Tuesday, 21 March 2017

22 March: Holden vs the World

Fate, it seems, has a sense of irony. While the BMW M3, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo Evoluzione all made their world debut in lowly Australia, the new-model Holden Commodore made its racing debut at the grand and glamorous Autodromo Nazionale Monza, in the Royal Park some 20km north of Milan. At the helm were former Holden Dealer Team employees Allan Moffat and John Harvey, who were currently between jobs and just trying to keep the lights on... and about to deliver Holden one of the greatest upset victories of all time.

Deliberately Mis-lead
The new VL Commodore had launched in March 1986, a real make-or-break moment for Holden. The Oil Crisis of 1973 had forced the Big Three to rethink their strategies, and the less famous sequel, triggered by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, had driven the message home: no more gas guzzlers. The car of the future must be efficient.

There was a difference of opinion as to how that should be achieved, however, and unfortunately for Holden, Ford got it right and they got it wrong. The XD Falcon remained a full-size family car with a more efficient engine range, crafted (at huge expense) by Honda in Japan. In contrast Holden had kept the engine range the same and made the car itself smaller, with a disastrous effect on sales. Ford's advertisers were handed a gift, able to argue that if it used no more fuel than its rival, why not buy the more spacious car? The result was that the VK and VL Commodores barely sold as many units combined as the XF Falcon did all on its own – perhaps the most stodgy, unsexy, willfully beige car ever built in Australia. The 1980s belonged to Ford, and Holden was left trading on the edge of insolvency.

You know something's wrong when this is wiping the floor with you. (source)

Then, in the middle of this long fightback, they copped another kick in the nuts with the introduction of unleaded petrol. Toxic lead buildup in children's blood had become a concern, the statistic being that every 10µg/dL (microgrammes per decilitre) of blood lead concentration lowered intelligence by 2-3 IQ points, not counting damage to liver, kidneys, blood stippling etc. It would take roughly 100,000 cars going past your doorstep per day to reach that figure, but given the presence of industrial lead and the leaded paint then common in homes, the threshold was within reach if you lived on a busy road. Even in the 1990s it was estimated as many as 220,000 preschoolers had more than the target 10µg/dL blood lead concentration.

Not many realise it now, but the resulting switch to unleaded petrol in 1986 completed a grand 63-year detour for the car, begun in 1923 when the growing U.S. automotive industry had faced a choice between adding toxic lead to petrol brews to control pinging, or equally-effective, non-toxic and endlessly renewable ethanol. They went for the lead, because Big Oil foresaw a future where ethanol made up an ever-greater percentage of fuel blends, or – God forbid – replaced oil entirely. They knew their tetraethyl lead (TEL) additive was toxic from day one, but protecting their profits was apparently worth poisoning the entire world, screwing over farmers and denying us 63 years of development on ethanol engines. And yes, although I don't like to sound like the tinfoil hat brigade, one of the ringleaders of the scam was indeed John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil – I roll my eyes at the idea his family is secretly controlling the world via the Illuminati and the Lizard People, but the bastard was a master at ordinary business-type evil.


Anyway, when we finally got back on track in 1986, unleaded petrol was proving a problem. TEL had been added to reduce pinging, so without it engine builders had to reduce compression and back off the spark, robbing their engines of power. Even BMW struggled with the change, switching over to its unloved, low-revving ETA engines to comply with the new fuel range – and if the Bavarians couldn’t stick the landing, what hope did a minnow like Holden have? They'd run out of couches to raid for small change, and facing the development bills to retune their Black straight-six and locally-built V8 engines for ULP, Holden bravely gave up and went looking for a turnkey solution instead.

That by itself kicked over a hornet's nest, because the engine they chose came from Japan. Although Holden called it the Powertech 6Ei, it was actually a Nissan RB30, obtained by a deal between Fisherman's Bend and Nissan in Japan. Yes, weather reporters at the scene could confirm blizzard conditions in Hell: Holden, a company set up in response to Japanese aggression in WWII, was getting a Japanese engine. The scandal that followed is beyond this article, but suffice to say it was immense: in 1986 the older generation were wall-to-wall war veterans (like my great-uncle), and everyone had been raised on stories of Japanese wartime atrocities, especially POW camps like Changi. Australia hadn't forgotten and hadn't forgiven: even forty years on, "Japan" was still a dirty word.

VL Commodore SS Group A
So Holden had axed the Black engine, and cultural baggage aside, the unit that replaced it was very good. Holden's plan had been to make the RB30 the workhorse engine, and then market the Turbo version as the performance option. The idea what wasn't without merit, as it beat Ford to the turbo-six idea by 15 years, and the numbers were downright incredible for the time: 150 kW at 5,600rpm; 296 Nm at 3,200rpm; 0-100 in 7.8 seconds; and even the average driver could cover the quarter mile in 15.5 – less, with some slick gear changes. In the new lead-free era, when anything under 17 seconds was good, 15.5 in a family car with five seats and a boot was blinding. The Turbo gained a following, but it was more cult-classic than Spielberg blockbuster: it was Japanese, it was a turbo, and the only reason it was here at all to shuffle off the long-serving Holden V8.

Despite the similar 308ci capacity, this engine had nothing to do with Chevrolet's 307. The design was Holden's own, and although its best days weren't exactly in the past, it would be no lie to say it was getting long in the tooth. It had been released for the HT range in 1969, been a factor in the Supercar Scare in 1972, with Repco tuning part of the golden age of Australian Formula 5000, and been Holden's strike weapon at Bathurst since 1974. To a whole generation, the V8 was Holden, and they couldn't axe it without some serious blowback.

So when they announced they were dropping it, that's exactly what they got. Suddenly Australia was up in arms, with "Save the V8" campaigns popping up seemingly overnight. Street Machine magazine went with the slogan "V8s 'til '98" and mobilised more than 10,000 enthusiasts for their letter-writing campaign. Front and centre was of course Peter Brock, who pleaded with the Holden execs and even published managing director Chuck Chapman's personal fax number in the Sun Herald. Caving to public pressure, Holden put plans to kill the V8 on ice and got busy retuning it for ULP – though God only knows where they found the money.

When it re-emerged on the VL in October 1986, the V8 was no longer even marketed as a performance engine: Holden's ads focused on its alleged towing prowess instead, one ad showing it tugging an America's Cup yacht, another a 747. The brochure skited:
Only Holden torques your language. Torque is up, in spite of the demands of ULP, and so is power. It's the best engine around for towing trailers, boats, horse floats and caravans. The big 5.0 now drives more smoothly. There's still nothing quite like an Aussie Holden V8, with its legendary longevity and the laid-back, top-gear style of driving it allows. And only Holden can give you one.
Reading between the lines, it was clear Holden had struggled to give the VL any more power than the VK. Sure, outright figures were up – 122 kW at 4,400rpm and 323 Nm at 3,200 – but this was cheating, achieved by fitting the bigger valves from the racing version. Meanwhile, the RB30 Turbo – which produced max torque from only 3,200rpm, and wasn't being let down by the Aussie Trimatic ("Traumatic") gearbox – was actually an equally good option for towing, and once the aftermarket tuners started playing around with boost, the V8's figures were all-too-easy to eclipse.

