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.

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