Like so many folk who call the UK home, I spend most of the year looking forward to the annual summer holiday. There always feels a tangible sense of vocational futility, though, if the big trip abroad doesn’t permit some form of automotive indulgence. After spending two weeks of last year hammering around Continental Europe in an Aston Martin with my dad, I needed to somehow make amends to my eternally tolerant girlfriend. And what better way to reward her tolerance than by taking her to Australia? There was a small condition I attached…we had to go to Bathurst.
This was where the trouble started. No sooner had the 2013 V8 Supercars calendar been released, but the FIM announced that the Australian round of the MotoGP championship would fall in the weekends between the blue riband Bathurst 1000 and Gold Coast 600 V8SC rounds. After my most diplomatic grovelling and begging, a deal was struck: we would attend Bathurst for the full Supercheap Auto 1000 weekend, Phillip Island for two days of motorcycling action and finally the Friday practice day at Surfer’s Paradise. In between we’d do some other, non-automotive stuff. Bernie himself would be proud of such negotiating skills.
The Bathurst 1000 is the biggest annual sporting event in Australia, attracting over 200,000 spectators to an otherwise fairly nondescript corner of New South Wales. It was pulled into sharp focus in the UK during the late 1990s when The Great Race, as it’s known locally, ran to Super Touring regulations – and with it came an influx of teams and drivers from our domestic BTCC. With them came terrestrial TV coverage and the first chance many had had to see this crazy circuit in moving images. I was in awe of the place, but its mystique wasn’t built on 2l repmobiles; for the true Bathurst experience it must be V8s – Holden vs Ford at the Mountain.
With this in mind we booked grandstand tickets for the start-finish straight and logged online the moment camping tickets went on sale. If you’re going to do Bathurst you might as well do it properly so pitch 959 in the Chase Campsite was ours. We had three days to absorb the culture and learn the history of this amazing race.
We hired a car from Sydney and were blessed with a Mitsubishi Oulander, nicknamed The Outlandish for no particular reason. This was a fairly hefty but essentially soft and flimsy off roader, but it became a firm friend over the duration of our trip. The drive out from Sydney takes you due West through the Blue Mountains. The area is the equal of anywhere Europe can offer in terms of its scale, spendour and breath-taking topography. Early colonial explorers toiled for years to cross the Blue Mountains, and it’s easy to see why; the place is simply vast. The forests disappear in every direction as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by waterfalls and mountains. Given another trip we’d certainly make more time to explore as a brief couple of hours wandering failed to do justice to the place.
Beyond the Blue Mountains and the failed expeditions make more sense with the whole landscape taking on a kind of frontier feel. Huge farms peppered with billabongs line the road, with bludgeoned kangaroos in the margins a reminder of the dangers posed by even the most inert native wildlife. We were saddened to learn that, just a few days after our trip, huge fires broke out in the Blue Mountains, with virtually the entire area being evacuated. Australia is nothing if not resilient to such disasters but how sad that such beauty also carries such cost.
Bathurst itself has the feeling of a gold rush town. Arranged in neat grids, it is doubtless quiet and peaceful away from race weekends, though bars boasting topless waitresses in the industrial corner of town suggests it’s far from naïve. Come race weekend, though, the whole place gives itself over to pageantry. Every shop features race-themed window dressing and Thursday of race weekend features prize-giving for the best-dressed shop. It’s quite remarkable, and the locals are justifiably proud to boast of one of the world’s great motor racing spectacles. If there are NIMBYs at work, they must be well-suppressed; Croft this ain’t.
Several years ago we arrived at Spa’s Camping Vert late on the Thursday evening under cover of darkness. Bereft of all signage, we blundered into a field to be greeted by an elderly local gentleman perched on a wooden chair who took our ticket from us and silently pointed towards the gloomy distance. By stark contrast, camping at Bathurst is meticulously organised. Forget any preconceptions about lawlessness; the accommodation is fantastic. Every car is checked for glass and weapons and every attendee must display a ticket and wristband. There is first aid and security on every campsite, the toilets are clean and the showers hot. If anyone finds anything similar at Spa or Le Mans, please let me know as this was civility personified.
