Their mechanics could certainly sink a few and they had new-age theories on their side, but Australia’s Holden teams failed in Europe in 1986. Joe Saward tells their story
Is there any surer way of uniting Australian sports fans than when there’s the prospect of beating the Europeans on their home ground? Yes it was a shock when, in early 1986, Peter Brock and Allan Moffat were announced as team-mates in the Mobil Holden Dealer Team. After all, although Brock was a Holden man through and through, Canadian-born Moffat was his bitter rival from Ford. But the catalyst behind the sudden collaboration between the two men who had dominated Australian racing for years was the worldwide adoption of common Group A rules.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” explains Brock of their brave venture to take on the Northern Hemisphere’s touring car elite. “Many of the teams and drivers in Europe had been out and raced at Bathurst and in the Wellington street race. There was interest in tackling them on their home turf.”
For Holden there was no real interest in Europe, but Ray Borrett, the man in charge of the make’s racing division at the time, reckoned that the cars would do well. The Commodores were being raced on demanding circuits in Australia and were likely to be more reliable than their European cousins. That, at least, was the theory.
Brock wanted the best of the best and along with Moffat he had assembled a multi-talented team. John Harvey was running operations at MHDT’s headquarters in Melbourne. Harvey himself was an ace driver who had started competing on dirt in the 1950s, had raced against the big stars in the Tasman Series in the ’60s and had won Bathurst with Brock in 1983. The chief engineer, New Zealander Neal Lowe, was also a racer.
The campaign began almost immediately with two events in New Zealand in January: Brock and Moffat won at Wellington, Lowe and Harvey at Pukekohe. They beat TWR’s Rovers along with the Ford Sierras, BMWs and Volvos. They were on top of the world.
Two cars were shipped out for the European campaign along with a large shipment of spares, bound for Russelsheim, Germany where former rally star Tony Fall, the head of Opel’s competition department, had agreed to provide help. “The plan was sound,” reckons Harvey. “The team was a very capable and dedicated group and we had contingencies and logistical assistance from General Motors in most of the European countries.”
Dedicated they might have been, but they were also fun-loving. “Our boys did fail to beat ex-cricketer Rod Marsh’s legendary beer-drinking record on the Sydney to London flight,” remembers Brock. “They lost count four hours before touchdown! I picked them up from the airport and it was quite an embarrassing sight to see, four grown mechanics wandering around aimlessly in their newly-issued but totally dishevelled MHDT travel gear. They couldn’t even speak.” Needless to say, nor could Brock.
Lowe was also unimpressed. “The main team of mechanics who spent the whole season in Europe seemed more interested in having a good time rather than being 100 per cent dedicated to preparing the cars,” he says. “The cars were always prepared properly — but it was always only just in time.” A few days after the boozy flight, the team arrived at Monza for the opening round of the European Touring Car Championship. There they found fellow Australian Allan Grice who was running his own Commodore under the Australian National Racing Team banner. ‘Gricey’ had some super-quick Yokohama tyres and was out to embarrass the Pirelli-shod MHDT.
The ETC circus greeted the Australians warmly. “They were impressed with the cars and the sound they made,” remembers Borrett. “I still recall the first laps at Monza in practice, when everyone just stopped and looked to see what it was. A V8 at full revs down the straight was pretty impressive.”
To one of the Mobil Holden team it was not impressive enough. David Segal had left motoring journalism to join MHDT and was worried by what he saw in practice at Monza. “I remember standing trackside watching in disbelief as a 3.5-litre V8 Rover pulled out and passed the 5-litre V8 Commodore on the straight,” he recalls. “I knew then that this was going to be interesting. We just didn’t count on the amount of rule-bending that was endemic in European Touring Car racing at the time.”
Brock phrases it diplomatically, but the sentiment is the same: “We played with a totally straight bat and thought that was the common agreement. We were given some rude awakenings and didn’t have the wherewithal to respond rapidly.”
Grice qualified fourth, with the Brock car seventh. The Australians were not worried — they thought they would be on the pace in the race. And it appeared that way as Grice moved up to lead before his team-mate, Graeme Bailey, dropped the car into a sandtrap. Brock and Moffat lasted just six laps before an axle failure.
