Tuesday, 26 March 2013

"I think I did a mistake."

Hoo boy, you sure did Sebastian. You don't even know it yet. It's too early to say how badly you've damaged your reputation, but it could be bad - real bad. We've been seeing a lot of your dark side lately - throwing tantys in the car, sulking when a penalty comes your way, Jenson's infamous "So that's how we're racing, is it?" at Suzuka - little things that undercut your goofy "Aw, shucks" persona and show us this cuddly teddy bear is stuck through with needles. Well if that's how you want to win, I can only say precedent is not on your side.

Spring 1981, and Alan Jones isn't just any driver; he isn't even just any World Champion. He's a man who just a few months ago won the championship by out-pacing the Ligiers at their home race, putting Nelson Piquet into the wall when he tried to pass, and keeping Gilles Villeneuve in his mirrors pretty much all year long. A young Alain Prost took stock of him and said, "The most fiery, the most powerful – I would even go so far as to say, the most violent – driver that year was unquestionably Alan Jones. It was no coincidence that he was the reigning World Champion."

So you'd think anyone willing to cross him would need an extra-large wheelbarrow to cart around their massive brazen balls, but you would be wrong. By all accounts, his teammate at Williams was a true gentleman, "a really wonderful guy" according to technical director Patrick Head. Yet Carlos Reutemann, it seemed, had a dishonest streak, as it would be he who stuck the knife in during the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix.

It was a rainy day in Rio, and although the circumstances weren't a perfect Xerox of Malaysia, the crime was the same - breaking of team orders, and breaking of word. Jones was in 2nd place following in Reutemann's wheel spray, wisely waiting it out. He had no need to risk a race-ending crash by trying to pass in these treacherous conditions; Carlos was honour-bound to let him past.
When I signed my contract with Frank there was a “seven seconds” clause in it. If I was leading the race by seven seconds, then I could win; if Jones was closer than seven seconds, then I had to let Alan past. We started the race in Brazil, in the rain, and to be honest I never drove particularly hard. Frank just showed me the pit signals to the third place man and, believe me, I never thought Jones was running so close behind. About three or four laps from the lead, Frank put out a sign signalling me that we would reverse the order. I was obviously very upset. – Carlos Reutemann
The pit boards were indeed bearing the stark message JONES-REUT, but Reutemann never showed the slightest sign of moving over. Jones kept waiting, eventually realised what was going on, but too late to put up a fight. Carlos crossed the line to register the victory. Some say he deserved to win that day, and they're not wrong, but he'd signed his name, promised on his honour, to move over and help his team leader win. He could have refused to sign a contract with a "seven second" clause in it. He could have given Jones fair warning that, no, he was going to race him today (and most likely he still would have won, because he was genuinely the more gifted of the two). But he didn't. He chose to break his word instead. That, far more than merely losing the race, was what had Alan Jones fuming. 

Even so, there was no weaselly "I think I did a mistake" afterwards. Carlos manned up and told everyone straight: "I don’t think that situation will happen again – but if it does, I think I will take the same decision I took in Brazil. When Jones says he doesn’t trust me, he’s absolutely right. He shouldn’t."

And of course, it came back to bite him.

Seven months and thirteen races later, Carlos was within spitting distance of winning the World Championship. All he had to do was beat Nelson Piquet - not much of a challenge, given the searing Las Vegas heat, lots of punishing high-G corners, and Piquet's tendency to wilt when it got tough. Surely he could just walk this one in?

Not if Jones had anything to do with it.
Carlos was on pole. He was a fairly emotional sort of person. I was beside him. I took him aside and said, “Carlos, the problem with where you are is that, heading into the first corner, there’s a lot of shit on that side of the track. You know, being on pole, you’re entitled to use whatever side of the track you want.” I effectively talked him into heading for the outside and letting me have the inside line into the first corner! During the warm-up, I used that inside line as many times as I could to sweep the debris off it so that I could have the cleaner run. I not only led them all into the first corner, but he hit the shit and wound up 4th. From then I think he fell back. I lapped him. – Alan Jones
While Jones powered into a lead he would never lose, Reutemann went in the opposite direction, completing the opening lap in fifth place and steadily falling back. When Piquet caught him on lap 17, there was no fight. "He braked early to let me pass when I came up behind him," said Piquet. "He made it so easy for me I couldn’t believe it." Jones did more than just steal back his lost race: he sabotaged Reutemann's championship dreams and broke his heart forever. Reutemann retired soon after, but not before the following farewell from his teammate:
“Okay, Alan. Well goodbye – shall we bury the hatchet?”
“Yeah. In your fucking head, mate."
Of course, we all know you're made of sterner stuff than that, Sebastian. And Mark is a 21st-Century sportsman rather than a bare-knuckle boxer with a racing car like Jones. But there's one way things are going to be absolutely the same, just check out Jones' words immediately after Brazil: "I know exactly where I stand now – and, believe me, this situation won’t occur again."

You better believe Webber is thinking the same. Do you not realise he is the one man you dare not try that underhanded stuff with? Bless his heart, he really does believe in ideas like "fair" and "sporting"; he has a decade of goodwill saved up with the press; he wasted his best years in lemons from Jaguar and Williams; he waited an agonisingly long time to finally become a winner; and he does his best work when he's pissed off. His days of dealing fairly with you are done.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Best. Bathurst. Ever.

Bathurst is an endurance race. One thousand kilometres. It takes at least six hours, two drivers, rock-solid reliability and day-long pace to finish it. That means for most of its history, it's had enduro-type finishes, the ones where the competition broke down two hours ago and the winner hangs an arm out the window and cruises to take the flag by three laps, that sort of thing. Up until the 90's, most of Bathurst history was written in outstandingly dominant victories.

