Garry’s Bathurst 1000 Race Report

Heading to The Mountain is certainly the mecca in our sport. I’ve been coming up here for over 40 years and the place is place is like a giant magnet that just pulls you to it. Over the years we have experienced the ultimate joy, but unfortunately the return has been much greater on the “disappointment” side, yet my Team and I cannot wait to return!

2017, and we return with what seems like a lifetime ago the memory of the closing laps of 2016 with the #33 (Scotty McLaughlin) leading with only 10 laps to go before the infamous incident between himself, Whincup and Tander that ended any chance of a victory for all three as they headed down Conrod. As a Team you wonder whether such an opportunity to win will again present, but in 2017 we certainly arrive at The Mountain knowing our form is good and that both the #33 and #34 cars have shown that the longer a race goes the stronger and more competitive they become. There is no longer race than Bathurst.

Over the past three years we have travelled as a Team in a coach to Bathurst, previously we would have taken several cars but have found that travelling together and having a few laughs on the trip up has been an enjoyable thing to do. We left our Dandenong South headquarters on Tuesday morning at 6.00am with the first stop at Albury for morning tea.

We are very fortunate to have a group of people in Albury who support our Team, headed by Jenny Tanner (Stephen Tanner Automotive Services) who arranges morning tea for us at Australia Park on the shores of the Murray River at Wodonga. We arrived there at 10.00am with Garth and his family close behind us with their caravan in tow. Following this stop it’s off to Gundagai, the hometown of Squiddy (Mitch Feeney – Fabricator/Tyre Technician) for lunch, afternoon tea at the Commercial Hotel in Young and Bathurst by 6.00pm. As we approach Bathurst all eyes are looking toward the right-hand side of the bus for the first site of Mount Panorama and it ceases to amaze me the goose bumps that immediately appear when you see The Mountain. We’ve arrived for The Great Race!

The Bathurst week is a long week. It is a Motor Race, but it has become a pilgrimage for many, many people over the years. There are so many that have been coming for 20 plus years, there are those full of excitement arriving for the first time pointing in amazement at the size of The Mountain and asking themselves “how does a race driver drive up there over the top and back to the start in 2 minutes? That is amazing!”. There are also those real experienced campaigners who have been heading to The Mountain for 40 plus years, originally coming with their mates, but now bringing their children and grandchildren as the “Bathurst baton” gets handed from one generation to another.

Over the years I have become friends with many of these people, and from young men who were quite “wild” in their day have become doting grandparents who love to relive the adventures of the “good old days”, but certainly accept the competition of today’s racing is so much tougher than that of past eras. I am both amused and amazed at the ingenuity of those camping on The Mountain. It is an absolute must to take the bus to the top of Mount Panorama, to not only see the heroics of the drivers “flying” across The Mountain more than 200km/h, but to see the way camp sites have evolved through the generations.

The Bathurst track schedule sees 6 x 1hour practice sessions, plus a 20-minute Sunday morning warm up prior to the race. The practice sessions are allocated between main and co-driver sessions. James “Bieber” Golding will again join forces with GT, and Richard “Meercat” Muscat with Moff.

For guys like GT and Moff who have driven literally thousands of laps around The Mountain it’s important they reacquaint themselves with the grip level of the circuit and look for any changes that may have taken place since the previous year, such as surface or kerb changes. But, for Bieb’s and Meercat doing laps and noting the “danger” areas is vital. Bathurst is one of the very few tracks in the world where if you go off line your race is probably over. Of the 23 corners that make up Mt.Panorama there are probably only three (The Chase, Murray’s Corner/last turn and Hell Corner/turn 1) that a driver is likely to recover from. If there is a misjudgement that sees the car leave the track at the other 20 corners the likelihood is the race will be over. During practice Meercat had one of these moments as he constantly pushed that little ore to find the limits of the car. It was Thursday in the co-driver session when he got a little off-line as he approached The Dipper and contacted the left-hand side of the car with the concrete barrier. As much as this damage required the car to be put on the tray truck and brought back to the pit garage, the boys could get straight to work on removing the damaged parts and had the car back on track for the final session of the day a few hours later. Incidents like this occur when a driver gets off the racing line, which is the area of “clean” track formed by the cars running around lap after lap. “Marbles” (balls of old rubber off the tyres) build up outside this line and when a car ventures on to this line there is no grip and the car slides on the balls of rubber.

