Most cars in the Bathurst 12-Hour field would stop traffic if parked on your street. There is nothing quite like watching them battle on Mt Panorama.
IT’S SOMEWHERE around lap 163 that you find yourself checking not just your watch, but your reality.
The motor race has just passed the 1000-kilometre mark that is so familiar to this place, yet this race is only just past its halfway mark. And it’s not yet midday.
Then there’s the audio-visual shock. Barrel-chested V8s, whooshing twin-turbo V6s, rasping V10s, wailing flat sixes. The soundtrack of the world’s very best production-based race engineering is as intoxicating as the sleek and exclusive McLarens, Bentleys, Audis, Mercedes, Ferraris, Nissans and Porsches are to look at.
After the conclusion of this year’s Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour yesterday, these international GT3 cars are now officially the fastest things on Mt Panorama. Sensational Kiwi star Shane van Gisbergen (McLaren 650S) electrified the mountain in Saturday’s qualifying with a 2m01.286.
Only German star Rene Rast (Audi R8 LMS), a late replacement for injured 12 Hour regular Craig Lowndes, and “amateur” ace Warren Luff (McLaren 650S) also dipped into the 2m01s, in a session that suggested times had moved on by up to 1.5 seconds in just 12 months.
The 2015 race winning Nissan GT-R, this year piloted by Rick Kelly/Katsumasa Chiyo/Florian Strauss, could qualify no better than 13th this year, 10 places down on its 2015 grid position.
McLarens and Audis filled the first three rows for the 5:45am, pre-dawn rolling start, but few expected the order to stay that way. Just behind were the hulking Bentley GTs, with newfound speed, and behind them the fastest of a handful of SLS Mercedes-Benzes and Lamborghini Gallardos.
Such disparate cars and configurations are brought together under a “Balance of Performance” that adjusts factors such as inlet restrictor sizes, kerb weights and aerodynamics to keep competition tight.
The car that claimed the highest top speed on Conrod Straight, at 306.5km/h, was none of these exotics but the Australian-made, 1965-throwback, Daytona Sportscars Coupe.
The pro-am nature of the GT category, in which an unseeded driver must be included, has also evolved at the three-driver Bathurst biggie. Typically, in the past a gentleman car owner would be joined by two paid pros.
Now, increasingly, a pro team will own the car and hire two pros and an amateur – the latter of the calibre of a Luff, or Jonathon Webb (partnering van Gisbergen) or Alex Davison. Indeed, there were probably as many international drivers as locals in this year’s race.
The race start occurs in darkness. Pairs of headlights stream down Conrod Straight, engines straining in the crisp pre-dawn air until they are unleashed on the floodlit Pit Straight. Van Gisbergen, only days back from his third annual outing in the Daytona 24 Hour, leapt away, braving warnings of kangaroos in the trackside darkness.
Former F1 driver and 2014 winner Mika Salo (Ferrari 458) was a very early casualty, tangling with Nick Percat (Lamborghini Gallardo). As special as the headlamps coursing over Mt Panorama was the glowing approach of the 6:30am sunrise over the twinkling township of Bathurst.
But it’s all about the cars. At the one-hour mark, not long after sunrise, five marques accounted for the top six places, namely McLaren, Mercedes, Audi, Bentley and Nissan. Van Gisbergen laid down a stonking 2m.01,56 lap – quicker than anyone else had managed in qualifying – setting a new lap record. Luff’s stirring run in third place, highest Michelin-shod driver in a Pirelli vs Michelin stoush, ended when he clouted the wall at the Dipper.
If nothing is certain in 1000km of Bathurst, it’s doubly uncertain over 12 hours. At various points before the halfway mark, the Bentleys appeared utterly confident in a one-two; the McLarens seemed to be drifting backwards in the growing heat of the day; the Nissan came on strong, leading at the five, six and seven-hour marks; and the Mercedes began to huff and puff at the Nissan’s back door.
The van Gisbergen/Alvaro Parente/Jonathon Webb McLaren, meanwhile, had been through the wringer, at one point even cutting out completely on Pit Straight. Parente somehow Ctrl-Alt-Deleted and the McLaren reignited, like nothing had happened. Best-laid plans of various teams went awry through a record 13 pace car periods.
After a similarly unlucky 13 pit stops, more than any other car in the top 10, the race would belong to the McLaren and the Kiwi driver whose motto is ‘race anything’. It was a hugely popular win, in front of a claimed three-day crowd of 37,000, a 15 per cent increase on 2015.
That’s owed in no small part to the event’s now being promoted (rather than boycotted) by the V8 Supercar organisation.