Track tests: Bathurst

Amazing Mount Panorama is famous for hard drivers, tougher crowds and mighty muscle cars — no place for whingers, says ‘Pom’ Marcus Simmons

They don’t build racetracks like Mount Panorama anymore. That’s why a visit to the fabled 3.862-mile circuit in New South Wales is not a visit at all, it’s a pilgrimage. Ask Dick Johnson, one of the many no-nonsense heroes whose reputations have been forged on this incredible stretch of road, about what it means and he’ll reply, in deadpan fashion, “It’s the sort of place that makes legends; and it’s the sort of place that can prove you’re a wuss.”

What’s incredible about Mount Panorama is that a track deemed one of the world’s most dangerous still hosts an FIA-sanctioned touring car classic — the Bathurst 1000. Race and venue are steeped in tradition, which is why worshippers return each year. Although ramshackle, with facilities on a par with the average British club circuit, it oozes history and charisma.

Ironically, the Bathurst 1000 — its most famous race — only moved there from Phillip Island in 1963. Even then it was known as the Armstrong 500 (miles). Australia’s conversion to metric gave the organisers an excuse to make it even longer, and it became the 1000 (kilometres) in 1973. But the history of the circuit had begun more than a quarter of a century before Harry Firth and Bob Jane steered their Ford Cortina GT to victory in ’63. The first race was held on Easter 1938, when Peter Whitehead (a Pom!) took victory in the Australian Grand Prix over the still-unsealed track in his ERA R10B.

Yet in 1935, no one had heard of Mount Panorama — because it didn’t exist. The area on which the track would be built was known by the rather less emotive name of Bald Hills. That year, Bathurst mayor, Martin Griffin, and Bathurst Motor Sports Club president, Ray Fry, had the idea of building a tourist road over Bald Hills to alleviate post-Depression unemployment. It is speculated that they had no interest in tourists and were simply thinking about a racetrack; Griffin was a known motorsports enthusiast.

That same year, the NSW Light Car Club began to lobby Bathurst Council to hold racing on the new site. The plan met with a lukewarm reception, notably from the dairy farmer who felt motorsport would make his cows dry up. But the club persisted and, in 1937, got approval. City engineer Hughie Reid revamped bits of the road to make it ‘suitable’ for racing, and the plan was for the work to be completed by early 1938, with racing to be held that Easter. Remarkably, it was, but few realised how popular it would become. We know this because there were just six toilets along the pit straight, and six on the Mountain at McPhillamy Park. The queues must have been long, because more than 20,000 spectators turned up.

Whitehead was one of two foreigners (both English) to enter that first race. The other was Alan Gascoigne Sinclair, a colourful character who raced an 1100cc Alta back home before venturing to Australia. Unfortunately, he spent Friday night in a police cell on drunk and disorderly charges and didn’t make the start.

The fun continued after the race when the mayor was hit on the head with a large cauliflower, followed by a host of other vegetables, as he presented Whitehead with the trophy. And later that night a police station was attacked and a tyre and petrol-soaked clothes were set on fire in the street — a fine tradition of anarchy that is upheld by the ‘ferals’ who have gathered on the Mountain since to cheer on ‘Skaifey’, ‘The Cowangie Kid’, Peter ‘Perfect’ and ‘The Enforcer’ — racers, not wrestlers, I assure you.

The 1938 race was a big success and the circuit was tarred, at a cost of £1200, for 1939. That year there would be two meetings — one at Easter, one in October — a sequence which would continue largely unbroken until 1973. What the competitors found then was not too dissimilar to today. The surface was acknowledged as being good in its day, and the circuit was a great challenge, featuring two long straights up and down Mount Panorama and a winding ribbon of road across its top. Indeed, the only layout change came for 1987, when the 1.19-mile Conrod Straight was split up by the construction of the Chase, a chicane which removed the notorious final crest but still offered the challenge of a 150mph kink-over-crest. That year also saw the introduction of the US oval-style concrete walls which now line the circuit Until then, the course across the top of the Mountain looked a little like Richmond Park.

Of course, the infrastructure has changed too. Relations between racers and the community had deteriorated since the initial honeymoon. There had been no racing between 1941 and ’46 because of WWII, but the sport also took a sabbatical from Bathurst in ’53 when local feeling soured further.

Fortunately, the Australian Racing Drivers’ Club, a go-ahead organisation at the time, negotiated with the council and won the right to organise racing at Mount Panorama from 1954. The ARDC also bought land on the inside of the circuit to enable the construction of a paddock.

What of the circuit? After the rising start-finish straight, it turns 90-degree left at Hell Corner to begin the long climb up the 0.69-mile Mountain Straight, passing the driveways of local residents’ homes and continuing alternately through bright sunlight and the shady canopies of trees. Glance to the left and you can see the words ‘Mount Panorama’ etched on the hill, on a clear day visible miles before you arrive in Bathurst itself.

Still going steeply uphill (no wonder they grimly hang on to 5-litre V8 torque), a fast, slightly banked right-hander sucks the car in nicely. Traditionally known as Quarry Bend, it is more commonly referred to as Griffin’s these days, or otherwise bears allegiance to one of the sponsors who irritatingly hijack the corner names fix Bathtust 1000 week. The road then turns through a left kink before the famous Cutting, also left-handed. Here, the concrete walls create a funnel effect, heightened by the tightness of the corner itself and the fact that this turn marks the beginning of the steepest uphill climb on a circuit where gradients reach 1:6.