But, nobody much cared. The V8 was back, loud and proud, and as if stage-managed from above, it had emerged just as Allan Grice had delivered Holden's first Bathurst win of the Group A era.
The timing could not have been better. Even if GM-H had master-planned it, no itinerary of success could have surpassed that of early October, which lead to the Sydney Motor Show launch of the VL group A Commodore on the 16th. That much maligned driver, Allan Grice, had just driven an impeccable Bathurst, proving that all the high technology that Nissan, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes and the rest could collectively throw at the Holden V8 wasn't going to be enough – the Chickadee Commodore romped to victory... The Group A racing Commodores were beginning to look as if they had the measure of the world. – Commodore Crazy, 1986
So the survival of the V8 had been assured, and with it the survival of the Group A homologation special. In the event, the VL Group A basically involved transferring the well-developed A9L-spec V8 from Blue Meanie into a VL bodyshell, which rather disappointed those who'd been hoping the delay in releasing the V8 had been due to fitting fuel injection. But no, induction was via the same old Rochester Quadrajet carburettor with port-matched inlet manifold, along with the familiar Crane "gold" roller rockers, heavy duty crankshaft and conrods. There were new cylinder head castings to eliminate hot spots and the head gasket failures which had haunted the VK, while the camshaft profiles, combustion chamber shapes and exhaust system were all tweaked, and the car was given a heavy-duty clutch with a clamping pressure of 1,150kg. The low-restriction exhaust also featured a flange only inches from the cylinder heads; the Group A rules allowed a free exhaust from the first flange, so they put it as close to the engine as possible to capitalise on the rules.

Power went up to 137 kW at 4,400rpm (and more like 300 kW in race tune) and torque to 345 Nm at 3,200, and mated to the now-standard Borg-Warner T5G 5-speed manual, 0-100 times dropped to 7.5 seconds. Standing quarter times, however, stayed stubbornly around the 15-second mark, Motor magazine's best effort a 15.54 that crossed the line at 141.7km/h.


Inside the cabin the Scheel bucket seats (with a simple grey wool or velour trim this time around), Momo steering wheel and mandatory HDT gear knob were all retained, and an anti-theft alarm system was added. But this edition of the Group A was more about homologating the body, which involved much less fibreglass than previous models. The most distinctive feature was the "NACA duct" air intake on the bonnet, the latest attempt to feed the Rochester carb with a smooth, dense supply of air. There was a new radiator grille, a ducted front splitter to keep the brakes cool, and a smaller "bird bath" rear spoiler than we'd seen on Blue Meanie, and that was about it – none of the fat side skirts or swollen wheel arches of previous HDT models. Options included air conditioning ($1,225), a sunroof and Calais side skirts & rear apron, while kerb weight was some 1,295kg. It rolled on 16x7 Momo star wheels from the LE Calais fitted with Bridgestone Potenzas, and was finished in a special shade called Permanent Red.


When parked alongside the super-aggressive steroid specials of previous HDT offerings, this was first one where the bodykit actually looked like it belonged to the car. And no wonder: the VL Group A was actually a product of Fisherman's Bend, not of Bertie Street, and although each car was stamped with a limited edition number between 001 and 500, only 173 got the prized Peter Brock signature (and Energy Polarizer). It was on sale for $29,600, or about $69,000 today – or, since you're probably used to hearing car prices in British pounds, about £43,000 pre-Brexit – just under the Hawke trigger price for the luxury car tax.

There is no Davide Cironi video describing what it was like to drive, but if there was it would probably start with him bemoaning the cheap feel and crude build quality of the thing, which was fair, because any Australian review of an Alfa Romeo would start with the word "shitbox." From there he would probably remark that the steering was okay, but the front end lacked balance and the rear end lacked everything, especially lateral grip and power-down. This made the Turbo a bit of a widowmaker, but the smoother power delivery of the V8 made it a bit more manageable. In fact it was a more manageable car overall than Blue Meanie, less hard-edged and raw, meaning it wasn't quite as delicious at carving up a mountain road, but it was something you could consider making an actual journey in...

And then he'd come to the crux of the matter, that engine. You couldn't get a 5.0-litre V8 in Europe, it just wouldn't happen, so the sensation of an oldschool muscle car engine in a modern sports sedan would probably be bewitching – any gear, any time, put your foot down and something would happen. And when it did, unlike the old days, the chassis would contain it. And as for the soundtrack... well, the first time the Holden blasted past the Monza pits in 1986, we're told the whole of pitlane stopped to watch. All Holdens have a baritone rumble to them, which I'm biased against because over here it's the sound of knuckle-draggers, but without that association it's probably a very pleasant sound. Add in the top notes of the big-bore exhaust, like a trumpet being blown by the lungs of a hurricane, and you had something very, very special. The combination of Holden novelty built upon Opel familiarity meant the Commodores of 1986 and 1987 gained a bit of a cult following in Europe, and for all its inherent Holden-ness, I'm sure Cironi would have a hoot driving it.

The Monza Campaign
The prototype racecar had been sitting in the Holden Dealer Team workshop, almost finished, the day Holden dumped Peter Brock. Their decision was enormously damaging for Peter: his operation was no longer the works race team, and now he was persona non grata at the Bend, all Holden signage had to be removed from the cars, and his endless free supply of GM parts and technical support was cut off. In fact, he wasn't even allowed to buy parts anymore. Desperate for cash, HDT merchandised like crazy, selling anything they could slap a logo on, but even so the team had to start selling off assets to generate cash flow. One of these was the prototype VL Commodore SS Group A, after Melbourne electrical contractor Phillip Ross made an offer Brock couldn't refuse.

It was only a month later, however, that it became clear Ross had just been an advocate for the real buyer – Mr Allan Moffat!

Taking delivery of the car (source)

Moffat had once again demonstrated his incredible ability to inspire belief in others, putting together an impressive deal with the ANZ bank to buy the prototype VL and take it racing on the far side of the world. Allan's annotations to How to Win Friends and Influence People would probably be worth a fortune.
The car that had been built for the World Touring Car Championship in 1987 had never turned a wheel and John said it would be a pity to lose it. I had just begun my association with ANZ and I borrowed $125,000 to buy the car, and shipped it to England where I got some Rothmans signwriting.

We shipped it down to Monza in Italy in March for the first WTCC round, the same track where I had driven with Brock the previous year in a round of the European championship. – Allan Moffat, Australian Muscle Car #78
Now, on paper, a World Touring Car Championship is a daft idea. Touring car racing is deeply rooted in the local market, and local markets tend to be, well, local. Look at the state of the world in the post-Group A era and you'll see business as usual: the world fragmented into V8 Supercars, DTM, Super Touring, Super GT, Stock Car Brasil and even NASCAR, the U.S. putting their own spin on the tintop concept. And no amount of fanwank could ever have brought them together. They were all very successful in their small national ponds, because they were all what their local audience wanted, but there was no compromise that would ever allow them to race against each other. "World Touring Cars" should make as much sense as the Cricket World Cup, which involves countries you've never heard of (Sri Lanka) in matches against countries that don't exist (West Indies) and countries that aren't even countries (England).

But in practice, of course, the World Cup is totally awesome. And in the mid-1980s, the FIA's Group A rulebook had been adopted by the Australian, British, German, Japanese and European championships alike, putting them, almost literally, on the same page. It was an opportunity like no other; the stars had aligned, destiny had called and left a dirty voice message. The FIA shrugged and signed the paperwork. The World Touring Car Championship was go, created by adding Bathurst, Wellington and Mt Fuji to the ETCC calendar.

And the first race was to be the Monza 500 – 87 laps of la Pista Magica, in the lake district of Lombardy, in early spring. It was a rough job sometimes...