What, sadly, was not civility personified was our tent. This was very much a trip on a budget and our pathetic Tesco Value tent proved itself almost immediately to be grossly insufficient for our needs. Despite temperatures in the low-30s during the day, at night you could see your breath in front of your face. My lightweight sleeping bag, trainers as a pillow and aeroplane blanket to lie on ensured perhaps the most uncomfortable night’s sleep in tenting history.
By comparison, the locals do things properly. Our campsite was informally designated as one of the event’s more civilised and the inhabitants included children and, whisper it, females. Judging by the cackles and profanity, though, the females are just as lively as their male counterparts…
The crowds take their camping incredibly seriously and remarkably there were no other Tesco Value tents on display. The ute is the vehicle of choice and the effort on display is incredible: huge edifices powered by generators boasted TVs, fire pits, stereo systems and vast barbecues. Everywhere the smell of smouldering meat assaults the nostrils and beer-fuelled banter fills the air. It’s all relatively restrained, though, and certainly the yobbish tendencies of Le Mans and the lunacy of the Germans at Spa were absent from the whole event. Join in the banter and you’re welcomed like an old pal.
I should mention at this juncture that I was carrying an injury by this stage. Somewhere in the UK before leaving I’d picked up a bug and was pretty seriously ill by the time we’d arrived at Bathurst with a throat infection of some kind. I therefore claim mitigating circumstances for any lack of detail or accuracy in my reporting. Certainly I hadn’t expected to be struggling to rouse myself on my first morning at Mount Panorama, but even the sound of V8 racing engines in the distance couldn’t raise my spirits. It meant a couple of very long days in the New South Wales sunshine, but the whole experience transcended my pitiful state.
The circuit itself has an interesting history and dates back to the 1930s. It is actually a public road and was built as a scenic tourist drive by forward-thinking local politician Martin Griffin, essentially as a ruse to bring racing to the area via the back door. Initially little more than a dirt surface, the track wound its way up, and then back down, what was formally known as Bald Hill. Bald Hill was christened Mount Panorama by a local resident in a competition celebrating the circuit’s inauguration in 1934 and this grand title has stuck ever since.
The current Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 was born the Armstrong 500 in 1960, initially at Phillip Island before relocating to Bathurst to form a legend which grows annually. The national move from imperial to metric measurements meant the race grew from 500 miles to 1000km in 1973, adding 33 laps in the process.
Given the last 20 years of V8 ubiquity, it seems hard to believe the early years of the race were dominated by the rather more prosaic Ford Cortina. Perhaps even more bizarrely, Rauno Aaltonen took victory in 1966 in a Mini Cooper. The Great Race had existed through a multitude of different eras before Group A gave way to the current breed of V8 Supercars after the domestic market struggled to match the phenomenal performance of the mighty Nissan Skyline – dubbed Godzilla.
Today, the prevailing regulations are known as ‘Car of the Future’ and follow something of the BTCC NGTC and NASCAR ‘Car of Tomorrow’ spirit. With bespoke 5l V8 racing engines powering chassis with a multitude of shared parts, these cost-conscious rules have attracted Nissan and Mercedes-Benz back to the fold to battle the domestic monsters Ford and Holden. Let’s enjoy them while they’re here – even DTM has elected to follow a small capacity turbo route for the future and V8SC won’t be immune from this global trend, even if it’s behind the curve.
We arrived on Thursday evening and were up early(ish) on Friday to start savouring the track activity. We passed most of the day around the start/finish straight area. This provides plenty of great spectating, as well as paddock access and Merchandise Alley where every conceivable kind of tribal garmet and trinket was available, for a price.
This part of the circuit enables you to watch from the Chase, at the bottom of the fierce Conrod Straight. The Conrod is, by some margin, the fastest part of the circuit, with competitors exceeding 180mph as they hurtle downhill from Forrest’s Elbow and back towards the end of the lap. The Chase was added in the mid-1980s when Bathurst was a round of the short lived (one season only…) World Touring Car Championship, and has remained in use ever since. In fact, as a result of the inclusion of the Chase, the number of laps comprising the 1000 dropped from 163 to 161 to account for the increase in lap length.
