It’s Australia’s best-known car race and has run, in one form or another, at the same track, at (about) the same time of the year since 1963. Australian journalist Bruce Moxon puts The Great Race into a perspective, for the non-Australians among us.
The Bathurst 1000 is a bigger deal than the Australian Grand Prix, Rally Australia and the bike Grand Prix. Well, if passion and tradition have any say in the matter. The annual race for sedan cars at the fast, twisty and undulating track has developed from a low-key endurance event for production cars to today’s flat-out sprint for purpose-built racers that share little but a badge with their road-going namesakes.
6.213 kilometres up, across and down Mount Panorama, 161 times. Mount Panorama (the track, as opposed to the hill) is almost two tracks in one. The ‘bottom’ of the track is essentially long straights separated by 90-degree corners. Good power, good brakes and good traction are the keys.
At the other end, the track is a series of (mostly) very fast corners – a steep climb up and a dramatic series of esses punctuated by the near-hairpin of Forrest’s Elbow (for Jack Forrest, who fell off his motor bike here and broke his – well – elbow).
Most of the changes of position will take place at the bottom of the track – under brakes or after a slipstream along the straights. But it’s the run from The Cutting (with its one in four gradient) to Skyline that gets even some of the World’s best drivers holding their breath. Alex Tagliani’s radio message on his first-ever lap was “you’ve got to be f#####g kidding me.” The run from Reid Park, past Sulman Park and McPhillarmy Park to Skyline is really fast – up to 200 km/h. And at Skyline, you commit to The Esses, when all you can see is … sky.
After Forrest’s Elbow is Conrod Straight. Up until 1986 it ran all the way down to Murray’s Corner. There are three crests on Conrod – called ‘humps’ and even a modern V8 Supercar, with all that aero, will get light over these humps. In 1986, Sydney privateer Mike Burgmann’s Commodore got light over the last hump, at maximum speed and turned right – hitting the concrete abutment to the spectator bridge that crosses the track there.
Burgmann died instantly and the response was to install The Chase – a flat – out right hander into a 90-degree left, into an almost-flat right. There’s another shortish straight before the last corner, Murray’s, which leads onto Pit Straight. First corner on the track is Hell Corner – a normal 90-degree left, leading into Mountain Straight. A good exit is critical but the penalty for over-cooking it is a slow run up the hill.
The race track was made in the late 1930s by extending and joining some existing roads – the reason given was to create a scenic drive. At the end of the Depression, when nobody had cars or could afford fuel for them. Right. The first race meeting was that same year (1938), with an unsealed gravel surface.
The track, by the way is a matter of minutes from the heart of the City of Bathurst – an historic city with a population of 10,000. Indeed, there houses all around the circuit, although the residents usually disappear for Race Week.
Bathurst has grown to become a venue for a massive annual influx of race fans. With motel and hotel accommodation in short supply, a great many of the 50,000 visitors will camp at the track, in one of several camping areas set aside. In the past, some of these areas have come to resemble a scene from some post-apocalyptic nightmare. Cars were burned, explosions were commonplace and alcoholic excess par-for-the-course.
Organisers have gone to great lengths to put an end to this – there’s a heavy Police presence and there are limits to the amount of alcohol that can be brought onto the site. However, this has just led to innovations in smuggling, hiding and pre-placing supplies. The rule is ‘one case (24 cans) of beer per person per day.’ Amazing feats of survival are performed daily at the top of the mountain!
There’s a strong tribalism – the two makes that have dominated the event since the late sixties are Holden and Ford (more on that later) and the crowd is generally divided about equally between those two makes.
When a team changes makes (which doesn’t happen all that often) the backlash against them from their fans can border on the scary. But money will win out, of course.
In the early days the race was strictly for production cars. The first three races at Bathurst, when it was then over 500 miles, were won by Ford’s Cortina. Cars had to be made or assembled in Australia, or if imported, a minimum number of examples had to have been imported and sold. Cars were grouped by price, not by capacity and used radial tyres at best. No modification from manufacturer specifications were permitted.
And the race continued in this form until 1972. Manufacturers became more savvy – realizing a Bathurst win was a handy sales boost, so special ‘homologation’ cars became normal, at least for outright contenders. Ford and Holden built bigger and faster V8s after Morris’s Mini Cooper S swept all before them in 1966.