Once they got to Europe, being Europe, there was a whiff of controversy in the air. Having dreamed up the World Touring Car Championship, the FIA had immediately strangled it in the cradle by appointing Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to promote the damn thing. Fox, meet Henhouse: having put in the hard yards to make Formula 1 the commercial juggernaut (not to mention awesome spectacle) it had become, Bernie was in no mood to let a bunch of toy cars with number plates take his audience away. Group A was big and getting bigger, and that was going to stop right now.

So at the last minute, Bernie had imposed a U.S.$60,000 fee to enter the WTCC – per car. You could still enter the races as you pleased, but with no fee, you weren't eligible for points or prizemoney. At current wage rates, that works out as U.S.$126,000 today, which was pretty hefty for a glorified cover charge. But it did its job – several top teams baulked and pulled out of the championship altogether, most notably Tom Walkinshaw Racing, who'd been the team to beat in the ETCC in recent years. In the end, only fifteen cars were entered for the inaugural World Touring Car Championship: three Sierras (the works Texaco cars of Eggenberger Motorsport, and the works-supported entry of Andy Rouse Racing), four BMW M3s (two German, two Italian, all works), six Alfa Romeo 75s (divided between Alfa Corse in gorgeous red works colours; the Beretta-sponsored Brixia Motor Sport that later became the Scuderia Italia F1 team; and the white Albatech cars), and the real oddballs of the series, a single Alfa Romeo 33 (surely that was a dare?) and red #1 Maserati Biturbo, the car Jeremy Clarkson dropped a skip full of scrap metal on for being an offense to one of the best badges in the business.

Although here photographed at Dijon, this was the car that ultimately banked the points at Monza (source)

And that was it: the World Championship would be fought out between just these 15 cars, of which just 11 showed up at Monza. This would lead to some confusion – as Bernie no doubt intended – because there were 38 actual cars on the grid that day, including the classy blue-and-white Rothmans Commodore of Allan Moffat Racing. Despite the tight four-week deadline, Moffat and Harvey managed to recruit a crew of mechanics, score a supply of Dunlop tyres, borrow a truck and ship the car to Milan in time for the race, but they had precious little in the way of spares – only some head gaskets and spark plugs, with just one engine and gearbox to get them through the whole weekend.

With Tom Walkinshaw having withdrawn his Commodores in protest and the Eggenberger Texaco Sierras parked with fuel injection irregularities, Andy Rouse’s private Sierra took pole with a lap of 1:57.0, with Moffat/Harvey a lowly 9th on 2:00.39. Without spares, keeping the car off the high Monza kerbs was imperative, and qualifying meant little in a 500km race. And of all circuits, Monza was sure to be kind to the Commodore, maximising its power and aero package and minimising the penalty of its massive weight on tyres and brakes. Built for the long straights and steep climbs of Mt Panorama, the Commodore was sure to find the Grand Old Lady to its liking (even if her straights were slightly shorter...).*

The Andy Rouse/Thierry Tassin Sierra led the hordes of BMWs early from the rolling start, with Moffat starting in the Commodore and engaging in a great scrap for 4th with the M3s of Ricardo Patrese, Ivan Capelli and Winni Vogt. But the Sierra blew a head gasket after just 11 laps, and the spinning Maserati Biturbo shared by Armin Hahne and Bruno Giacomelli hampered Moffat soon after and he was forced to jump on the brakes to avoid contact. That meant he lost the aerodynamic tow from the BMWs and, despite some 315 kW from the Holden V8, he couldn’t catch back up.

He made it past half distance and was 6th when he came in for fuel and to hand over to Harvey. John lapped steadily during his stint, but eased back towards the end as the tyres began to overheat. This dropped them one place and they eventually came home a creditable 7th, behind the six works and semi-works M3s, Patrese and Johnny Cecotto winning on the road clear of Emanuele Pirro and Roland Ratzenberger.
We finished seventh, but that wasn’t the end of the story. There were six factory BMW M3s that finished one through six on the road and after the race they went through scrutineering and headed back to their Schnitzer, Bigazzi and CiBiEmme trucks.

All they did on our car was lift the bonnet and admire the big engine, but then a privateer BMW M3 arrived and his car was 85 kilos heavier. So they got the factory cars back and discovered they had carbon fibre bonnets and guards and roofs and stuff under the cars made from titanium. They were out, but one thing the organisers forgot was to get the winner’s trophy back.

While this was going on, we had already gone back to the hotel and decided we had won our class. John and I had an early dinner and went to bed, but in the morning when we came down the reception guy was very excited. "Magnifico, numero uno," he said, and pointed to the front page of the paper which said the Aussies had won at Monza. John lit up like a Roman candle and I said, "Not everyone gets away with murder all the time." It was joyous. We phoned everyone we knew in Australia to tell them. It must have been about 60 people. It was one of those things you never forget. – Allan Moffat, AMC #78
It was a difficult concept to grasp, but the winning Moffat/Harvey Commodore actually finished the 87-lap race in 7th, having done only 86 laps, and the car that had scored the "victory" points towards the WTCC had actually finished 13th (that was the #79 Albatech Alfa Romeo 75 of Walter Voulaz and Marcello Cipriani, since I know you were wondering). Imagine explaining that to an Aussie TV audience used to nothing more demanding than Hey Hey It's Saturday!

Post-Scriptum: The Only Legal BMW at Monza
An interesting side note is the BMW that caused all the trouble. The cars that had been excluded were all works cars that had been built by professional teams with the factory's blessing. The other two M3s in the race had been privately entered, and only one of them had finished – the #49 of Hungarian artist and chemist turned hillclimb legend, József Cserkúti. His Külker SC Team had been entering BMWs in hillclimbs all over Europe, and thought the WTCC race at Monza was worth a crack. And indeed, after the factory cars were excluded, he found himself only one step away from the podium, in 4th. The translation of his comments, made to a Hungarian magazine immediately after the race, make for fascinating reading:
Q: Your results surprised everyone! Many people had had no idea that you had been building a new racing car. (...)

CSJ: Ever since I first heard of the new BMW M3, I had been playing with the idea to build such a car for myself. The first components had arrived on 3rd January, since I had been working flat out. (...) We finished the car just a week before the (Monza) race. I tested it on the Hungaroring, and the team practiced refuelling tyre changes. The car was disasterous: the back end had been wobbling and the engine hadn't been perfect either.

Q: What kind of changes did take place at Monza?

CSJ: At Monza, we talked to the members of BMW Motorsport GmbH and they told us what to change. They gave us new spings and suspension parts, altered the electronics of the engine, changed the exhaust system, thus they found an extra 15 hp, so the power output increased to 295 hp. The factory team lent me two mechanics to look after my car and they changed everything on the car for free. Also, Pirelli supplied us with tyres. During practice, the car was running perfectly. All three of us had recorded a time enough for qualification.

Q: You had been partnered by a German driver.

CSJ: I'm lacking financial funds, so I hired out the car for spare parts. Also I would like to have Hungarian driver in the team, that's why I took András Szabó with me. He also did a time which would qualify us for the race. My other team-mate was German Anton Fischaber, who not only brought spare spare parts along, but he is a good driver as well. He had already competed in the European Touring Car series, and been the member of the Alfa works team testing the car at Monza for months. He is a five-time European hillclimb champion as well.

Q: What was the race like?

