Yes, the annual Sandown enduro went to a Nissan GT-R – this was 1991, after all – but unlike the ATCC, this one wasn't a foregone conclusion. Two-time winner Glenn Seton made the Nissan side work for their win, and in the end it was all settled like my relationships – with a sudden and catastrophic breakdown.
Mo' Money (Would Solve) Mo' Problems
Ask and ye shall receive! Last year I complained about the lack of available race footage for historic Sandown 500s. Lo and behold, a year later I've found a couple of juicy YouTube channels offering just that... for upcoming Sandowns, at least. The Group A era remains under-represented, but compared to where we were a year ago it's an embarrassment of riches.
Then there's this race, which only seems to exist now as a one-hour highlights reel. That's not a reflection on our archivists, though: I get the impression it was only ever a one-hour highlights reel at the time as well. Without a deal with Channel Seven, the once-mighty Sandown enduro had just kind of fallen through the cracks between the ATCC and Bathurst, leaving it without a full broadcast, even a delayed one: I understand the footage below was only played on the ABC, a week after the event, late at night when absolutely no-one was awake to see it.
Continuing the theme from last year, the race this year was dubbed the "Drink Drive 500", with only a big red "X" signifying that drink-driving was something they were discouraging, not promoting. It was less clumsy than last year's ".05 500", but such noble causes weren't exactly lucrative, so without corporate backing you could take it as read that Sandown was once again chronically short of prize money.
That would rather explain the other standout feature of the 1991 race: the catastrophically short grid. I know I keep banging on about this, but it's kind of the theme for the year, and it really is remarkable. Only sixteen pit garages were filled when the weekend began – just eleven teams! – and only fifteen cars were able to take starter's orders on Sunday.
- Perkins Engineering entered two Mobil VN Commodores: the #11 for Larry and his Bathurst co-driver Tomas Mezera; and the usual #05 for Peter Brock and his old partner in crime, Andrew Miedecke.
- The Holden Racing Team entered Bathurst champs Win Percy and Allan Grice in the #16 (chassis HRT 026), but also debuted a second car, the #7 in the hands of Neil Crompton and Brad Jones. This car – either HRT 027, or Dencar 04, depending on how you wanted to count it – was the team's second VN, and was destined to earn the nickname "Elvis" for all the hits it would have. Unlike the Mobil cars, which were on "62-compound" Bridgestone tyres, the HRT cars ran on "29-compound" Dunlops.
- Tony Longhurst Racing were represented by a single car, which ironically wasn't for Tony himself. Alan Jones was here in the #25 Benson & Hedges M3, ready to blood his Bathurst co-driver Peter Fitzgerald – a Group E Production racer who'd won that year's James Hardie 12-Hour sharing a Supra Turbo with Allan Grice and Nigel Arkell.
- Glenn Seton Racing was likewise represented by just a single car, Glenn teaming up with former Moffat hireling Gregg Hansford, who at this point could be considered a safe pair of hands for the #30 Peter Jackson Sierra.
- Also featured was the two-car Car-Trek Racing team, a Melbourne local outfit that would survive well into the V8 era, who were basically having a hit at the biggest race in their postcode. The team consisted of a pair of Walkinshaw Commodores, the #15 for Bob Jones & Ed Lamont, and the #31 of Peter Hudson & Ian Carrig.
- Of the privateers: Kevin Waldock entered his usual Playscape Racing Sierra with co-driving from Brett Peters. He had a scramble on Sunday when he split a bore in the Sunday morning warm-up, forcing his team to change the engine ahead of the race. Fellow privateer Daryl Hendrick made an appearance in his #26 Gemspares Walky, with co-driving from John White. And poor Bryan Sala completed the privateer trio, sharing his #50 Tyrepower Sierra with Graham Lusty, but then ended up the event's sole DNS when he blew an engine on Saturday. The team were forced to withdraw as they had no spare.
