane, lies on the shores of Lake Kurwongbah, a fact that has influenced the sport on a few occasions – at least one championship meeting had to be rescheduled when heavy rains caused the lake to burst its banks and left certain corners underwater. That minor handicap aside, the Lakeside circuit is a fabulous place to go racing, almost Australia's answer to Brands Hatch. Fast and technical, it has the same swooping, up-hill-and-down-dale feel as its U.K. cousin, with the same blind corners that ask a driver to line their car up with a turn they can't see and keep their foot in it right the way through. Bathurst, of course, towers above everything so high that today's V8 drivers joke that the real question is, "What's your second favourite track?" But if you do ask them that, all the guys over a certain age will tend to answer, "Lakeside."

It was also Dick Johnson's home track – as a child in the late 50's he used to ride his bicycle out there to watch the races. When he finally got a racing car of his own, a clapped-out Humpy Holden, he won his first-ever start there – then didn't win another race for almost a decade. Although he eventually found his form when he returned to the path of righteousness with Ford, the fact remained that nobody knew Lakeside's secrets better than Johnson. Put him on home tarmac, and he could still embarrass the best right up until his retirement in 1997.

So, a circuit for the brave, experienced or just seriously lacking in self-preservation, and the starting grid showed a little of each. The top five were covered by less than a second, with pole falling to the experienced Peter Brock at 56.8 seconds, thanks to endless miles in the car this year (in both Europe and Australia), and a return to Pirelli and their sticky specialist qualifying tyres. Second, starting from the front row for the eighth time in eight races, was George Fury in the #30 Peter Jackson Skyline, only two-tenths slower than Brock. Third went to the #15 Skyline, today driven by Gary Scott, who'd been given a ride in Glenn Seton's car to give him some practice ahead of his co-driving duties in the upcoming endurance season.

But Robbie Francevic, the championship leader? He was starting dead last. Assigned the new Eggenberger-built Volvo 240T, he'd managed to qualify only 10th before the engine blew up, seemingly leaving him to twiddle his thumbs for the rest of the weekend. But John Bowe, who'd qualified a hugely impressive 5th, was having none of that: knowing his place in the team, he generously stepped down and handed his car over to Robbie to race and keep his title hopes alive. The catch was, because he hadn't set a qualifying time in that car, he'd have to start from the back of the grid. Oh joy.

A pre-race interview, shown during the broadcast, revealed Francevic's state of mind:
What a circuit to pick! Here I am going to have to go smashing my way through everybody, because Lakeside is the worst to pass on! With 35 laps I just ain’t got the time to wait around. Here I am with all these slower cars, and they can be a second a lap slower than me and nowhere to pass them. Unfortunately I can’t be polite with them, and I’m going to have to just muscle my way past!
16 cars in 35 laps: that was his challenge this mild June day. Remember way back at the start of this series, how I said Francevic's championship year played out a lot like Jenson Button's? Well put your phone on silent, grab a beer and sit back to watch this one, because this one was Francevic's Brazil.

It became a race of tyre strategy: both title contenders, Francevic and Fury, had opted for Dunlop's experimental D12 tyres, which nobody was sure could last 100km around here. Given they were the softest compound Dunlop had ever offered, it seemed unlikely, but Francevic had nothing to lose. Fury, starting from pole, had everything to lose but apparently fancied a gamble – or maybe he just thought he'd better cover off his main championship rival.

In the event, Brock's race had been ruined straight away when Fury got ahead of him off the start line. That left him stuck behind both Fury and Graeme Crosby, whose tyres died within ten laps and forced both into tyre conservation mode and held him up for about a third of the race – effectively ruining his strategy. Brock had deliberately opted for Pirelli D3s, the hardest compound they offered, so he had the tyres to drive hard all race long. But stuck behind those trying the soft-rubber trick, he couldn't use them.