CSJ: To be honest, when we had arrived, I wanted to return to Hungary immediately. The entry list was full of F1 drivers, like Giacomelli, Nannini, Patrese, Danner, not to mention Johnny Ceccoto and Michael Andretti. Even the name of Niki Lauda was on the list! We were dreaming about qualifying for the race. But my fears disappeared during practice. It was Fischaber, who had started the race, I took over the car on lap 42, which time we were lying 11th. It turned out, I had made a mistake building the car, when I put the throttle and the brake pedal too close to each other and at a wrong moment I pressed them both. I spun, and flat spotted the tyres. By the time I settled down, I lost such a great deal of time, that the eventual class winners, Klammer and Oberdorfer lapped us. Circuit racing was a new experience for me, I'm not getting used to do 250 kmh! (...)

Q: According to the press agencies, you had finished seven places lower where you were actually classified. What happened?

CSJ: The Holden team had launced an appeal and all BMW M3 had been disqualified, except for mine.

Q: Your plans?

CSJ: Because of the new car, we spent all money available. We don't have the financial assets to enter the World Championship for 60,000 bucks, nor the European Series for 6,000. We're going to do some races both WC and EC to learn something about circuit racing. But we emphasize our efforts on the European hillclimb championship.
So just think: if BMW hadn't given him any help, left him to limp around and eventually break down like the other BMW in the race, they might've got away with it. Somehow, though, I don't imagine Allan Moffat sent him a thankyou card after the race. That sort of thing was never his style...

Photographed here at Brno.

* Yes, really. The front straight at Monza is 1,120 metres long, Conrod is 1,916. But Monza is Monza: the Grand Old Lady stands alone.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

8 March: Grice Can't Outrun the Furies

It was a much smaller field that appeared seven days later at Symmons Plains, with just 15 cars to take the start. This basically amounted to the really small car class staying home, as all the heavy hitters had made the trip: all four Sierras (intriguingly, with Don Smith’s Oxo cars faster than Dick Johnson’s Shell cars at this stage), the Peter Jackson Skylines, the Holden Dealer Team, and the JPS Team BMWs (who last year had brought four cars to this event, but this year brought just the two). Also present were the two Roadways Racing Services Commodores of Allan Grice and Graeme Crosby, who were a "team" in the sense their cars were built and maintained by the same workshop, but were on their own as far as commercial sponsorship went. Making up the numbers were the serious owner-drivers – Larry Perkins in the Enzed Commodore, Colin Bond in the Caltex Alfa Romeo, and Ray Gulson in the ex-JPS BMW 635.

Bright sunlight indicates this photo was taken during Saturday practice. Sunday was overcast and the rain wasn't far away.

Grice had taken pole with a time of 58.6 seconds, benefitting from a more conventional camshaft after the experimental one he’d used at Calder – but he’d have a fight to hold the lead for 60 laps with George Fury’s #30 Skyline starting right alongside him. Incredibly, the footage shows the green flag was shown with plenty of crew members still on the track, caught on the wrong side of the Armco!

Symmons Plains races are known for being intense rather than action-packed, however, so after the opening shuffle – Grice making a worse start than Fury and having to regain the lead with a long tow along the back straight, Glenn Seton fending off an aggressive Larry Perkins into Brambles Hairpin, Tony Longhurst making the only terrible start in the field and dropping back to last – the crucial moment came on lap 2, when Peter Brock got the hammer down sooner than George Fury and put in a vulgar display of horsepower to out-drag Fury down the back straight and take 2nd place.

That move defined the race, because Brock was never that fast again all day. He became the cork in the bottle, holding up a fast-moving freight train of Fury, Seton, Perkins and Richards, with the four Sierras further back in the distance. While Fury was stuck behind Brock, Grice was out in clear air and running fast and strong, the gap up to 2.56 seconds by the end of lap 3, then 3.6 seconds on lap 11, 4.1 seconds on lap 14 and 5.1 seconds on lap 17. Along the way he lowered the track record to 59.3 seconds, almost two seconds faster than Robbie Francevic’s record from last year, showing the pace of development in Group A was still sky-high.

In fact, Grice was so far in front that commentators Mike Raymond and Neil Crompton felt safe enough to dial him up for a chat via RaceCam. But it was here we got the first sign that something wasn’t quite right with the #2 Roadways Commodore.
Raymond: Gricey, you look like you’re doing it very easy today?

Grice: Well, you look like you’re doin’ your job pretty easy too, Mike!

Raymond: Oh you don’t know the trials and tribulations... The car looks strong, you look good out in front and you’re building that gap up all the time?

Grice: Yeah. You never know when you’re gonna have a brake problem here so it pays you to have a bit of a cushion.

Raymond: Well I’ll tell you what, I think you must’ve paid Peter Brock to be your cushion for the afternoon, he’s got them stacked up like cabs at the central railway station.

Grice: Well that’s good because his tyres’ll probably start to go away shortly, that might give me a bit more space. I’ve got one little bit of a hassle that I’ll keep my eye on – you’ll probably notice that on your dash the alternator light’s on?
The camera swivelled to zoom in on an amber bead glowing in the centre of the modified dash.
Raymond:Yes, we can see that very clearly. That’s not good news.

Grice: No, that’s not very encouraging, but if you have a look at the voltmeter to the left of it you’ll see that I’m still holding my charge pretty good so at this point in time I’m not too worried. But when that light comes on it’s normally a warning that the alternator may give out. This is the one I’ve gotta watch, the voltmeter, because I’m running different gearbox [oil] pumps at the moment, they’re all drawing current, so if I start to lose volts I’ll have to shut them down and run on pretty high temperatures. So we’ll have to play it a bit by ear, mate.

Raymond: Well I’ll let you continue your good lap times, everything looks pretty good, I hope the light goes out for you but the engine not.

Grice: Well mate, why don’t you give me a hand? You watch the gauges with your camera and I’ll just do the driving!

Raymond: That’d be sensational. But that’d be too easy! Okay, on you go, we’ll come back to you later.

Grice: Righto, mate.
By lap 22 Fury was either starting to make ground on Peter Brock or – more likely – Peter’s Bridgestone tyres were starting to die off. Either way, suddenly there was enough speed differential for Fury’s dicing to make a difference, his outside-line moves into Brambles making it deeper and deeper each lap. Down the back straight he pulled to the right out of the slipstream and got alongside Brock, but he’d put himself on the outside line, which gave Brock the opportunity to go in very deep on the brakes and hold him off again. Fury marshalled his speed through the final complex of turns, ready to do it all over again, but with Grice now 6.8 seconds up the road he had his work cut out – or maybe not, as Neil Crompton noticed he was running very high diff temperatures, hinting that he’d already started switching off pumps...

On lap 24 Fury finally found a way past Brock, but it didn’t come into Brambles Hairpin or down the back straight; it came just before the start/finish line, when Peter got baulked by one of the Oxo Sierras and tripped over the final Turn 7, emering very sideways and cosying right up to – but thankfully not into – the Armco barrier on the other side. Fury, in a move that would’ve made Jean-Pierre Sarti proud, kept his foot down and drove his Skyline right between the slow Sierra and the skidding Commodore!

Backmarkers could be a real pain on a circuit this short, as a lap later Fury had his own moment fumbling past Ray Gulson’s BMW and Brock closed right back up, but Fury was up to 2nd place now and by God he was going to keep it. He had 34 laps to make up 7.5 seconds on Allan Grice, and without Brock in his way he was able to show the kind of searing pace the Skyline was really capable of.

