Dating back to 1991, the annual 12-hour endurance race at the Mount Panorama circuit in Bathurst has become one of the most prestigious sports car events in the world.
No longer a regional event, the current edition of the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour is now part of the worldwide Intercontinental GT Challenge series and draws significant factory efforts from Audi, Porsche, BMW and Bentley.
The daunting Mt. Panorama circuit layout is something quite frankly that could never be recreated in the modern era of sterile circuit design and is a true test of skill, courage and patience; the latter quality apparently lacking in many fellow competitors this year… but more on that later.
The circuit is extremely fast “up” and “down” the mountain with a crazy combination of elevation change and low, medium and fast corners, several of them blind, “across the top” of the mountain to connect the two long straights.
Once injected into the mountain section, there are concrete walls with zero run-off to keep your attention.
As I can tell you now, it is all about “across the top” when it comes to lap time. No amount of in-car video or simulators can really prepare you for your first couple of laps on this zero tolerance luge run.
Everyone has their favorite section and mine ended up being the Reid Park to Sulman Park run through a not flat in 4th gear right/left combination then flat over a blind left crest while shifting up to 5th gear, looking for the drainage grate at the bottom of the hill to turn in for the next 5th gear left hander. Super, crazy, fun.
This year’s 50-plus car field was primarily comprised of GT3 cars with all Pro, Pro-Am and fully Am driver line ups with other classes included primarily Porsche GT3 Cup cars, GT4 cars and an Invitational class for some very fast tube frame machinery that has evolved Down Under.
As myself and co-drivers Charlie Putman and Charles Espenlaub were soon to experience, the combination of over-exuberance in traffic and concrete walls as “track limits” created a race filled with full course cautions and broken race cars.
Even in practice sessions prior to the race I admit I witnessed some of the craziest overtaking risks being taken and unfortunate impacts as a result.
For our team of newbies needing literally every lap possible to simply get faster it was frustrating.
Unique in this aspect, the race started in the dark at 5:45 a.m. (no night practice!) and Charles set off in our No. 85 Wall Racing Porsche to see what the day would bring… and bring full course cautions it did! 16 to be exact.
But with cautions also come opportunity for great strategy and their effective use kept us P1 or P2 for the next several hours.
As the day wore on and more on-track disasters ensued, it became clear that this was going to be a game of survival for us; keep our car off the walls and away from the red-mist drivers around us.
We didn’t have the pace of the super-quick No. 4 Grove Porsche and so just kept pushing on as best as we could while benefitting still from what was super smart strategic calls from the Wall Racing pits.
Heading for home during Hour 10 a stroke of bad luck/good luck arrived in the form of a failed lift pump in the fuel cell.
The engine starved and nearly stalled but fortunately it happened just as I started “down” the mountain and I was able to coast back to the pits for a top up (the first half of a full fuel load could still pick up) and continued.
We were holding our own in P2 near the end of Hour 12 when the race was red-flagged for yet another massive crash involving three cars and injuries.
This one could not be cleaned up in time and the race was called complete. Given the day and the circumstances we were very satisfied to have finished P2 and have a complete car to roll back into the trailer.
Having competed in everything from showroom stock front wheel drive cars to GT3 and LMP2 cars, our driver team made it to the finish of this event with a large dose patience and understanding the dynamics of all the cars on the track as a group.
Bathurst represents a unique challenge that should not be taken lightly.
Post-race there has been a good bit of conversation and blame on the reasons why this amazing race turned into such a crash fest. From my seat, there is not one but several contributing factors, none of which would be fixed by extreme solutions such as making it into a one-class event, as has been suggested.
There were mistakes in judgement by drivers of all types of cars, fast and slow, and those mistakes will continue to happen if the collective mental approach isn’t adjusted a bit.
It’s easy to forget that sports car racing is built on multi-class events with professional and amateur drivers driving a wide array of machinery built by manufacturers who are present to achieve an array of business objectives.
It’s a unique “eco-system” where everyone plays their role and deserves to be there.
Amateur drivers need to be mindful and smart as they learn and advance through the ranks (GT3 as your first race car? Very Bad Idea) and teenage factory drivers who have barely any experience in multi-class racing need to lose that “mad that I didn’t get the F2 call” chip off their shoulders and drive with patience as well as aggression.
Opinions and risks aside, Bathurst, just like the Nürburgring, will remain a challenge worth taking on and I hope I get to climb that mountain again!