Despite that, about halfway through the race Brock managed to elbow Croz aside, and set off after Fury – which forced the Nissan driver to start driving like he meant it again, putting more strain on his tyres. But then, at about two-thirds distance, came the moment that defined the race.

Earlier on Garry Willmington, running a private Jaguar XJS, had pulled over and lifted the bonnet of his Jag to fix some obscure thing that had gone wrong (in the commentary box, Mike Raymond joked that he was putting more oil in it). He rejoined several laps down – completely legally, as no-one else had touched the car – but because he was driving a broken car built with church change he wasn't what you'd call fast, and it wasn't too long before the leaders came up to lap him. George Fury got by without much hassle, but Brock was badly held up and that gave Gary Scott ideas. Down the hill they came three-wide, a heart-stopping moment as Brock's Commodore squirmed violently trying to get its power down. They all made it through unscathed, but Fury now had a nice gap back to Brock and Gary Scott to act as his tail-gunner – he was free to nurse the tyres and win as he pleased. Game, set and match to George Fury, taking another 1-2 for Nissan.

And Francevic? Well, with ten laps to the flag Dick Johnson pitted for a new left-front tyre, leaving the Volvo driver free to inherit 4th place. Yep, 16th to 4th in 25 laps. In fact, he'd overtaken five cars before the first corner! Sure, they were mostly tiddler class cars or weekend warriors out for a laugh, but it wasn't like he was waiting around for them to say, "after you." And it all could have ended in tears when, ten laps from home, Tony Longhurst overcooked it into the Karussell and forced the following Jim Richards into a spin to avoid him, leaving Robbie to drive right between them with literal inches to spare! Sang froid in pursuit of the silverware? That's what championships are made of.

And the car, let's not forget, was the old left-hand drive one he had started the year in, which wasn't exactly young anymore. It had already been through a full ETCC season when it began its career in Oceania, and it had done nearly two full ATCC seasons, two Wellington street races, numerous Aussie enduros and a Bathurst 1000 since then. John Bowe estimated it now had 40,000km on its overworked odometer, equivalent to nearly half a million in the real world. GTM Engineering, you built good cars.

So, at the end of the day, George Fury had closed right up with 158 championship points – but Robbie Francevic, with his excellent recovery drive, had stretched his total out to 179. There were two rounds to go.

Spotlight Car: Jaguar XJS
Let's take a closer look at that troublesome Jag.

Garry Willmington had been a presence in the local touring car scene for about a decade, usually in second-hand Falcons – it had largely been Willmington who homologated the XD Falcon back in 1979, transferring all the racing internals from his XC Hardtop into an XD bodyshell and taking photos to send to CAMS for their paperwork. In the process he'd managed a bit of sleight of hand, slipping a ridiculously low minimum weight past the rulemakers and turning what would've been an okay car into a rocketship. It was Willmington's performances in his XD rocketship that had tempted Dick Johnson back into the sport in 1980 – if Willmington's doing that well, Dick said to himself, what might I be doing?

A second-rate driver, then, but some top-shelf grey matter. The real blockage in the s-bend of his career was a shortage of money – he just never attracted the kind of major sponsor that Brock, Johnson, Fury, Seton and Richards all made their BFFs. That left him running on his own wallet, and it showed. Back at the start of 1985, with the arrival of Group A, Willmington thought the Jaguar XJS was the car to have – in 1984 it had just finished tearing up the racetracks of Europe with Tom Walkinshaw Racing. That roll had continued into '85 as well, as TWR switched to the Rover SD1 in Europe, freeing the Jags to ship Down Under for that year's James Hardie 1000 – which they won.

Those cars, however, had started life as special bodyshells walked down the production line especially for TWR, stamped out in thinner-gauge steel and devoid of any unnecessary brackets or trimmings. They'd then been fastidiously put together by TWR's experienced mechanics, using only the finest heavy-duty competitions parts, including a finely-tuned version of the 5.3-litre Jaguar V12 producing close to 400 kW – which they needed, because they sat in the highest tier of the rules and were slapped with the full 1,400kg weight penalty. The Jag was a winning proposition, but you needed a full crew of mechanics, wheelbarrows of cash and a special relationship with the factory to get the most out of them.

