Monday, October 29, 2007

Boris Said - rocker in disguise

I was lucky enough to see Serj Tankian, lead singer of politico-rockers System of a Down, play a show last night in support of his debut solo record. So it's time for another lookalike post (the last one was here)

Serj Tankian - singer and activist:

Boris Said - sometime NASCAR driver and all around fast dude:

Loeb vs. Gronholm - mistakes

After two incredibly dull tarmac rallies, this weekend's WRC event in Japan was full of drama. As it has been throughout the season, Marcus Gronholm has made mistakes when we expected them, and Seb Loeb has made them when we haven't.

Things started as we've come to expect them: a fast young Finn took early control with the terrific Jari-Matti Latvala putting in some storming early times (albeit on roads that had been swept by the championship leaders in gradually improving weather conditions). Marcus soon moved to the front, with team-mate Mikko Hirvonen lurking in contention. It all went pear-shaped on SS4, the short Rikubetsu spectator stage, when Gronholm went wide on a corner and slid down a bank. What could have been an irritating time delay turned into disaster when it was deemed that the roll cage was too badly damaged to continue. This struck me as bad luck, since the off wasn't that dramatic. Hirvonen now led, with Loeb coming from behind fast. Meanwhile Gronholm was looking at turning a 4-point lead into a 4- or 6-point deficit.

Day two looked to be the day that Seb would either cruise to consolidate an easy second, or chip away at Hirvonen and eventually take the lead. Neither happened. Loeb's ultra-efficient co-driver Daniel Elena (who some of my rally friends called T4, the latest version of the Terminator due to his robot-like skills) called a "plus-plus" instead of a "minus-minus" on one corner, sending Loeb flying off the road and out of the rally. Everything was now even again. Behind Hirvonen, some unusual names were sneaking into the top eight, as Subaru managed to lose all three cars, making way for the likes of Henning Solberg, Luis-Perez Companc, and World's Worst Son Matthew Wilson, who makes a fool of his Dad every time he gets into his WRC car. This time however he was at the sharp end.

So as it stands right now here's how things look. Let's presume Seb and Marcus finish one-two in the remaining two rallies.

1. If Seb wins both with Marcus second, they will be tied on 120 points. Seb would win the title based on the "rallies won" tie-breaker (Seb would be at 9, Marcus at 4)

2. If Seb wins one and Marcus wins one, Marcus wins the title, 122 points to 118.

3. If Marcus wins both, it'll be an easy 124 to 116 victory for him.

What is actually likely to happen is that Loeb will win in Ireland, making Rally GB a must win for both drivers. Although Marcus ran a rally in Ireland earlier this year in which he came second, Loeb has done two Irish events, both of which he won. The stages share much in common with the first day of Rally Deutschland - narrow, wooded and fast. And we all know how well Seb does in those conditions.

So we can fairly confidently expect an incredible showdown in the Welsh forests, scene of so many epic championship-deciding thrillers. I was there in 2003 when it was Solberg vs. Loeb, but in that situation Loeb had been told to hold station in second to guarantee the manufacturer's title, thereby losing the driver's crown. It was still incredibly exciting stuff in the damp, fog and rain on classic stages with names like Brechfa, Resolfen and Rhondda...

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I'm testing a new blog tool called Blogrush. It's in Beta stage right now. You'll see the Blogrush box to the right. Apparently, if you click on any of the blog entries listed in that box, it'll repay the favour by listing me in someone else's Blogrush box. And if another blogger signs up with Blogrush through this page I get even more exposure.

Might be a gimmick. Might be worthless. Or perhaps visitors will like having access to these posts from other Blogrush blogs. Let me know what you think, and I'll be keeping an eye on my traffic figures.

Who are the REAL racers?

Anyone who reads car magazines knows that the back page is usually reserved for something off the wall, be it commentary in "Racer" or memories of cars that are long gone like in "Evo". British TV car show "Top Gear" has an excellent companion magazine, and as I was reading through an issue back in the summer I came to their back page, which is called "Campaign for Real Racing Drivers (CAMRRD)". This is a play on words on the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The articles highlight racers who for one reason or another are endearing for being "real".

