So the 2012 Bathurst 12 Hour has been run and won. We’ll start by saying this race should be one of the premiere events on the Australian motorsport calendar. It should comfortably form part of a ‘big three’ alongside the traditional V8 Supercars 1000km race at Bathurst and the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
At the moment the Bathurst 12 Hour barely registers a blip on the radar of mainstream motorsport in this country. We’ll discuss more on that and the event’s future a bit later.
By now you’ll be aware that ‘international’ Audi crew were able to successfully defend their title. Marc Basseng, part of the 2011 winning trio, was unable to make it back to due to scheduling conflicts, but Christer Jöns comfortably stepped into Basseng’s shoes to ably assist Christopher Mies and Darryl O’Young in their defence.
On paper the winning margin of over one minute to second place might make it appear as though the #1 Audi, which started the race from pole position, had it pretty easy. Of course, no endurance race is ever easy and that was especially the case this year.
During practice and qualifying the weather was warm and dry. In such conditions the Audi R8s were quick, no doubt, but it was clear no cars could match the Ferrari 458 GT3s on a one lap dash. Last November we got an insight into just how quick the Fezza could be around the Mountain, when Allan Simsonen recorded a lap time of 2:04.956; quicker than anything in history, bar the McLaren F1 car.
The Maranello Motorsport and Clearwater Racing Ferraris showed Simonsen’s time was no fluke and the only thing holding them back was a ‘balance of performance’ capped time. Briefly, any driver to post a time below 2:08 during any practice or qualifying session would earn their car a 50kg weight penalty for the race. Craig Baird was the only driver to fall foul of the rule after a miscalculation with the Ferrari’s on-board timer saw him break the cap by almost 0.5 seconds.
The odd thing about this rule was that it did not apply during the race. After qualifying Baird’s teammate Matt Griffin predicted the actual race pace may be around the 2:06 mark.
It was due to another quirk of the Bathurst 12 Hour regulations that the #1 Audi claimed pole position. A final qualifying time was arrived by adding together the best qualifying laps of all three drivers. For teams with four drivers the fastest time was eliminated from calculations and the three slowest times would stand.
So, never mind that three of the four drivers in the #17 Maranello Motorsport Fezza were faster than everyone else, it was fourth driver, and team owner, Peter Edwards’ time that would count towards the pole position calculations. To be fair, he wasn’t that far off the pace, but it was enough to cost his team pole, just. Still, the front row of a 12 Hour race is a very handy place to start. And It was only the eternal question of reliability that appeared to stand between Ferrari and victory.
A cursory glance at the weather report after qualifying on Saturday showed there was a 90% chance of rain but only 5–10mm of rain was predicted. Earlier in the week the forecast for Sunday was sunny and low 30s, so everyone figured the rain would come and go and mostly leave the race in peace.
Certainly that was the feeling given by Dominik Farnbacher, the young German hot shot in the #17 Ferrari. “It’s not a problem, I love the rain,” he told us as he left the post-quali press conference.
Early morning came and we arrived at the media centre when the big hand had just ticked over to five. We were settled in for a long day.
With just 10 minutes to go until the race it was surprising to note the grid was virtually empty. No chance of a Martin Brundle-style grid walk here. Quickly, though, the grid filled and soon the 25-car field was off on a parade lap before a flying start got the race underway.
Christopher Mies made a good start in the #1 Audi, but had Allan Simonsen hot on his tail in the #17 Ferrari. It was only a matter of time before Simonsen took the lead and when he did he left nothing in the tank, quite literally as it turned out.
The lap record at Bathurst, for any category, was soon at Simonsen’s mercy and it was tumbling lap by lap it seemed. Following a raft of new records in the opening stages it was on lap 44 that he lowered the mark for the fastest ever lap around Mount Panorama under racing conditions to 2:06.3311.
Proving there was more depth for the GT3 category three other cars broke the old V8 Supercars benchmark of 2:08.4651 set by Jamie Whincup in 2007: Warren Luff, #2 Audi (2:07.6187); Mies, #1 Audi (2:08.1129) and David Russell, #23 Lamborghini (2:08.4622).
Simonsen’s race record is also faster than the best ever V8 Supercar qualifying lap which is 2:06.8012 held by Craig Lowndes.
And there’s your first clue as to why the Bathurst 12 Hour now deserves to be held in higher esteem. These cars are bloody fast.
The spectacular nature of Bathurst isn’t fully appreciated from the bottom of the track and after about 90 minutes of action we headed to the top of the mountain. Watching the Ferrari rip it through Reid Park is one of the better motorsport sights you could hope to witness. The other GT3 cars were still quick, but they looked more composed. The #17 Ferrari, in keeping with its Italian flair, appeared on the ragged edge and was visibly faster than anything else out there. It was genuinely exciting viewing and the only shame of it was the sight was being shared with only a handful of nearby spectators.
Soon the race was affected by a number of Safety Car periods as the rain began to set in. It was light and patchy at first and a dry line even began to appear for a while. It was during this period of around 10 laps that the two factory Audis and the #20 Mercedes were racing nose to tail. The form guide seemed to read the Audis were faster in the dry and heavy rain, but the Mercedes had an edge in light rain. The nuances and contrasting handling characteristics of the GT3 cars is another reason that this style of racing on Australia’s greatest track deserves a broader audience. The Ferraris, for example, blistering quick in the dry, struggled by comparison in the rain.
The variety of cars, coupled with the varying strengths and weaknesses ensured there was no time in this 12 hour race to stop paying attention.
As is the case with any endurance event reliability and accidents took their toll. Hints of an unproductive day first appeared for the #17 Ferrari when a faulty fuel gauge saw them run out of fuel. It took two pit stops to rectify. The first to top up the tank and another to reset the ECU after it was soon discovered that the lack of fuel had put the Ferrari into limp mode.