Willmington's operation was nothing like that. He'd built his XJS with his own hands, in his Garry Willmington Performance workshop in Sydney, starting from a second-hand car – meaning forget the Jaguar badge, the original had been built by British Leyland. The problem with that was explained by James May in S04E06 of Top Gear.
You see, in all its 21 years in production, Jaguar never made a good one. In the beginning, it was built by work-shy Lefties who spent more time standing around a brazier than they did loosely screwing your new car together, so it broke down all the time. In fact, early XJS's were so bad that when British Leyland offered them to their senior managers as company cars, even they said no.

I'll show you where Jaguar went wrong: this is a suspension bush, and it's made out of a really rubbish rubber so it completely mucks up the feel of the car. This is an electrical connector; now there are hundreds of these on the XJS and they're of a really poor quality, so after five or six years they all corrode and whole car dies. And it's the same all over the place: the door seals let water in so the doors rust from the inside, the engine components are built down to a price and strangle all the power. Jaguar had the recipe for a perfect shepherd's pie... and then made it with dog meat.
This is what Willmington had bought – one of James May's Grandfather Clocks – so it really didn't matter what he did with it, it was always going to be junk. Stuff like suspension components, replacement disc brakes and general racecar paraphernalia could be sourced locally, but upgrading the engine was an impossibility, because it was a fine example of British engineering. You know how it goes: the Germans design something clever and then build it fastidiously using parts far stronger than they need to be; the Japanese design something as simple as it can be, but not a bit simpler, and then finesse it for the next ten years so it works even better. The British way, however, is to design something unfathomably overcomplicated and then engineer the hell out of it until it works (barely). Hence the old joke that if your Jag's not leaking oil, it must be out of oil – a high-pressure system with badly-designed PCV opened up so many possibilities. Hence also the traditional Jag owner's story of first time they lifted the bonnet and saw that engine – all those tubes and wires running everywhere...!

Oh sure, it delivered oodles of power – 180 kW in an era when 5-litre American V8s were struggling to break 90 – but you paid for it in swearing, because it absolutely never worked. If you overheated it even slightly it dropped valve seats, which required the whole cylinder be removed and repaired, if they hadn't wrecked the engine outright. The rubber fuel lines were prone to cracking and leaking fuel onto the hot engine, where it would sort of catch fire. The Marelli ignition rotor would fail, cutting the spark to one bank – which wasn't so bad on a racing car, as it would only lead to major power loss, but on the road car it would fill the catalytic converter with unburned fuel and explode.

But the one that really hit Willmington was that over the course of its 21-year life the engine was rehashed almost annually, and the components often weren't interchangeable – if you wanted to source parts, you'd better know exactly what year it was made. Just blueprinting and balancing the damn thing would've been a big ask.

To his credit, Willmington gave it a good go, racing the thing for two whole seasons. At Bathurst in '85 he even got a chance to race against Tom Walkinshaw's offerings, and it was here the penny dropped and he realised the difference between a TWR Jaguar, and the one allowed in the rules. The fuel tank in the TWR cars was illegally large, with the car passing scrutineering by having the driver blow up a bladder on the cooldown lap – long speculated, but now a documented fact, as Gossy's winning car has been found and restored and the illegal tank removed before it could go Historics racing. Allegedly they also unpicked spot welds on the firewall so they could move the engine back, Trans-Am style, and modified the wheel housings to give more tyre clearance and called it "the snow-chain option" – then did the same to a road car, so if the scrutineers had questions Tom could point them to the one in the car park. Tellingly, when Willmington asked Walkinshaw if he could have a set of his special custom-made Dunlop race tyres, Walkinshaw told him to sod off. It may be that he just didn't have them to spare, or didn't believe in helping a competitor – or maybe he knew they'd rub on Willmington's guards and reveal his secret.