A gentle right hand chute into a sharper left and then into an opening right, it’s seriously dramatic. The cars are nudged into the first right hander at flat chat before it’s heavy on the anchors for the following left. These are big, heavy cars and they take some stopping. One and half tons at 180mph equate to some serious momentum and it’s apparent from the trackside. Getting the braking point here is crucial and several V8SC runners skate across the gravel (forwards, and in one case backwards) at speed after getting it wrong. The Chase really gives you an idea of the sheer energy involved in hauling a V8 Supercar around a lap of Mount Panorama.
From the Chase it’s under the Armor All bridge and another big stop for Murrays, a 90deg left where overtaking is possible. Getting a good exit is vital, though, as the track is now heading back uphill and any lost momentum can leave drivers vulnerable to attack over the start/finish line and down to the charmingly-monickered Hell’s Corner. These three corners may not define the circuit in the same way as the Mountain section but there’s ample comfortable spectating and limited catch fencing to obstruct the view.
You could go to Bathurst and have a great time without even ascending the Mountain. Merchandise Alley has to be seen to be believed. These guys take their merch really seriously – in fact it’s unusual to see anyone not boldly displaying his or her allegiances via hat, t-shirt or vest. All the teams have big stands, and even the support races sell shirts. The legend of Peter Brock lives on with his own range of memorabilia and I couldn’t resist a t-shirt depicting him at the wheel of the mighty Commodore VK from 1984 – the last year of Group C before it gave way to Group A. As a foreigner, Brock sideways in a Marlboro sponsored Commodore is Bathurst for me.
One of the most meritorious aspects of the event is the public access. A paddock pass carries a premium but allows unlimited weekend access to the entire paddock area. This means the support race tents and the V8SC paddock. On Friday afternoon the vast paddock was awash with fans as the teams presented their drivers for open signing sessions. All the competitors were getting stuck in with autographs, photos and banter. One Ford supporter heckled Rick Kelly about his defection to Nissan, but all in good humour. It’s a great place to pass a couple of hours and the teams make a real effort with free posters and kids given special attention. The whole paddock feels intimate and inclusive, despite the scale of the event.
Friday features a breathless schedule of on-track activity with and practice sessions for all categories and the weekend’s opening two races. The headlining Bathurst 1000 is for the V8 Supercars championship, but in support are the Dunlop Series (the V8SC feeder category), Australian Porsche Carrera Cup, V8 Utes Series and Touring Car Masters for cars of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Dunlop Series is unusual for a feeder category in that it actually uses previous generation V8 Supercars. This means it’s exclusively the domain of the swaggering Fords and Holdens, and lap times are entirely comparable with the headliners. In fact, many of the co-drivers for the Great Race are borrowed from the Dunlop Series.
The big news in the Dunlop Series 2013 is the arrival of one Casey Stoner. He has big shoes to fill – his compatriot, and fellow motorcycle world champion, Wayne Gardner was a serious enough driver to set pole at Bathurst in 2000. Stoner was quick all weekend on his first trip to the Mountain and immediately fully committed across one of the most challenging ribbons of macadam in all of motor racing. In Friday’s opening round he finished a steady ninth but nobody could hold a candle to Steve Owen, dovetailing his Dunlop Series commitments with a drive for Ford Performance Racing alongside Will Davison in the V8 Supercars enduros.
Second race of the weekend was for Touring Car Masters. This burgeoning historic series is for cars from classic pre-1976 period and features an array of heavy metal from an evocative era of touring car racing. Home-bred Holdens go toe-to-toe with their equivalents from the USA and Germany as Moranas and Toranos battle Falcons, Mustangs, Camaros and 911s. It’s a heady mix and the cars are very serious pieces of kit – the speed they carry across the top of the Mountain is awesome.
As evidence of the series’ clout, the line-up for Bathurst includes Aussie racing royalty John Bowe and Jim Richards who both compete regularly. The sheer aural fury of the TCM field is an experience in its own right and provides the finest soundtrack of the weekend. Sadly Friday’s race is a disappointment with only one racing lap after an accident on the opening tour. Given strict timetabling, the balance of the race is run behind the safety car. Even this truncated effort still gives a flavour of a series oozing charisma and machismo.