Further ECU and mechanical dramas for the #17 Ferrari saw its day come to an early end. Drivers from the #21 Mercedes, the #22 Audi and the #23 Lamborghini all had early showers after their cars crashed out.
Finally the race settled into a rhythm before coming alive again in the seventh hour. The two lead Audis were looking comfortable in the wet conditions and were unchallenged at the head of the field.
The #2 Audi was leading the race before a routine pit stop went horribly wrong. With the fuel rig still feeding petrol into the car Mark Eddy misunderstood team communication and sped off back into the race. Fuel had spilled everywhere but the Phoenix Racing crew and fire marshals were quick to eradicate any danger.
Within minutes of that incident Christopher Mies made a uncharacteristic mistake when he went off at the last corner spinning into the run-off area. That brought out the Safety Car and luckily for Mies he was quickly freed from the gravel and back on the tail of cars without losing a lap.
Meanwhile the #2 Audi was forced into the pits to serve a five minute penalty for its refuelling dramas. On his way into pit lane Eddy spun and put his car in the gravel. It took around two minutes to free, which only added to the frustration of the pit stop penalty to come.
Not long after and with worsening conditions Eddy spun on top of the mountain and crashed out of the race. It was hard luck for Eddy and his teammates Warren Luff and Craig Lowndes. With their inherent pace in the wet conditions you’d have backed Luff and Lowndes to have recovered a fair chunk of their five minute deficit.
In among all this mayhem for the leading Audis the #20 Mercedes, quiet in stature but not by engine roar, had assumed the lead of the race. The SLS AMG lacked outright pace compared to their rivals but by playing to its strengths of better fuel economy and tyre wear their strategy was starting to pay dividends.
With its shiny silver livery the Erebus Racing/Black Falcon Benz was a clear crowd favourite. Their display car in pit lane was constantly being photographed and the #20 car was a popular race leader.
Another quiet achiever was the #33 Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 GT3, comfortably on the lead lap and within sight of the leaders. It was a welcome entry too, bringing winning form from Asia, rather than Europe like the other leading GT3 teams.
More delays from the Safety Car brought the first three cars close together and with a couple of hours to go it was looking like a great shootout was in the offing. Audi versus Mercedes-Benz versus Ferrari.
Unfortunately the #33 Ferrari was soon dealt a blow after being sent into the pits for a stop-go penalty for passing under a yellow flag. Similarly, an ear plug for the in-car radio in the SLS AMG fell out of Tim Slade’s ear which required an unwanted pit stop to rectify.
And so the #1 Audi found itself back in the lead. By now the heavy rain had ceased and the margin back to second was comfortable. Fuel strategy was now the only real hope Mercedes had for victory.
In the end there were no surprises from the Audi or Mercedes and the race ended with Audi first, Mercedes second and Ferrari third.
It was a gripping race with a diversity the 1000km race sadly lacks. In actual fact, this was more like Bathurst 1000s of 25 years ago when there were manufacturers from all classes, with cars of different shapes and sizes. It’s true the GT3 cars are a long way from production cars, but there’s an honesty to the category that adds to its appeal.
In contrast we started the day rudely laughing at the HSV Astra VXR, but after watching its drivers wring the car’s neck across the top of the mountain lap after lap we began to afford it some respect. By race’s end the car was the leading production vehicle and finished seventh outright; that respect was now genuine.
As we’ve touched on the Bathurst 12 Hour deserves more attention. Endurance events stand apart from other forms of motor racing. It’s the stories within the story that help make these races special. Also, the action is fierce throughout the field, yet there’s a genuine camaraderie that is evident when you see the drivers mingle. It was a fact touched on by almost all of the V8 Supercar drivers as well.
Listening to the international teams speaking after the race most commented they are already planning on coming back next year. Organisers will have a job ahead of them to give the field greater depth at the pointy end, something they will need to do if the Bathurst 12 Hour is to increase its profile.
It would seem that scheduling will be the greatest hurdle. The Dubai 24 Hour is a race also gaining in profile and it is traditionally held at the start of the year. Teams need a minimum of six weeks to ship their equipment to Australia.
This year the 12 Hour was just one week before the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide, where the 2012 Australian GT series began. More local teams would have competed in Bathurst if there was more time. So, either make the 12 Hour part of the Australian GT calendar or try and find a way to make it more appealing for local teams to participate. Indeed, the only reason Peter Hackett and Erebus Racing were able to race was thanks to the support of Black Falcon who brought two cars to Australia. His own car was locked away waiting to be unleashed in Adelaide.
In the end the 2012 Bathurst 12 Hour was a fascinating race. There were multiple manufacturers with realistic chances of victory. All brought something different to the grid.
We saw the outright race lap record smashed by the blistering yet fragile Maranello Motorsport Ferrari. We saw guile and dexterity from the Erebus Racing Mercedes. Likewise from the Clearwater Racing Ferrari, which showed thoughout the weekend it was every bit as quick as the other 458 GT3, but knew when to play its trump card and when play it safe. And ultimately we saw the clinical efficiency and professionalism of the Phoenix Racing Audis come out on top, despite enduring moments that would have cast plenty of self doubt.
The Bathurst 12 Hour offers Australian motorsport a unique event with a variety of layers and competition in a format that is made for drama and excitement. Its reputation is growing internationally and is attracting some of the best GT3 teams in the world.
For those reasons, and more, this race deserves a greater profile on the domestic front. See you there in 2013.
A three hour highlights package of the 2012 Bathurst 12 Hour will be broadcast on Foxtel’s Speed Channel at 7pm on Sat 24 March.