But finally and most importantly, Willmington didn't have anything like the power of the TWR Jags. The V12 had originally been homologated with the HE or "High-Efficiency" May-type heads, Introduced in 1981 because the Jag's fuel consumption was better expressed in gallons per mile, engineer Michael May's new heads used a high tumble-swirl design to improve mid-range power and give dramatically better fuel consumption, at the cost of strangling the engine at higher revs. Since racing engines are all about the top end, Walkinshaw had bullied the FIA into letting him used the older head design on his cars, sending fuel consumption through the roof but allowing his engines to make power right up to 7,500rpm. CAMS, as we'd learn in just over a year's time, enforced the rules very strictly so there was approximately zero-point-zero chance of Willmington being allowed to do the same. Even if he'd done a real hall-of-fame job tuning the engine, he still would've only been racing with as much power as TWR prior to the head change – 270 kW, probably less.

No wonder he was only a backmarker. Fortunately, the XJS's 5-year homologation papers ran out at the end of 1986, saving anyone else from repeating his mistake. In the meantime... at least he was having a go.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

On This Day... the Coca-Cola Cup

Round 7 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, the Coca-Cola Cup at Calder Park Raceway.

Not actually relevant, but look how many people there use to be!

Not to be confused with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, of course, although the connections are more than skin-deep. Calder is owned by tyre magnate and four-time touring car champion Bob Jane, and in 1986 he was right in the middle of his hugely ambitious $54 million plan to expand the north Melbourne venue with the upcoming NASCAR-style Thunderdome – built by buying the plans for Charlotte Motor Speedway and snipping 320 metres off the straights to create a 24-degree, 1.1-mile mini-me.

In June of '86, however, the bulldozers were still piling up the dirt and the only part of the renovations that had been finished was the road course. The old Calder, which dated back to 1962, cut short the lap with a hard-right about halfway down the front straight (the tarmac is still there and can be seen from the air). It continued through a few dinky little corners to end with the long sweeping right that today is used as a pit entrance, great for seeing the drivers get their drift on, but sadly clipped off in the rebuild. Jane extended the front straight until it was almost a kilometre long, bringing the total lap length up to 2.4km, then added a fast chicane and, best of all, a small hill for the right-left complex at Turns 3 and 4. They might not count as elevation changes to a Spa fan, but that hill become one of the most fun and distinctive parts of the circuit – which goes to show how featureless the original had been. The jury didn't have to deliberate for long before agreeing Jane had improved Calder Park by a huge margin, adding some interest where there hadn't been much before.

The Coca-Cola Cup, the new circuit's first major race, was where George Fury finally stepped up and proved he could take this championship away from Robbie Francevic, taking a decisive win just as Francevic stumbled.

In qualifying Fury took pole with a time of 1:01.23, his Peter Jackson Skyline half a second faster than the Holden Dealer Team's John Harvey – immensely impressive when HDT had been testing his #3 Commodore here instead of racing at Surfers the week before. HDT were gearing up to head overseas to compete in the Spa 24 Hours, which I've covered before, so Harvey's well-sorted suspension went a long way to explaining how he could qualify ahead of the boss. On the other hand, the gaps behind Harvey were miniscule – Harvey was just 0.09 seconds ahead of Graeme Crosby's Systime Commodore, who had just 0.01 over Francevic, who in turn was only 0.10 ahead of John Bowe in the second Volvo, who himself was just 0.02 ahead of Glenn Seton in the second Peter Jackson Skyline, with another 0.02 back to Peter Brock. For reference, blinking takes about 0.3 of a second, a whole ad break compared to those gaps – a sneeze and the whole grid could've been completely rearranged. Only after Brock did we get a decent-sized gap back to Jim Richards and Dick Johnson, and we already knew what their excuse would be.