Saturday dawned hot, bright and sunny. It was something of a surprise to find Friday’s hardest drinkers up early with bacon on the barbecue and AC/DC on the stereo. In fact, don’t expect to travel in the vicinity of a Bathurst campsite without hearing AC/DC blaring out from somewhere. As a soundtrack to the weekend, it seems totally apt.
Saturday featured an even longer, tighter schedule than Friday with seven races, more practice sessions and more demonstrations. Punters certainly get their money’s worth at Bathurst. We started the day with V8 Utes. This splendidly Antipodean category of racing features an enormous grid of Ford and Holden pick-ups which neatly mirrors the car parks and campsites around the circuit. The utes lack the firepower of the pukka V8 Supercars but they squirm around plenty as result of those unloaded rear axles and the pack is incredibly close. A wander around the paddock reveals that this is pretty much a club level championship. Most of the cars look to have a few tales to tell but the noise and sheer incongruity of the utes in action could win over any European cynic.
With my virus rendering me a very pathetic specimen we ducked into the National Motor Racing Museum for an hour. It’s a small but very pleasing institution and warrants another article – to follow. The air conditioning and relaxed atmosphere revive me slightly – and I needed it as we’d decided that we could wait no longer and had to ascend the Mountain.
With regular shuttle buses there’s no need to hike up the Mountain Straight any longer. What was a surprise was the appearance of a sniffer dog as we approached the drop-off point. There’s now a very strong police presence at Bathurst and random sniffer dog inspections are par for the course. It’s reassuring as the Mountain comes with quite a reputation – tribal savages drinking, torching cars and served with a highly misogynistic attitude.
What we found didn’t quite fit the myth. Certainly there’s a different vibe up on the Mountain. It’s very male, very alpha and you won’t see a huge number of women and children. It’s rare to see a spectator without a beer in his (it’s rarely ‘her’) hand. But, these guys are deeply passionate about touring car racing – they live for it. Over 200,000 people pile into the circuit each year, and most are highly attentive and extremely knowledgeable. This is a branch of the sport which celebrates its history and wears its heart on its sleeve.
The support races draw enormous crowds but we squeeze our way into a prime spot at Brock’s Skyline for the day’s second Ute race. This is a fascinating place to watch fast cars. They arrive from one of the fastest parts of the circuit before diving on the brakes as the road plunges hard downhill and right. The crest is blind but requires total commitment. It’s pretty much single file from here all the way down to the Conrod straight as the road wiggles left and right, losing altitude all the time. From the outside it looks like a demented farm boy rollercoaster ride – I dread to think what it feels like from inside.
We explore all the way down to Forrest’s Elbow and the spectating is, er, spectacular. It looks just like it does on the telly, but the gradient is even more pronounced and the whole place is framed by the most remarkable view beyond the concrete walls that line the track. You feel as if the whole of New South Wales has been unfurled beneath you. It’s quite incredible and I’d defy any racing fan not to feel genuinely emotional up there – it’s a highly evocative place.
If the descent down the Mountain looks thrilling for the drivers, walking back up in reverse is severely taxing in 30deg sunshine. The ute race comprised only seven exhilarating laps, but the successive Dunlop Series race was a thriller. Once again, Casey Stoner was making headlines, but this time he was making awesome progress. From a ninth place grid slot, he was looking every inch the race car driver – totally committed and making overtakes when it mattered. He rose as high as fourth before an impact with the wall at the Cutting left him with terminal damage. He had proven his worth though. Stoner has suggested he won’t be back for a second season of cars and it’s a real pity as he looked a natural, with speed and racecraft in abundance.
The Dunlop Series guys were spectacular to behold through the monster left-hander at McPhillamy Park. This is the most exciting section of the track and by far the best place to really get to grips with how the respective drivers are handling the challenge of such a daunting circuit. McPhillamy Park comprises three separate left hand apexes, each of different radius and camber. The surface follows the contours of the ground and it gently rises and falls as the cars hurtle towards’s Brock’s Skyline on the plateau of the Mountain.
Watching the cars fully loaded up through the last part of McPhillamy gives you goosebumps. These are expressive racing machines – they pitch, roll and slide. As the track drops away on the corner exit the fastest drivers are scraping their splitters along the ground, sending up sharp bursts of dust as they do so. Rarely are the men so obviously separated from the boys. It’s no surprise that it takes so long to get up to speed around here – it’s a unique track and unforgiving just about everywhere.