Then however came the laps that defined the race: by lap 36 Jim Richards had worn down Glenn Seton and then Larry Perkins and was closing rapidly on Peter Brock. So on lap 37 began a fantastic duel between Brock and Richards which provided the classic footage of the race, and worthy of the highlight reel for the year, and indeed for the entire Group A era. On approach to the hairpin Richo confidently, almost arrogantly jumped on the brakes metres later than Brock, daring to go around the outside, and so great was the braking power and grip on the little black BMW that they actually swung through Brambles and emerged from the corner door-to-door! With Brock ahead by only a bonnet, they both stood on the loud pedals and roared off down the long back straight together, so close they could virtually have reached across and shaken hands (the BMW was left-hand drive, remember). The longer legs of the Commodore gave Brock a slight – very slight – edge as they approached the braking zone for Turn 6, but that vanished the second he actually got on the brakes, as Richards could afford to do it much later. That Richo too was pushing like crazy however was borne out by his clambering over the kerb, kicking the tail loose and holding a juicy slide.

As good as tied together, they crossed the start/finish line and they did it all over again. This time Jim went even deeper into Brambles, getting almost the whole car ahead of Brock, but again the wide line through the turn was just too much to give him the edge. Again the horsepower of the 4.9-litre V8 was too much for the 2.3-litre four, but Richo wasn’t giving up, throwing the car into Turn 6 so hard he actually – for once – overdid it. This wasn’t the immaculate driving we were used to from Richo, this was a man under the influence of the red mist and in a mood to gun it. Deep into the corner he went, and skated right across the road to the other side, dropped a wheel in the dirt and powered out, kicking dust all over the circuit.

Into lap 39 Richards was virtually pushing Brock across the finish line, and then came a third repeat of the outside-line move into Brambles. But this time – at last – he was able to go in deep enough on the brakes to come out fully ahead. After three dramatic laps, Jim Richards had relieved Peter Brock of that place – even if it was only 3rd place!

But while things were finally going right for Richards, for Grice they were getting desperate. RaceCam revealed his voltmeter was now dropping and his diff temps were in the red – and to cure the one would mean making the other much worse. Complicating things, nursing the car home was out of the question because George Fury was wringing the Skyline’s neck and steadily reeling him in, his lead dwindling to 5.7 seconds by lap 35, 4.8 seconds by lap 40, and just 2.7 seconds by lap 50. There were 10 laps to go, and at this rate Fury would catch him in just 9.

It was turning into a real nail-biter, and at last the pressure got to Grice’s overworked Commodore. On lap 51, approaching the final series of turns, the Roadways Commodore started to let out some big belches of white smoke, and everyone knew the game was up. An old hand, Grice resignedly pulled over to the right-hand side of the track to let everyone else go by, his car able to tour slowly back to the pits, but not to run another lap at the pace he’d been forcing upon it. RaceCam revealed the gearbox was overheated, the diff was overheated, he had no battery charge left, and the low-water light was flashing. The car had had enough. Grice rumbled slowly back to the pits, knowing the chequered had been right there for the taking.

So of course, the commentary team chose this moment to have an in-car chat from the pits.
Raymond: Tough luck Allan, you really gave it your best shot.

Grice: Yeah, wasn’t to be our day, was it?

Raymond: Well, it was a case of, was there anything in the car that wasn’t cooking?

Grice: Yeah, you’re pretty right. I’ve got a suspicion it all goes back to that alternator light, you know, these things are traceable. Maybe the alternator then has finally seized or something and flicked a belt off and then that starts the water temperature. But as I suggested to you, once the light came on I then drove on the voltmeter, once I started to get down below 12 volts I turned off the diff and gearbox pumps. That then brought these temperatures up... oh, they’ve come back down on that slowdown lap, but they were both running in the red. There’s my red low water light you might see blinking on the dash, that’s the low water light in the head. From there on I got water temperature. I was surprised I didn’t have a lot of oil temperature and that was the thing that made me keep going, until the water started to come up the front of the bonnet and down here on the floor, and that was about it before we lost the engine. You know, we don’t want to throw the engine away.

Raymond: Well you showed today that you can sprint and out-sprint those Nissans too, the gap that you had built up, seven-plus seconds. Were you surprised with the ease with which you were able to do that?

Grice: Yeah, well, you probably look pretty easy doing your commentry Mike, I was working pretty hard! The motor car was going as deep under brakes as... Every application was as hard as I could. The tyres, I didn’t give them a spell. Everything just went very well until we had that little problem. You know, there’s more to come out of this car, I don’t think the Nissans are going to have it their way the rest of the year by any stretch.

Raymond: Alright Allan. Bad luck indeed for you today, I’ll let you get back and talk to Sparksy, we were lucky we got in first, we had camera in the car!
That left George Fury free and clear for the brief run to the flag. The last few laps were enlivened by Seton trying to pressure Brock into a mistake, but it never came. When the chequered flag flew, Fury had chalked up the win, followed by Jim Richards in the M3, who showed what could be achieved with a light car that didn’t eat up its tyres. Frank Gardner had admitted after Calder they finished the race with about 20 litres of fuel left in the tank, so they’d been able to start even lighter here at Symmons – a warning shot for the rest of the season, because if the M3 could hold its own even on a power circuit like this, what might it be capable of at Amaroo and Oran Park?

In 3rd was Brock, then Seton, with Tony Longhurst making the most of a long fightback to finish 5th. Bruised tyres were probably responsible for Larry Perkins finishing only 7th, behind the highest-placed Sierra of Gregg Hansford – curiously, the lower-ranked driver in what was then the lower-ranked Sierra team. Regardless, during the race the commentators had mentioned that Oxo team boss Don Smith would shortly be off to see Andy Rouse about the lack of speed from the Sierras, which could only be a good thing. The reports from Europe were that the XR4 Ti had already been flogging everything by the close of ‘86, and the Cosworth versions were meant to be some 2.5 seconds faster again, so something definitely wasn’t adding up. A consult with Rouse should help sort things out.

There’d been three race retirements, ominously, all of them Commodores. Besides the heartbroken Grice, his Roadways teammate Graeme Crosby had run out of fuel in the final laps, and HDT’s Gary Scott had pulled into the pits about halfway through with a broken propshaft. As noted, the pace this year was almost 2 seconds quicker than it had been last year, and that was proving more than the ageing VK could handle these days. The privateers could only hope the upcoming VL was tougher and faster.

On the championship table things were getting tight: the big winner from the round was Fury, who moved straight to the top of the table with 45 points – but Seton was now on 43, and Richards was behind him on 41. Larry Perkins scored to rise to 4th, but this ended up being the round he dropped, so in the end it wouldn’t count. The big loser, again obviously, was Grice, who dropped right down behind Perkins, Longhurst and Brock with a static 13 points. On the manufacturer’s table it was just a repeat of Calder: Nissan & BMW shared equal first on 40, with Holden picking up another 15 points for 30, and Alfa another 12 for 24. Only Ford managed to gain any places, their 10 points thanks to Gregg Hansford moving them to 18 points and ahead of Isuzu – if only because there’d been no Isuzus entered in this race.

Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo Evoluzione
My intention this year is to focus on cars as they took their maiden wins, but if I stuck rigidly to that this car would never get a mention at all. And that'd be sad, because its one that gets my pulse up most of all. I mean, just look at it.

Yes, it's a product of the Eighties, so it looks like it was designed with an Etch-A-Sketch. And as Clarkson said, they seemingly fitted the wheels from a grand piano. But it's still oozes sex appeal and menace, like a good dominatrix, and I can't help but want one. Which is going to be difficult, because as a homologation special, only 500 were ever built.

