IT’S 4:30am on a Sunday and while it would normally be easier to raise the dead than drag me out of bed at this hour, this particular morning my alarm clock is a fleet of Mercedes-AMGs warming their cats in the motel car park outside.
It’s the morning of the 2018 Bathurst 12 Hour and a commitment to red eyes, continuous coffee and assaulted senses is a necessity if I’m to get the very most out of this increasingly popular race. Under the wing of the Mercedes-AMG entourage, I’m prepared for a full day of all that the race can throw at me.
All eyes will be on Jamie Whincup, who won the cup this time last year in a Ferrari but has this year switched to an AMG GT3. However, the typical uncertainty and complexity of GT and endurance racing began in Saturday’s top-ten shoot-out when Luke Youlden (a guy who knows a thing or two about the mountain) put in a scorching lap, only to be usurped by Chaz Mostert in a BMW M6 with a blinding 2:01.934.
It’s the Beamer that starts in pole as the first glimmers of morning light start to break through the darkness.
The drama starts even before the race has officially begun with a Ford Focus getting it wrong and spinning into the barrier right before my eyes. A smash on the formation lap is an embarrassment for Jake Goodacre and an omen how the day is set to shape up.
Shattered bits of Ford are swept up and the bent wreckage is carted off allowing the 2018 Bathurst 12 Hour to explode into life.
There are few sights quite like the spectacle of more than 50 thoroughbred racers bearing down Conrod Straight toward you at close to 280km/h, and the cacophony of sound and blinding lights is enough to trigger a deep primitive instinct that makes you want to turn and run. Resist the urge though, and you are guaranteed one of the finest motorsports days on offer in Australia.
It’s not long before the stoic and mightily fast BMW has drawn out a dominating lead and it’s lapping the slowest cars before the lap count reaches double figures. That’s part of the allure of an endurance race like this. Not only is there no such thing as a foregone conclusion, the broad spectrum of cars, drivers and experience across teams is unbelievably diverse.
GT racing is spectacular to watch but it must be a nightmare to master with so much happening at every second and at every part of the track.
It rapidly becomes apparent why GT3 racing is gaining momentum quicker than a M6 on Conrod Straight. They say variety is the spice of life and not a truer word could be spoken at the race track.
Audi R8s, Lamborghinis, McLarens and Mercedes-AMG GTs represent just some of the high-end nobility on the circuit, but tussling among them for a position are a Mazda 3, Ford Focus and a KTM X-Bow. But it’s not just a visual bonanza, the Bathurst 12 Hour offers an incredible assault on the ears too.
The naturally aspirated Audis and Porsche 911s scream with a terrifying urgency, the fan-favourite Bentley Continentals bellow with a guttural bass and are only upstaged for brashness by a sole Daytona Coupe. Relative newcomer MARC Ford Mustangs add a V8 Supercar-like holler to the mix, which is punishing but glorious.
All the time, the Schnitzer BMW punches on with a faultless composure and a growing 10-second lead.
Another BMW - this time an M4 GT4 - isn’t quite as consistent as the race leader and spanks the notorious wall at Forrest’s Elbow. A short time later one of the diminutive but potent KTM cars checks out early, kissing a different wall and sending a severed wheel bounding down the hill with a sense of tragic comedy.
At the top of the hill, three Audis come together, dragging in a Mustang in a mess of splintered carbon fibre and nerves. The safety car is out again.
But there’s another element at play here. Go to virtually any other high-profile motorsport event and it’s hard to relate to the vehicles battling it out. A Formula 1 car has about as much in common with the car parked on your drive as an F35 Lightning and, while a Commodore V8 Supercar might look a bit like the one Holden used to make in Adelaide, the truth is that it’s a lattice of scaffolding clothed in a plastic costume.
But almost all of the GT3 and GT4 cars fanging up the mountain today are closely related to road cars you might actually be able to put in your garage, if you don’t have an example of one already. It’s that accessibility and proximity to the real world and attainable road cars that adds a huge dollop of appeal many other forms of racing simply can’t emulate.
Mostert comes into the pits, another Audi meets its maker in the Armco at the exit of turn one and Craig Lowndes takes the lead in his McLaren 670S. The race is not even four hours old and the relentless developments are already becoming hard to follow.
The Bentley team is also dealt a cruel blow. After toiling to replace an entire transmission and differential in record time, the car picks up a puncture only a short time after rejoining the contest and spins out to the gravel trap. It’s another example of the cold indifference of Mount Panorama and endurance racing.
Take the hike uphill to where the cars dive across the top of the iconic Bathurst banner and there is a completely different vibe. The highland is like some kind of remote outpost above the bustling paddock and sprawling camping areas.
As the cars blast through Skyline having safely cleared the Cutting you can vicariously enjoy the elation of the drivers having scaled the hill unscathed but, like a mountaineer on Everest’s summit, they know the descent off the mountain is even more treacherous. You can feel that foreboding too.
Like the Bathurst 1000, there is undoubtedly a presence of Holden and Ford rivalry about the campsites as well an impressive array of sculptures constructed entirely from empty beer cans, but there is less of the dare-we-say-it unsavoury side of the V8 Supercars event. There’s an added air of sophistication here.
At the coal face, the staunch Audis are starting to dominate. For now it’s one, two, three from the four rings, but the Mercs aren’t relenting in fourth, fifth and sixth. At just over half way this race really could be anyone’s.
The safety car is out again. It’s becoming a sight more familiar than discarded chip cups and Tooheys cans. This time the yellow flags are out for the first fire of the day. A menacing black Mustang has reached flash point in the Chase, parked up on the grass and now the track is covered in foam and traffic. If it carries on like this, the safety car is going to win the 2018 Bathurst 12 Hour.
In the final hours and minutes of the race, the action intensifies. Four cars bump shoulders in Forrest’s Elbow and narrowly avoid a massive crash, but fate could only be delayed so long and struck again just 18 minutes before the final flag with a huge smash which claimed three cars at the top of the hill.
Such was the extent of the of the carnage that the track could not be cleared in time to play out the remaining minutes and the 2018 Bathurst 12 Hour finished unspectacularly with the entire remaining pack stationary on the finish line.
It was an incredible and unforgettable race that, for the victors, spanned more than 242 laps, featured no fewer than 18 safety car interventions, was unrelenting in its pace and twisted bodywork, but ended ironically motionless under red flags with victory falling to Audi Sport Team WRT, the team’s first win in the event and the first win for Audi since 2012.
But as the future of V8 Supercars and the brands that will participate in it hangs in the balance, does an event like the 12 Hour stand a chance of replacing a race as iconic as the Bathurst 1000?
Certainly the 12 Hour has all the flair, excitement and sensation of Australia’s biggest race, plus the colourful spectrum of cars, sounds and numerous separate battles playing out at any one time. With massive wings and potent powertrains, the 12 Hour GT3 cars are also faster than the V8s and that’s a pretty compelling petrolhead package.
It’s hard to imagine any event replacing the most famous competition to play out at Bathurst, but after a day being sonically assaulted, shocked, wowed and delighted, it’s clear the competition between traditional Mount Panorama motorsport and enticing new battles is as fierce as it is between the cars that race there.