It doesn’t matter where you go to watch motor racing, you can pretty much guarantee the race card will feature a Porsche 911 somewhere on it; often many Porsche 911s. The Porsche Carrera Cup Australia carries significant kudos and offers a credible route into V8 Supercars. Current king is Craig Baird. Once a British Touring Car Championship driver, Baird is a five time Carrera Cup champion and never far from the front all weekend.
The Porsches are fastest machines of the weekend across the Mountain, but lap slightly slower than the V8 Supercars, lacking their fearsome grunt along the big straights which bookend the lap. Winner of Saturday’s opening race is Nick Percat, winner of the 2011 Bathurst 1000. Close behind are Warren Luff (Craig Lowndes’ 1000 co-driver), Baird and Mark Winterbottom’s co-driver Steven Richards. These four lap within a couple of tenths of one another throughout the weekend – it’s mighty tight at the top.
We watched Saturday afternoon’s race from the comfort of a shady, grassy, spectator bank on the outside of McPhillamy Park. From here you can really see – and hear – the difference between the Professional and Elite class drivers with likes of Luff and Baird a gear higher than many of their amateur equivalents.
Saturday’s final race is for Touring Car Masters and this time there is no cruising behind the safety car. This is historic racing done slightly different to its European equivalents. The big bangers look considerably better-developed and faster than they might ever have been in period. In terms of lap times, the top guys are about 15 seconds off V8 Supercar pace – not bad for cars at least 35 years old. They are flying across the top of the Mountain and the noise is off the scale – far more coarse and savage than the modern stuff. Seven laps are over way too soon, but John Bowe has proven his class with a win from Jim Richards, both Ford mounted. If the good old days were anything like Touring Cars Masters then I suspect I was born a generation or two too late.
Saturday’s track action closed with the Top Ten Shootout for the main event. I hadn’t appreciated quite what a big deal this is. The top ten is decided by Friday’s qualifying session and it’s considered vital by the teams as the shootout is broadcast live on TV across the country. Reputedly, it’s actually more important from a sponsor perspective than the race itself. This lends the session a tense atmosphere and we hop on a bus off the Mountain and assume seats in the grandstand opposite the pits on the start / finish straight.
It’s a gripping session, with each driver taking to the track by himself, leaving him exposed to the full weight of expectation from the enormous crowds at the circuit and watching live on TV. It was late afternoon by the time the session started and the sun cast long shadows down the pitlane where the drivers awaited their turn. Every five minutes the track temperature was dropping a degree so the times were falling with every pilot, further ramping up the tension.
Shave van Gisbergen became the first to set a real flyer with nothing left on the table, but he is soon eclipsed by Bright, Winterbottom and finally – perhaps predictably – Jamie Whincup who annexed pole with yet another perfectly judged lap. Whincup and co-driver Paul Dumbrell’s imperious form was looking very ominous as thoughts turned to the race.
Race day at Mount Panorama! Conditions overnight were distinctly chilly but it was still a surprise to find clouds overhead as we crawled from our faithful (rubbish) Tesco Value tent early on Sunday morning. In fact, rain was predicted for the afternoon. Maybe things weren’t going to be totally straightforward for the Triple Eight team…
There’s no lack of pageantry at Bathurst and even those blessed with the shortest attention spans would struggle to lose interest. On track, quite apart from the generally excellent support races, the action is interspersed by a number of demonstrations. These include dragsters doing burnouts and donuts, historic Nissan touring cars demo laps, motorcycle stunt riders and drift utes. It’s a pretty eclectic and entertaining mix, though the sight of Gibson Motorsport’s ‘Godzilla’ R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R is the obvious highlight.
In the skies the Roulettes offer daily displays of derring-do. The Roulettes are Australia’s equivalent of the Red Arrows. Flying a fleet of Pilatus PC-9/A trainers, they put on a vivid display in the skies over Mount Panorama, blessed with a wonderful backdrop and mostly clear blue skies. Their antics, though, pale into insignificance compared to the F18 Hornet display on Saturday and Sunday. The Hornet put on a mesmeric show in the sky. I’ve never seen or heard something so powerful flying so low and so fast in display – it was pure, unbridled savagery. The sheer energy as it launched itself vertically in the air, afterburners lit, rattled your brain in its skull. Perhaps the most visceral air display I’ve ever seen.
