Few events in the world compete with the ferocity of Australia’s Liqui-Moly’s 12 Hour GT3 endurance race.
Taking place at Mt Panorama, Bathurst, in rural New South Wales, race conditions are often harsh and demanding. The 6.2km-long (4-mile) circuit is inherently dangerous and unforgiving; the road course is very fast but very narrow in places, and the majority of the corners have absolutely no run off. Throw 50-plus cars into the mix and it becomes even more challenging.
Most people associate Mount Panorama with ‘The Great Race’, the annual 1000km endurance where Holden has long battled Ford for bragging rights, and where the legend of Godzilla was born – then banned. This is hallowed ground; Australia’s official home of motorsport is one entrenched in the nation’s history.
But in recent times, it’s Liqui-Moly’s popular GT3 event that’s been pivotal in the circuit’s ascent to truly international status.
An ever-expanding field of international teams and drivers have made it difficult to keep up with the explosion of interest the race has seen over the past three or four years. It’s reassuring for local race fans worried about an uncertain future for racing in the country too; with the end of locally-produced Australian cars, a GT3-type category is a serious contender to take a the role of our next mainstream race series. Without my crystal ball it’s hard to say what the future holds, so let’s focus on the here and now.
Mixed class racing adds a whole new dimension to the game. The majority of us only consider the challenge presented to the top-tier cars of defending and moving the field while also having to weave through a constant wave of traffic, not to dissimilar to the traffic one experiences while late for work. But what a lot of people forget to consider is how that faster traffic affects the lower tier cars. Drivers are constantly having to scan their rear-view mirrors for fast-approaching traffic, as well as having to deal with what ever obstacle, car or corner they’re hurtling towards.
Over the course of the weekend I made sure to check in with a trio of upcoming stars, namely Nathan Antunes, Elliot Barbour and Greg Taylor in their Pro-Amateur Audi R8. Don’t let the ‘Amateur’ in the class title fool you though; while it’s fair to say they lack the same resources as the major players in the GT3 ranks, the approach taken by the team for the event was 100 percent professional. Behind all their smiles and lighthearted banter is a very strong sense of competition. These guys were hungry for victory – hungrier than others I spent time with over the weekend.
The trio had recently taken ownership of the new Audi R8 LMS GT, which is a rather special machine. Where the 2007 R8 was originally built as a road car and modified to race, Audi designed the new chassis as a GT car first and foremost. The end result is a super-rigid chassis that handles speed with ease.
After only a few minor adjustments during practice, the car was running like a rocket ship and the guys knew they had a real shot at class victory.
From the team’s first shakedown with the new chassis at Phillip Island, through to the strong result in Friday’s qualifying, things were looking good. But could this luck last all weekend?
Nathan Antunes was responsible for starting the 12-hour endurance and opted to kick off with a double stint behind the wheel. After two and a half hours of racing, he’d managed to move up to third outright and first in class after starting in ninth spot on the morning grid, but it wasn’t without drama though. A light tap to the rear had bent the R8’s exhaust system, restricting power and putting the pressure on to maintain position on the longer straight sections of the circuit.
Following with another double stint, Greg Taylor took control of the R8 and settled into a nice rhythm as the track temperature continued to rise. A ridiculous number of appearances by the safety car plagued the mid-morning run, but Greg’s focus was to always stay on the leading lap, even if it proved challenging.
While slowing for the first safety car, a deafening exhaust drone flooded the cabin; one of the engine’s exhaust headers had cracked, possibly also as a result of the earlier shunt. The noise was unbearable any time revs dropped below 6,000rpm. Under usual high-rev race conditions this would have been manageable, but not so during a race with so many safety car stoppages.
The team watched on nervously; the R8 kept to the lead lap and Greg somehow kept the majority of traffic on his tail, wrapping up his drive in 5th position – a top effort considering the battle inside the cabin. With the team’s second double stint complete, it was Elliot Barbour’s turn to steer.
Eliott rejoined the field in 9th position after the stop. The exhaust issue hadn’t improved, and not only was the sound deafening but the lost power was robbing the team of about 10km/h down Conrod Straight. The lacking performance made it frustratingly difficult to pass traffic, but by the end of Elliot’s first stint the team were back up to 5th position.
After a quick stop the car was back out, but the dream run was about to be chased off into the paddock by a raging bull. Elliot was hit from behind by a Lamborghini at Turn 1, aptly named ‘Hell Corner’.
It was a hard hit, and the pit crew worked their magic to get the car back out on the track in no time, only to find that the damage was more extensive than the left rear suspension that was obviously broken. A whole bunch of electronics had been damaged, and the drive-by-wire throttle was continually cutting out too. Without being able to resolve the issues, the team made the heartbreaking decision and retired the R8 during the race’s sixth hour.
Choosing good race mates is important, not just to ensure success, but also for the painful moments like these. The car was performing and each driver had tried their very best, but luck just didn’t stay with them until the chequered flag. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault on the team – it just didn’t work out. And that’s motorsport.
The Dream Team
More than 1.2 million race fans tuned in to watch Liqui-Moly’s Bathurst 12-Hour event this year, so I’m going to assume that some of you, as a fellow Speedhunters, already know that Maranello Motorsport – with assistance from Triple Eight Race Engineering for the event – took top honours. What you might not know is how the day unfolded, but thanks to the Maranello Motorsport team, who were kind enough to give Speedhunters complete access to their garage, I was able to get a front-row seat. This is what 12 long hours of racing looks like from inside one of the world’s leading GT3 teams.