This was not a problem shared by the base car. Released in May 1985, Alfa's new compact sedan was called the 75 to celebrate seventy-five years of production by Alfa Romeo (so it was ironic that it was also the final car developed by Alfa before they were acquired by Fiat). It was a hugely successful car, with nearly 387,000 built before production was shut down in 1992, with a mixture of four-cylinder petrol engines between 1.6 and 2.5 litres, plus a 2.0-litre turbo diesel for people who thought the Venus de Milo would look better with back hair. A year in, however, Alfa added hairdryer support, taking the fuel-injected 1,779cc four and bolting on a Garrett T3 turbocharger to boost power to 114 kW at  5,800rpm, and torque to 226 Nm from 2,800. This was the first step toward a Group A programme, and it worked, with more than 6,000 of these engines hitting the roads between Europe and the U.S. – easily clearing the 5,000 required.

The plan was in motion. Alfa Romeo knew the World Touring Car Championship was coming up, and knew they were in with a chance of winning it. After all, they had won the very first World Automobile Championship way back in 1925, hence the laurel wreath that adorned their badge for 20 years after.

The man-eating snake however is the heraldry of the Visconti family, a traditional symbol of Milan

It's easy to laugh from this side of history, knowing how it all turned out, but in 1986 the Alfa Romeo 75 must've seemed like a pretty good bet for the WTCC. What Europe's 500km touring car races brought to light more than anything else was which cars were kind to their tyres, and with its gearbox at the back for a near-perfect 50-50 weight distribution, the 75 promised to baby its tyres quite well. However, Alfa had a close look at the Group A equivalence formula and came to the same conclusion as BMW and Ford, that there were sweet spots in the rules where you got to race with less weight, but no less rubber. It was this exact thinking that had produced the 2.0-litre Sierra RS Cosworth and the 2.3-litre BMW M3.

But while BMW opted for the naturally-aspirated version, quite a few M3 fans have wondered what might've happened if they'd followed their F1 expertise and gone racing with a turbo engine instead. By the turbo equivalence formula, which multiplied the cubic capacity by 1.4, a 1.8-litre turbo engine would've raced in the same class as the 2.3-litre M3, but could theoretically have the same colossal power output as the Sierra.

But, BMW had planned the M3 back in 1982, and by the time Nelson Piquet and Brabham ironed out the kinks and won the first turbocharged F1 title, it was too late to switch tracks. But Alfa Romeo also had an F1 team – their own team, not Ferrari – and although they'd been remarkably unsuccessful, they'd learned a lot from developing their unique carburettored 1.5-litre turbo V8. Sure, the engines were heavy, bulky and thirsty (bad news in a fuel economy formula), but they'd nevertheless seen for themselves the incredible strides turbo technology had made in a few short years. And so for their WTCC contestant, they went for the 1.8-litre turbo.

The engine was sleeved down to 1,762cc, and while officially it was no more powerful than the standard unit, some owners dyno'd theirs and found more than 150 kW without upgrades. 0-100 was done in 7.7 seconds, and the top speed was some 210km/h. That it wasn't especially forgiving as a road car was kind of irrelevant: this existed solely to provide the basis for a racing car, so if it was difficult for the ordinary driver on the open road, hard cheese. It's hard to imagine in today's world of Euroboxes and rice rockets, but in the 1980s turbos were engines for masochists. None of the trick stuff to make them easy to live with existed yet, leaving them laggy, costly, fragile, accident-prone and needing plenty of idle time after a long drive to ensure the bearings didn't seize (aftermarket "turbo timers" were a popular accessory to help protect your engine from itself). Combine that with the 75's De Dion rear end, and you had una visita ospedale waiting to happen.

Which led us to poor Colin Bond. The 1975 Australian Touring Car Champion, 1969 Bathurst winner and current Alfa Romeo dealer had finally made the switch from the GTV6 to the 75, his racing number finally making sense after a year of delays. Painted in the colours of his new sponsor Caltex (the local franchise for Chevron), the car had been built by the Belgian Luigi outfit, and apparently had run briefly – very briefly – at Zolder. At this early stage the car hadn't yet been "Australianised," meaning, among other things, it was still left-hand drive. But the biggest problem by a mile was the engine: the documents promised 240 kW, but the dyno said it was as low as 150, no better than the roadgoing engine. Just another sign all was not kosher in the Euro tintop scene...

In the long long, Bondy's year was going to be one of racing at the back while trying to claw back some power and develop the car 20,000km from its home base in Milan. The Turbo Evoluzione could've – should've – been producing about the same power as the Peter Jackson Skylines, but the rush-job nature of the project meant they just hadn't had the development time. Now, in March '87, with the ATCC already underway and the WTCC about to kick off at Monza, it was far, far too late.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

1 March: First Blood to Seton

That a Nissan Skyline took the first round of the 1987 Australian Touring Car Championship was no surprise to anyone. That it was the #15 of Glenn Seton, however, rather than established ace George Fury, very much was. The son of 1965 Bathurst winnner Bo Seton was the odd one out in pit lane right now: Larry Perkins was 36 years old; Jim Richards was 39; Dick Johnson, George Fury and Peter Brock were all 42. Seton, in contrast, was just 21. As of last year he was just a kid rookie responsible for more than a few dented panels. History would remember him as the first of a new generation of drivers just starting to filter through from the lower formulae – Skaife, Lowndes, Murphy, Ingall – none of them asking for quarter, and absolutely none of them giving any.

The only photo I could find was from the Pressreader edition of Australian Muscle Car #80. "The Baby-Faced Assassin" was pretty accurate: even today, in his 50s, something about him suggests a hat with a propeller on top.

Technically, the curtain-raiser for the Australian season had come on 15 February, at Oran Park’s 25th Anniversary meeting, where the the headlining event was the $25,000 Castrol Clash For Cash. Since professional teams were thin on the ground, it became the debut win for the Lansvale Smash Repairs team, later the kings of the privateer ranks. The lads had realised their best bet was to focus on Sydney events, specialising in Amaroo Park (for Trevor Ashby) and Oran Park (for Steve Reed). In the ex-Ken Matthews VK Commodore, Reed had slowly reeled in and then passed the new Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo of Colin Bond, to take the win. Trevor Ashby was almost as successful in the opening AMSCAR round, splitting the JPS BMWs after a canny tyre choice from team manager Wally Storey.
We had our own tracks and because we had to work and worked hard to pay for it, we couldn’t do everything or pay for two cars. We had some sponsors that were very good to us and Lansvale Smash Repairs was our main sponsor. While one of us was away racing, the other would be at work. Even when we raced, whoever was racing would flash home Sunday night and be at work Monday morning like nothing had happened. – Trevor Ashby, AMC #90

Car seen here at Bathurst '86

When the teams assembled for Round 1 of the ATCC at Calder Park, the talk was still of Holden’s dumping of Peter Brock the week before, and the Mobil Holden Dealer Team’s planned three-car attack, which was to’ve included the world debut of the new VL Commodore, was pared down to just two older VKs instead. In Wellington the commentary team had mentioned that Brock’s race-winning VK had been sold to an Australian buyer for $80,000, not including spares, which they considered a bargain when it had cost $110,000 to build and the Momo wheels alone were $2,000 each (bear in mind that $110,000 back then equals a quarter of a million today). Cashflow concerns post-breakup however had forced Brock to sell the team’s newer VL instead, since it could fetch a higher price, and take the ageing VKs racing once again. Queenslander Gary Scott, ousted from Gibson Motorsport after their unsuccessful Bathurst campaign last year, was drafted in to replace the decamped Allan Moffat and John Harvey, and Mobil HDT was in (shaky) business.