Two weeks later the ETC teams were at Donington and there was a different problem: it was freezing. “I’d never seen snow before,” remembers Segal. Grice qualified third with Brock seventh, but in the race the Holdens moved up and for one glorious moment ran 1-2 before rain came along. Bailey then dropped it in a sandtrap again, while Brock and Moffat struggled home in fifth.
The results had not been great, but Moffat was enjoying the relationship with Brock. “We should have done it 10 years ago,” he mused at the time. “Imagine what we would have achieved if we had done that! Peter and I started out with nothing and built things up, and we are quite similar. It has been a pleasure.”
Warm feelings in the team did little to help at Hockenheim a week later, where it was freezing once again. “I remember one morning,” says Segal, “we ran into a German driver at the hotel. He had a sponsor who had a chopper parked outside the hotel and offered us a lift. The pilot brushed the snow off the chopper, fired it up and we did a five-minute flight across the Rhine to the track.” In qualifying Grice was third but Brock was 11th. In the race the charging Grice crashed into a backmarker while fighting for the lead, while Brock and Moffat finished fifth again.
The first leg of the programme was over. “We thought we would be reasonably competitive and that is what we have been,” Moffat concluded. “There is a different set of guidelines in Europe. Now we know what they are we can do something about it!”
In the months that followed before MHDT returned, for the Spa 24 Hours, tensions began to rise inside the team. Brock was close to a Melbourne chiropractor called Eric Dowker, who was known as ‘Dr Feelgood’, and together they had come up with a controversial device which they called the ‘energy polariser’. It was, according to Brock, “a high-technology energy device which creates a polarised or ordered molecular arrangement as distinct from the normal ‘random’ structure. This alters the behaviour and the characteristics of materials and components in the vehicle.”
‘Peter Perfect’ wanted to convince GM to fit this magic box in all of its road cars around the world. “It was the subject of much debate and comment at all levels of GM,” remembers Borrett.
Word spread that Brock was into black magic, but no-one was sure. The one thing that was definitely polarised by the device was the Mobil Holden Dealer Team itself. “There were some people in the company who really believed in it,” says Harvey. “These people started to take increasingly important roles. In other words, if you were a polarised person you were OK. If not you were on the outer. People who did not believe it pretended to go along with it.”
The crisis was coming to a head when the team went back to Europe in July. Things were not helped by the fact that the team was now short of cash: the Australian dollar had dived that summer and Brock says there was “a last-minute decision by Holden to withdraw support for our venture”. He believes that Holden was already negotiating a deal for 1987 with Tom Walkinshaw. It did not help that the team’s 12-hour Spa simulation at Calder had ended after just 90 minutes with a head gasket failure.
To help pay for Spa MHDT took on wealthy New Zealanders Kent Baigent and Graeme Bowkett to drive the second car with Lowe, while Harvey joined Brock and Moffat. Bizarrely, Grice’s Australian National Motor Racing Team now featured two Belgian pay-drivers.
Talk of the polariser dominated proceedings at Spa. “Brock was fully ‘polarised’ at the time,” remembers Segal. “I was taken into the forest between the practice sessions at Spa by Brock and Dr Feelgood. They fitted the polariser to my Opel Kadett, fitted a multi-coloured sticker to the rear window to act as the aerial, let the car idle for 20 minutes so that the molecules could align and then told me to drive it back to the track. During the drive they tried to convince me it was a much nicer car to drive.”
Segal thought it odd. And it got odder. “I had just had a road accident in Australia,” Segal says, “and I had some serious whiplash. Dr Feelgood noticed this and offered to work on me. He decided that he did not have enough energy to fix me, so he got his wife and Brock’s wife to join hands so that he would have the healing power of three people!”
There were rumours that the team was dancing around the cars and laying hands on parts. “I did not observe anything to suggest a deterioration in Peter’s determination to succeed in Europe or his prowess behind the wheel,” says Harvey. “The only dancing I was involved in was quick-stepping around the media enquiries about Peter!”
Lowe was busy trying to sort out the MHDT cars on Bridgestone tyres. “A lot of big players were attacking Brock’s theories, which then made him even more determined to prove he was a visionary,” Lowe says. “I have to say the whole affair didn’t affect me much, but you would have to be stupid to have not been aware of some strange decisions being made.”
