Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Bathurst 1000 - Day 1

As the cars took to the grass to avoid the kangaroo I knew that I would never experience another motorsport event like the Bathurst 1000...

Now that I've been back from Australia for a few days I think I'm able to reflect on what was a remarkable trip to a remarkable track to see remarkable cars.

I left the US on Sunday evening, and arrived Tuesday morning, losing an entire day that I would later pick back up on the way home. Ah, the joys of crossing the date line. My first day was spent in Sydney where I was staying with my father's cousin Ian and his family. Ian had managed to grab a few days off work and was joining me for the race. We decided to head out of Sydney one day early to spend Wednesday in the beautiful, dramatic Blue Mountains, getting us more than halfway to Bathurst for the start of proceedings on Thursday.

We were greeted on Thursday morning by chilly temperatures but also by a crystal clear sky. Pre-event forecasts had looked somewhat iffy, so I was pleased that I'd get at least one day of nice weather at the track.

As we descended the final range of hills into the Tablelands Ian pointed off to some high ground southwest of us: Mount Panorama. The iconic letters spelling the name of the mountain were clearly visible, and a tingle of excitement rushed through me. Soon we were entering Bathurst itself, an elegant old (for Australia) town that seemed reasonably quiet considering that it was expecting 50,000 extra visitors per day for the next four days. We drove down the main street which ran straight to the entrance of the track. The Mountain loomed in front of us as we parked.

The track is basically divided in two areas, one at the bottom of the Mountain, the other up at the top. The lower area surrounds the pit straight. It's here that you'll find the grandstands, merchandise trailers, concession stands, the paddock and access to the first corner, the last corner and the dramatic Chase complex of corners. The upper part of the track is accessible to those with camping passes or via a shuttle bus system that worked exceptionally well (take note Laguna Seca). We opted to head to the top immediately, eschewing the chance to do some merchandise shopping. The first V8 Supercar practice session was imminent, and I wanted to be at the top when they came out.

The bus ride took us though the police checkpoint that had been set up, with sniffer dogs and containers that housed confiscated alcohol. After years of trouble on the Mountain, the police finally decided to take action and were limiting campers to one crate or 24 beers per person. This certainly took the sting out of the tail of the top, but it seemed that the majority of people didn't mind. Those that did tended to be very vocal about it, but that was their tough luck I suppose.

We stepped off the bus at Reid Park, the left hander that comes after the right-hand pull from the tight hairpin at The Cutting. Cars are basically flat from the Cutting all the way past this spot into the dip at Sulman Park, so it seemed like a dramatic place to watch from. I was absolutely blown away by how close you could get to the cars: nothing but a wall and waist-high fence in the way. However, the track was a good 10 feet below the spectator line, so there seemed little chance of a car crossing into a public area in the case of a crash.

Two miles down the Mountain came the sound of engines. This was it, I was about to get my first look at the V8 Supercars. I listened for the long period of acceleration as they came up the Mountain straight, before abrupt braking at Griffins. Another short straight, then hard on the brakes for the Cutting. Back on the gas and POW!, a Triple Eight Vodafone Ford blasts into sight under the Fujitsu bridge. It was loud, brightly-coloured and fast for such a large car. The Ford was followed by one of the Toll HSV Holdens. I kept my eyes peeled for number 51, the Tasman Motorsport Holden of Greg Murphy, my favourite driver in the series and soon enough the black and orange Murphy car soon came by at a high rate of speed.

The practice session was scheduled for just under three hours, so Ian and I decided to walk across the top of the Mountain to get a proper feel for the place. As we walked we were constantly amazed at the awesome spectating opportunities. No matter where you stood, the view of the track was incredible. First there was the wooded area at Sulman Park, where the cars came over a crest into a dip in the middle of a left-hand corner. Next they were up over another crest into the open, almost amphitheatre-like space at McPhillamy Park, with its epic views of the surrounding countryside. After McPhillamy the track crests Skyline and drops dramatically through the Esses. It's here that you can hang over the fence and see the cars hit an apex directly below you, mere feet away. It's a fast section but very tricky, as the cars unload, struggle with the abrupt direction changes and have to hop over a vicious kerb in the middle of the chicane. Out of the Esses, it's another tight downhill complex at the Dipper, somewhat similar to the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. There's one spectator blind spot here, but you can forgive that given the quality of the rest of the track. You continue down the path from the Dipper into the trees heading for the sharp left at Forrest's Elbow. The path is perched about 15 feet above the track, all the time with great views of the cars. Finally you reach the lowest point of the Mountain spectator enclosure at the Elbow. Once again it's a steep descent for the cars, as well as being slightly off-camber. Drivers often lock the inside front wheel here, before pushing the loud pedal to motor off down the Conrod straight, out of view as they hit speeds of 180mph.

After spending some time at the Elbow, we turned around to head back. We were soon reminded of the vicious gradients, with some of the steepest climbing I've done at a racetrack. It's a lot like the direct hike from the paddock entrance to the Corkscrew at Laguna if you go stright up the hill as opposed to using the paved path. Walking the track in reverse direction unlocks more sightlines. It also gives you an appetite that can be conveniently satiated by a traditional Aussie meat pie. It was a bit of a battle with the local insect population, but worth the trouble.

After the session was over we hopped back on the bus and headed down to the lower area to watch the qualifying sessions for the Fujitsu V8 series (the Busch series of V8 Supercars), the Australian Performance Cars (Mitsu Evos, Holden Clubsports and Lotus Exiges) and the Touring Car Masters (historic muscle cars). These sessions allowed us to take a look at Murray's, the last corner, and Hell Corner, the first. Murray's in particular yielded some fine spectating, albeit on the exit rather than the entry.

After a long day at the track, we headed out to find our B&B homestay. Located just outside town, the house was a beautiful modern open-plan place perched on the top of a hill surrounded by lush gardens. We had certainly been very lucky. Our hosts Deb and John were very welcoming, and after a shower we relaxed in their lovely living room with a cold beer in our hands.

For the evening we drove into town and found a local pub that served "counter meals", affordable, unpretentious food that went well with another beer or two. As we sat back, bellies full and basking in the glow of a great day at the track, we revelled in the fact that we still had three more days to go....


Pee Wee said...

Great post. Good pics. Keep it coming!

Rob said...

What pee wee said. Where is part 2? Come on Nicebloke, let's have it!