Nissan Mobil 500
It soon emerged the Wellington 500 was another casualty of the World Touring Car Championship, as moving it to so late in the year had rather sucked the soul out of it. As the Tasman curtain-raiser it had stood alone, a blue-ribbon event featuring the best of Australia, New Zealand and Europe in an all-out no-holds-barred brawl. By contrast, in October it was just another enduro competing with Bathurst, and in that context it was always going to suffer. No team was going to sacrifice Bathurst prep to focus on Wellington, not even the ones based in New Zealand. It was another domino knocked over by the WTCC, made worse by the same FISA interference that had dogged Bathurst earlier in the month.
The race doesn't seem to be on YouTube, not even a cut-down highlights reel. Weirdly however, we do have Saturday's pre-race build-up and support events. I haven't watched the full thing because it's nearly three hours long and my internet plan isn't that generous, but if you have the time and megabytes you'll see a dry-to-wet Group A practice session, a gloriously wet Sports Sedan race, a Porsche New Zealand Championship race (think oldschool Carrera Cup, with 911s, 944s, and even a single 356 Speedster!), and a celebrity race in production-spec Nissan Sentra ZXE hatchbacks.
The pretty silver Swedish Sierra that had managed to keep off the walls at Bathurst "had a conversation" with the Armco in Wellington, but it was repaired in time for the race. Dick Johnson took pole with a time of 1:29.75, which was a third of a second slower than Klaus Ludwig's pole here last year (which was probably down to tyres), but only nine-hundredths quicker than Win Percy's FAI Commodore, showing how far the Holdens had come in only twelve months.
It was another FISA rolling start, which inexperience rather took the shine off: the Pace Car was so slow most cars had to drop back to first gear to make a decent getaway. Johnson nailed the start in his Shell Sierra, beginning his first lap with a huge gap back to Win Percy's #2 FAI Commodore and Jeff Allam in the #11 HSV Commodore. Around the twisting Wellington streets however a turbo car was no match for the instant squirt of a big V8, and Percy took the lead on lap 2. Steve Soper in Andrew Miedecke's #6 Blast Dynamics Sierra got by too, but was unable to keep up with Percy. Johnson's brilliant start soon came to nought when he pitted on lap 8 with a misfire, putting himself and Bowe out of contention for the day.
The first actual retirement however was Peter Brock in the #56 Mobil BMW, who stopped with a drivetrain failure – Peter had already done his deal for a different car next year, so the ex-JPS team machinery was probably well past its warranty and not worth maintaining any more. (Intriguingly, the Adelaide broadcast would also point out that although Brocky had year left on his contract with BMW, he was already working on a special, limited-edition vehicle for Ford Australia, fuelling the rumours that he'd be driving a Sierra in 1989).
The next retirement was one of the privateer Commodores, and then it started raining Sierras: the #45 Whittaker's Peanut Slab car of Armin Hahne & Robbie Francevic blew an engine; the #8 Miedecke Sierra of Pierre Dieudonné and Miedecke himself crashed out; the #21 Swedish Bagnall/Simonsen car pitted for an extended service; and Steve Soper retired with a rear hub failure.
Then the pace car stuck its nose in, costing Paul Radisich in the #55 Bill Bryce Racing BMW half a lap. The restart, when it came, was as slow as the first one: Emanuele Pirro in the #52 Schnitzer M3 lost 2nd place to Jeff Allam, but the Italian fought hard, as with his frugal flyweight M3 he could contemplate a one-stop strategy, while Percy would need at least two: as long as he did nothing silly, the lead would almost certainly come to him eventually. This duly happened on lap 46 when Percy pitted, leaving Pirro leading by 40 seconds over Bowkett (who took over from Percy), followed by Hulme (who'd taken over from Perkins) and Andy Wallace (replacing Allam).
|Peter McLeod's Yellow Pages Walky remained too pretty not to photograph, even if it barely featured in the results.|
Halfway through the race, Pirro finally pitted and handed the car over to Roberto Ravaglia, without even losing the lead. Ravaglia pulled still further away from Bowkett and Hulme, and the M3 was a whole lap ahead after the second round of stops. Percy came in on lap 122 with zero oil pressure – he was out, while Radisich's co-driver Ludwig Finauer crashed into the barriers after running as high as 3rd. Tony Noske, guesting with Neil Crompton in the #57 Mobil BMW, came in to hand over to Brock, only for an official to inform him that he was not cross-entered in this second car and could not drive! Noske carried on with his stint, but half a lap later the car retired anyway with a "computer" failure.