- Bob Holden Motors, the Toyota dealership owned by long-time racer and 1966 Bathurst winner Bob Holden, entered a pair of Toyota Strollers in the small-car class: the #76 FX-GT hatchback for Mike Conway & Calvin Gardner; and the #77 AE86 coupé for Dennis Rogers and Bob himself.
- Their rivals in the class were both privateers: Geoff Full was sharing his #78 Speedtech eight-six with a very young Paul Morris ("The Dude" came much later); and Ron Searle was paired up with Don Griffiths in a newer AE92 Levin hatchback. These latter two were both Formula Ford drivers being given a chance by former Toyota works driver and professional open-wheel racer, John Smith.
Basically, without a good TV deal there wasn't much incentive for the sponsors to pay for a grinding race of attrition, so several big names elected not to bother. The conspicuous no-shows were Dick Johnson Racing, who had a very expensive car in the Ford Sierra RS500, and (presumably), a sponsor in Shell who were quietly informing them that the recession was hitting their bottom line and they wouldn't be able to provide as much support as originally promised. With a fruitless engine development programme that had eaten a good chunk of the budget early in the year, Dick had seemingly weighed the pros and cons of Sandown and decided, "Yeah, nah."
Ditto Gibson Motorsport, which was rather more egregious when "home" for them was only a few kilometres away in South Dandenong, not in far-off Queensland. But their absence was more understandable when you considered the fifteenth and last car on the entry list, the #4 GIO Skyline of customer team Bob Forbes Racing. You know how a parent will take the training wheels off their child's bicycle, but then still follow them around, ready to catch them if they lost balance? That's basically what Gibson were doing this weekend. Their BFFs at BFR were getting some valuable experience running the car at an endurance race, and although I don't know how many Gibson team personnel were on hand to assist, Mark Skaife was certainly there. For the race itself he would be in the commentary box, sure, but in the practice sessions he certainly would've been on hand to dispense advice as needed. With Bob Forbes Racing and their drivers Mark Gibbs & Rohan Onslow on the grid, Fred Gibson had basically outsourced the weekend to his customers.
It would prove a sound investment.
We Travel Near & We Travel Far
Peter Brock got a lot of headlines for how he always found another gear at Bathurst, but I think he deserves a bit more attention for his efforts at Sandown as well. His nine-times King of the Mountain title is matched by a record nine wins at Sandown, after all, including an incredible seven in a row from 1975 to 1981. Like Bathurst, something about Sandown got Peter excited and he just seemed to try harder, witness last year's cross-entry shenanigans that ended with him finishing both 2nd and 4th. In many ways Brocky was the real star of Sandown '91, even if this time he wouldn't gain a result...
As last year's winner, Glenn Seton arrived full of confidence and promptly stuck the Peter Jackson Sierra on pole, putting in a lap of 1:14.17. That was better than half-a-second faster than Gibbs in the GT-R, who'd only managed a 1:14.66, but there could've been any number of reasons for that. The days were gone when Sandown was just a pair of drag strips separated by a hairpin and the pit straight, but the straights were still very long and the drag on the GT-R was still considerable. Mitigating that was the revelation from Skaife that the GT-R now had its longed-for water-cooled brake package, which was able to knock 30-40 degrees off the brake temps. Bob Forbes had mentioned that the 30-litre water reservoir ran out about six or seven laps before the end of a stint, but Skaife had something to say about that, commenting:
Yes, we can change the jet size to determine how much water is sprayed on the brakes. So, at this particular place, we've decided to run a reasonably big jet to control the temperature of the brakes all the way through the run and not to worry about it too much toward the end.
Nevertheless, playing the GT-R's acceleration against the terminal velocity of the Sierra would be a major part of the strategy. Tyre life would be key for all parties, with Gibbs on Dunlops but Seton, from memory, on Yokohamas. And qualifying, as they say, is not the race: Seton was willing to reveal that his race plan was to have two stops, with a brake pad change at the second (he hadn't needed one last year, but this year they were going faster). Gregg Hansford would take the middle stint of maybe 60 laps, with Seton handling the start and the finish.