What makes a "real" racer?

Let me synthesize some of Top Gear's criteria with my own:

1. You party like a rock star and date many sexy women, because exceptional talent gives you that right, and most drivers in the 60s did it, knowing that they were good enough to overcome any ill-effects and their team didn't care because there's no such thing as bad press. Stand up Kimi Raikkonen, James Hunt, Barry Sheene and (lately) Lewis Hamilton.

2. You have a spectacular driving or riding style that may not be the fastest but makes it look like you're trying very hard. Your name is Colin McRae, Keke Rosberg, Norick Abe, Garry McCoy or Noriyuki Haga.

3. You showed incredible talent but died before that potential was fulfilled. Think of such losses as Stefan Bellof, Daijiro Kato and Greg Moore.

4. You can (and do) race many different things because at your heart you're a racer and it doesn't matter what you're sitting in or on, as long as you're racing. Probably the ultimate examples of this are Robby Gordon and Vic Elford, but there's also Travis Pastrana, Colin McRae, Valentino Rossi, and the man who won world championships in F1 and Grand Prix motorcyling, John Surtees.

5. You're not afraid to be yourself with the media and often use bad language on air. Who doesn't like watching interviews with Hans Stuck, Valentino Rossi, Tony Stewart, Greg Murphy or Eddie Irvine? And we certainly miss seeing Peter Brock, James Hunt and Joey Dunlop speaking on TV.

6. Your competitive streak is so strong that you often feud with other racers. Ayrton Senna was a prime example of this, but these days Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi stand out as having had the best feud.

7. You have been very successful in spectacularly dangerous but more esoteric events such as the Isle of Man TT, Pikes Peak or Dakar Rally. Joey Dunlop stands above all others in this category, but other notable (and alive) members of this group include John McGuinness, Stephane Peterhansel and Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima.

8. You've had a very bad accident, yet pushed yourself to amazing limits in order to return to the sport. Alex Zanardi lost both legs yet came back to race touring cars, Mick Doohan had doctors sew his legs together to accelerate recovery, and Colin McRae once famously threatened to amputate a finger to get back in his car faster.

9. You're a "people's champion", a racer that endears themselves to vast numbers of supporters, regardless of success (although usually there's significant success involved). At one time or another, the hordes have gathered in support of Peter Brock, Dale Earnhardt, Colin McRae, Nigel Mansell, Valentino Rossi and Joey Dunlop.

It's interesting how some racers such as Valentino Rossi, Colin McRae, Joey Dunlop and Peter Brock seem to fall into a number of categories. It also seems that being dead makes you appear to have been more of a "real" racer. Is this an example of the "rose-coloured spectacles" syndrome perhaps?

Regardless, motorsport needs racers who fit into any of these categories. For every one of these people, there's hundreds who simply follow orders, have no personality, drive consistently (and boringly), parrot PR-speak or simply show no imagination or verve in their racing careers.

Who do you think qualifies as a "real" racer?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 43

Things are rally starting to wind down now, with season finales for DTM and Rally America.

  • DMV Munsterlandpokal - Nurburgring (VLN series)
  • Rally Japan - Hokkaido, Japan (WRC and Production Car WRC)
  • World Series by Renault - Catalunya, Spain
  • UAE Desert Challenge - Aby Dhabi, UAE (FIA Cross Country World Cup)
  • Sam's Town 250 - Memphis Motorsports Park, TN (NASCAR Busch Series)
  • Lake Superior Rally - Houghton, MI (Rally America)
  • Japanese Le Mans Challenge - Okayama, Japan
  • DTM - Hockenheim, Germany
  • Formula 3 Euroseries - Hockenheim, Germany
  • Skibbereen Fastnet Stages Rally - Skibbereen, Ireland (Irish Gravel Rally Championship)
  • Bass Pro Shops 500 - Atlanta Motor Speedway, GA (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Easycare 200 - Atlanta Motor Speedway, GA (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Spanish GT - Monteblanco, Spain
  • Rallye International du Valais - Martigny, Switzerland (FIA European Rally Cup North)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Live timing = more interesting

Shock horror: I watched an F1 race yesterday (Clive, you'd be so proud...)