Following the Thursday and Friday practice sessions we felt we were well placed for a good showing in qualifying. Moff had produced his quickest ever lap on The Mountain was 8th, and GT was 4/10ths further back but throughout practice was consistently inside the 10, yet didn’t complete an uninterrupted lap in the closing stages of practice so we felt comfortable there was more to come from the #33.

The evenings at Bathurst are usually quite busy with functions and this began with an early evening meet and greet on Wednesday at Bathurst Mazda. We were fortunate enough during our time racing Volvo’s that we met John Davis and his family who own motor vehicle franchises in Orange (incl. Volvo) and who recently acquired Bathurst Mazda. John kindly lends the team several cars during the Bathurst week.

On Wednesday evening Barry and I headed off to our other favourite form of horsepower, the trots. As guests of the Bathurst Harness Racing Club we had a very pleasant evening watching the form of the horses and the good part was I picked a couple of winners!

Friday afternoon and 40 minutes of qualifying. Qualifying at Bathurst is very important from a commercial perspective as there is significant value for your sponsor group to receive the 3-4 minutes of total exposure in the Top 10 shootout held on the Saturday afternoon. Yet, from the ability to win the race, qualifying at Bathurst really has very little significance. In some ways the pole winner is cursed in recent years at Bathurst with only three pole starters winning in the past 20 years!

During the 40-minute session four sets of tyres were allocated to be used which are then put aside to be used during the race. The sequence is an out lap, followed by a flying/qualifying lap and then an in lap. The driver builds up during this process, that is the first flyer is little more conservative that the next and so on. This allows for a good/ok lap to be in the “bank” if a mistake occurs on the final “red hot” go. Unfortunately for Moff who had done a tremendous job to be in Top 10 with less than 2 minutes left in the session, he ran wide as he traversed The Mountain hitting the right-side wall as he exited Skyline and approached The Dipper which lunged the car in to the left-hand wall (similar to where Muscat hit) causing considerable damage and ending the session. This incident cost the #34 its quickest lap and dropped it from 8th to 22nd. The only positive was it saw GT (#33) leap into the 10, yet if the session had not been stopped we looked set to have both cars in the Top 10 as GT was one of the few on track with splits that were better than the previous runs.

Yet again the #34 arrived back at the garage on the back of the flat tray with the damage assessed as a little more significant than that of the previous day. Without hesitation and with a bounce in their step our boys got straight to it. Dismantling the car and removing the bent suspension components, body panels and transaxle. Following this process, the lasers are set up to re-align the chassis of the car, before it is again re-assembled. I appreciate that this is all a part of our sport and there are often others who experience something worse than yourself, but I am always so proud of the attitude of my Team when these accidents happen and their willingness to get in and get the job done. In this instance they arrived home just before 3.00am, but were again up and about ready to go at 6.00am.

Saturday morning and for the first time all week there was a chill in the air and the thought of rain crossed my mind. The weather gurus (the horses!) assured me it wasn’t going to rain today as I observed them facing in all directions in the paddocks as I travelled to the circuit.

The Saturday afternoon Top 10 is one of the most anticipated qualifying sessions in world Motorsport and it really is something worth traveling to Bathurst to see. One car, one driver with their chance all alone on our most famous race circuit to show what they can do. GT was first away having qualified in 10th and at Bathurst this is the toughest position to be in as the cars haven’t been on the circuit since the morning practice session and in the time since there has been many support races, including a 250km Super2 race.

The circuit changes markedly because of racing and track temperature. First out and as much as there is little pressure as the worst case you stay 10th, a driver always wants in this opportunity to show his capability and put their best foot forward. GT has more experience around Bathurst than most, and of course this can be an advantage but it can also hinder your progress as you are aware of what can go wrong if you misjudge the amount of potential grip. Internally we spoke as GT was on his outlap and the thought was an early 2.05 would be a competitive time, he did exactly that a 2.05.3. The teams to follow observe closely each lap and give feedback to their driver where they believe time can be made up, the #33 picked up one position as the Walkinshaw car of Courtney went slower.