In the closing laps it was Ravaglia leading with Larry Perkins 2nd in the HSV Commodore, Colin Bond 3rd in the Caltex Sierra, and Mark Thatcher – co-driving Trevor Crowe's #53 John Sax Racing BMW – in 4th. At the last moment he was bumped up to 3rd when Bondy was forced to make a splash-and-dash, the turbocharged Sierra's appetite for Caltex go-juice putting him slightly in the red over 500km!
So in the end it was victory for Pirro and Ravaglia, the Italians putting in an aggressive yet contained drive in the factory M3 Evo to dominate the race. It was the start of a phenomenal five-year winning streak for the M3, just one more accolade in an endless march that would cement its reputation as a performance car legend.
|The M3 and the streets of Wellington, a forbidden love...|
Promo Touring Car 500
The second part of the Nissan Mobil double-header was held, as was the custom, at Pukekohe the following weekend. Despite which, this year the second race was not actually sponsored by Nissan and Mobil, having taken up a deal with someone called Promo (or ProMo, accounts differ – no idea who they were).
It was a rather anemic 21-car grid at Pukekohe, with only single-car entries from HSV (Perkins/Hulme), the Mobil BMW outfit (Brock/Crompton) and Schnitzer (Ravaglia/van de Poele). Granberg and Simonsen were back in the Team Sweden Sierra, as were Colin Bond & Alan Jones in the Caltex Sierra. The BMW lineup was padded out by Bill Bryce Racing (Radisich/Finauer) and a new entry from New Zealanders Kayne Scott and John Sorensen. The rest of the grid was made up of New Zealand regulars in outdated or small-class cars; Dick Johnson Racing was a complete no-show, as was Fred Gibson's Nissan team.
But in stark contrast to the one-car dominated Wellington, Puke was a real nail-biter that saw Andrew Miedecke and Steve Soper make an incredible comeback to steal victory right at the finish. Miedecke had started from pole after setting a time of 1:02.71, and led the opening laps comfortably before he was forced to pit to repair a damaged oil cooler (no word on what caused the damage, but I'd wager he tripped over backmarker – Puke is a fast track, so closing speeds with the lower-class cars can catch you out). This unscheduled visit to the pits cost them three laps, handing the lead to Win Percy in the FAI Commodore. Percy looked set to take the victory in turn, until he broke a rear wheel hub on lap 94 and passed the lead to Schnitzer BMW of Ravaglia and new co-driver Eric van de Poele. But behind them the Blast Dynamics Sierra came zooming back through the field, making up the lost three laps to surge through to victory by just over 4 seconds! It was an impressive comeback from a car that seemed completely out of the running, and it showed how the Asia-Pacific Championship might've gone had Miedecke only had a bit more luck on his side.
|Radisich M3 leads Brock M3: the fast, sweeping Pukekohe favoured the Sierras over the Bavarian pocket rockets.|
The final round of both the Japanese domestic series and the Asia-Pacific championship was held at the Fuji Raceway in Japan. To his credit, Andrew Miedecke chose to chase Asia-Pacific points despite the cost of racing in far-off Japan (as a former open-wheel racer he had contacts in this part of the world – Teddy Yip of Theodore Racing, Macau F3, that sort of thing). Steve Soper had returned to Blighty, so he wrangled New Zealand biker Graeme Crosby to be his co-driver instead, and their chances were actually pretty good in a race so thin of foreign entries. Sadly however they failed to finish, DNFing for reasons unknown with just 11 of the 112 laps completed. After 12 months on the front line, with successive Bathurst, Sandowns and Wellingtons on the clock, the Rouse-sourced car was probably just worn out. Polesitters Anders Olofsson and Aguri Suzuki retired in their HR31 Skyline as well, leaving the race to another Euro-Japanese double act, Klaus Niedzwiedz and Hisashi Yokoshima winning in what was probably a customer Eggenberger Sierra.
|A for effort to Miedecke, but ultimately he couldn't clinch the series in a car that was apparently running off his own wallet (this and several other photos from the race available at TouringCarRacing.net).|
As for the championship, Emanuele Pirro seemed certain to clinch it for BMW until the Schnitzer car retired with a holed radiator. But as we know, the title ended up going to New Zealand's Trevor Crowe, which has fans scratching their heads to this day.
