The mighty are fallen
There was no doubting the satisfaction in Ruedi Eggenberger’s smile as Klaus Niedzwiedz hurtled the Allan Moffat/ANZ Bank Ford Sierra RS500 round Mount Panorama to clinch the $15,000 prize in the “Tooheys Top Ten” run-off. It mattered little that FISA had decreed this televised spectacular would no longer count for grid placings as is the Bathurst tradition; for Ruedi, it would do as revenge for the Eggenberger disqualification from last year’s World Touring Car Championship round.
That revenge seemed to be sweeter in the race itself, as Niedzwiedz, Moffat and former motorcycle racer Gregg Hansford saw off the challenge of the popular Dick Johnson and John Bowe, put themselves a lap up on Tony Longhurst and Tomas Mezera (running under the direction of veteran Frank Gardner) and kept up an unmatchable pace as the rest of the field fell by the wayside.
However, it all started to fall apart as the 100-lap mark was clocked up, the pace-car being called into operation for the second time in the race to clear a damaged car off the track. Hemmed into the line of traffic snaking behind, Hansford’s Ford developed a vapour-lock in the cooling system. As the Sandown Park 500 winner accelerated back up to speed when the green flag was waved, the temperature gauges rose accordingly. After a lap Gregg was pit-bound for Niedzwiedz to take over, but the car stayed put: the engine had cooked itself. In the lock-up garage, Moffat looked morose. He could barely bring himself to speak to the television cameras. For a man whose last ever race this might well have been, it was a sad end.
As the old went out, in came the new with Longhurst and Mezera assuming the lead in another RS500. They thoroughly deserved their victory, for the Queensland waterskiing champion had been the only one to challenge Niedzwiedz in the early stages of the race, and then only fell back when he had to pit twice to replace a broken throttle-return spring.
Thereafter both he and Czech escapee Mezera drove copybook races, the latter handling with composure last-minute dramas as a slower car blew oil over his windscreen and spun. It finally gave Gardner victory in Australia’s Great Race. “I don’t really remember how many times I’ve had a go at this place,” smiled a tired but content Frank later.
It wasn’t just the effort of winning the race that had taken it out of the team. Two days beforehand they, the Dick Johnson boys and the Caltex team had been up until late at night refitting parts to their cars. The reason? A protest of eligibility registered upon them after final qualifying by Tom Walkinshaw, on behalf of Holden Special Vehicle Operations.
“I hope nothing wrong is found, but it is vital that we all know where we stand ,” stated the Scot as he questioned the Fords’ turbos, suspension and bodywork. Johnson’s crew was ready to reply and fired in three protests on Walkinshaw’s Holdens over steering-racks , body panels and front cross-members. Bathurst was the scene of the ugliest eligibility wrangle in the whole of 1987, and Walkinshaw’s complaints had dearly reopened barely healed wounds.
Even though most of the allegations against the Fords were thrown out, FlSA managed to continue the farce by delaying a decision on the legality of the five turbochargers to the Parisian offices. Even the Aussie-built Holdens would have to be judged upon in Paris, it was decided, which did little to rebuild FISA’s tattered reputation in Australia; what it did cause however was Walkinshaw to withdraw his protest on the winning Ford. “I did it to ensure we knew the winner here and now,” said the Scot bluntly, not batting an eyelid in the full glare of Australian television and media.
For Dick Johnson, the race should have been the crowning glory in a season of success. Perhaps best remembered in Europe for his sensational appearance at the Silverstone TT, where ETC runners didn’t see him for dust, the Queenslander dominated the national Group A series. He and team-mate John Bowe arrived in New South Wales armed with three cars, and Briton Robb Gravett as a surprise co-driver.
Having taken pole position easily, despite having one set of practise times eliminated, Johnson duly cantered away into an immediate race lead. He remained untroubled until the Ford picked up a puncture one hour into the race: at over 140 mph on the lengthy Conrod Straight, the tyre exploded and Johnson was pitched into a frightening spin. Although he staggered back to the pits, the differential had been damaged beyond repair and the car was out. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Bowe’s car blew its engine four laps later.
All the hopes now rested on the low-boost, reliability-to-the-fore machine of John Smith, into which Bowe and Johnson were drafted. They hauled it to second by the end, clear of the equally reliable Colin Bond/Alan Jones Caltex Ford, although both cars still had the question-mark of the TWR protest over their heads.
The challenge of Holden also came to nought. Walkinshaw’s car was out after only a couple of laps with suspension failure, so team-mates Larry Perkins and Denny Hulme co-opted his services to close in on the leaders until an oil-pump failed.
Great local hero Peter Brock, meanwhile, hit an errant wheel on the dipping Conrad Straight and smashed an oilcooler on his BMW M3 — during a furious dice with former Holden associate John Harvey, Brock had straightlined a gravel-pit along the notorious Skyline section of the track. Plans to transfer to the second car were dashed when it went out with electrical failure and “Peter Perfect” was left to take up television commentary duties.
As the new era in Australian Group A racing finally had its head, Bathurst was left with the memory of yet another chaotic event. The sooner FIA and the Australian Racing Drivers’ Club decide to work in harmony, or go their separate ways, the better it will be for the Great Race. GD
Matters of moment, September 1976
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