Up front it was heading to an exciting finale as Dave Reynolds (Erebus) grabbed provisional pole as the second last man out with what seemed a nearly unbeatable 2.04.2, with Scotty Mac (DJR Penske) to come. Obviously, Scotty has been the “King of Qualifying” this season with 14 poles from 19 races and to make 15 he would need to go better than anybody ever has in a Supercar around Mt.Panorama. He did exactly that and drove like a man possessed completing his lap in 2.03.8, a lap that will be long remembered. Well done Scotty!

Saturday night and the calm before the storm. After all these years you do get nervous before the Bathurst 1000 and my nerves are more centred around my Team. It’s a difficult thing to verbalise, but as much as I want to win, I’m more interested and hopeful for all our workers and sponsors, I want to see their excitement and feel their pleasure with a good result, I feel so bad for all of them when things do not go as good as possible. Tomorrow as good as possible maybe winning, but it may also be coming 10th but I am confident that if everybody performs their job to the best of their ability that we will be in amongst the frontrunners.

Sunday morning and the horses are a worry! They are all facing away from the prevailing clouds with their behinds firmly covered by their tails, there is rain coming! On arriving at the track, I immediately pass this information on to the Engineers who of course enter www.bom into their laptops and have all sorts of scientific discussions. I don’t know how many times I need to tell them that when it comes to weather look for a paddock NOT a computer! 

The build up to The Great Race is like no other. This year Delta Goodrem was inspiring with her rendition of Advance Australia Fair, helicopters, jets and planes hovered and blasted past, thousands surrounded the cars on the grid, there was glitz and colour everywhere and as race time drew ever closer so did the feeling of rain. As the five-minute signal warned and the hordes of people left the grid, mechanics and engineers were making last minute decisions and the sound of rattle guns began to be heard as the sky became eerily grey and light mist began to fall, the noise got more intense as car after car was jacked up and the slick tyres were removed and replaced with wet weather (grooved) tyres. There wasn’t much rain, but enough for all to be a little more conservative and take the safe approach in such a long race. The thought of the engineers was this will only be a short-wet period (but the horses knew better!). It is important to have a reasonable idea of how long you anticipate wet conditions because it dictates many things. If you believe it will be wet all day the car is set up very soft so as it can float and sit “deep” on the track rather than “bounce” across the surface and during a stint the tyre pressures are set in accordance with the amount of “wetness” and the anticipated laps required to be run on the tyres. Much of this becomes a “punt” unless you know the horses as well as myself, the problem is the engineers think I’m a little “nutty”, but I’m sure none of you do!

The cars completed their warm up lap and that famous image of the grid front on was on the screens as the lights went out and McLaughlin led to turn 1. All eyes were on our two cars and they were both away without incident and as expected Moff was straight to work getting the #34 forward in the pack. In fact, by lap 15 when the first stops began he had moved to 10th and GT was 8th.

Our stops began on lap 16 when GT came in and Bieber got in to begin his stint which was planned as a double (approx. 40 laps), Moff did the same on lap 25 and Muscat was now behind the wheel of the #34. Out front it was the Prodrive Ford of Waters/Stanaway that was handling the conditions best.

The race continued and the weather did not improve as a cloud hung over the mountain and light mist fell hour upon hour. The temperature was so cool and there was no breeze, so as much as it was only mist, the track stayed wet. Incredibly the drivers all stayed on the circuit in the vital areas avoiding a Safety Car period for more than 3 hours and it wasn’t until lap 75 when the McLaughlin/Premat car succumbed to an engine failure and was stranded on the circuit that the Safety Car was deployed. GT had stopped 3 laps earlier and again Bieb’s was behind the wheel, but Moff took the advantage of this SC period as did most of the field that hadn’t stopped in recent times and pit lane was abuzz as cars entered and driver changes occurred while wheels were changed and fuel added. Following Moff’s stint and the order was re-established following the SC the #34 and the #33 were inside the Top 10, with the Mostert/Owen and Waters/Stanaway cars out front.