South Australia Cup
So that just left the grand finale on the streets of Adelaide. The Australian GP support race was, compared to previous years, absolutely huge: a full 35 cars fronted up, featuring absolutely everyone of any consequence in the ATCC scene, even Sydney-based drivers who normally restricted themselves to Oran and Amaroo and didn't usually show up for interstate races like this. It seems it had finally dawned on everyone that, bugger me, that race will get our sponsors on the telly not just in Australia, but worldwide! That combined with looser purse strings thanks to the success of the event, and the chance to go all fanboy over the F1 superstars and their machines, meant we had everyone: Tony Longhurst in his Bathurst-winning B&H Sierra; Dick Johnson and John Bowe in their Shell Sierras; George Fury and Mark Skaife in a pair of Gibson Motorsport Skylines; Brocky and Gentleman Jim in their Mobil BMW M3s; Larry Perkins and Denny Hulme in the works HSV Walkinshaw Commodores, together with Allan Grice in the rival Roadways FAI Walky, just three of a swathe of V8 Holden Commodores; Phil Ward in his Mercedes 190E; Lawrie Nelson in his Capri Components Mustang; even Darrel Belsky was there to drive Joe Sommariva's BMW 635 CSi. It was stacks-on on the streets of Adelaide, and everyone was back in their individual cars with their ATCC numbers on the doors. The only real no-shows were Allan Moffat's ANZ Sierra, Mark Petch's similar Peanut Slab car, and Andrew Miedecke, who was busy contesting the Fuji round in Japan. Even without them, we still had a full 35-car grid, a huge number for such a "minor" event.
Indeed, it would've been 36, but troubles with the Caltex Sierra earmarked for Alan Jones meant he had to sit this one out. Although he doubtless would've preferred to race, he ended up spending the race locked in the commentary box with Channel Seven sports voice Darrell Eastlake.
Darrell Eastlake: I believe your teammate Colin Bond in the Caltex Sierra had a little trouble throughout the week?Bondy's confidence probably wasn't boosted when race day – Saturday, 12 November – dawned with the kind of burning, lung-searing heat people assume Australia puts on all the time. That was going to place firm limits on what you could get out of a turbo car, which tended to run searing temperatures on the best of days and saw a sharp reduction in power once the intercooler got too hot. Turbo runners had the unenviable choice of whether to turn the boost down and hope it all held together to the finish, or turning it up and trying to build a gap so they could turn it back down if they needed to, and then hope it all held together to the finish.
Alan Jones: Yes, he built up an engine which he thought was going to give him well over 500 horsepower, and unfortunately that only lasted about half of Thursday! So then they went back to a lesser horsepower engine, which they thought if nothing else would give them reliability, [but] that’s playing up [as well]. I spoke to Colin last night and he’s having to run very low boost and very low revs, and that’s not the way to go motor racing and I really don’t know if he's going to finish this race. He's way back, but they're having a go anyway.
Starting from pole, Dick Johnson elected to take the second option. At the green he was beaten off the line by Longhurst, who'd actually started slightly ahead of his starting box, and down to the first chicane they stormed, the two Sierra rivals side-by-side. Thanks to pole Johnson had the inside line, and he took the lead into the first turn. The first few through the chicane were surprisingly neat and tidy, Gricey clattering over the kerbs in his FAI Walkinshaw, followed by Larry Kogge in the Hella Skyline DR30. Through the turns Johnson worked his Sierra for all it was worth, squirming for traction, with Longhurst chasing hard right behind. Onto the short Jones Straight Longhurst got right out over the kerb looking for a way through, but nothing was going to beat a Johnson Sierra in a straight line: down Brabham Straight the red car flew, peaked somewhere around 270km/h, then applied the brakes and nipped through the Dequetteville Hairpin. By the time Johnson was completing lap 1, he had already pulled out a gap of about fifteen car lengths over 2nd place – and that was now John Bowe, who'd moved past Longhurst in the meantime to take the place. End of lap 1, and the DJR teammates were 1st and 2nd.