Call me a fairweather F1 fan, you'd be right, but this race was rather important, and had the added bonus of not being at the bum-crack of dawn. When you watch live you can pull up the live timing and scoring from the Formula 1 website and I won't lie when I say that watching this was in some ways more interesting than watching the TV. I'm not trying to bash F1, but I say this to illustrate something that's critical for those involved in racing to realize:

Beyond the spectacle of cars or bikes moving fast, what draws people to racing is the competition, and a genre of racing that best highlights the competition is a genre that will be successful.

This is easy for some racing: World Superbike or British Touring Cars for example have constant action between leaders, and the battles are clear to see using nothing but TV as a communication medium. But in something like the American Le Mans Series, or even Formula 1, where large gaps open up between competitors, live timing and scoring can be a lifeline. As I watched the F1 race yesterday I was completely captivated by the scoring, letting out of whoops of joy every time a purple number showed up indicating a fastest sector time, or even seeing green numbers that showed a driver was putting in their personal best times. Such simple presentation made it much easier to follow how the race was unfolding, and instead of watching 90 minutes of cars that appeared to be one long unchanging train with large gaps, the subtleties of the drama became obvious.

Following the progress of young Lewis Hamilton as he clawed back from 18th place was much like what I'd been doing the day before, when I sat in the media centre at Laguna Seca watching the ALMS race. My focus was on the dramatic recovery of the Andretti-Green Acura which came from two laps down to just 30 seconds off the lead of the race in four hours. It was a picture best painted by timing and scoring, and the advantage of being in the media centre was that it was real-time, as opposed to the aggregated version that's online and is often delayed.

MotoGP timing is a model for many other racing series, especially in qualifying, where fast sector times are illustrated by coloured "helmets", and online users can check the progress of riders in real time, sector by sector.

Whatever the mechanism, any technology that more clearly communicates the competition is going to make for a more compelling product. It's an area I expect to see utilized ever more comprehensively. For any race series that wants to see the possibilities, NASCAR's system is perhaps the most highly developed, with GPS tracking in every car allowing for a computerized image to be presented, along with driver communications and timing that shows the progress of the driver in a plus or minus format over the current fastest time or leader. Fascinating stuff indeed, although perhaps edging into "information overload" territory. For now, Formula 1's simple yet effective system is for me the benchmark if for no other reason in that it made the race more enjoyable to watch. And that has to be the bottom line for any such system.

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.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Weekend Menu - Week 42

We're getting close to the end of the year, and some championships are reaching their finales, most notably Formula 1 and the ALMS...

  • Lexmark Indy 300 - Surfers Paradise, Australia (ChampCar World Series)
  • V8 Supercars - Surfers Paradise, Australia
  • Pacific Forest Rally - Merritt, Canada (Canadian Rally Championship)
  • Daytona 8 Hours - Daytona International Speedway, FL (MOTO-ST)
  • All-Japan Superbike Championship - Suzuka, Japan
  • FIA GT - Zolder, Belgium
  • Belcar - Zolder, Belgium
  • Grand Prix do Brasil - Interlagos, Brazil (Formula 1)
  • Rally d'Antibes - Antibes, France (FIA European Rally Championship)
  • Monterey Sportscar Championships - Laguna Seca, CA (American Le Mans Series)
  • Star Mazda Championship - Laguna Seca, CA
  • IMSA Lites - Laguna Seca, CA
  • Speed World Challenge - Laguna Seca, CA
  • IMSA GT3 Cup - Laguna Seca, CA
  • Cheviot National Rally - Otterburn, England (MSA Tarmac Rally Championship)
  • MotoGP - Sepang, Malaysia
  • Subway 500 - Martinsville, VA (NASCAR Nextel Cup)
  • Kroger 200 - Martinsville, VA (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series)
  • Romanian Rally - Baia Marie, Romania (FIA European Rally Cup East)
  • World Supermoto Championship - Athens, Greece

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Bathurst 1000 - Day 3

By the third day of our trip to the Bathurst 1000, we were getting into a routine: up early, tasty breakfast, head for the track. This morning we had a special treat, as our host Deb whipped up a cooked brekkie for us.