When the green flag waved, Gibbs of course got off the line like a rocket but Seton bogged down, losing out not only to the red GT-R but also the two Mobil Commodores of Brock and Perkins, who had naturally-aspirated V8 grunt and something to prove. Seton arrived in the first corner only 4th, and would have to dig his way back out again.
While Perkins did his best to hold off Seton, Peter in 2nd drove like he was on a mission to inch up on Gibbs, which was amusing in light of his pre-race comments:
Tactics? You've got to get into a groove around here. You've got to stroke the car along. And you've got to try not to miss gears, squeeze your foot on the brakes, those sorts of things. In other words, run to a plan and try not to let others upset you. It's very easy to get upset and to start chasing, or be a little lazy.
So now of course the red mist had descended and he was now doing no such thing: he was very definitely chasing Mark Gibbs! That said, it wasn't for nought as on lap 11 Brock slipped underneath Gibbs at the Causeway and assumed the lead. It had been an awfully long time since a Holden had led a race on merit, but if anyone was going to pull that particular rabbit out of the hat, it was always going to be Peter. Gibbs, for his part, used the slipstream to inch back up on 05, but Peter gave him a warning swerve before Turn 1, and young Mark backed out of it. Not the sort of behaviour you typically saw from Peter, but it seemed he wanted this one, and knew his only chance was to blunt the GT-R's advantage in traction by sitting in front and holding him up. Or perhaps he knew – none better – that his Bridgestones weren't going to last, so it was best to make a break early.
Typically, though, Larry Perkins was having the opposite kind of day. On lap 14 he returned to the pits to deal with the smoke pouring from his engine bay. The mechanics were in a tizzy trying to sort it out, but it seemed there was a fire at the back of the engine! This was promptly extinguished and Larry was dropped and sent back out, but he'd lost 66 seconds in the process – nearly a whole lap. Pitlane reporter John Smailes revealed the cause had been oil from a breather pipe leaking onto his exhaust pipe – nothing mechanically wrong, but not something that could be ignored either.
As if to prove the gods of Holden reserved all their love for Brocky, while that was going on the second factory HRT also hummed into the pits for some attention. Neil Crompton had bent a steering arm on the ripple strips and could no longer steer it properly, and it took the mechanics nearly two minutes to beat it back into shape. It was already looking like an iffy day for the Holdens.
Back out on track, the race went on without them. From the commentary box, Skaife revealed that his old mate Seton had just passed Gibbs' GIO Nissan in a bold move over the top of the hill. That moved Seton up to 2nd place, but also revealed the GT-R was struggling at a worryingly early stage of the race. Not to be rude, but some of that was the driver – the body language of the car revealed Gibbs still wasn't completely confident of his new ride, as he just wasn't driving it as hard as Richards or Skaife – but it soon emerged there were more basic problems as well. On lap 21, Brocky gave a quick in-car interview and revealed that he'd been able to assume the lead because the GT-R was running out of brakes. Not too much later, on lap 25, Win Percy passed Gibbs as well and seemingly confirmed that hypothesis – HRT's Bathurst-winning carbon-metallic brakes were a key part of their package. But the real issue (which wouldn't come to light until late in the race), was that the GIO car had lost second gear, and Gibbs was learning how best to do without it – a bit of a handicap when second was just the gear you wanted for the squared-off 90-degree turns that made up the majority of the lap. The torque of the GT-R meant third would do the job, but it would mean losing a couple of hundredths or tenths at every turn, and over the course of 500 kilometres those would add up...
Of course, Peter was soon having trouble of his own. He came in for a pit stop at the end of lap 34, which was too early to be planned: relief driver Andrew Miedecke wasn't ready, and while most of the mechanics did the routine jobs of refuelling and replacing the wheels, a couple stuck their heads under to look at rear underside of 05. Something was wrong with the car, and Peter had done his usual trick of putting someone else behind the wheel before it could fail. That said, Peter did front up to the cameras and to let us know a brake clevis pin had fallen out, leaving him with brakes on the rear wheels only. The car was stationary for more than 20 minutes, effectively dialling 05 out of the race.