Behind the casualties were already piling up: Ray Ellis had already retired his yellow VL, while Lusty's black-and-orange Walkinshaw suffered a non-fatal spin and rejoined, dusty but uncreased. Early on lap 2 the Oliver Corolla also pulled off with oil pouring out the side. One who seemed like he'd be joining them on the DNF list was Larry Perkins in 4th, who was driving with controlled yet overt aggression, throwing his HSV Walky at the corners and seemingly daring the Armco to stop him. He was actually keeping up with Longhurst as a result, but time would tell whether his car could stand up to this kind of treatment on such a hot day and survive the full 32 laps – that epic bodykit had cut down on cooling, after all.
By lap 5 the DJR cars were clearly taking it slightly easy, making some effort to preserve their cars, and with a solid gap back to Longhurst that was possible – but Longhurst was still fanging it through the turns, little puffs of smoke under braking, and that also made it necessary. The commentary team then took a moment to gush over their new toy, real-time telemetry streaming live from Peter Brock's BMW. This innovation from Netcomm was fairly rudimentary compared to today, showing only the speed, revs and gear changes, but it was cutting-edge for 1988 – and unlike its first outing at Bathurst '87, this one was actually working. "The only problem with that of course Darrell," joked Alan Jones, "is if you miss a gear or over-rev it, they know about it straight away."
Prophetic words, as about 20 seconds later Perkins started closing up on Tony Longhurst, even though they were on the fastest part of the Brabham Straight. Poor Tony swung it through the Dequetteville Hairpin, but didn’t have the grunt to accelerate away again: as Perkins stormed by, the yellow Sierra's engine let out a sizeable belch of white smoke and puttered pitifully around the rest of the circuit, his engine having busted a head gasket. The car had lasted 161 laps at Mount Panorama, but wouldn't see number 8 in Adelaide. "The ol' Sierras," mused Jonesy, "while they go like rockets they can also prove to be hand grenades..."
Something that was doubtless on the minds of Johnson and Bowe as well. They both had oil and water temps in front of them, and neither probably liked what they saw: by lap 9 Larry Perkins was starting to close up on Bowe, meaning he either had a problem, or was having to back off to avoid a problem. By lap 10, Perkins was past and up to 2nd place.
On lap 12 we heard rather than saw that Allan Grice was in the pits, the commentary team telling us that it looked, "fairly terminal, they're not rushing around the car too much." Roadways cars always did run hot, and it seemed combined with the searing heat in Adelaide that day, it was more than the FAI car could take. Eventually Gricey fronted up and told the cameras:
Broke fourth gear, which is a little disappointing always. In this case the temperature is very hot, [I] reduced revs, kept the revs down to have a good water temperature, looking after brakes and tyres, the car was running very well. I was certainly ready to have a charge once a few more of them have heat problems, as you can hear they're having. But going down the straight already in fourth gear and pulling, the gearbox suddenly broke fourth gear. I had a look through the box to see what was left, the only thing that was left was fifth. I don't think it would’ve been terribly good in fifth around here!So that was Gricey over and out, and it seemed like he was about to be in good company. By lap 15 reports started coming through that Johnson's car was backfiring and sounding different than it had earlier on. With his experience of turbocharged Ford engines from 1986, Alan Jones saw good to weigh in, saying: "Well, with a turbo car it might be an exhaust, or something like that. It looks to be going approximately the same sort of speed. But with a turbo car, you can never really tell. He might've just – dare I say it? – turned the boost down."