Australian V8 Supercar drivers Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup teamed up with factory Ferrari driver Toni Vilander for the assault. Toni is no stranger to Mount Panorama, previously racing at the event in his old Ferrari 458 GT3. This year, however, the team were running the new 488 GT3. With extremely hot weather forecast for the entire weekend, a large question mark was hanging over the turbocharged entries and their ability to cope with the added stress from the extreme heat.
It was important for Maranello Motorsport to qualify towards the front of the pack and as far away as possible from the mid-pack carnage that was almost guaranteed to unfold during the early hours of the main event. This year’s qualifying session was run a little differently though, and the top 10 qualifiers would be given one flying lap in the Pirelli Shoot-Out to secure their spot on the grid.
Chaz Mostert’s BMW M6 set the Shoot-Out pace with an impressive flying lap; 2.03:055 seemed impossible to beat as the track surface cooked.
Toni Vilander had achieved the 488 GT3’s quickest qualifying lap, so he was left to try and and wrestle P1 off Moster in the Shoot-Out. The crowd I was near had dismissed the Maranello Motorsport Ferrari before it had left pit lane, and it wasn’t looking promising when Toni’s middle sector time was notably slower than that of the M6. It all came together at the end though, and the Ferrari surged to the finish line with a 2.02:861. Mission one was a success.
Regardless of initial track position, come Saturday morning it was impossible to keep any distance from the main field of competitors. As soon as a gap was pulled, the safety car would come out while an incident was taken care of, and the pack bunched back up. All up, the race was slowed 16 times by the safety car.
One advantage of the constant safety car laps meant that a quick pit stop at the right time could minimize any lost racing time. If you could duck in, pit and get back before the safety car passed the pit lane exit, you were free to race ahead and join the rear of the slow pack on the same lap you pitted in.
During the middle and latter half of the day, the real excitement was the rush of organised chaos as teams scrambled in and out of pit lane, often at the very same time.
Craig Lowndes was controversially punted off the track by a Mercedes-AMG under safety car conditions, but fortunately for team Maranello Motorsport, the volunteer recovery team did an outstanding job and had the 488 out of the kitty litter seconds before the safety car would have cost the team an additional lap. The AMG responsible was given a 10-second stop/start penalty which sparked plenty of debate among the crowd.
The Final Hours
The lead position was passed around between a handful of cars throughout the day, but the main contenders remained in the top five for the bulk of the race. Mercedes seemed to assert some dominance over the field for some time throughout the early afternoon, but for the most part, drivers were focusing on holding position and maintaining rhythm. After 10 long hours of racing, the lead teams all pitted in for their final driver swaps. The clock ticked and the final lap was approaching; the time for conservation was over.
Maranello Motorsport’s final driver was V8 Supercar star Jamie Whincup, who’d be completing a planned final double stint. Somehow, he avoided all the big hits and drama during his first stint; while cars were being punted into walls and gravel, Jamie remained relatively unfazed by the action. As competition hit the 12th and final hour, the 488 GT3 came in for its final pit stop of the race.
At this point, Jamie’s usual V8 Supercar team mate Shane van Gisbergen took the lead in his STM/HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT with a 53-second lead, a lead that would need to be extended on before he made his own final pit stop. When the Mercedes pitted in with just 45 minutes left on the clock, the team refuelled but opted to keep the same tyres to save time, and van Gisbergen rejoined the track only half the main straight ahead of Jamie’s 488. The lead was short-lived though.
Maranello Motorsport’s Ferrari was in peak performance all weekend, and after slipstreaming the AMG, it was time for Jamie to make his move. Of course, van Gisbergen wasn’t going to give the position away, and in the end Jamie had to test the 488’s off-road capabilities by overtaking with two wheels on the grass!
The Ferrari pulled away, but the team were far from safe. When you have one of the most aggressive professional drivers in the world in your mirrors, you’re only one slight error away from drama.
Moments later though, with just 20 minutes of the race to run, a frustrated van Gisbergen came into contact with a Porsche, punting it straight into a wall. The Mercedes was given a stop/start penalty for driver conduct after the race’s 15th safety car exited the track. Almost poetically, van Gisbergen made a critical mistake through the track’s most demanding section, the Esses. The action seemed to be too much for the tires on their second stint; the AMG broke traction, spun and hit the outside wall with enough force to stop the car in its tracks. Game over for the STM/HTP Motorsport entry.
Now just five important minutes remained on the clock after the final race restart. Matt Campbell’s Porsche GT3 RS applied some pressure, but not enough to force a mistake. Jamie piloted the Maranello Motorsport 488 flawlessly and controlled the final minutes of the race comfortably.
They’d done it. The Maranello Motorsport and Triple Eight partnership had secured Ferrari’s second victory at the 12 Hour. They overcame the elements, fierce competition and fatigue to come out on top of one the most challenging and dramatic races I’ve ever witnessed. After 16 safety car interruptions, seven different race leaders and 23 changes of the lead, Maranello Motorsport pushed on and crossed first when it counted.
The Cutting Room Floor