Given the lead-up to the 2015 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12-Hour, there was no doubt it was destined to be an epic battle that would be talked about for years to come. And even though it sported some of the world’s most desirable machinery piloted by some of the world’s best drivers, not even a Hollywood script writer could have bettered the dramatic, heart stopping finish by Katsumasa Chiyo, Wolfgang Reip and Florian Strauss in their #35 Nismo GT-R GT3 – which boldly snatched victory in the frantic last two laps of this gruelling 12-hour dog fight. The intense final two laps can be viewed at liqui-moly.com.au.
The race was more than just a thrilling finish; it was day packed full of action courtesy of more Class A beasts (29), more makes (15 in total, nine in Class A alone), more starters (50), more international teams (19) and more international drivers (46). Here’s how Australia’s 2015 international endurance race played out.
To officially start proceedings, organisers hosted a dramatic Thursday morning press launch at the very top of Australia’s most revered strip of bitumen. The impressive line-up featured a lead example from each of the nine prestige brands contesting this year’s outright GT3 (Class A) category. With the scenic township of Bathurst 170 metres below, Skyline was a stunning photo location, while the equally breathtaking array of machinery guaranteed everybody was in no doubt the 2015 once-’round-the-clock-enduro was guaranteed to be the biggest and best ever.
After the biff ’n’ barge of the practise sessions (the most severe of which knocked out last year’s winners – see Defenceless Champions, page 17), many teams and drivers were playing down the fight for pole. There’s no point risking the car, they said. It’s a long, long race, so it doesn’t really matter where you start.
However you know deep down, they’re all massively competitive and all want to lay claim to the highly-prized Allan Simonson Pole Trophy. With the pole shootout being run in the heat of the afternoon (when grip levels are traditionally lower), many observers speculated they may not better the 2:03 Laurens Vanthoor set in his #15 Phoenix Racing Audi earlier in the day – how wrong they were!
The Craft Bamboo Aston, AF Corse Ferrari, Nismo GT-R and JBS Lamborghini all lit up the timing board with a string of 2:03s. Then Vanthoor dropped the hammer and set the mountain ablaze with an astonishing 2:02.5521! This incredible time not only put the GT superstar in the record books as owning the fastest ever official lap of Mount Panorama, it absolutely brained the rest of the field by over half a second!
It’s destined to become as legendary as Murphy’s 2003 Lap of the Gods.
Most nightclubs would’ve still been going strong when teams and spectators began streaming into the Bathurst precinct in preparation for Sunday’s 5:50am race start. There were lots of bleary eyes, yet nary a single complaint. Rather there was universal excitement and high anticipation – it was game day!
With all 50 starters parked up on the grid, a fortunate minority (including 70 MotorActive staff and VIPs) experienced a unique 12-Hour highlight – the pre-dawn grid walk. Lasting a short 20-minutes, all hell broke loose as track officials blew their whistles signalling everyone to vacate the circuit. Just like in the movies, the last straggler scampered clear just in time as the 29 blisteringly fast GT3 machines and 21 ultra-quick support category racers blasted off on the warm-up lap under the full cover of darkness.
The snarling, barking angry pack was impressively well behaved as they passed under the Liqui-Moly start-line bridge. However all bets were off once the green flag dropped! It was full tilt into Hell Corner followed by the amazing spectacle of the biggest field in 20 years thundering up Mountain Straight. With the first handful of laps run in the dark, the generous crowd was treated to the amazing spectacle of blazing headlights, glowing brakes and fiery exhaust blasts – evocative stuff!
Winkelhock aboard the pole-sitting Audi set a red-hot pace in the cool morning air, reeling off a new race record of 2:03.3091 on lap 29. He later commented he could have run faster if he had been able to get in a clean lap.
Three safety cars in the first three hours set the tone for the remainder of the day, with the Mercedes pace car making a record 20 appearances. The repeated interruptions kept the longest period of green flag racing to just 65 minutes, which essentially turned the 2015 12-Hour into a succession of short sprints.
On the up side, the racing in between was spectacular and packed with excitement.
As all the contenders were acutely aware that going a lap down would pretty much end their day – it was flat out whenever the green was out.
With GT3 accommodating such radically different configurations – six, eight, 10 and 12-cylinder engines; front, mid and rear mounted; normally aspirated and turbocharged – each of the nine different makes contesting Class A possess varying strengths and abilities. Combine this with highly skilled drivers and you end up with hair-raising action – like four-abreast into Griffin’s Bend!
