The Great Race

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Motor Sport journeys to Australia to find that touring car racing has become the premier league on the other side of the world.

Ray Berghouse and David Segal are typical of the reaction I received when I set out to cover the annual Hardie Ferodo 1000 at Mount Panorama Circuit in September.

I had my passes for the three-day event, had my transport organised, but I did not trust my photographic ability. So I set out to arrange some scenic race pictures. I had no authority to offer anyone any money and found Berghouse through friends in Sydney. “Don’t worry about that, it’ll be an honour to have my pictures in there,” came the instant reply from this professional, who had only recently gone out on his own. When I went down to Melbourne a week after the race I found the flat I was staying in welcomed me with another selection of pictures, these donated by Segal.

The real indication of this magazine’s name and Australian hospitality came from the top though.

The number one drivers in terms of crowd appeal are Alan Moffat and Peter Brock, the first named always identified with Fords, and Brock of the General Motors Holden team. At Mount Panorama, Bathurst, in particular the crowd likes to support either Ford or Holden and those two drivers represent the informally elected captains. When both laid on absolutely maximum co-operation I realised just how solid a reputation we have in far-flung corners of the globe.

The trip was really educational rather than the sun-blessed antipodean version of California that I had expected. I learned that 36 hours (on the way down) and 29 hours (on the way up) is a long time to spend in an aeroplane . . . but it was worth it for the spectating and driving at the other end. My trip was the result of co-operation between Channel 7 TV Sydney, Qantas, the newspaper Motoring Reporter in Australia and Evan Green, a sort of super version of Stuart Turner who handles the annual nine hour telecast of the Australian Racing Drivers Club organised race.

I journeyed up to the old gold mining town of Bathurst, host to the race, for the road circuit is just on the outskirts. It was on that journey that the numbness of the flight left me and the pleasure started for we took a little diversion and found some dirt roads to play on. I developed such an enthusiasm for this kind of travel that we spent more or less the whole day after the race on such tracks.

Bathurst proved more like a quiet town from the farmlands of Western America than anything I saw in the USA. The main industry now is farming sheep and cattle for a town that was founded in the year we were occupied in a European quarrel called Waterloo.

I went out on to the circuit the first night and subsequently drove the course in a number of appropriate, large V8-engined machines, but never under competitive conditions. It is a magnificent track. You start on flat ground and leave long but elementary pits on your left as you enter the first left. This swings through 90 degrees and used to be called Hell Corner. Now it carries the race sponsor’s name following an association that, like others in Australian motorsport. is unusually long-lived, by our standards, at ten years or more.

The circuit climbs up Mountain Straight after exiting the broad run-out area of Hell Corner. This is a long drag of half a mile or so that culminates in a hard right. Imagining we are in a known quantity, like a 3-litre Capri, I would say that was a fast third gear corner, which the racers probably manage at 90 m.p.h. The surprise for a European starts here. We can’t be on a race track, I say to myself, there are cliffs!

Rising from the inside of the track are the hard rock faces that adorn the inside of the long, long, left-hander (second at 50-65 m.p.h. I would think) which climbs out into the open again. On the outside there may be some Armco, but the primary crash barriers are half-ton concrete slabs, rather more curved than those used at Donington and without the sand slow down areas. If you go off in Australia, you know you have had a proper motor racing accident. Those who talk about holding F1 in Australia cannot have seen the circuits, which tend to be spectacular and rather like the Oulton Park or Cadwell Park of the late sixties.

Back on the track we have climbed several hundred feet above our starting point and are “up on the mountain” in local parlance. We swing gently right and pass through Sulman Park and left around Castrol Curve.

Next on the agenda is the fastest corner, along Skyline and past McPhillamy Park, where the fanatic race supporters swill endless cans of beer. They may idle some of the hours away by burning the opposing supporters’ team tee shirts, as I was told, but they also create a terrific weekend-out atmosphere. They camp through frequently heavy rainfall at this altitude — and “camp” may consist of a simple groundsheet tied to a fence at either end.