Complicating things for Brock, there were now two other headline acts in the Holden lineup. Allan Grice had struck a deal with Graeme Bailey to race their Bathurst-winning VK with minimal Chickadee and Bob Jane T-Marts sponsorship, while Larry Perkins maintained his Enzed Fluid Connectors backing on the #11, the same PE 002 chassis he’d raced in Wellington. PE 001 was also on the grid in the form of Tony Noske’s #26 Kalari Transport Commodore, who was one of the three privateer Commodore drivers on the grid (the others being trucking magnate Graham Lusty and former motorcycle champion Graeme Crosby).

The other heavy-hitters were all there, too: Fred Gibson’s Peter Jackson Nissan team was unchanged apart from Scott’s departure, with the same Nissan Skyline RS DR30s as last year for drivers George Fury (#30) and Glenn Seton (#15). Development was ceaseless, however: the team had sorted out their tyre-chewing issues from Bathurst last year, and their engines were now being rebuilt by Glenn’s father Bo, complete with his own dyno trucked from Sydney to Melbourne. Backup would came from the #14 Everlast Batteries entry of Murray Carter.

This and all subsequent photos sourced from account "malscar" on Photobucket. Hope that's okay.

But of course, whatever gossip was left over after discussing Brock and Holden was being spent on the teams that had brought new machinery. Frank Gardner’s JPS Team BMW had brought along a pair of BMW’s new strike weapon, the M3, light and compact but jammed with a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine with a redline somewhere in the stratosphere. Officially its homologation papers didn’t take effect until 1 March – race day itself – but in a rare demonstration of good sense CAMS got approval from all the other competitors and allowed them to practice and qualify anyway. Which they must've immediately regretted, because in the rainy Saturday sessions lead driver Jim Richards had stuck his #3 on pole with a lap of 1.05.74 – a time that‘d be smashed in the dry on race day – with teammate Tony Longhurst back in 4th, nearly a second slower.

Lining up alongside Richards was Dick Johnson in his new Sierra RS Cosworth. Like BMW, their arch-rivals Ford of Europe had put together a new car specifically to win this year’s World Touring Car Championship, and as Ford Australia’s de facto works team DJR had first dibs. Although cars had been put together in their new workshop at the back of Ross Palmer’s factory in Brisbane, the hardware underneath was all Andy Rouse, which had cost a mint. Thankfully, Johnson had a mint to spend thanks to his new prime sponsor Shell, who were bankrolling him to the tune of $1.1 million a year (only Fred Gibson had more). With that kind of money, Johnson had been able to expand to a two-car outfit for the first time, drafting in former motorcycle racer Gregg Hansford to drive the second Sierra: Dick’s #17, chassis DJR1, was built in conventional right-hand drive, while Gregg’s #18, chassis DJR2, was built in European left-hand drive, to take advantage of circuits that turned mostly left or mostly right (alas, the idea turned out to be an expensive flop). Other Fords on the grid included the less fondly-remembered Oxo Supercube Sierras, also Rouse-sourced cars, being run by a new team put together by Don Smith (#36) in partnership with Port Macquarie’s Andrew Miedecke (#35). New Zealand’s Neville Crichton was also there in the older XR4 Ti, most likely the ex-Steve Soper Eggenberger car he’d raced in Wellington, while Lawrie Nelson had brought along his #28 Capri Components Mustang.

Even more exotic was Colin Bond’s new Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo – the #75 on his doors vestigial no longer. Like his previous GTV6s, the 75 had been built by the Belgian Luigi team, and had allegedly run briefly – very briefly – at Zolder. In Europe the 75 was notoriously fickle, but here in Australia it seemed to find some reliability, even though it had yet to be “Australianised,” meaning it was still LHD. The price of reliability, however, was a chronic shortage of power: at Oran Park Bondy had come away guessing his engine was producing only about 150 kW instead of the promised 240 – barely better than the road version’s 114. Nevertheless, Bond had given it a proper Caltex livery and was ready to race in the Under 2.5-litre class – pitching it directly against the BMWs.

So it was that the BMW M3, the Sierra RS Cosworth and the Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo – built to win at Monza, Spa and the Nürburgring – together made their world debuts at lowly Calder Park, on the northern outskirts of Melbourne. Go figure.

As per FISA rules, the race began behind a safety car, an orange VL Commodore leading the healthy 26-car field around for a Eurocentric rolling start. And it started with a terrific bang. The wet qualifying sessions had seen slower cars start ahead of faster ones, and the resulting kerfuffle into Coca-Cola Corner was gargantuan. The pack swarmed down the front front straight four- and five-wide, with Larry Perkins, one of the fastest, avalanching down the outside to take the lead for a brief, glorious moment. Then he overcooked it into Coca-Cola and landed in the gravel, leaving the first lap to be led by the rather more composed Jim Richards, with the youngster Glenn Seton in hot pursuit and the old fox George Fury holding off Allan Grice. Dick Johnson’s turbo Sierra had taken to the rolling start like a fat hippo, and he was left circulating well down the order. Completing the first-lap chaos, George Fury ran wide on the exit of Gloweave Corner and kicked up some dust, losing places to Grice, Peter Brock and Tony Longhurst.

As the second lap began it was clear the war was on. Richards and Seton had already pulled out a major gap on the rest of the pack, giving an early preview of what the ‘87 season would look like. But, using the full power of Dads’s FJ20ET engine, Glenn was able to haul past Richards on that long front straight and take a lead he would never lose.

The forumers seem to like this engine

At the chicane on the back straight, however, Graeme Crosby clipped the kerb too hard and flicked his #8 Bob Jane T-Marts Commodore up onto two wheels, tipping it into a spin that almost went the full 360, sending Johnson, Hansford and Brock scrambling to avoid him. Andrew Miedecke had to take the Oxo Sierra off-track to avoid him, but somehow everyone got away without a dent. Croz kept the engine running and rejoined, chastened but unmarked.

Conversely, by lap 3 Allan Grice was up into 2nd place, getting ahead of Jim Richards around the back stretch, although Jim was making him work for it, Gricey locking up the wheels under braking and generally throwing the VK around like a Formula Ford. For all the pressure through the corners, however, it was pretty clear Calder’s long front straight was penalising the BMWs severely: Richo could keep Gricey honest only until they pulled out of Gloweave, at which point the Commodore was off and gone. Indeed, by lap 5 Richards was trying to hold off Peter Brock, who had a look around the outside Coca-Cola but found the handling of the BMW was too good for him. Brock fell back into line for the Turn 2/3 complex and followed Richards up over the hill, then pulled out again for an outside run into the Turn 6/7 tooth-puller, but this time the brakes on the BMW defeated him.

If the fight between Richards and Brock wasn’t exciting enough, it soon became a three-way as George Fury caught them up and threw in his Skyline into the mix. Where Seton had opted for the newest of Gibson Motorsport’s DR30 racecars, Fury had gone back to the oldest, the one in which his setups worked and he felt most comfortable. The effect was a lot less speed than Seton, but much, much more than Brock. As they thundered down the front straight again it was turbo four vs big V8 – which ended in a draw, as Fury was forced to take the outside line into Coca-Cola, which dropped him back behind Brock and into the clutches of Richards. This ménage à trois continued into 3/4 before the hill, where Fury had a rare moment of clumsiness and gave Richards a whack, sending the BMW’s outside wheel over the ripple strip and into the dust. The moment of lost inertia allowed Brock to get away and let Tony Longhurst into the mix, taking a neater line through that turn and up over the hill to pass his team leader and very nearly Fury as well! The straight afterward killed off that idea, but the pace of these small-engined BMWs was coming as a wicked shock to the rest of the grid. A good team player, Longhurst dutifully dropped back behind Richards before the next turn, but in the meantime Fury had made a break and was once more free to chase down Brock.

