Bruce Moxon attended this year’s LiquiMoly Bathurst 12hr for Race Magazine, and has given an excellent report.
Article: Bruce Moxon
Photos: Bruce Moxon and Chris Walsham
You can’t help be but be reminded of the days of Group A Touring Cars, when you think of the Bathurst 12 Hour. A variety of genuine contenders, top drivers from overseas, legendary team names and manufacturers, homologation battles and cars with differing strengths and weaknesses.
The 2016 edition of the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour had all of this. Updated or new cars for all the main players, with the McLarens coming out on top. Shane Van Gisbergen showed his amazing speed with a pole lap of 2m01.2s on Saturday. Earlier, a different McLaren had topped the times, Warren Luff and Matt Campbell both taking practice session fastest times in their Objective car.
But hero of the weekend was Van Gisbergen and the Tekno Motorsports team, Van Gisbergen, Jon Webb and Alvaro Parente reigned supreme. Van Gisbergen followed up his pole position performance by starting the race, doing a long stint in the lead and then coming home at the end, managing a gap to Nissan well enough to win.
Shane Van Gisbergen told the gathered press after the race it had been a long, hard day. “I’ve never driven around here in the dark before. I had an agreement with some of the others to take it easy for the first couple of laps.” A mid-race rest at the Rydge’s Hotel was in order, but coming back to the pits afterwards saw Shane get a bit of a scare. “I was just in time to see Alvaro stop.” The car had ground to a halt with a computer glitch. After what seemed like ages, it restarted and continued as before albeit out of the lead.
Speaking of the Nissan… Like Tekno, Nissan used their fastest driver, Katsumasa Chiyo as their attack weapon, He too topped and tailed the race and put in a blindingly-fast closing stint in an attempt to chase down Van Gisbergen. The McLaren had a 15 second lead to play with when the last Safety Car period ended and Van Gisbergen just had to manage the gap, which he did. Chiyo’s last 13 laps were all below 2m05s, on a greasy track, covered in marbles, dust, grit, gravel and bits of cars, with traffic. His fastest lap of the race (2m02.46s) was on his second-last lap and his last lap wasn’t far off that time either. It was quite the drive and afterwards the stress showed on his face.
Chiyo was in full PR Mode after the race; “the team is good and so is the car. The McLaren was so fast, I tried to catch up. Winning at Bathurst is not so easy, we have found. I hope to come back next year.”
Co-driver Rick Kelly was full of praise for Chiyo and Florian Strauss. “I learned a lot from these guys. We led a lot of laps which was good fun. Unfortunately we couldn’t match the McLaren.”
Indeed, Chiyo looked gutted to have not won. He sets a high standard for himself, clearly. While Chiyo looked disappointed, Van Gisbergen was exhausted. Two very long races (the Daytona 24 Hour the weekend before) and a long trip around most of the world in between had probably taken it out of him. The heat would not have helped either, although this year’s race was comparatively mild.
Next over the line was the M-Sport Bentley of Kane, Smith and Bell. They just missed out on the podium last year, on their debut and this year the big coupe was always in the mix. And geez, don’t they have some straight-line speed! The Bentleys were by far the fastest cars up Mountain Straight, despite their great bulk and the enormous hole they have to poke (or bludgeon) in the air. As to how they got weight out of the car (the road version tips the scales at about 2300 kilos, a dramatic pit stop for the team’s second car during the race provided a clue; all the non-essential metal has been removed and replaced with stuff like fibreglass, carbon fibre and the like. Under the bonnet, the inner guards are gone, only enough steel left to provide a hint of where the suspension mounts go. The mounts themselves are reinforced by the roll cage structure.
The Soucek/Soulet/ Russell car spent what seemed like an age in the pits after an on-track altercation, necessitating some work with a sledge-hammer, race tape, aluminium tape, a couple of ratchet straps and a total lack of panic. Team owner Malcolm Wilson looked on as the M-Sport guys got the car back together, the bodywork (such as it was) away from the tyre and the car back on track. The bodywork at fault was what passes for a front bumper, actually a beam running across the front of the car behind the bodywork that probably acts mostly as a mount. Certainly the body was all flexing and wobbling a lot as it was walloped with a series of ever-larger hammers.