There was genuine tension in the air as the cars assemble on the grid. It was packed down there with mechanics battling for elbow room with well-wishers and the media; even from the ‘stands it was a relief when the grid is cleared of people and the action could begin. 161 laps; six hours; four days of practice; 29 cars; 58 drivers. I’m getting goosebumps recalling it.
The lights went green and the cumulative effect of 29 simultaneous V8 launches was seismic. Winterbottom slipped back from the front row and was back to eighth as the thunderous pack started the big drag uphill for the first time. Meanwhile, predictably, Dumbrell got everything right to assume the lead from pole.
The first round of pitstops commenced as early as lap 12. In that time the racing was clean, with the Fords making firm progress forwards through the field, Winterbottom in particular looked comfortable. The FPR twins Winterbottom and Davison mug Lowndes as a tag team, with the former ducking through at Murrays and Davison spearing ahead at Hell’s Corner just seconds later.
Then, surely, the most Australian racing incident in history: David Russell’s Nissan struck a kangaroo. Flat out in third gear at the exit of Griffins bend, the hapless marsupial chose an inopportune moment to hop across the track. Russell limped back to the pits and into retirement before primary driver Todd Kelly had even taken the wheel.
The unfortunate Nissan / ‘roo interface brought out the safety car on lap 21 which resulted in a flurry of activity down in the pitlane. ‘Double stacking’ is a serious issue for the two-car teams in V8SC enduro races, which use only a single crew to service two cars. The #1 Holden of Whincup and Dumbrell suffered without such inconvenience and Whincup had a one second advantage as the safety car peeled back into the pits. This was starting to look like a foregone conclusion and the predicted rain seemed hard to believe as the sun continued to dominate clear blue skies.
Off the restart and Mattias Ekstrom was making big waves. Ekstrom was partnering fellow DTM hero Andy Priaulx in a wildcard entry from the crack 888 Holden outfit backed by X-BOX ONE. Both were immediately on the pace, with Ekstrom in particular earning plaudits from team boss Roland Dane, who described him as the finest Bathurst rookie he’d ever worked with.
Ekstrom passed Nick Percat in the Holden Racing Team Commodore and set about a monster charge. The European invaders were running a different strategy to the rest of the field, able to eek out a little more fuel and tyre mileage than their rivals. During this stint Ekstrom was able to rise to second overall. It was a deeply impressive showing and the car’s early race form wasn’t lost on the natives.
Meanwhile, the whole field had a story to tell. Ryan Briscoe is best known for his IndyCar exploits but the Aussie is a keen V8SC exponent when the opportunity arises. Remarkably, this race meant he had started the Indy 500, Le Mans 24 Hours and Bathurst 1000 in the same season. He and co-driver Russell Ingall didn’t trouble the front-runners, but what a special achievement.
2013 marked the first Bathurst 1000 for Team Erebus’s Mercedes E63s. Though a privateer effort, the cars’ V8 engines are hand crafted at AMG in Germany before shipment to the Antipodes. The cars are improving rapidly – to the extent that Craig Baird and Lee Holdsworth took fourth overall in the Pirtek Enduro Cup. The Mercs run a flat-plane crank, as opposed to their rivals’ cross-plane, lending them an entirely different, higher-pitched, wail to the rest of the field. Erebus and Nissan have this year led something of a revolution by introducing double overhead camshafts to replace the familiar pushrods still so beloved of Ford and Holden. Still, it was the old chargers at the front after the opening couple of hours so there’s no disputing the pushrods’ enduring effectiveness.
Fifty laps – and a couple of hours – into the race and a rhythm had been assumed. We decided it was time to vacate the comfort of our grandstand seats and head back up the hill to get in among the locals and better explore the top of the track. Surprisingly the queues for the shuttle buses were minimal and we obviously picked honest looking travelling companions as sniffer dogs were absent as we were deposited at Reids Park Campground.