The restart and stint ahead was going to be vital to the outcome of the race. Although we were just approaching half race distance the deployment of the safety car bunched the field up and with most of the drivers in the cars being co-drivers and the track still wet the chance of further Safety cars was great.

To the credit of all co-drivers they raced clean and it was a kangaroo on the circuit that triggered the safety car next on lap 88. Again, pit lane was a hive of activity as many teams took the opportunity to take on fuel which would open the strategy window of racing home on a minimum of two further stops. Meercat’s stint was completed when he stopped on lap 111 and by that stage had raced without incident and had done an exceptional job to have the #34 well placed in 7th. Bieber stayed in the #33 until lap 114 when again the safety car was called as rock had fallen on the track (lucky Dick is retired!) when he handed over to GT for the run home in what was also a very mature and well executed drive in 5th position. By lap 123 those that didn’t stop at the previous SC had now done so and the running order was re-established. Moff and GT were well placed with Moff sitting 2nd (behind Mostert) and GT 6th.

By lap 134 the mist had stopped and the track was finally beginning to show a dry racing line. Some further back in the field had taken the opportunity to change to slick tyres and our engineers washed closely their lap times and when it is they are faster than the wet tyre times and strategy allows you to stop a decision is made to go to slicks. This happened as Rick Kelly (Nissan) overshot The Chase and was bogged in the sand-trap. The #34 and #33 came in and slicks went on. This is always a risky time but slicks are much quicker on a dry line that wet/grooved tyres yet if you go even marginally offline chances are you will be in the wall or sand.

On the restart Moff was well placed in 3rd behind Mostert and Van Gisbergen, yet the dreaded happened on lap 139 when he ventured off line through McPhillmay Park (turn 10) damaging the rear of the car and 4 laps later he hit the wall incredibly hard at The Grate destroying the #34 car. In the garage there are faces of worry, anguish, sadness and disappointment and I am sure the very same expressions under Moff’s visor. It’s a relief to hear Moff on the radio and know that he is ok, the race goes on.

The Safety Car is out again to scrape the #34 off the wall and through this mayhem it is now GT who has found incredible speed on the drying circuit and sits behind Van Gisbergen in 2nd.

Light drizzle again begins to fall, but the circulating cars keep a dry line. Lap 144, 17 to home and no more stops required and Van Gisbergen powers into the final turn on the re-start and with the circuit a little slippery doesn’t pull up in time and GT follows him deep. Van Gisbergen is off the circuit but GT manages to retain some control and rejoins 6th or 7th as they head into Hell Corner (turn 1) and unfortunately hell it is as he encounters Mostert and is spun around. GT regathers the car but is now mid pack and with work to do. He radios in and has some concerns with the rear of the car, but soon settles back into a groove and begins reeling the field back to him. On lap 148 GT hit the wall at The Cutting causing damage to the right-hand side of the car which ended any chance of a successful finish. GT managed to nurse the car back to the garage and the guys replaced front and rear steering and suspension components and managed to the get the #33 out to finish 19th.

Out front it was Dave Reynolds/Youlden who had inherited the lead after an excellent weekend of qualifying and racing and very deservedly went on to win from Pye/Luff and Coulthard/D’Alberto.

A very, very big and heartfelt congratulations to Betty and her Erebus Team you deserve this and I was very happy to see a driver who had to handle some very negative press, get everything together over the past year or so and let his incredible driving ability do the talking.

To my Team and sponsor group. I am very sorry we didn’t climb The Mountain, yet again an absolute heart-breaking result. The emotions that this place mange to bring out in you is amazing. The Mountain depicts life, ups and downs and don’t think because you are up, you are going to stay up, you must keep working, but if you do fall pick yourself up and start climbing again. I love this!

I can’t wait for Bathurst 2018!!!

Garry

 

MOMENT OF EXCITEMENT: the buzz with just over 20 laps to go when we looked very good!

MOMENT OF DISAPPOINTMENT: one lap later!

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