The race that followed was dramatic and exciting, Fury battling Harvey in the early laps and pressuring him into using up his brakes too early, which the heavy Commodore could ill-afford. Crosby likewise had brake problems but was sanguine about it, and gave us a handy insight into the cost of racing in the 80's when he cheerfully pointed out that Brock running into him at Surfers Paradise had saved him $1,300 on a new set of tyres (just over $3,000 today). Since the Holden dealer network had been unable to provide Croz with new mudguards to replace the ones Brock'd broken at Surfers, Brock had been a good Samaritan and loaned him a set free of charge, which was a fine gesture when he was prepping for a trip to Spa and spare parts were at a premium.

Then we had Glenn Seton driving like a madman and overtaking his team leader to lead an ATCC race for the first time, showing what a spectacular talent he was even at that age. Then he either hit some oil or made the inevitable rookie mistake, depending on who you believe, and spun off again. Finally John Bowe, an old head on young shoulders, got out of conservation mode just as Fury went into it, and with the sudden speed differential he too led the race. And since he'd led at Wanneroo without the pressure going to his head, nobody was expecting him to crack now. Bowe was on track for his first ATCC win, ready to avenge his disappointment at Wanneroo... until with just two laps to the flag, the Volvo coughed. The fuel tank had not been filled for such a performance and was now almost dry. Bowe had to drop the revs right down to make the finish, allowing Fury to make up his 3-second deficit in an instant and pass him for the win. Adding insult to misery, Seton passed him just before the finish line as well, dropping him to third and handing Nissan a 1-2.

But the crucial moment of the race had come much sooner, almost as soon as the green flag had waved, as Robbie Francevic parked his Volvo at the side of the road with thick white smoke pouring from the exhaust, its day done after only a couple of laps. It seemed what the new Eggenberger-built Volvo had gained in speed it had lost in reliability. Fury had gained a perfect 28-point swing on the championship title, his 130 points now within striking distance of Francevic's 159, with three rounds and 84 points still to go. Seton's last-minute lunge had given him a 10-point cushion over Bowe, 65 to 55, while HDT drivers Brock and Harvey were level on 61.

Spotlight Car: Alfa Romeo GTV6
Colin Bond was not a name often brought up in the Group A era, more associated with Group C. Ironically, he's probably best known for a second-place finish, the crucial second half of the crushing Ford 1-2 at Bathurst, 1977. Like George Fury, he'd probably rather you remembered his achievements in rallying, taking home the ARC trophy in 1971, '72 and '74. Despite his considerable ability, though, he won the Great Race only once, in 1969, and won the championship only once as well, in 1975.

That 1975 experience must've stayed with him, because it was notable for very nearly becoming the greatest upset in ATCC history. Thanks to the class system and some incredible driving, the series was nearly won by Christine Gibson in a four-cylinder Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV. While five months pregnant! Fast forward to the early 80's, and, sweet irony, Bond had bought an Alfa Romeo dealership under the local franchise, Network Alfa. It was just good business, therefore, to race an Alfa in touring cars, take advantage of his access to discounted parts, and promote his business at the same time. The instrument of choice was the Alfetta GTV6.

In racecar design it doesn't get more elemental than, "small car, big engine," and that's exactly what Alfa had done in 1980 when it was time to facelift their Type 116 Alfetta. Creating a new performance version was as simple as shoehorning in the 2,492cc SOHC V6 from the Alfa 6 executive sedan, with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection in place of the Dell'Orto carburettors and a small bulge in the bonnet to leave room for the intakes – that's right, Alfa were sporting a Power Bulge long before FPV were sock-stuffing.

