Monday, October 22, 2007

The Bathurst 1000: Day 4

Time to wrap up my Bathurst 1000 diary, with the big day itself.

Once again we were treated with lovely weather when we woke up, but we learned from yesterday that at Bathurst this means nothing. Rain gear was thus packed.

The previous evening we had scoped out some possible parking spots, since we figured that parking in the main area would make for a difficult exit. Instead we left the car on a nearby residential street with good access to exit routes, and decent proximity to the track. It proved to be easy to get to, and we found ourselves at a very crowded Murray's Corner again in time to watch the final Carrera Cup race. The battle between Bathurst 1000 entrants Alex Davison and David Reynolds was once again riveting.

We now had plenty of time on our hands before the start of the "Great Race". Feeling lucky, I decided to stop by the track betting shop to put some money on Greg Murphy and Jason Richards for the win. The odds seemed to be in my favour, 13:1, so I was looking at a nice $60 profit if the Kiwis could do the job.

We next headed for our seats in the grandstand. Due to being a bit late buying tickets, Ian and I were about 20 seats away from each other, but the people next to me didn't arrive until right before the start, so Ian hung out there for a while. There was a terrific flyover from an RAAF Hawk jet, some terrible singing from an Australian-domiciled Scottish crooner from the 70s and his wailing daughter before finally the cars came out one by one to the rapturous applause of everyone. The atmosphere was building in intensity, just like I'd experienced at Le Mans.

At 10:25 the grid had been cleared and the field headed out on the pace lap. There was drama before the race even started as Cameron McConville pulled off the track after turn two with engine failure (surprise, surprise, given that his team have the worst engine program in the championship). Would this delay the start? As the cars came around to form up on the grid it looked like it was a go. At 10:30 precisely, the lights went, the crowd leapt to its feet, engines roared and the 29 V8 Supercars dived into Hell Corner. Luckily there were no incidents in the first turn, but as my gaze turned to the big screen I could see the leaders exiting turn two and barely missing the stricken PWR car by inches. Race control saw this too and immediately scrambled the safety car. After just one lap of green flag racing, the field was under yellow.

It didn't last too long though, and soon we were back to racing. Ian and I had planned to watch the first hour or so, up to and including the first pitstops, at the bottom of the Mountain, then take the shuttle up to the top, so we saw the race settle into an early groove. Just before the stops, drama struck again as championship leader Rick Kelly had a tyre fail at the entry to the fastest corner in Australia, the Chase. He careened across the gravel trap, lucky to not roll, before crossing the track again, right in front of rival Craig Lowndes. It was very exciting to watch, as Bathurst bit back at one of the top cars. The subsequent stop took a long time and the car (now in the hands of Garth Tander) just managed to stay on the lead lap. Moments later the first legit stops occurred, and we watched on as crews did their amazing work. The only issue I saw was that Stone Brothers Racing brought in both their cars at the same time, causing quite a delay for Russell Ingall.

As the skies darkened we left the grandstands, grabbed a quick bite to eat (a roast beef and gravy sandwich, the worst of my Bathurst meals) and grabbed a spot on the shuttle. I tried to stay in touch with the race via radio but reception was poor, and as we got to the top and the signal came back in, the news came through that young Andrew Jones' Team BOC Ford had gone up in flames at the Chase. From our vantage point at Reid Park we could see the smoke far below. Time for another safety car, during which some teams opted to pit and others didn't. This split the race dramatically, making it difficult to tell who was in a good position.

We stayed at Reid Park until the green flag, then headed up to Sulman Park. The ingenuity of spectators was remarkable, as many had TVs powered off generators to watch parts of the race they couldn't see from their spot. These folks obviously had no plans to move for the entire 1000km, but with barbecues set up beside them there seemed to be no incentive to do so...

The atmosphere at the top of the Mountain was brilliant. Smoke from the 'cues drifted across the track, flags were waving everywhere, people were cheering, drinking, talking cars and generally having a great time. For a motorsport nut like me it was great to see so much passion for the sport in one place.

Just like previous days, we worked our way all the way across the Mountain, spectating, eating, taking pictures and chatting as we went. By the time we were down at Forrest's Elbow, another safety car had come out, somewhat resetting the race so everyone returned to a similar strategy.

It was around this time we realized that although the race was more than six hours long, our plans required us to not "dawdle" too much. It takes a lot of time to do what we did, and we started to make our way back up to the shuttle. As we walked, the skies continued to grow more menacing, but the rain stayed away.

Coming past McPhillamy Park we heard the news that Dean Canto had crashed heavily at Sulman Park. Being close by we headed that way to inspect the damage. Canto was dazed as he stumbled over the wall, and the car was badly damaged on the left side. Canto and team-mate Lee Holdsworth had been running extremely well, and it was a sad sight to see.

By the time we got to the bottom, the race had a little over an hour to run, and we reflected on how it had been rather tame for a Bathurst 1000. Apart from the Andrew Jones and Dean Canto incidents there had been none of the typical Mountain-top carnage. Then the rain started...

Jason Bright had been running very well with a strategy that had elevated him to third, punching far above his team's weight. He made one final green flag stop in which he went to slicks, but was still placed very well. As he came to the top of the Mountain twenty laps from the end, the cold new tyres and wet surface caught him off-guard and he crashed at McPhillamy Park, where the rain was especially heavy. He wasn't the only one: Russell Ingall and Mark Skaife both followed him into the gravel. The safety car was deployed, and the stage was set for a dash to the finish in variable conditions. This is what we'd come to see! Nail-biting, heart-stopping drama, with everything on the line. Up front Mark Winterbottom led rather comfortably ahead of Craig Lowndes, Steven Johnson, James Courtney and lone Holden representative Greg Murphy. The action continued to unfold as Winterbottom lost it going into the Chase and put what would have been a pretty easy win far out of reach. The four front-running cars spent the remaining laps going toe-to-toe. It was spellbinding racing, the kind of stuff you hope to see maybe once every couple of years. We sat there in our waterproof gear, anticipation building, rain coming and going and coming again as the cars slithered around, trying desperately to find grip. Positions chopped and changed right down to the final lap, as the winner crossed the line. You can read a proper race report elsewhere - I know some people who might read this blog who haven't yet seen the race, so I'll hold off on saying who took victory...

We dashed for the car in the rain, whilst others queued to get out of the car park. Our strategy worked, and what could have been a five hour slog back to Sydney in poor conditions took only three. Ian's wife Julie cooked up some delicious fried rice whilst we gabbed at 100mph about our tremendous trip to the Great Race.

It used to be that Le Mans was a race I'd plan on going to every four years. Time to start figuring out how Bathurst fits in, because one thing is for sure: I'll be back.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Great recount of the race weekend, what a fantastic trip. I have wanted to see the V8s for many years and your tale has brought me a bit closer. Cheers for that.