Qualifying for the 24 Hours is a public relations exercise, and MHDT was not too bothered about lining up 13th and 28th on the grid. Grice was seventh. But things quickly went wrong in the race: after 90 minutes Brock’s car blew a head gasket and spent two hours in the pits — there was no chance of a win. Later in the night Brock did some damage with a big spin, while Grice twice lost a wheel, had his windscreen fall into his lap and had to replace a seat broken by a hefty team-mate. If nothing else, the Lowe/Baigent/Bowkett car stayed out of trouble.
The only hope to salvage some honour was to aim for an obscure team prize called the Coupe du Roi, and that meant that the Australian teams had to work together. Just after lunch on Sunday Brock’s car blew a second head gasket. As repairs were completed the Lowe Commodore came into the pitlane with a terminal engine problem. There was no time to fix the damage and the car was sent out to be parked at the final corner and wait for the finish.
All that was left was a PR stunt for the folks back home: the three Australian cars crossed the line side by side. They were 18th, 22nd and 23rd but had won the Coupe du Roi. No-one cared what it was for: it was a trophy, and that was a triumph. “It was just as well that the finish line was on a hill,” remembers Segal. “One of the cars was actually coasting down it.”
Within a few months Holden and Brock had split up amid much acrimony over the polariser. But for Lowe, at least, the MHDT adventure was a significant event: “The team going to Europe was a part of the process of change that took Australian motorsport from that era to the levels of professionalism you see in the sport today.”
If nothing else, Lowe also came away in awe of ‘Peter Perfect’: “He had an incredible talent for driving. He could drive around any problem with the car. There were many occasions when the car was utterly and totally knackered after the race but nobody knew it.”
What nobody knew until some months after the Spa fiasco was that the team had been doomed from the start — the head gasket problem had been a mystery until a number of blocks and heads were sectioned. “We found that a revised casting process at the Holden foundry had caused water galleries in the cylinder heads to be restricting flow,” says Harvey. “We had a pair of the faulty heads on our engines.” And not even the energy polariser could have fixed that.
Peter Brock is the biggest motor racing star in Australia and has been for nearly 30 years. ‘Peter Perfect’ started out racing a self-built sports sedan in 1967. This was a two-door Austin A30 into which a large Holden engine had been fitted. The car scored 100 wins on the Australian club racing scene, and in ’69 Harry Firth, the manager of the newly formed Holden Dealer Team, gave Brock his break with an offer of a drive in the James Hardie 1000 race at Mount Panorama, Bathurst.
In the years that followed Brock became ‘King of The Mountain’ at Australia’s biggest race, with victories in ’72, ’75, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’82, ’83,’84 and ’87 In addition to that he was the Australian Touring Car Champion of ’74, ’78 and ’80. In ’80 he established Holden Special Vehicles to build road-going specials based on Holden models. This was a huge success until ’87 when the partnership broke up over the energy polariser device (see main story) which Brock wanted to put in every car.
Brock continued to race in private teams before returning to the factory Holden Racing Team in ’94. He retired from full-time racing in ’97 but does still drive from time to time and lent his name to the Team Brock V8 Supercar team for a couple of years. He was awarded the Australian Medal in ’80 for his contribution to motorsport and is a member of the board of directors of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.
Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, in November 1939, Moffat started out racing a Triumph TR3 in Canada and later made a name for himself in the United States driving a Lotus Cortina and impressing Ford Racing boss Al Turner to such an extent that he began to help his career.
After several years in Trans-Am, Moffat was sent by Ford to Australia, where he quickly became the Blue Oval’s chief challenger to Holden. Moffat made his Bathurst debut in ’69 and won the race for Ford in ’70, ’71 and ’73 and the Australian Touring Car title in ’73. After Ford withdrew he raced a variety of different machinery, including taking victory in the ’75 Sebring 12 Hours with Brian Redman and Sam Posey in a factory BMW CSL.
In Australia he continued to run his own Fords: he was able to add Australian Touring Car titles in ’76 and ’77 and led a third Bathurst 1-2 victory in ’77. In ’78 he was awarded an OBE for his services to motorsport. In ’81 Moffat switched to Mazda and raced an RX7, while also competing internationally, notably in IMSA and also at Le Mans. In ’83 he won a fourth ATCC title with Mazda. After his interlude with Holden he returned to Ford in a Sierra Cosworth and was leading Bathurst in ’88 when the car blew its head gasket. The next year he took his last win at the Fuji 500 in Japan.