This time we wandered right down to the Cutting, where the cars are still climbing hard up hill. Here you’re looking right down into the cockpits of the cars as the drivers use every inch of the road on the exit. Scuffs to the concrete walls suggest many are trying to find a final inch which doesn’t exist. From the spectator areas, we enjoy panoramic views of the countryside below. The drivers don’t have that luxury and wouldn’t dare look left, even if they could – those barriers guard a big old drop.
On lap 86, just past half distance, the safety car emerged once again after former winner Garth Tander dropped his works Holden. It was recovered on a low-loader but the safety car intervention shook up the order. It was about now that the X-BOX ONE Holden suddenly started to look like a real contender. That clever strategy was playing out rather beautifully with Priaulx and Whincup converging on track, battling for the lead. This had the native crowd on its feet – surely the Europeans couldn’t pull off an upset like this?
Sadly they couldn’t. Priaulx flat-spotted a tyre in his defence from Whincup and the resultant extra pitstop dropped the #10 car down the order. Still, they had made their point and a return could be fascinating – and potentially significantly more lucrative than the tenth place the duo eventually secured.
The final battle for overall supremacy came together on track for the final hour. Winterbottom and Richards had done sterling work to keep their Falcon in touch and, with the aid of the safety car interventions, were leading with an hour to go. Whincup was aboard the #1 888 Commodore and hot on Winterbottom’s tail. Just behind them swarmed Bright, Lowndes, Tander and McLaughlin. This was looking mighty exciting with an hour of racing left.
We settled down on the exit of McPhillamy Park in a licensed area – quieter and with visibility of a big screen, we grabbed a beer and watched transfixed as this awesome battle raged in front of us. The crowds now were really tense – this was the nail-biting Ford vs Holden classic they’d all come to see and it was an honour to be part of it.
For lap after lap Frosty, as Winterbottom is known, absorbed the pressure from past-master Whincup. Despite multiple series wins, Frosty came to Bathurst with great form but little to show for it at The Great Race. He couldn’t afford an inch out of line.
This pair drew a slight lead out from the squabbling pack behind them. This battle for third was a classic touring car tussle and the various drivers were quick at different times over the final stint. Tander looked quick enough to take the fight to the leaders and jumped to third but he tripped up and fell back, with old hand Lowndes eventually asserting himself to steal the final podium place.
At the front, the drivers entered the 161st and final lap. Whincup sat on Frosty’s bumper as they crossed the line and finally made his move at the end of the long Mountain Straight. He elected to brave it out around the outside of Griffins bend. Offline and on the dirty part of the track he ran wide as Frosty held his nerve to the inside. The crowd literally held its breath as Whincup kept it on the island but his chance was blown. He’d dropped a couple of car lengths back. As the duo hammered past us at McPhillamy for the final time the crowd rose to their feet as one, saluting their heroes. It was a moving moment and Winterbottom controlled the final lap to cross the line a Bathurst 1000 champion.
And with that, it was over: one of the most dramatic and exciting climaxes in Bathurst history. The Ford fans immediately commenced with some very vocal and profane gloating, but the banter was taken in good humour by all parties. As we boarded a bus and meandered back to our campsite, one stupendously boozy Ford enthusiast was so delighted by the result that he loudly offered Frosty an evening with his wife. The whole bus was in hysterics as it transpired several other passengers also fancied an evening with the man’s wife.
We decided to make a break for Sydney and booked into a cheap hotel near Darling Harbour. After three freezing, uncomfortable, nights we simply couldn’t hack the Tesco Value tent again. This gave us a chance to reflect upon the experience. We both agreed that Mount Panorama is one of the world’s great race tracks, and the Bathurst 1000 one of the great events. For the racing enthusiast, seeing V8 Supercars haring up, over and back down the Mountain is up there with an F1 car around Spa and a sports prototype around Le Mans for pure spectacle.
More than that, though, this is a way of life for the fans and their rivalry and devotion elevates the whole event to another level. The atmosphere, because of that tribal element, bristles with tension and carries with it – in every moment – a burden of history which no other race can match. I’m a convert. I wonder whether Australian Motorsport News could accommodate a new correspondent.