“We’ve got a new assignment for you. You’re moving to Australia. The R32 GT-R must win Bathurst!” Our story starts with a phone call and a one-way flight from London to Melbourne, Australia.
I recently had the opportunity to share a coffee and find out firsthand how a modern motorsport legend was born. Alan Heaphy will likely be an unfamiliar name to the majority of you, but I’d wager a large sum of cash that you’d be familiar with the results of his hard work.
This is Alan’s story. This is how Godzilla was created.
After spending several years abroad setting up Nissan Motorsport Europe, Alan was shipped back to Australia on secondment to lead a very exciting and challenging new project: Nissan’s iconic GT-R badge was coming out of retirement.
In the new age of globalised markets it was deemed important that car enthusiasts across entire planet understood the full significance of that red ‘R’, and to demonstrate the true power of GT-R, a decision was made to be the first Japanese manufacturer to win Australia’s most challenging race, the Bathurst 1000.
Mount Panorama, Bathurst, is widely regarded as the one of the world’s most difficult circuits to master. Not only is the road course fast and unforgiving, but cars and drivers are also forced to contend with Australia’s extreme weather conditions. Over the course of the 1,000 kilometre race the weather often swings wildly; teams need to be prepared for everything from extreme heat to hailstorms and heavy showers. All in one day.
On its kindest days, the Bathurst 1000 is an absolutely brutal event, on its worst it’s a driver’s worst nightmare.
Aussie ex-driver and previous Bathurst champion Fred Gibson had been running Nissan Motorsport’s Australian program for some years before the debut of the R32 GT-R. The team had a solid record and were highly regarded by competitors and spectators alike. Previously, the team had campaigned Bluebirds and HR31 GTS-Rs in Australia’s major racing series, Group A, but as successful as they were, they’d never secured a Bathurst victory.
In fact, almost no one had; only two teams outside of major Aussie manufacturers GM Holden or Ford had won on the mountain. A Mini Cooper S won the title way back in 1966 and more recently the 1985 race was won by a Jaguar XJ-S. This was going to be a massive undertaking.
To kick off development the team ran one freshly-delivered R32 GT-R in 1990’s Bathurst event, but the car was overcome by the extreme conditions of Mount Panorama. The Skyline finished 18th after struggling the majority of the event with serious driveline problems. But just finishing the race with a brand new platform was still an impressive feat.
Shortly after the 1990 race in late November, Alan joined Fred Gibson Motorsport as Lead Team Operations Manager. The team would only have three months to develop the car from its current form into something capable of withstanding conditions and being competitive against Australia’s fastest sports sedans. Time was of the essence and pressure was mounting from Nissan HQ.
The almost impossible task couldn’t have happened without the strong commitment of Fred’s team, who worked seven days (and nights) a week, testing, turning spanners and fabricating. And all this was during the Christmas and New Year holiday season when things traditionally slow down.
The Race Before The Race
With pressure increasing from Nissan HQ so did the resources. The team had unparalleled support from the factory, and they needed it too if they had any hopes of conquering the mountain. Alan called on some contacts that had helped with the Le Mans development while in the United Kingdom, including PI Data Acquisition, essentially a small company established by a group of Cambridge professors that dealt with real-time data acquisition and sensors. Vehicle testing was fast-tracked by using new brand new data-logging equipment, methods that had been proven while working with Lola and the HR31 GTS-R program. For the first time, the team had the ability to check various configurations on the fly.
A lot of the development time went into manufacturing brand new parts; making do with something ‘good enough’ wasn’t an option. Because the platform was all-new, almost every component had to be made from scratch, either in-house or by a local contact. The skills of the fabrication team were world class, and many of the revisions and changes made by the boys at Fred Gibson Motorsport were subsequently adopted by Nissan Japan and applied to later GT-Rs.
The first system the team upgraded was the braking. By aiming infrared sensors at the brakes from the suspension uprights, engineers could see in real time how hot different materials got, and also how quickly the heat would be dissipated by various setups. This new approach cut testing time from months to weeks.
A set of custom cast magnesium alloy rims were designed and manufactured by local wheel expert Kevin Dragev (who would eventually create ROH Wheels). The rims used a hollow spoke design to help dissipate tire heat which would increase their lifespan – a completely new and unique idea back in 1990 and one that worked well.
