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.

No comments:

Post a Comment