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Chapter 1 – The Invasion
The Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 hour endurance race has been going from strength to strength over the past few years. Gaining more attention internationally with each passing day, the 2014 event last weekend showed why the race is such a stand-out event on the world GT calendar. The 6.2km circuit is renowned for being unforgiving on cars and drivers alike, as there’s very little room for mistakes, especially over the top of the mountain where concrete walls line the edge of the track.
With an attendance of over 25,000 over the weekend and visitors from over 150 countries online via the live stream, those watching on the hill at McPhillamy Park or online had one hell of a race to watch, as it wasn’t so much an endurance race, but more a 12 hour sprint race with a record 196 laps completed. That’s 1839km! For the first time since 1992, Nismo returned to Mount Panorama with their formidable GT3-spec GT-R. Leading the charge was Nissan V8 Supercar driver Rick Kelly, who knows the track inside out, having completing several successful seasons in the V8 Supercar series.
Nissan had assembled a formidable line-up for their 2014 campaign at Bathurst; Rick Kelly was able to provide plenty of insight on the track layout and Nismo athlete drivers Katsumasa Cyio, Wolfgang Reip and Alex Bluncombe rounded out the team by providing plenty of experience in endurance racing (as well as knowing the car inside and out). However, with the recent resurfacing of the track over the Christmas period, everyone was a little in the dark on how the cars might behave on the new surface.
The crowds were excited to see the Nismo team return to the mountain, with a few fans making it known to the pit crew that it was good to have them back.
International teams continue to have a strong presence at this event: 2012 winners and Nürburgring 24 hour competitors Phoenix Racing were back in the Audi R8 LMS Ultra, Clearwater Racing (who finished second in last year’s event) were back looking to improve and one of the newcomers from Europe, HTP Motorsport, with their immaculate white SLS AMG GT3, looked strong through practice on Friday morning.
Unfortunately, an incident in the final practice session with Harold Primat at the wheel meant that the guys at HTP Motorsport would have a long night in front of them to get the damage to the right-hand side of the car repaired in time for the first qualifying session the next morning.
In a fitting tribute to a great driver, the Alan Simonsen trophy was created and awarded to the team that qualified first for the race on Sunday in memory of Alan, who tragically passed away at Le Mans last year.
The Number 1 car from Erebus Motorsport, piloted by German all-stars Bernard Schneider, Maro Engel and Nico Bastian, won the Alan Simonsen trophy with a time of 2:03.8586 – the fastest ever time recorded for a car around the 6.213km track!
One of several casualties over the weekend was the AF Corse Ferrari 458 from Italy. During the final qualifying session, Steve Wyatt had a heavy hit at the Cutting, which caused significant damage to the rear end of the 458, knocking it out of the weekend’s race.
With an early kick off for the race start of 6:15am, I high-tailed it to the top of the mountain, figuring that with the sun not quite out of hiding, I would get some longer exposures whilst I had the chance.
A section known as the Esses starts the quick drop down the mountain. Interestingly, you can see the strobe of LED driving lights in the long exposure.
As the sun started to creep up over the countryside, I grabbed one last long exposure before heading back down onto the main straight, where I would catch the golden glow of the sunrise down the main straight.
I wasn’t disappointed when I arrived at turn 1, known as Hell Corner, with the sun rising right behind the main pit complex, bathing the scene in orange light. It’s moments like this when you feel very lucky to be able to attend an event as special as the B12 hour.
With Radio LeMans once again providing commentary to a worldwide audience, you could easily follow what was going on around the track by simply tuning in (like fellow photographer Joel was doing). For the second year running, Radio LeMans has helped to lift the profile of the race by providing exciting coverage for the entire weekend. I have to wonder how any of the commentary team can talk at all after going flat out all weekend!
Using the endurance race to help launch their range of Fiat 500 Abarths in Australia, Fiat had a large presence – entering four cars, with a mix of both motoring journalists and professional drivers to help get them over the line. They made plenty of pops and whistles as the little 1.4 litre turbo motor had been tweaked a little to get around the track (and stay out of the way of far more powerful racers). Fiat went to the trouble of delivering a care package to each flag point, to apologise for all of the blue flags they were making the marshals wave.
Chapter 2 – Rising Temperatures
The reflective livery of Clearwater Racing helped to catch the first rays of sun early in the morning. After finishing with a podium position in last year’s event, they were looking as strong as ever through both practice and qualifying. However, mid morning when the 458 was attempting to overtake one of the slower cars, it clipped the rear of the car, sending fluids across the track near McPhillamy Park.
With the Ferrari 458 beached in the sand at the top of the mountain and a trail of radiator fluid over a very dangerous part of the track, people could only cross their fingers and hope that nothing more would happen. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be… The Nissan GT-R with Katsumasa Cyio at the wheel ploughed right into the stranded Ferrari, destroying both cars instantly. Luckily, despite the heavy hit, both drivers were able to escape without any critical injuries.
An endurance race is hard enough, with drivers double or even triple stinting sometimes in a car for three hours. Adding to the mix was the height of an Australian summer; with ambient temperatures exceeding 35 degrees every day, and track temps often double that inside the cars, it would have been all the more tough on drivers. Most cars had cooling ducts that would blow hot air from outside over the driver, however I learnt that the GT-R actually had an air conditioning system installed. Not your normal system however – instead of being driven from a belt off the engine, a mechanical link from the gearbox powered the system, providing some cool air to the drivers. It would have provided added comfort (had the drivers of the GT-R made it past the three hour mark).
Erebus team owner Betty Klimenko showed that embracing fans and allowing them access to parts of the garage whilst the team are working, raises the profile and popularity of the returning winners.