One of the simpler but still impressive ideas that resulted from the real-time development and logical attack on each issue was a reversible duct located behind the front bumper. When racing on high-speed circuits where engine oil temps would soar, the duct was bolted in one position, while for more corner-intensive tracks that required heavier braking, the duct was simply rotated before the race, thus diverting more air from the engine to the brake ducts. Logical, simple and effective.
The same logical approach was applied in the engine bay, and increasing efficiency and longevity of each component in the already powerful RB26DETT was the key to success. One of the strengths of the team at the time was the level of communication; the guys were always thinking. Even during morning tea breaks the entire team would sit together and share their latest discoveries and ideas. Everyone from the floor mechanic right up to Alan had an equal say and were encouraged to bring their ideas to the table.
With the major cooling and suspension sorted it was on to improving the engine and driveline.
The initial RB26 blocks supplied by Nissan struggled with the extra power, and managing the batch of engines was like walking on a tightrope. Under extreme loads the inline-sixes were known to crack and leak from a particular water gallery.
The level of commitment from Nissan was amazing though, and after sorting the issues early in the ’91 season, five new modified blocks were made almost overnight in Japan specifically for the team. Again, this improvement was quickly implemented in manufacturing, improving the production-spec RB26s at the same time.
It was important to maximize the efficiency of the twin Garrett T25 turbochargers, and the team would have been one of the first to measure, weigh and balance their units. “You guys are three years ahead of us,” Alan recalls a Garrett engineer in Japan exclaiming when reviewing the revisions made by the small team in Australia.
A stock transfer case was mated to a custom 6-speed set of gears manufactured by Australian race transmission manufacturer Holinger Engineering. The development of this very gearbox was the precursor for the now famously reliable and tough as nails, Holinger 6-speed dog box. Upgraded driveshafts were fabricated in house and a spool diff fitted.
By making these and other upgrades, Alan and his team successfully transformed the car into an unrivalled track monster that holds a special place in the hearts of petrol heads across the globe. They had created Godzilla.
I Hope This Works
Sandown Raceway, February 1991. The GT-Rs were almost completely different cars to what had originally been shipped over from Japan, and after reviewing the extensive changes made to the cars the CEO of Nissan leaned in towards Alan and simply said: “I hope all this works.” The weight behind each word gave Alan the distinct feeling that he’d either be packing trophies or his office by the end of the weekend.
Apart from a couple of minor issues, the cars performed flawlessly. At Sandown, both GT-Rs were running the original blocks and developed a minor leak from the water gallery during practice, but desperate for results the team pressed on. Alan left the track to drive into town, found a local car parts store and bought half a dozen cans of radiator stop leak. Amazingly, the garage fix worked and even managed to hold things together for five races!
The R32 GT-R driven by Mark Gibbs and Rohan Onslow went on to win the 500km race, completing six more laps than any other car no less. The result was a massive wave of relief for Alan and his entire team, and the CEO felt assured that these ‘new things’ did in fact work. Nissan’s brand new monster had just claimed its first of many victories.
As the season progressed and the team continually refined the cars, so did their lead over the championship and their rivals on track. We’re not talking about small margins here either, we’re talking laps.
The cars were fast and both the competition and the organisers of the race series didn’t like it one bit. Alan recalls telling driver Jim Richards to drive a bit slower during one race; he was way too far in front and the team was already under scrutiny. Richards replied: “If I drive any slower I’ll crash!”
Godzilla Versus The Mountain
The season ramped up through the year, as did both the vehicle development and the commitment from Nissan. The highlight of the season was drawing near, the Bathurst 1000.
The drivers had tested their limits in the GT-Rs and had a strong understanding of how far to push their machines. The team had extracted every last drop of performance and more importantly increased the lifespan of each component as best as they could. They were as prepared as one can ever be truly prepared for the rough and random nature of endurance motorsport.
For Bathurst, Nissan shipped a back-up package for each entrant. These comprised of a complete bare chassis, front and rear subframes, suspension, uprights, gearbox, engine and brakes – basically a spare car in knocked down form. Each package was fully assembled and tested at Calder Park Raceway just prior to the event, before all the major components were swapped into the existing cars for the best possible chance of victory.