One couldn’t help but wonder if M-Sport’s being a team with a long background in rallying (and the dramas that ensue in that sport) might have been a contributing factor. This car still finished well, in 7th and four laps down. As said, the stop seemed much longer than that.
Matt Bell said it was “satisfying to get the Bentley on the on the podium. We were in the lead with four hours to go and thought we had the strategy covered.” Guy Smith continued, “at the end of the race we didn’t have the pace. Those other guys were a level above.”
Warren Luff normally doesn’t crash cars. He’s well-regarded and for good reason, as being fast, easy on equipment, consistent and always smiling. He was still managing a rueful grin after binning the McLaren early in the race. “I just made a mistake, ran wide and clipped the wall.” Chasing Van Gisbergen, Luff broke the rear suspension, putting him out after 49 laps, while running in second place. Co-drivers Tim Slade and Campbell would not trouble the lap-scorers, sadly. This car could well have been in contention.
Another car that should have been a contender was the Ferrari 458 of the super-talented team of Mika Salo, Toni Vilander, Tony D’Alberto and Grant Denyer. Involved in a lap-one tangle that took out Nick Percat in a Lamborgini, this also accounted for the McDonalds Sponsored Ferrari after 63 laps.
Audi won this race twice when it first opened up to GT3 cars, but they’ve struggled since. This year’s update to the R8 LMS Ultra saw it with almost ridiculous levels of downforce. Drivers were going through the double-apex left at Reid Park without braking, just a lift and a gearchange (upwards!) to settle the car for the second apex. At McPhillarmy Park, they were not braking, just a lift after the crest before the corner before getting back on the noise before Skyline. Fast.
But on the straights, all that downforce was killing them, according to the drivers. Still, according to the in-car footage, Christopher Mies was making 280km/h at Caltex Chase. Other cars must have been getting close to 300, then.
Audi’s best finisher was fourth, the Phoenix Racing entry of Markus Winkelhoek, Laurens Vanthoor and Alex Davison also the last car on the same lap as the winners. But their fastest race lap was 2m03.38s – nearly two seconds off the winning McLaren.
Looks like this might have been the swansong for the Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS cars, with the release of the new contender from Benz unveiled over the weekend. This is not to say we won’t be seeing the SLS in future, as they’d probably be a perfectly adequate car for privateers. The new car, the AMG GT3 is said to be lighter and stiffer than the old one, with the same engine and driveline. Watch out!
Meanwhile, Erebus Racing brought their two cars along, with mixed results. The David Reynolds/Thomas Jaeger/ Nico Bastian car grabbed fifth place while Austin Cindric had a tyre deflate on the approach to Griffins Bend (the top of Mountain Straight) and pitch him into the tyres with not enough speed reduction from the 250 kays he’d been doing just a moment before. Young Austin didn’t do himself any damage and acquitted himself well, taking probably too much responsibility when we spoke to him after the crash. He’s keen to come back for another go, to his credit. Certainly he’s one of few Americans not to be totally freaked out by the track, so there’s something.
A couple of special shout-outs. While it didn’t finish, the Cauchi/Williams/Cox/Shaw BMW 335i was contesting its something like 8th Bathurst 12 Hour. The only BMW in the race this year, this car was a previous winner of the event and this was probably its last start in the race. Hopefully we’ll see it at the 6 Hour at Easter!
The Porsche GT3 class, Class B, was dominated by the Grove Hire car of Scott McLaughlin, Earl Bamber and owner Steven Grove. They won by 15 laps from their nearest competitors, a truly astonishing performance that should rank alongside Peter Brock and Jim Richards winning the 1000km race in 1979 by six laps. Sadly, it won’t be acknowledged as it was ‘only’ a class win.
Scott McLaughlin was his usual, happy self. “It’s a pretty cool event, but a long day, very tiring. I don’t know what a 24 hour race would be like… Hopefully one day I’ll find out.”