Now comes the photogenic part of the course. Where third and fourth and 100 m.p.h. speeds have been the norm since we left the cutting, now it is hard on the brakes and a succession of slower, second gear bends. First we tackle the Esses and then the left-hand, almost U-shape camber of the Dipper. This is the spot where the pictures of cars with one, two, or even three wheels airborne are taken.

There is a chance to reach for third before entering a second cutting and an equally long, tight left-hander around a rock face called Forest Elbow. The track now straightens out to a left-hand kink that must be flat out. The faster cars just change into top past the kink, settling down for about a mile of up and mainly downhill track known as Conrod Straight. Brake downhill after a hump, turn left and you are back on the start and finish straight via Murray’s Corner: there is a much needed escape road!

Speeds on Conrod vary from barely 110 m.p.h. for the newly introduced under 1600s to the speed trap figures of 136 m.p.h. for a 2-litre Toyota Celica GT (that’s the twin-cam raced at 180 b.h.p.), the right side of 140 m.p.h. for the Capris and 155-167 m.p.h. for the Holden Torana V8s.

It had been hoped that the Moffat/Fitzpatrick Ford Falcon of 5,760 c.c. would have a straight line advantage over the 5,047 c.c. Toranas owing to the big Ford’s sleek lines, but this was not reflected on the speed trap times. However, Fitzpatrick was most enthusiastic about their chances after a few brief laps of practice, reporting that it was indeed hauling in all the top Toranas he could find on the main straight.

That straight is known as Conrod for good reasons and Moffat found his latest Holman and Moody engines were fracturing under the strain of keeping the overweight Falcon up with a GM rival that is 776 lb. lighter! The Ford should theoretically have 480-490 b.h.p. from its all-iron V8, but the bespectacled Moffat told me drily before the race that they had to reduce power to at least 475 b.h.p. and use locally assembled engines to even qualify for the race. He also said they had managed to remove over 400 lb. of the Falcon’s nominal weight penalty. Dip the body in acid until transparent?

I found Moffat the most complex and interesting of the drivers. He started racing in 1962 with a TR3 “doing all the wrong things and spinning everywhere”. He has lived in South Africa, Canada and the USA before settling in Australia and becoming a national hero with his imported Trans-Am appreciation of Mustangs. A fiercely competitive man lurks beneath the glasses and chunky outline, his experience covering Fords as diverse as the USA endurance programme for the Alan Mann Cortinas to the Capri 3.4 RS3100 he imported to Australia from the European series. I found it sad that he was selling his racing Falcons and various other bits of racing hardware when I left. Those fanatic fans on the Mountain will have little to cheer without Moffat — and the GM Holden team might well not run the Commodore V8 they have developed to replace the obsolete Torana if there is nothing to beat.

I think I went to see the worst possible edition of the Bathurst race, for the era of the big V8s as general transport is over, and with it the manufacturers’ support of such cars. This is despite the fact that petrol is about half the price of ours. So I could run a 5.0-litre Holden Commodore Wagon 1,200 miles, Melbourne to Sydney and back, and feel in my wallet as though we had been in a 30 m.p.g. Chevette . . but a lot more comfortable.

Ivan Stibbard of the Australian Racing Drivers Club is the Bill France-style controlling figure of the Bathurst race. He forecasts that “within five years the big V8s will be phased out. There is already a big swing towards six-cylinder machines. The next will be fours, then who knows?” Stibbard is quite prepared to introduce classes for diesel cars and those running on LPG.

Looking back at the history of the race I was fascinated to find that it had been won by both a Vauxhall Velox and a Mini-Cooper since it began in 1960. It has been known as the Bathurst six hours, Bathurst 500, and since 1973 as the Hardie Ferodo 1,000, a reference to its 1,000 km./620 odd mile length.

I arrived at the circuit at 11 a.m. on Friday, the race scheduled for a 10 a.m. start on Sunday. Unusual features include two previous days of untimed practice and one 45 minute timed session on Friday, the 70 accepted entries of the 100 applications split simply into under and over 3-litres for this sudden-death practice.

Because of the damp conditions on Friday, unusual emphasis was laid on the organisers’ right to select 25 per cent of entries on a time basis and the remainder at their own discretion. The feature that caused the rows however was a top ten composed of the eight fastest on time and two others, Moffat included, adding drama to the televised session on Saturday morning.