So off we went to the circuit, once again expecting the worst in terms of traffic and once again finding everything to be exceptionally smooth. Our plan today was similar to Friday: morning at the bottom of the Mountain, and afternoon at the top. Today's highlight was the Top 10 Shootout for the V8 Supercars, where each of the ten fastest cars from Friday would get one flying lap to determine their place on the grid.

We negotiated the significantly heavier crowd to find a place on the grass bank at the exit of the final corner and spent the next 90 minutes there, first to see the second Australian Performance Cars race, then the Porsche Carrera Cup race 2, and finally to catch the first few minutes of the V8 practice session before heading to our grandstand seats. It was an enjoyable morning's racing, albeit disrupted once again by safety car periods in both races. It was interesting to see how much more corner speed the Porsches had than the V8s, even though their lap times were about 1-2 seconds slower.

As we strolled down the walkway between the merchandise trucks to our seats, we noticed how dark clouds were gathering. This was a bit unexpected since the morning had started the same as on the previous two days. To make matters worse, neither Ian or I had brought our wet weather gear, opting to leave it at the house that day.

The rain held off through the V8 practice session but the wind was really starting to whip up. As we grabbed lunch behind the grandstand, we struggled to keep the dust out of the fish and chips and roast beef sandwich. We'd been warned about "Bathurst Weather", being so unpredictable, but it had been hard to take seriously given the sunny skies of the first two days. Things took a turn for the worse as we boarded the shuttle to the top, with big spots of rain coming down. Thankfully it had ceased by the time we got of the bus. But then it started again. And then it stopped. And started. And stopped. Aha, now we understood!

The sun came out just as the weekend's second Fujitsu V8 series race started. Our eyes were focused firmly on Tony D'Alberto who was starting from the back of the grid but who had the potential to move very far up the field. All was normal for while, with Luke Youlden taking his place at the front of the pack. However, a few laps in came the commentary that I will never forget: "We're getting reports of a kangaroo on the track at turn six". I did a little mental arithmetic and realized turn six was in Sulman Park, one corner before where we were. I could hear the cars coming up the Mountain and hoped the animal would get off the track. He didn't. I feared the worst, not wanting to witness the gruesome death of a likeable mammal. The first few cars came by us, then moments later the 'roo came innocently hopping over the crest, and mere seconds afterwards, the remainder of the field was upon him. Two cars went to the right, one onto the grass to the left as the 'roo tried to find an escape route. The next few cars also missed him, one of them driving through the gravel trap to avoid a potential pile-up whilst Skippy was finally able to get over to the edge of the track, unharmed. Ian and I looked at each other with incredulity. As the crowd erupted into excited chatter, the kangaroo continued its trek, now moving along the side of the track on the grass verge. He hopped by mere feet from where we stood, ultimately into the grasp of some courageous marshalls who managed to get him over the fence and back to the relative safety of the campsite.

The on-track action in the race seemed a bit tame after that. It was a true Bathurst moment that will live with me until the day I die....

An hour later we took our place on the big embankment at McPhillamy Park, with a good view of the big screen, right in amongst the huge flag-waving crowd, ready to experience a slice of classic Bathurst atmosphere in the Shootour. As each car came by, supporters would cheer like at a football match, blasting air horns and waving the flags. Early on, the biggest cheers were for Greg Murphy (who held the all-time lap record from 2003) and Russell Ingall, although the cheer for Ingall was probably more a jeer when he spun on the final corner of his hot lap.

The drama intensified as each driver took their turn. The early pace-setter was Steven Johnson, enjoying a renaissance weekend in the Dick Johnson Racing Ford. Expectation was high that Johnson's time would be bettered by Mark Skaife in the Holden Racing Team entry, as Skaife has a history of qualifying well at Bathurst. Sure enough "Skaifey" went to the top of the timesheets, much to the joy of the Holden supporters (who seemed to outnumber their Ford counterparts for some reason).