SIX TO GO
Passing the halfway point, it was the #36 Erebus SLS out in front, followed by the #77 AF Corse Ferrari, #10 M-Sport Bentley, #35 Nismo Nissan, #15 Phoenix Audi, #97 Craft Bamboo Aston and #16 Phoenix Audi.
All were still on the lead lap and in with a chance at a podium. Considering all but the top 10 runners had gone a lap down within the first three hours, it’s understandable the quicker, outright contenders were so aggressive when carving their way through the slower lapped traffic.
This unfortunately led to a number of bumps and shunts, with the three most significant occurring during the afternoon. The biggest bingle for 2015 was the #91 MARC Mazda going backwards into the McPhillamy Park wall at 160km/h after coming together with Baumgartner in the #16 Audi. Luckily driver Ivo Breukers was able to scamper clear of the massive wreck free of major injuries.
Everyone held their breath yet again as the #7 VodkaO SLS crunched the wall at high-speed as a result of contact with the #10 Bentley whilst the two attempted to simultaneously navigate The Chase. The third was David Brabham’s stoush with the wall of the Cutting after an altercation with the #97 Aston. Although Brabham’s accident looked innocuous enough at the time, it resulted in him being stretchered away to hospital for precautionary neck scans which thankfully proved to be all clear.
At the one-hour-to-go mark, it’s usually driver, tyre and fuel strategies that dominate proceedings. In 2015 it was a succession of safety cars that set up the astonishing finish. The #10 Bentley boys had managed things well. Driver Matt Bell had built up a substantial buffer, including a minute 27 over the #35 GT-R in third.
This was a massive effort by Bell, considering earlier in the day he was carried from the brutal Bentley suffering severe heat exhaustion and dehydration. Unfortunately, with only 55 minutes on the clock, it all unravelled for the team when the #11 sister Bentley ground to a halt on Mountain Straight, with the ensuing safety car throwing the whole race wide open.
At the next restart (with just 14 minutes to go), Bell had to drive so defensively to keep second-placed Vanthoor at bay that he was shown the bad sportsmanship flag. Although this green flag period only lasted two and half laps (before the beached Grove Porsche brought out the day’s 20th and final safety car), the squabbling between the two frontrunners allowed Chiyo in the #35 GT-R and Mucke in the #97 Aston to brilliantly thread their way past 17 backmarkers – yes, 17! – and lock themselves on the Bentley’s and Audi’s back bumpers, setting up a thrilling four-way, two-lap dash to the chequered flag.
On that last restart, the diminutive Chiyo caught Vanthoor napping and cheekily passed him as they flew by the pits, before motoring past the struggling Bentley up Mountain Straight. Chiyo scooted off leaving the Bentley, Aston and Audi to slug it out for the minor placings. As this trio entered the very last turn, the Aston got into the back of the already squirrely Bentley (getting it even more sideways), allowing Vanthoor to cleanly blaze around both to snatch second place, followed by the Aston and Bentley.
Wow, it doesn’t get any closer than that! There wasn’t a single person sitting; every one of the record 32,297 spectators along with the massive Aussie TV audience and hundreds of thousands of live-stream viewers in 145 countries were all on their feet cheering!
What a finish! Seven different manufactures in the first seven positions, with the first five covered by 6/10s of a second. Damn that’s close racing! It was a popular win for the Nismo GT-R and after bowing out in a horror crash last year, Chiyo was openly pleased at being able to hand Nissan their first Bathurst win since Skaife and Richards’ 1992 victory, 23 years ago.
It was a great first attempt by the bitterly disappointed M-Sport Bentley team; they did a great job of being there at the end despite having two drive-through penalties during the day. Some argue they were robbed of a podium on the last turn and possibly the outright victory by the last run of safety cars.
With multiple lap records, fastest car all weekend and a relatively mistake-free run, Phoenix Audi undoubtedly feel this is the one that got away. Despite leading for a healthy portion, the #63 Erebus SLS came home in fifth, missing the last corner brawl by only a couple of car lengths.
Australia’s international endurance race certainly has come of age, firmly establishing itself as a ‘must do’ event that all GT competitors dearly want to win. It’s definitely going to get bigger and bigger, with a number of teams vowing to be back next year. The 2016 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12-Hour is scheduled for February 5-7; save the date!