From a sponsorship viewpoint, as well as the less important business in a six hour plus race of gaining a grid position, it was vital to be in this Hardie’s Heroes final session on Saturday. Each competitor, driving in an order picked out of a hat, got three laps. A warm-up, timed, and slow down tour.

I did not like the injustice of seeing skilled top liner like John Harvey dismissed from his rightful place in the top ten in the cause of TV entertainment, but I could see why they had done it when Moffat got out there. The big black Ford looked so sinister, especially wallowing its way towards us over the crests of Conrod Straight on a giant TV screen, that you could not help but identify with Moffat’s underdog efforts. This compared to the clear cut, all-Australian image of the red and white, gleaming Torana for easy pole-position winner Peter Brock. I remember Brock when he came to Europe to drive with Gerry Marshall at Spa (they finished second overall in a Vauxhall Magnum, 1977), but to see the man on his home ground is an experience. For a start it is odd to see a saloon car driver virtually mobbed, and that his every working word is recorded by one branch or another of the Australian media, who are very conscious indeed that motoring and motorsport are important subjects to their editors and public.

The other point about Brock in 1979 was that he had lived down an earlier outlaw image and settled down to the business of cleaning up Australian motorsport. They held a fantastically long endurance trial around the country, sponsored by Repco, earlier this year, which involved this skills of rally drivers. Brock and the Marlboro Holden Dealer Team simply mopped it up, 1-2-3.

Technically speaking Bathurst had little to offer this year. The GM and Ford vehicles have all had four-wheel disc brakes and hood scoops, plus aerodynamic aids for some time — next year they will have to produce a new breed of vehicles based on their current production models. Meanwhile the introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro 5.7 with its drum rear brakes to Australian production racing caused some interest, but the cars were hopelessly uncompetitive under rules rather like our Tricentrol-RAC “GP1 1/2” series. However, if they are developed carefully through the winter, it may be that the Chevrolets will dominate the Australian Championship next year, while Holden are sorting out the Commodore and Ford the Falcon XD — which looks like a puffed-up version of our Granada, but has only the headlamps in common.

During practice I had the chance of looking over several of the top Torana equipes, including that of Ron Hodgson who has current Australian Touring Car Champion Bob Morris on his side. Sitting in the hatch-back Torana (which developed originally from the Vauxhall Viva HB!) I found there was a steering wheel that would do credit to a truck, a footbrace that would probably support Sydney Harbour bridge, and a latticework of roll cage tubes that owed inspiration to aforesaid bridge.

The tyre war continues down under, but the talk is of Japan’s Bridgestone company setting the pace on the Dealer Team Toranas. The opposition say that Bridgestone have developed a very effective radial for racing, but Dealer Team Holden team manager John Sheppard told me after the race at his Melbourne HQ “people have to have a reason to be beaten. The Bridgestone tyres were just good rubber — covers that Frank Gardner’s team used as well. It’s the way you use ’em that counts”, he said with an aggressive grin and in words that make Gardner sound like a mild English country gentleman.

Naturally money is the talk of the paddock. Touring car racing is well financed by European standards, the Marlboro Holden team subsisting on the equivalent of £250,000 to race two cars in the 12-round Australian title hunt and Bathurst. Other private Torana entrants confessed to spending anything up to £125,000 to be competitive. They have major sponsorship from outfits like Cadburys-Schweppes (why not in Britain too?) and the leading cigarette manufacturers, plus Phillips and Unipart. For sprint races some of the front runners even resort to the use of titanium in the valvegear of the Toranas. In general these coil sprung, live multi-link rear axle machines, are short wheelbase mounts of conventional construction, with 380-400 b.h.p. at one end. That is transmitted to the other end via a large Muncie T10 four-speed gearbox (iron or alloy casing choice) and axles that would not discredit a truck. That all that can be packed into a machine smaller than a Vauxhall Cavalier shows that some people appreciate the value of the small car, big engine, philosophy I suppose!