Once again Erebus Motorsport were competing with two SLSs – one being an all-Australian driver line-up, including Will Davison, Jack LeBrocq and Greg Crick and the other being the all-star international team mentioned earlier.
For the first time, the MARC Ford Focus competed in the invitational category. Built around the Global Touring Car concept, the MARC Ford has been built to compete on a world stage. Using mainly local parts suppliers from around south-east Queensland, the category has been designed to use identical chassis, suspension and drivetrain, with different bodies from varying manufacturers available to teams (similar to the design of the current V8 Supercar series down here, where the Car Of the Future cars use the same chassis, but different engine and bodies). They also proved that they had the race pace and endurance to last the weekend, finishing 15th outright, behind the GT-spec cars.
Whilst the SLSs were certainly quick down Conrod straight, the outright fastest car down there was another invitational class car, being a Shelby Daytona Coupe replica – with a top speed around 280km/h, helped along by a 7 litre V8 from Chevrolet. The slippery coupe did have its fair share of issues throughout the weekend though. The team worked all through the night on both Friday and Saturday (even getting parts driven up from Melbourne!) in order to make the race start when the pit lane opened first thing on Sunday morning.
There aren’t too many tracks around the world where you can get a view over the countryside quite like you get at Bathurst. Only when you’re standing at the top of Skyline right on top of Mount Panorama with the town of Bathurst below, can you appreciate just how high the cars climb each lap.
As the saying goes, ‘What goes up, must come down’. The section known as the Esses marks the fall to the bottom of the mountain, where a tight section made up of a flowing series of corners leads to the drop off known as the Dipper.
The Dipper has a massive drop which more often than not catches the front splitter on nearly every car. It’s almost impossible to relay just how much the cars drop in only a few metres of track…
With concrete walls on the left and right, the steep section from the Dipper to Forrest’s Elbow doesn’t leave a lot of room for overtaking. This caused a few frustrations for every driver out there – not just the faster group A GT3 cars. Such a narrow section of track led to a few bumps over the weekend, with sometimes impatient drivers not giving each other enough space.
Sometimes you need to make your own room in racing. When ex-F1 driver Mika Salo (in the Ferrari 458) joined the track with cold tyres, he was released right into a fight for first between the Erebus SLS of Bernd Schneider and the McLaren, driven by New Zealand native Shane Van Gisbergen. In a ballsy move, considering that there’s not a lot of room at Skyline, Shane tried diving up the inside of Mika over the grass. With both drivers making it through (after SVG tucked in behind Mika), Shane eventually passed Mika down Conrod Straight and apparently let his feelings known with a one-fingered salute as he passed Mika. You have to wonder if Bernd thought all of his Christmases had come at once with two of the strongest cars coming close to crashing only four hours into the race.
It was the first time a McLaren MP4 had competed in Australia. Tony Quinn, who was in an Aston Martin for last year’s event, plans on running it in the Australian GT championship this year and had given it its first outing at his Highlands Motorsport Park in New Zealand only a few weeks prior.
Despite sustaining significant damage, no thanks to a kangaroo that Greg Crick hit in the morning, the Erebus SLS was still running strong and in contention for a podium position, however the damaged bodywork made the SLS very sketchy down Conrod straight.
Chapter 3 – A Sprint To The Finish
The little Fiats did well to not only finish the weekend, but also avoid any of the larger GT category cars. They were running a radar system, similar to what the Corvette GT team were using at Le Mans last year, to let them know when a faster vehicle was approaching and from which side.
The new surface at Bathurst was billiard table smooth; it also meant that the tyres were lasting long periods without creating marbles.
With the sun getting low and the time quickly approaching 12 hours, the front-running teams brought most of their cars in for the last hour of the race. Maranello Motorsport changed drivers, putting Craig Lowndes into the driver’s seat, whose many years experience at Mount Panorama proved invaluable. HTP had a much longer pit stop, opting to change pads on their SLS and betting on another safety car to bunch up the field. Meanwhile, the McLaren and the Aussie SLS would be battling it out for the final spot on the podium during the last hour.
The gamble from HTP had paid off, after one of the Porsches in Group B came off at the top of the track, bringing out the safety car: a new BMW M5.
The HTP Mercedes was right up on Craig Lowndes’s 458, thanks to the short safety car period, meaning that after 12 hours of racing, it would be a sprint race right to the end. Meanwhile, the battle for third between Erebus SLS and the Darrell Lea McLaren was on in a big way as well… Cars in front had not quite been able to catch the two front-running cars, which meant that the Erebus and Darrell Lea could not bridge the gap.
People lined every vantage point to watch what was going to be the closest finish for a 12 hour race ever.
Despite a little bit of traffic in the closing minutes of the race, Craig Lowndes and the Maranello Motorsport team were able to hold off HTP with their Mercedes SLS by less than half a second, to take a stunning Bathurst 12 Hour win.
The battle-damaged SLS from Erebus brought home third, finishing just in front of the McLaren. A record five cars finished on the lead lap this year.
Mika Salo, Peter Edwards, John Bowe and Craig Lowndes took home the silverware in one of the toughest races in the country. This year’s event really did seem to push the boundaries on endurance racing, with only a few moments during the race where there wasn’t some sort of battle for position between the front contenders.
John Bowe enjoyed the spoils in a rare moment of celebration. He isn’t known for letting anyone spray him with bubbly, but with the effort that all of the team had put in, I think this win was a little bit special.
The Liqui Moly 12 hour event has seen huge growth recently. Helped along with the new media coverage from Radio Le Mans, the live stream and the live broadcast on national TV, the 12 hour race is only going to get bigger. I wonder how long until it becomes a GT3 only race, with a majority of international teams making up the field?
WRITTEN BY: JARROD MOORE
SOURCE: THE SPEED HUNTERS