A short time later, Gary Scott made the most of his first drive for HDT and put his Holden V8 to good use, driving right between the BMWs on the front straight and relieving them of two positions in the space of about a kilometre. Clearly after his ousting from the Nissan team he had something to prove.

As did Larry Perkins, it seemed. Niggly at himself for his first-lap mistake, Perkins had put in a magnificent comeback drive and was back with the big boys inside the first ten laps. He passed Tony Longhurst into Coca-Cola on lap 8, but didn’t quite have the pace to nab Richards in the same move. Not to worry, it was just a matter of waiting another lap for the front straight to come up again, and then he was past Richards and off after Gary Scott in the factory car – Perkins’s old ride. Larry’s grudge move on Scott into Coca-Cola disrupted the Queenslander’s rhythm, so Richards re-took the place as they exited the turn.

Meanwhile, the arm-wrestle between Brock and Fury over 3rd place carried on apace, but – a sign of experienced hands – they weren’t losing speed doing it, so all the while they were catching up to Grice in 2nd. By lap 15, however, they themselves had been caught by the storming Larry Perkins, who split Brock and Fury on the lunge into Coca-Cola! Perkins followed his old boss around the twisties at the back, then got a little sideways on the run onto the front straight in his eagerness to get on the power sooner than Brock. Down the front straight they came, Holden V8 vs Holden V8, and it was Perkins who emerged in front. The Polarizer hadn’t helped Brocky much on that one...

So by lap 16 it was Perkins 3rd, Brock 4th and Fury 5th, with Seton still leading and Grice still chasing after him – a Commodore 2-3-4. Of course, there was no question the Commodore could be driven hard, the real question was for how long, given the toll its weight exacted on tyres and brakes. By lap 17, Brock’s VK was giving little hints its rear tyres were starting to die (maybe his starting pressures were too low...), and that gave Fury all the encouragement he’d ever need. Few were braver with the brake pedal than Fury, and on lap 17 he finally clawed his way past Brock again. He went wide into Coca-Cola, got across the bows of the Commodore and emerged in front – and Brock being Brock, they didn’t swap any paint in the process.

By lap 20 Glenn Seton was 4.5 seconds up the road from Allan Grice, who was himself 1.89 ahead of Larry Perkins. Sensing an opportunity, the commentary team pulled one of those moments that apparently left the Americans gobsmacked, and dialled up Gricey for an in-race chat. Unfortunately, that chat had to be cut short, as by lap 28 Perkins was in the draft and catching up. His best lap was a 1:01.61, faster than anyone else would go all day, whereas Gricey’s best was only a 1:02.14. There were slight but telling differences in driving style, Grice clipping the kerbs on the way through Coca-Cola, Perkins staying off them and keeping it smooth... and not losing any speed. A lap later and Perkins made his move, pulling out of the slipstream and having a lunge into Coca-Cola Corner. Perkins took the inside line and so forced Grice onto the outside, forcibly relieving him of 2nd place. That left Perkins free to chase down Glenn Seton, but that was going to be a tall order – the Nissan was now some 5.5 seconds up the road, and he wasn’t slowing down. In fact, his driving a delight to behold, brisk and tidy, no histrionics.

With Perkins past him the fire seemed to go out of Gricey’s driving, and the race seemed to settle down into its rhythm. The only thing left was for some retirements to stir the pot. Graham Lusty’s day had ended in the sand trap outside the Turn 6/7 complex, and Gregg Hansford had dropped out after 25 laps when his boost pressure vanished. Both the Toyota Team Australia drivers dropped out, Drew Price after John Smith, the long Calder straight proving too much for the Corolla’s little engine. But the big shock came on lap 36 when the TV returned to show Peter Brock in the pits, smoke having been seen pouring from the engine. Neil Crompton bravely stepped forward to interview him for the cameras.
Neil Crompton: Brocky you carved them up in the early stint, but unfortnunately things went wrong towards the end?

Peter Brock: Yeah, uh... Very happy off the grid, I was having a ball there for a few laps, but the new experimental Bridgestones we’re using weren’t quite right. We had no chance of testing them, they’ve got new ones on the way, I’m sure they’ll be great. But, uh, that was going for it. I revved it up extremely high and, uh, well certainly something was very much amiss there!

Crompton: What let go, any idea?

Brock: No, no idea. I think it’d be the top end of the motor, I don’t think it’s a lubrication problem.

Crompton: Will we expect to see you at Symmons next weekend?

Brock: Yeah certainly, yeah. Gary and I will both be down there, we’ll both be wiser because of this experience this weekend, we know what compounds to run, we know, uh... Well, the cars were going pretty good, let’s face it. Early on there I was sort of being pretty close to the lead, I was pretty happy.

Crompton: You said yesterday in the press conference that you were going to sit down and discuss Gary’s future last night. Did you do that and have you come up with a future for him?

Brock: Yes we have. We’re planning that Gary’ll be down there on Thursday, tyre testing – new tyres in from Bridgestone’s being dropped down to the workshop tomorrow. And we hope to really get to grips with the chassis development part of the car, we think we’re on the right track, obviously our cars were... well, you saw how fast it was early in the race.

Crompton: Okay Pete, let you get back to it. Thanks for talking to us.
Even worse, the next time the TV came back from an ad break it was to show Gary Scott in the gravel too, a front-left tyre deflated and almost ripped off the rim. The slow-motion replay showed him putting a move on Dick Johnson into the Turn 6/7 section and missing his braking point; the Commodore broke loose at the rear and skated off into the sandtrap, giving a little nudge to the Lusty Commodore already beached there, which broke his front-left suspension and popped his tyre. This double retirement put the cherry on top of what was surely the shittiest week of Peter Brock’s life, especially when both retirements were down to simple driver error.

By the closing stages of the race the TV revealed Glenn Seton was just 1.42 seconds ahead of Larry Perkins, which was a stunning effort given his first-lap indiscretions. The question of whether Perkins could maintain pace and position once his tyres started going off had been answered, and the answer was yes, but only just, because George Fury’s had too. Silver for Perkins was his reward for the days upon days of testing he’d done over the off-season, showing what could be achieved with a Commodore if you managed its appetite for tyres. Even so, with Fury a sizeable 5.68 seconds behind the Enzed Commodore by the finish, it seemed nothing could live with a Nissan FJ20ET once the turbo wound up. This race had belonged completely to Glenn Seton who opened his 1987 scorecard with a dominant win.

Though he'd have a fight to maintain it...

With championship points to be awarded on a 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 basis for the top ten positions outright, plus 9-6-4-3-2-1 for the top six positions in each of the two classes, Seton started the year with a perfect 29 points. Next was Larry Perkins on 21, but Jim Richards was ahead of George Fury 17 points to 16, benefitting from racing in the Under 2,500cc class. The Australian Manufacturers Championship was being run concurrently with the ATCC this year, rather than in the end-of-year enduros, with points awarded 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 for the top ten placings in each class, but with only highest-placed car allowed to score. This class system again showed its teeth with Nissan and BMW starting the year on an even 20 points – first place in each of their respective classes. Holden was third on 15.

Still, with the front row in qualifying going to a BMW and a Ford, the fastest race lap to a Holden and the race win to a Nissan, it was looking like the beginning of a fantastic year.