Looking around the paddock I discovered that paintwork and general mechanical cleanliness are better than all but the German-based works teams in Europe, though the Capris from Stuart Graham and CC Racing would not look out of place. Beneath the large V8 class we slip into Capri versus Mazda RX3 territory, with the RX-7 newly arrived and badly underdeveloped at its first Bathurst. This time the RX3 rotaries were to prove too fast for the local Capris.

Next we have the 2-litre contenders with the Williamson 2-litre Toyota a regular winner against the Brian Foley Alfetta GTV, this car upgraded to over 190 b.h.p. after some engine breathing changes were allowed just before Bathurst. The Williamson equipe, from Liverpool in Sydney, also ran the Mark Thatcher Toyota Corolla, which looked slow in wet practice with either the Prime Minister’s son or the Japanese champion at the wheel, but went a lot better in the race against a horde of Holden Isuzu Geminis. These have single camshaft Isuzu engines deposited in saloons, coupes and estates that are very strongly related to the older style Opel Kadetts (pre-front drive) as well as the usual GM T-car worldwide floorpan and suspension.

On Sunday conditions fluctuated between sunny and English spring showers, while your reporter fluctuated between some TV monitoring, comment for Channel 7 in Sydney, and straightforward race observation. I am ashamed to say it all looked a lot better on TV! I was disappointed by the crowd, or lack of it, at the circuit. I would guess at less than the 37,000 claimed, but would believe that at least half of Australia’s population watched on TV, for everyone commented on it, from supermarket check-out ladies to an assembly of advertising men encountered during the following week.

This year the TV coverage went ahead despite strike action, executives manning the cameras and getting the hang of things again very quickly. They use up to 19 cameras for coverage, plus recorded interviews with leading drivers to keep the interest alive through nine hours. Chris Economaki was a guest commentator this year, but the star of the show was the live race commentary from Peter Williamson in the Toyota Celica. You could see and hear him battling away against the 3-litre Capris. If we get the same thing in Formula One, the public interest in motorsport will be doubled overnight, for it really involves you in the sport. I found myself willing Williamson past under every braking opportunity and trying to baulk other members of the TV audience on the way out of each outbraking encounter!

The race itself was a complete tour de force, for Brock and wet weather exponent Jim Richards, a New Zealander who has lived in Australia for some time, regularly beating the locals when it rains. I enjoyed watching the colourful cars weaving through the early laps with the Moffat Falcon a dark blob of an outsider.

Only Fitzpatrick really looked good of the Europeans. Bell’s Alfetta gallantly pursued the Williamson Toyota but never looked as though it had the measure of its Japanese rival, while poor Dieter Quester (the BMW-mounted European Champion in 1977) had an accident with the Morris Torana, just clipping a wheelrim. Together with gearbox trouble this eliminated them from the likely second place they would have had after the Moffat/Fitzpatrick Falcon expired. Alf Constanzo, an Australian-domiciled Italian who put Lees and Kennedy to shame in the F1 versus F5000 confrontation last winter, was another to clip some of the solid kerbing, putting the Frank Gardner-run Torana he shared with Alan Grice out of contention for top honours.

As recounted last month the GM Toranas swept the board in the final results, their hold on the top ten broken only by the intervention of the 2-litre Celica and Alfetta warriors. The highest placed Falcon was 15th! For myself the race, even in this poor edition, was much better than I would be likely to see in Europe today for an endurance event.

I enjoyed the circuit in my slow exploratory laps and was bitterly envious of those who were “doing” instead of watching. However, it did not remind me of European races at all except that the panoramic views from the top of the mountain were a bit like looking across the valley from Masta straight at Spa; more so when on that long straight at 100 m.p.h. and surveying the trees lining either side!

People kept trying to equate it to Europe — or even Indianapolis! — but I would say there really is not another event like it in the motoring world, and that is the attraction at present. I hope they will be able to keep their own big-engined machinery, but whatever happens I think the Australian character of a blend between show business and the desire for some rugged racing will always make this event an annual worthy of the abused “classic” description. So long as the race is held over Mount Panorama Circuit, Bathurst, it will bring welcome variety to the international calendar. – J.W.

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