It's a piece of threaded rod that connects the front and rear master cylinders – we run separate master cylinders on these cars – with the brake pushrod. So when I put my foot on the brakes at the end of the main straight, it actually snapped – you can see the area there that was broken – snapped that bar, and gave me a little bit of rear brake as I went into the corner. So I didn't run off the road, but it was very dicey there for a minute. I've never seen one break in my life. None of us have, we're all sitting here stunned, amazement, going, “How could that break?”
Peter's brake failure finally put polesitter Seton back at the front, but he wasn't having an easy time of it either. By lap 45 he was being held up by Kevin Waldock, who was ignoring the blue flags and failing to wave him through. Waldock had been back to the pits a couple of times and was now multiple laps down, so he really had no business racing the leaders, but red mist is red mist I suppose.
Seto drove his hardest, and so led the race from lap 34 to 61, when he made the first of his scheduled pit stops. He seemingly had endurance on his side, as by the time he headed for pit lane, his main rivals Percy and Gibbs had already been in ahead of him. Gibbs had pulled in for fuel, tyres and a top-up to the brake reservoir, while Percy had handed over the #16 to Grice in a brisk 18-second stop from the HRT mechanics. Seton's stop was slower than that, mostly because – in defiance of their pre-race plans – they had to change the brake pads at the first stop, a sure sign the pace was hotter than expected. Hansford got in for his stint and the car was released after sitting still for 49.42 seconds. Overall the pit cycle put Gibbs back in the lead, but with a question mark over his brakes – could they hold out against the Sierra's fresh pads?
Well, Gibbs got a breather when the Pace Car came out on lap 56, deployed to control the field while the crashed Car-Trek Walky of Hudson & Carrig was cleaned up. Despite the mechanical issues for everyone else, that was actually the first DNF of the race, but one Pace Car leads to another, as they say. At the restart, turbo lag caught Kevin Waldock napping and he lost the rear of his Playscape Sierra at Peters Corner, thankfully without serious damage. Allan Grice made the most of it and out-braked Gibbs at the hairpin to assume the lead, sending the Holden fans in the grandstands into raptures, and he was soon followed by Peter Brock (now driving Larry Perkins' #11 car thanks to his usual cross-entry shenanigans). That sparked another Holden-on-Holden battle between these long-standing rivals (that Peter was actually a lap down and only 5th changed nothing), and their intense panel-beating battle was finally settled when Brock muscled Grice aside, letting Miedecke (in the 05, which was many laps down) slip through as well. As if things couldn't get worse for HRT, Grice soon radioed the pits to tell them that, like Gibbs, he'd lost second gear!
With Grice missing a cog and Seton out of sequence after his pit stop, it was only a matter of time until the GIO car was back in the lead. By lap 100, sure enough, there it was... by a whopping 24 seconds! The question of Grice's factory car was settled on lap 101 when he pulled over just past the pit exit with a box full of neutrals, and Peter immediately joined him with smoke billowing from the rival Mobil Commodore, a catastrophic engine failure having ended the #11's day as well. Ironically, the 05 car that Peter had started the day in and which had broken a clevis pin was still running, although purely to give seat time to the co-drivers Miedecke and Mezera. So the Holdens that had been running 2nd and 4th were now both DNFs.
That triggered another Pace Car intervention, and Mark Gibbs and the Bob Forbes team grabbed it with both hands. By now Gibbs had been in the car for nearly two-and-a-half hours, driving a marathon double-stint to try and make a gap, but it had all been worth it for this moment: the team could refuel, fit new Dunlops, change the brake pads and top up all the fluids at minimal penalty while the field was slowed up under yellow. Rohan Onslow would be put in the driver's seat and sent back out with a fat, fresh and fuelled-up GT-R under him. As such the stop was a long one, stagnant for 1 minute and 49 seconds, a period of tension but not panic. The stop dropped them back to P2, but that wasn't crippling when Hansford ahead of them had yet to stop.