Jim Richards and Mark Skaife’s #1 chassis suffered some diff problems during practice and qualifying. Chassis #2 was dusted off and while being driven by a very young Mark Skaife went on to break the lap record and take pole position in qualifying, which can viewed in the video above.
The diff issues proved to not be serious, meaning that the #1 car would repaired in time for the main event.
Race day was the 6th of October 1991. The 32nd year of endurance racing at Bathurst would you believe it, a fitting year for the R32 to take on the mountain.
I’m not superstitious, but the universe (and Alan’s team) were perfectly positioned to conquer the feared mountain. To use a cliche, it was a fairytale drive. Mark Skaife became the first since Australian legend Peter Brock to claim provisional pole position, actual pole position, and then go on to claim outright victory. In the process he and co-driver Jim Richards also smashed both the existing lap record (2:12.63) and fastest overall race time (6h19m14.80s) for Mount Panorama. Nissan’s second GT-R, driven by Mark Gibbs and Rohan Onslow, finished in third position behind the factory Holden VN Commodore. Most importantly, Nissan had secured the Manufacturer Championship. Mission accomplished.
You’d think the pit garage would be party central, but relief is the only feeling Alan remembers when his team was first to cross the line. Exhaustion blocked any other feeling for a day or two. Stress levels were high and sleep reserves were low; the entire team had been running on empty. It wasn’t until a few days after that the magnitude of what his team had achieved began to sink in. They’d exceeded all expectations including their own. Australia had its first taste of a new level of competition.
To put the ’91 performance in perspective, no car would complete the Bathurst 1000 faster than the R32 GT-R until 2010 (6h12m51.41s). Holding a record like this in the top tiers of motorsport for 19 years is unheard of.
To Kill A Monster
The extreme domination of the race series by Nissan is still talked about today. The phrase ‘Godzilla’ was coined by Australian media and a legend was instantly born; a flame-spewing, invincible monster that assaulted our race tracks. Unfortunately, people are generally scared of monsters and rapid change, not unlike when the ‘real’ Godzilla laid waste to a black and white metropolis on film. So strong was the fear that it kickstarted a massive backlash against the brand and even the drivers.
Sure, everyone had just witnessed something amazing with these Japanese pocket rockets, but was Australia ready to usher in this new era of technological wizardry and stronger competition? The embarrassing short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer involves team penalties, a whole slew of new rules to ‘promote fairness’ and even court battles. Australian racing got ugly.
CAMS, the race series’ organiser introduced weight penalties and restricted boost. When the GT-Rs overcame the restrictions a new set of penalties were imposed. Ultimately, the series was abandoned and a new series with new rules took its place. V8 Supercars were born; basically a fight between Australian manufacturers Ford and GM Holden.
It wasn’t until 2013 that other manufacturers would rejoin the battle, although this time everyone would be using a control-style chassis and an engine with very specific power and torque bands.
1992 saw Nissan return to the mountain to claim a back-to-back victory in one the most treacherous years ever. New Zealand legend Denny Hulme (1967 Formula One champion) hit a wall and suffered a heart attack, passing away at Bathurst Hospital shortly before the race was finished early under a red flag. Jim Richards also crashed out on the final lap just as the red flag was called, but he and Skaife were declared the winners by officials who back-dated the victory to a few laps before the race was cancelled. The reaction from the passionate Ford and Holden crowd was disgraceful, resulting in Richards’ infamous, but fair, ‘pack of ar**holes’ speech.
New regulations saw the end of an era of racing; a glorious era dominated (and possibly destroyed) by Nissan’s amazing GT-Rs. Australia’s top tier of racing had essentially closed the doors to outsiders, and for the next 15 years it was purely a battle between local juggernauts.
With the sad death of the Australian automotive manufacturing industry, it’s going to be interesting to see what direction our top tier of motor racing takes over the next few years. The sport is once again at a crossroads and it could potentially be time usher in a new era of Australian racing. Regardless of what the future brings to the sport, the impact and controversy surrounding Nissan’s Godzilla R32 GT-R project has cemented itself in the pages of international racing folklore.
As a side note, it’s just been announced that both Jim Richards and Mark Skaife have been announced as the advanced inductees for the 2017 Australian Motor Sport Hall of Fame. The full list of inductees will be be unveiled during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix weekend in Melbourne in March next year.