Accelerating hard you enter the long right-hand curve at Reid Park, scene of the famous ‘Dick Johnson Rocks’ incident in 1980 (see sidebar). That leads into the fast left at Sulman Park — flat for the really brave — then into the awesome left at McPhillamy Park, the most thrilling spectating point on any road course in the world. Australia’s V8 supercars leap over the crest, waving their left-front wheels in the air and crunching down on the front splitter’s hard-worked right-hand corner before turning in. Just before this point the fans are within touching distance of the cars.

Along a short straight, the highest point on the course, and then hug the right-hand wall into Skyline, the Esses and — take a deep breath — the Dipper. This is a right-left-right-left plunge downhill. Always steeper, steeper, steeper.

“Very few people I’ve seen have mastered the art,” says Johnson. “It’s a very difficult bit of road, but if you get it right, it chops big pieces off your lap time. It’s anything but a conventional line. You have to go very close to the wall on the right and try and straight-line it as much as you can. Get it wrong there and you’ll have it wrong all the way down the Mountain.”

An unnamed right-hander follows and then it’s Forrest’s Elbow, the most crucial corner on the track. The ying to the Cutting’s yang, it is again narrow, claustrophobic and daunting, but this time it’s downhill, faster than a lift in free fall. And, because it leads onto Conrod Straight, you have to get it just right. Even with the Chase, constructed around four-fifths of the way down, Conrod is one of the longest straights in the world. Its name originates from the second meeting, Easter ’39, when a rod punched a hole in the side of the block in Frank Kleinig’s Kleinig Hudson. The 1940 programme named the straight Con-rod, and Kleinig got the rod chrome-plated to keep as a souvenir. Until his death in 1976, he used to carry it to the pub with him.

Conrod’s final crest was too dangerous. It had claimed its first life in 1949, when Jack Johnson crashed his MG TC, and in ’55 a car ploughed into the crowd, killing a spectator. Johnson: “The first time I came down Conrod Straight, I ended up with white knuckles. The cars left the ground over the final hump at 300kph, and that was quite an eerie feeling. If the cars were side by side, it created a low pressure in between them and, when they took off over the hump, they’d touch in mid-air.” Enough said.

The Chase was a good compromise. It cut out the notorious crest, but introduced a mind-numbingly fast right-hand sweeper before competitors have to hit the anchors for the second-gear left and right. From there it’s the short chute down to Murray’s Corner, known as Pit Corner until 1946, when Bill Murray crashed his Hudson into the sandbags. That night, race winner Alf Najar took some charcoal from a campfire and etched `Murray’s Comer’ on the wooden fence. Another Bathurst legend was born.

And that completes a lap of one of the wonders of motorsport. The outright record still stands to Niel Allen’s F5000 McLaren, which at Easter 1970, lapped in 2min 09.7sec, a speed of 107.6mph. By the late 1990s, V8 touring cars were qualifying in 2m09sec (with the Chase) but race lap times are still two or three seconds off.

In the post-war years, the circuit’s popularity with fans ebbed as the shorter Warwick Farm, Catalina Park and Amaroo Park tracks sprang up around Sydney. But Mount Panorama, a three-hour drive on the other side of the Blue Mountains, outlives them all. For this is where the gods of Australian racing do battle each year. And theirs is a truly inspiring arena.

Dick Johnson: hitting rock bottom paid

Along with Peter Brock, Dick Johnson is the most famous Australian touring car racer of the past 20 years. And, even more than Brock, he owes a great part of his status to Mount Panorama.

Johnson first raced at Bathurst in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the celebrated incident occurred which changed his life. The Queenslander, a Ford privateer, was leading the Bathurst 1000 when he ran over rocks on the circuit. His car ground to a halt, an emotional Johnson broke down on TV, and the Australian public sent in enough donations to set up his 1981 season.

“A number of people have sort of got careers from this racetrack,” says Johnson, “but I guess none would be more outrageous than the incident that got me to the point where I could be a professional racing driver. It was something you could never orchestrate.

“I’ve always had to get things for myself; when people helped me it wasn’t something I was used to. It was probably the worst best thing that ever happened to me. We got an awful lot of money, but that was probably the most pressure I’ve felt in my life starting the year with a virtually new Ford and the hopes of all those people on your shoulders. I would have felt so bad had I failed, but we won the championship and Bathurst.”

The other famous Johnson incident at Bathurst was his plunge into the trees at Forrest’s Elbow during the qualifying Top 10 Shoot-Out in 1983. “That was a bit special” he remembers. “On the end of the concrete wall, where it used to finish, they had this big bunch of tyres. The other 363 days of the year it’s a two-way road, so if people driving up the other way fell asleep before they got to the top, they ran into these tyres filled with concrete.

“After I clipped the wall it was no big deal because I just gave it a bit of a nudge with the back of the car. But those tyres just stuck out a foot or 15 inches past the end of the wall. It hooked the front wheel and broke the steering arm, and from then on I was a passenger and she sort of leapt into the trees.

“When I was heading off the road at 90mph and there was just trees, I was thinking, ‘I could be in a bit of trouble here’. As it turned out, when I stepped out of the car I could remember no more for 10 or 15 minutes. But I was fully conscious and the boys proceeded to put a car together and we ended up out on the grid the next morning.”

Johnson believes the track is “very safe” these days. The concrete walls protect from the trees, there are huge gravel traps at the superfast McPhillamy Park and the Chase, and escape roads elsewhere. “In that respect, it’s world class,” he asserts, “although there are certain cars you wouldn’t want to drive here. F1 would be awesome, wouldn’t it? I doubt they’d get through the Dipper though. They might wear their wings out on the ground.”