Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Was that really 12 hours???

What. A. Race.
After Saturday’s drama filled qualifying session where Mika Salo broke the previous qualifying record, only to have Maro Engel edge him out by 0.0835 seconds, it was a safe bet that the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour would not disappoint. And it didn’t. After 12 hours of racing, and 296 laps laid down, five cars were on the lead lap. Of those five, there was a Ferrari, two Mercedes, a McLaren, and an Audi. After 720 minutes of racing the gap from first to second was only 0.4 seconds. Insane doesn’t quite cut it.
Even before the race began, the main story was attrition. Four cars didn’t even make it to race day after severe accidents on Friday and Saturday. And on Sunday, it didn’t take long before cars started dropping out of the race.  All in all, twelve cars retired as Mount Panorama fought back. It threw everything, including kangaroos, at the drivers and the ones who finished found their own kind of victory.
While the main race deserves the bulk of the attention, a quick word needs to be said about the little team who found victory in more than one sense. Fiat Chrysler Australia sent three Abarths to run around the track. All three cars finished and, more importantly, all three cars gave racing room to avoid other competitors. A perfect example of their polite manners came with the last safety car period. Two of the Fiats were in between a huge battle and the team kindly pulled their cars into pit lane rather than have them be moving chicanes for the faster classes. Another thing Fiat did was to send “comfort packs” to the marshals, saying they worried the little cars would give the marshals extra work and the team wanted to apologize in advance. While it was a pleasant surprise that the little cars made it to the end, it was also a celebration that they raced cleanly and I applaud the team for a job well done.
Another team who surprised the field was Rotek Racing. The class B group, running an Audi R8, led the field overall twice! Richard Meins and David Gleason, along with superstars Oliver Gavin and Rob Huff shared driving duties. It was Gavin, the Corvette factory driver on loan, who electrified from the start. But it wasn’t a fairy tale ending for this car. A rare engine issue plagued the Audi and forced an early retirement of one of the early favorites. These guys aren’t down and out though. The Rotek team, based in Germany, should be back at the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring in June and I think they’ll be real contenders there.
Last year’s race was amazing. The caliber of drivers who turned out to challenge the mountain was impressive. But that was nothing compared to this year. Champions from Porsche Super Cup, the American Le Mans Series, World Touring Cars, Pirelli World Challenge, DTM and V8 Supercars (just to name a few) decided to compete in the Bathurst 12 Hour. What a show they put on! It wasn’t just the big names who surprised and delighted with superb performances, however. The young kids, aged 25 and under, caught a lot of attention too. Shane van Gisbergen, 24, probably got the most attention for his spectacular battles with the Erebus cars. He wheeled around the orange McLaren with finesse and a lack of regard for the laws of physics. At one point, Shane made a pass on the #1 car in a place where no one passes. Instead of being thrown violently into the wall due to lack of grip, Shane took the lead. The crowd roared and SVG became even more of a legend. Jack LeBrocq, 21, is another who hit his stride, as well as a dead kangaroo lying in the track due to a collision with the #23 car. Even though his aero was seriously deranged from that incident, Jack still manhandled the #63 Erebus Mercedes around the circuit, and set some lap times others couldn’t match. Around six hours into the race, his car found even more aero “updates” when it lost most of the front right paneling. I asked Jack if the car was a beast to handle and he replied, “No, it’s just more fun!” Clearly, a crazy naïve fellow. The last young gun I’ll mention is Earl Bamber. Earl, 23, already has attention on a global stage after his triumph in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia last year. Earl drove the Class B winning car at Bathurst, but had his highlight of the weekend hours before the finish. The Kiwi passed Patrick Long, a factory Porsche driver, after a good battle. He got out of the car beaming. I’ll be keeping an eye on him to do well in Super Cup, where he’ll be racing this year.
It’d be a mistake not to mention the final laps and the drama associated with them. The battle for the win came down to HTP and Maranello Motorsports. HTP were certain underdogs, who had to rebuild their car from a crash in Friday’s practice. Then in the early stages of the race, they also fix the front right wheel area, which put them six laps down. They overcame all of these obstacles to finish second, an admirable achievement. It looked for a while like the Mercedes would easily be able to overtake the leading Ferrari but then a brilliant move by the Ferrari would surprise us all. Time and time again, this pattern went on. Behind them, a battle for third raged on between the McLaren and the injured #63 Erebus Mercedes for third, ultimately resulting in the podium finish for the latter. But it was the Maranello Motorsports Ferrari who came out on top and got the win for their late friend, Allan Simonsen. Could you say they were meant to win? I think so. When I interviewed Craig Lowdnes a few hours before the end of the race, he said the heat really wasn’t helping their tyre wear. The track and ambient temperature started to drop shortly there after. Craig held off the charging Mercedes of HTP and took the win by a small margin, a mere 0.4 seconds after 12 hours of racing. I’d like to think the Ferrari had help from a fifth driver in that victory, one who wasn’t there on the entry list but who’s presence was felt everywhere around the track.

The Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour had it all, as far as endurance racing is concerned. Several well-known drivers from around the world tuned in and got envious of the fact that they weren’t there. Expect even more cars, big name drivers, and stunning battles from the 2015 race! Best part of all, it’s only 354 days away!

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