Even better, by the time the race went back to green, Hansford had developed a misfire as well. The Sierra's only ace was sheer top-end speed, so without that it wasn't long before Onslow caught up and soon he and Hansford were running nose-to-tail like a freight train. And it was the Seton team that blinked, ordering Hansford back to the pits for his final scheduled stop. This time it was fuel, tyres and a driver change only, no pads: Seton took his car back knowing he'd have to drive the stint of his life to win this one. The 37 seconds spent on the apron gave him the gap to make up, and then he was released and rejoined like a thunderclap. By lap 120 he was into 2nd place with only Onslow ahead of him in the GT-R... but paddock buzz now said the GT-R would have to make another stop to reach the finish, and the Sierra would not. This wasn't yet over.
We hadn't really seen much of the yellow BMW today, the sole entry in the Goldilocks class, but that was hardly surprising for an underpowered car at the Home of Horsepower. Nevertheless, Frank Gardner seemingly found a way to get his sponsors on the telly: late in the race, the M3 Evo came into the pits for an unscheduled stop, its driver Alan Jones alighting to tell the microphones the car had lost its rear anti-roll bar on the very first lap, leaving it understeering like a pig. That, he guessed, had been costing them up to a second a lap, so just being as high up the order as they were was a hell of an achievement under the circumstances. In the end, the team demonstrated the value of survival in an endurance race: they had two stops with electrical dramas that required fitting at least one new battery, and a late-race pit stop to check the battery cost them another 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Even so, they lost not a single placing because of it: they came in 2nd, and they rejoined still in 2nd!
And then, out of nowhere, the #7 Commodore of Brad Jones virtually exploded in mid-song, the exhaust pipes going from zero to pumping thick white smoke into the air in a heartbeat. Brad and Neil had done a splendid job of driving Elvis into an impressive 3rd place – the first serious placing for HRT's junior car – only to cop another Holden engine failure in a race littered with them. Ironically, the only VN now running was Peter's 05 that had stopped first with a broken clevis pin, but that wouldn't last either. Repeating tragedy as farce, Peter pulled over in 05 with yet more oil smoke pouring from it: another ruined engine. Peter had been at the wheel for three of the team's two car failures this day! In fact, by the end of the day, Holden were on one for seven in finishes.
With 20 laps to go and a 34-second lead over Seton, Bob Forbes got on the radio and instructed Onslow to drop the revs by a thousand and drive an economy run to the flag: if they pitted all was lost anyway, so they might as well risk it by staying out and hope Seton couldn't quite catch up in the remaining laps. But as it turned out, their worst fears never came to pass. With 146 of 161 laps completed, that mysterious little misfire in the pretty blue Sierra came back with a vengeance, and reached deep into the engine's heart and stopped it stone dead. The number 30 was seen heading slowly up the back straight, its lack of pace visible, its lack of engine audible. Poor Glenn couldn't even make it back to pit lane, pulling over just past the Causeway, his hopes crushed almost within sight of the flag.
Not that the Bob Forbes team minded! Onslow finished the last few laps and so ended his day in 1st place, a massive six laps ahead of P2 (incredibly, the BMW of Alan Jones and Peter Fitzgerald). In their second race with a new car, Bob Forbes Racing had taken Australia's bronze medal, albeit against fairly thin opposition. Best of all, Mark Gibbs had finally taken a major scalp: he'd had been in the game a while but so far his biggest achievements had been in Group E Production car racing, taking the title in 1986 and the Winton 300 enduro in 1987 and '89. Sandown was a different deal altogether, and mechanical issues aside, they'd shown that the GT-R could indeed last the distance in an endurance race.
So with that done, the touring car regulars packed up their gear and turned their attention to the only race that mattered – Bathurst.