But this wasn't Johnson turning the boost down: this was something more serious. All through lap 16, Larry Perkins was reeling the Shell Sierra in, hunting him down like a shark following a trail of blood. Finally, as they rounded the final hairpin and re-emerged onto the pit straight, Johnson abruptly slowed and Perkins powered soundly by, leaving the Shell car in a cloud of Holden dust. "No way should that happen normally," gasped Jonesy. "I'd reckon that he's got some fuel pickup problem, because he seems to be going reasonably well on the straight, but then it coughs and splutters coming out of the corners. So I think he's in some sort of trouble."
He was right, as although both Shell team cars would continue on, trying to make the finish in limp-home mode, ultimately neither would make the chequered flag. As Johnson told us many moons later:
My car was slowing because it was vaporising fuel and the pumps wouldn't pump air so the thing stopped.So that was the Shell team cars done, char-broiled on both sides and now the walking dead. The first half of this race had belonged to the DJR Sierras, but the pendulum had swung and the second half now belonged to the HSV Commodores. By lap 17 Denny Hulme was into 2nd place, putting the factory Holdens into a 1-2 formation they'd never lose. But the race wasn't yet over.
And wouldn't you believe it, Bowe and I both stopped within a lap of each other and in exactly the same spot on the track. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
At the start of lap 18 the HSV team hung out the boards, showing their drivers their lap times and a 9-second gap back to Johnson, and Jonesy noticed something: "Hulme just did a lap time point-two of a second quicker than Perkins, a 47.4 as opposed to a 47.6. So Denny's really going for it. It'll be interesting to see if there's any team orders when it gets down to the wire." It quickly emerged that there weren't: on lap 23, approaching the Dequetteville Hairpin, Hulme was visibly pulling out of his boss's slipstream to have a look at a pass, but on this lap he didn't quite have the edge to get it done and fell back into line. As they stormed down Brabham Straight for the twenty-fourth time, however, Denny found that edge: out of the slipstream he came, stood on the brake pedal and had the ghost of a wobble, so late had he left his braking. But not too late: Denny rotated the car smartly into the hairpin, took the advantage of the inside line, and passed Larry Perkins for the lead.
Larry didn't take that lying down. Through the following series of chicanes and 90-degree switchbacks, anybody would be forgiven for thinking the boys were racing each other, the body language of the cars aggressive, looking for a fight. "So there's no team orders," commented Jones, sounding surprised. Thinking about it though, he went on to add: "Thank God for the Holdens, they’re making a race of it."
By lap 25 the HSV pair were coming up to lap Dick Johnson, who'd been sitting pretty less than ten laps earlier. Bowe meanwhile found himself under threat from – of all people – Colin Bond, who hadn't expected to even see the finish with the engine under the bonnet today. Here he was in with a shout of a podium!
Perkins re-passed Hulme during a commercial break, and that was it for the lead changes. Perkins completed the final six laps smoothly and cleanly, pulling a nice little gap on his teammate, suggesting either Hulme had a problem of his own or Perkins had been sandbagging earlier on, putting on a show for the crowd. If so he rather overdid it, as the final lap saw Perkins slow right down to try and back into Hulme for a formation finish. But he'd left it too late, and the former World Champ was too far back. Instead, Colin Bond cleverly slowed to allow Perkins to pass him before the line, reducing his race distance to 31 laps and ensuring he wouldn't have to complete one final lap that might have broken his car once and for all. Through guile as much as skill, Bondy chalked up a solid 3rd place, sending bookies across the city broke in an instant. Nobody saw that coming. It was a final flourish for a year that was okay but could've been better for Colin Bond – he'd failed to bring home Bathurst or the ATCC, but he had won the AMSCAR series at Amaroo Park, which was always prominent on the agenda for a Sydney-based driver.
But the works Holden team had rounded out the year with a slam-dunk 1-2 finish, in front of an international audience, on a day that was an absolute gift to the marketing team – they're nice, these European cars, but if you've got a distance to cover on a forty-degree day, you've just gotta have a Holden. The crew at Perkins Engineering had broken the duck in the middle of a very lean patch for Holden, but the suits at Fishermans Bend could be forgiven for entering the Christmas shut down with a spring in their step. They'd ended the year on a high, the new-model VN Commodore was on sale, and the company was beginning to claw its way out of the financial black hole in which it had spent the bulk of the 1980s.
The future seemed bright, but no-one could've predicted what Japan did next.