Finally Mark Winterbottom took the track in the Ford Performance Racing car. He'd been fastest the previous day, but it seemed unthinkable that Skaife would be beaten. As the lap progressed it looked marginal - "Frosty" was quickest in the first sector but fell behind across the top. As he came round the final corner, the crowd held its collective breath... until the commentator announced that he'd done it, taking pole away from Skaife! The Ford fans were ecstatic, partly because this was against the run of play, partly because they were the smaller group, and partly because they were simply delighted. There was much chest-beating, cajoling and hooting and hollering, but I was surprised that it was all taken in good humor by the "losing side".

We dashed for the buses, expecting something of mob scene, but despite the large crowd everyone was well-behaved and we got on a shuttle fairly quickly. Once down at the bottom I vowed to have one more go at snagging some merchandise. Happily I found a Holden t-shirt that wasn't festooned with sponsor logos, and was actually on sale. That left some money to grab a classic red Holden baseball cap. I was suitably satisfied with my purchases, and Ian and I headed for the car. This time around it was more difficult to get out, but we managed to find the shortest line, and still made it back to the house in about 25 minutes.

For the evening's fun I was determined to not eat any more chips, so we headed back to the Family pub to get in on their pizza action. Being thousands of miles from my Hawaiian-pizza-hating partner I opted for the pineappley treat and was pleased with my choice. After dinner we checked out the main street, looking for mayhem, but finding none (perhaps the rain had dampened spirits a little). After a beer in another pub that seemed to be full of teenagers, Ian suggested we go to what Aussies call a club. This is basically a membership establishment that derives most of its income from "pokies" or slot machines. The place was huge, the beer was cheap and it felt like a small casino. As time marched on we decided to head back to catch the first half of the England vs Australia match from the rugby world cup. An early morning prohibited us from catching the second half, and we hoped England could come back from a 4-point deficit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Bathurst 1000 - Day 2

Thanks to some remarkable self-moderation, Ian and I woke to a sunny Friday morning with clear heads, and attacked our complimentary breakfast with gusto, filling up on cereal, toast, juice, fruit and tea. Suitably refreshed, I donned my new Greg Murphy bucket hat and sunglasses and we headed for the track.

Expecting heavy traffic, we'd resigned ourselves to missing the qualifying session for the Fujitsu V8 series, but once again Mount Panorama proved itself to be very much on top of traffic flow, and we found ourselves at Murray's Corner at 8:30am watching the Fujitsus. The previous day we'd spectated from the entry to this corner, but this morning we discovered that the exit was the place to be. The impression of speed as the cars fly into the 90 degree left is amazing, as we'd find out the following day when we watched the Porsche Carrera Cup from the same spot.

Today's plan was to watch the V8 Supercar practice from our grandstand seats so we could see the activity in pitlane, before heading up the Mountain for the Fujitsu race and V8 qualifying. My previous day's merchandise purchases of a Holden fleece and the Murph hat felt a little light so I was on the lookout for a cool t-shirt too.

After a relaxing hour in the grandstands we took a walk over to the Chase complex to get an idea of how the spectating was there. On the way we took a look at the support paddock, a "tent city" behind the main paddock area. It was nice to get up very close to the cars, be they V8 Supercars, Porsche Carreras, historics or modern high-performance production cars.

We arrived at the Chase just in time for the Touring Car Masters race, which proved to be great fun as the legendary Jim Richards took on all-comers in his '69 Camaro. The Chase proved to be quite a good spot to watch the old muscle cars from, since it also had a big screen. I discovered later that had we walked a little further we could have seen the dramatic high-speed entry to the corner. Oh well, next time...

With some time to spare before the Fujitsu race, we strolled through the paddock campsite, before getting up close to the teams in the main paddock. I snapped some fun photos of the teams hard at work, as well as checking out everyone's pit setup.