Ford won – the first for a V8, with their first GT Falcon in 1967. Holden struck back with the Monaro Coupe in 1968 and 69. Ford took the next two with the intense and driven Allan Moffat, before Peter Brock won for the first time in 1972.
In 1973 the race went Metric and the cars changed too. The road-going Bathurst racers were getting faster and faster with Chrysler joining Holden and Ford in building (barely) guided missiles. The general public were whipped into a frenzy of fear and loathing by Sunday paper editors and politicians. From 1973 to 1992 the cars that raced at Bathurst were production-based with varying levels of modification depending upon who could lobby the rule-makers the best.
In 1992 the race’s lowest point came when a downpour late in the event had cars crashed all over the circuit. A red flag meant the race was stopped and with the scoring going back a lap, one of the same crashed cars was declared the winner. That car was the Nissan Skyline GT-R of Jim Richards and Mark Skaife. Neither Ford nor Holden and the all-wheel drive turbocharged coupe they called ‘Godzilla’ had been declared the winner. The angry crowd booed the winning drivers and Jim Richards, the most gentle, softly-spoken man in the field, who’d ridden a roller-coaster that day (earlier his friend and mentor, Denny Hulme had died from a heart attack while driving in the race) with leading, crashing then being declared the winner, had had enough. ‘You’re a pack of arseholes’ he told the assembled throng.
The next year saw the start of the current formula, V8 Supercars as they came to be known. Five-litre injected V8s, Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore only, a much more basic specification with parity built into the rules.
These days, the cars are closest to a NASCAR or DTM racer than anything else. The bodies are shortened to fit into a generic template. All cars use the same six-speed sequential gearbox, the same Ford-based 9” rear end with a spool centre, the same Ford-based wishbone front suspension.
Next year the cars change again. The Car Of The Future will outwardly resemble the current cars, but the chassis is generic and there will be four makes of car on the grid.
Peter Brock is the best-known of Bathurst’s racers. He won the race nine times in a stellar career spanning over 30 years. Allan Moffat won the race four times for Ford and was Brock’s greatest rival (and one of his closest friends).
This year’s race looks like going to one of four cars. Lowndes and Warren Luff won the traditional pipe-opener, the Sandown 500, three weeks ago and carry great form into this weekend’s race. Lowndes’ team-mate Jamie Whincup leads the V8 Supercar Championship and, like Lowndes with Luff, has a more-than-capable co-driver in Paul Dumbrell.
In the blue corner, for Ford, are the pair of Ford Performance Racing cars of Mark Winterbottom / Steven Richards (son of Jim and a Bathurst winner himself) and Will Davison / and another flying Kiwi, John McIntyre. It’s not impossible for a winner to come from outside this quartet, but on form, not likely. If there is to be an outsider win, look for the Holden Racing Team combination of Garth Tander and Nick Percat, last year’s winners.
It’s not just Australians who’ve conquered The Mount. Race winners include internationals Raono Aaltonen, John Fitzpatrick, Jacky Ickx, Armin Hahne and Win Percy. This year former Formula One driver Christian Klien joins Russell Ingall in a Commodore and Allan Simonsen is back here – he’s raced so much in Australia he’s almost a local!
The 1,000 kilometre race is not the only long-distance event at Bathurst. Earlier in the year we have a 12-hour race for production and GT3 cars; Audi’s R8 has won this for the last two years. There were also a pair of 24-hour races in 2002 and 2003 – both won by Holden Monaros – the latter year a pair of Monaros took a crushing 1-2 win, one of the drivers in the lead car being that man again, Peter Brock.
Like many other car races, the Bathurst 1,000 has moved a long way from its genesis. It’s become one of Australia’s great sporting events and brings spectators thousands of kilometres to endure the extreme cold of a Bathurst night and the searing heat of a Bathurst day, just to cheer on their heroes.
Gone are the days of 60 cars starting, with maybe a dozen makes and models of car, in three or four classes. Gone are the days of the group of enthusiastic amateurs desperate just to get their car on the grid, hoping they make it far enough in the race for both drivers to have a turn.
What’s not gone is the lure of the Mountain, and the legend status that comes of winning The Great Race.
Story by: Bruce Moxon