The combination was electric, and Bondy's first GTV6 was an ex-Group 3E Series Production car raced in early 1984, converted in Bond's own workshop for the 1984 endurance season, which allowed Group A cars as a separate class. This car became Bond's mount for the 1985 ATCC, in a distinctive yellow livery despite a not-often-remembered sponsorship deal with Montrose Wines. That season Bond also had a teammate, 1980 Formula 1 World Champion Alan Jones, who was having one of his periodic "retirements" at home in Australia. To provide a car for him, they'd bought a second car from Belgian outfit Luigi Racing, built in European left-hand drive. In true racing driver fashion, Bond claimed this newer car for himself and put the Ignis Fridges logo on its bonnet and the #26 on its doors, fobbing the old ex-Series Production car on Jones and giving it the #27 (I'd love to have heard what Jonesy said when he was given the same racing number as his old nemesis, Gilles Villeneuve!).

Winton, Rnd 1 of the ATCC. No TV footage of this race seems to exist, Channel Seven choosing to cover a Davis Cup match that ran overtime instead!

The pair raced throughout the '85 ATCC before Jonesy buggered off back to Europe mid-year for an F1 comeback with the Beatrice/Haas/Lola F1 team (the less said about which, the better). Bond hired ex-motorcycle racer Gregg Hansford to be his co-driver for the enduros, but that still left him with with a spare car, so he sold the ex-Series Production car to Sydney exotic car specialists The Toy Shop. Both cars appeared at Bathurst, The Toy Shop filling in as Network Alfa's second entry, then attended the Surfers Paradise enduro... where Bondy's Ignis Fridges car was written off in a catastrophic early-lap shunt. Bond was forced to commandeer The Toy Shop car to enter the season-ending Adelaide Grand Prix support race.

For 1986, Bond took whatever was salvageable from the Ignis car and put it all into a new bodyshell, this time building it in right-hand drive and, in a moment of hope for the future, opted for the racing #75. This made sense because the Alfa Romeo 75 was in the pipeline, but delays meant Bond wouldn't see it in 1986, nor even for most of 1987. So it was the rebuilt GTV6 he was driving in 1986, including the upcoming endurance season with Peter Fitzgerald as his co-driver, and sadly it is the only Colin Bond Racing Alfetta to survive today – like the LHD Luigi car, the ex-Series Production car was written off in a shunt.

At a Historics meeting in 2005.

It was a brilliant little car to drive, eager and full of sizzle. In race tune it was worth about 160 kW, which was combined with a homologation weight of just over 1,000kg, and some pretty good suspension – double-wishbones and torsion bars at the front, de Dion tubes and a Watt's link at the rear. Not quite state-of-the-art, even in the 80's, but a de Dion system does keep bodyroll from influencing wheel camber, and under most conditions works as well as proper IRS. Certainly it was better than the Rover we looked at a couple of weeks ago, and as for the Commodore... well, once you considered fuel loads, the Alfa took the starter's orders nearly half a tonne lighter than the Aussie.

The problem was that it also had only half an engine, in a country full of power circuits, which the new front straight at Calder hadn't done much to cure. It was a class car only, and it couldn't dominate Class B (under 3-litres) like it should've because the system hadn't yet caught up to reality. According to the rulebook, it was racing against the Volvo 240T and Skyline DR30, both of which were winning races outright with turbo assistance. Bond's only real competition should've come from Tony Longhurst's BMW 325i; the rest, driving the odd Mazda RX-7 or Mitsubishi Starion, weren't even in the same league. Instead, you have to say, he got a bit shafted. It'd be nice to say things got better with the 75, but... well, that's a story for another day.

But the GTV6 will always be associated with Calder Park for me, not because of 1986, but because of 1985. In last year's Eurovox Trophy race, Alan Jones had put in one of the most heroic drives of his whole career to finish 4th, ahead of a slew of Commodores, a BMW 635 and his own boss Bondy. It's often said that Australians don't realise just how good Jonesy really was in his day, because his day was mostly spent on the other side of the world.

But for this one day, in a Eurotrash buzz-box with half an engine, he left us in no doubt.