Back across the bridge and onto the Mountain shuttle, we had a few moments to grab some lunch when we got to the top. I went for what I consider an American snack, a corn dog. In Oz, it's called a Dagwood Dog, is much bigger, and is dipped in ketchup. A tasty treat that I could feel good about because I knew a hike all the way down to Forrest's Elbow and back was in my future.

The Fujitsu race was fun, but some of the sting was removed in the first corner when top contender Tony D'Alberto came together with pole man Matthew White. With two front runners out, it came down to Luke Youlden, Michael Caruso and Jonathan Webb, all in Fords. The following day's race would prove to be a little more dramatic...

Prior to the V8 qualifying it was time for a nice beer in the sun. For this, we had to enter one of the licensed "cages", fenced off areas for non-campers to drink in. I have no problem with restrictions on how much beer could be brought in by campers, and similarly don't mind that non-campers can't bring in their own booze. But I did object to having to consume purchased alcohol in these cages, whilst campers could drink their own beer wherever they wanted. On the whole, the alcohol thing was pretty well-managed but this particular detail kind of sucked. However, we sat in the sun with a cold one in our hands, so it wasn't ALL bad!

For V8 qualifying we gradually made our way from Sulman Park down to the Dipper. I had the track commentary in one ear thanks to my pocket radio, so being near a big screen wasn't a necessity. Live timing and scoring would have been nice, something that's being addressed at ChampCar and ALMS events, but I wasn't complaining. The three-stage qualifying at Bathurst comprised two knockout stages, followed by a top 10 shootout on Saturday. For session one we found ourselves at McPhillamy Park, and following our talent the previous day of being where the action is (we saw the Chris Pither crash at the Esses), we had a first-hand view of Damien White's massive shunt coming out of Sulman. It was a weird crash, already in progress as the car came over the crest. He'd hit the left-hand wall before catching the end of the right hand wall as he came into view. The car then rolled forward before abruptly pulling right into the sandtrap. It later turned out that White had been unconscious for this whole thing, knocked out cold by the initial impact out of our sight. It took a while to extricate him and move the car, and I was a bit concerned for the poor guy (he was okay, just concussed). As they loaded the wrecked car onto the flatbed, I saw how badly damaged the a-piller chassis post was and predicted that we wouldn't see that car again this weekend. Our host Deb had seen the crash on TV and confidently predicted later that evening that "they'll fix that". I won...

Once back under way, we were soon down at the magnificent spot at the bottom of the first part of the Esses, where we stayed for the bulk of the action. Suffice to say, those that made it into the shootout were the ones we expected, but the drama of it all was good fun.

Next up was the first Carrera Cup race, and Forrest's Elbow was a perfect place to watch this from. There was also a food vendor there, so a portion of chips helped stave off the hunger pangs. All the fresh air was making Ian and I hungry and tired! The Porsche race illustrated one of the major problems with short races at Mount Panorama: generally if a car crashes, a safety car is required. The track is so tight, with little run-off room, but high speeds, there is really no safe place for a car to stop. But if a race is only 8 laps long, a safety car period can eat up half the race. Even worse, it creates a delay, and the organizers are sometimes forced to cut the races even shorter. As we climbed back up the Mountain to the shuttle bus, the first Australian Performance Cars race was similarly affected, taking some of the fun out of what was otherwise an entertaining scrap.

The approach of scheduling two races after the marquee event (the V8 qualifying) clearly staggered the traffic flow from the circuit, and we again had no problems getting out. The drive back to the house was no more than fifteen minutes. It would have been even shorter had we not stopped to get some pictures of a local field favoured by kangaroos in the evenings. There were probably ten or more of the marsupials gathered there.

For the evening we headed back into town, this time ending up at a pub nicknamed "The Family" by locals. It was a big place, with three bars, a restaurant and an outdoor area with live music. We grabbed our counter meals (lasagne for me, stew for Ian) and a schooner of VB and talked Australian politics. We opted for one more stop on the way home at The Oxford, the official pub of Holden. The place was packed, filled with very drunk people who all wanted to chat. I got great amusement by telling these people I was from San Francisco - even sober race-goers had difficulty imagining someone would come so far to see the Bathurst 1000!

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....