In 1994, that wasn't what happened.

Let's set the scene a little: the grumbling V8s are still just a baby category, a brief (it was assumed) 5-litre appendix to a rulebook intended to tide Australian touring cars over until the FIA could make up its mind. The Falcons and Commodores were just meant to keep a place warm for a while... except there were some who could see potential in these cars. Some who were planning a coup.

By design, the race-ready EB Falcons and VP Commodores were primitive in the extreme - the rules demanded a Holden 308 or a Ford Boss 302 engine, with only two valves per cylinder activated by pushrods - a setup that would have been familiar in 1967, although fuel injection and state-of-the-art tuning meant they were still good for 400kW in Bathurst trim. The suspension was virtually stock and almost impossible to adjust. No limited-slip diff meant to get the things to turn you had to unload the inside wheel, making hammering the car over the kerbs standard procedure. Just as planned: these clumsy, cranky machines didn't flow through turns like a tarmac-hugging DTM car, they lurched and skittered and slipped, visibly on the edge of grip, breathing fire on the over-rev. They put on a hell of a show. The crowds loved them, and for their first race in '93 the grids and grandstands alike had doubled from the previous year. All they needed was a good showing on TV to let everyone know they were serious.

That's exactly what they did. Endurance races like Bathurst usually call it a close finish if the runner-up is on the same lap as the winner. Nobody was expecting to measure the 1994 result in tenths...

In the blue corner we had John Bowe, firmly ensconced at Dick Johnson Racing for a decade now, sharing the Shell-sponsored EB Falcon with Dick himself. DJR had made themselves a powerhouse of the 80's with the monstrous turbo Sierra, but clearly Dick hadn't forgotten how to build Falcons either. They were the Establishment; cabinets full of silverware, a full sponsor portfolio, two battle-hardened drivers and a special relationship with Ford.

In the red corner, a young team with a kid driver straight out of the junior formulae: Craig Lowndes. Although one of the most experienced drivers in the sport today, Lowndes is still sometimes called "the Apprentice", and it's a title he wears with pride, because the master was Peter Brock. Peter took Lowndes under his wing off the track as well as on it, more a mentor than Fangio ever was to Stirling Moss. He taught Lowndes how to deal with money, fame, and all the impedimenta of the modern racing driver. He was the best part of this team in 1994: although heir to the legacy of the famous Holden Dealer Team, the new Holden Racing Team was still pretty green and had yet to take its first championship. For the final stint at Bathurst that day his advice was simplicity itself: "Just try and put 25 perfect laps together, and the result will follow."

The result did follow. Lowndes latched onto the back of John Bowe and... well, just watch.

You can see the whole race on YouTube if you've got the time and megs. It's well worth setting aside a day for, because despite trying every year, we still haven't managed to top it: rain, safety cars, hard racing, memorable passes, Peter Brock, Ford vs Holden, a kid taking on the big guns, and a finish that went down to the very last corner. The greatest Bathurst ever.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

What Happens in the Dome, Stays in the Dome

There's a basic rule here in Australia - whatever America can do, we can do smaller. They had a Civil War lasting four years, we had a Eureka Stockade that lasted all of ten minutes. They own all of Hollywood; we made The Castle and rent out Hugh Jackman. And where they have NASCAR, the massive, ultra-popular, floor-it-and-turn-left league of stock car racing and personal fiefdom of the France family, we once had a funny little stocker series called AUSCAR.

Yes, Australian Stock Car Auto Racing. It's easy to forget now, but back in the 90's it wasn't that obvious V8 Supercars were the future. The proto-V8 series was deep into a turf war with the rival Super Touring category, and while they were busy pouring weed killer on each other's grassroots stock cars germinated into a hydroponic potplant of a category. Their growth was limited by just one thing - there were only two paved ovals in the entire country to race on.

When it was new, Adelaide's half-mile Super Bowl must have raised a few eyebrows - 200-metre straights matched by 200-metre corners banked at 7 degrees, a recipe for raw speed above anything the country's dirt ovals had ever produced. But it was a bagel compared to what Bob Jane had in mind; he'd been paying court to Little Bill France in 'Murka since the 60's, talking long and hard about bringing NASCAR back home, and in 1981 he got his wish: they would build a clone of Charlotte Motor Speedway, the NASCAR-est of all the NASCAR tracks, on the outskirts of the Melbourne suburbs.

It happened at Calder Park for one simple reason - Jane owned it. The oval took six years to become a reality and cost $54 million out of his personal piggy bank, but he got it done, and it was glorious: the turns banked at a cool 24 degrees, steeper than all but the scariest tracks in the U.S., and at 1.8km long it only just escaped the "short track" label. This was going to be like racing around a toilet bowl. But since "toilet bowl" lacked marketing appeal, they wisely tied it into a bogan icon - Mad Max - and named it the Thunderdome.

Now they just needed some cars to race on it. NASCAR held up their end and came among us in February '88, a mixed field of local drivers versus some full-time good ol' boys from Dixie including Bobby Allison, winner of the Daytona 500 only a few weeks earlier (handy for street cred, that). But their machinery was all imported weapons-grade NASCAR, too expensive for the Aussie dollar to risk on a regular basis. If the dome was going to be used more than once a year, we'd need an el cheapo Australian NASCAR to fill in the rest of the year. That's where AUSCAR stepped up.

Unlike the purpose-built American cars, AUSCAR stock cars were built more like touring cars, starting out as a production Commodore or Falcon body shell with a roll cage welded in, basic cockpit fitted, and loaded with a Holden 308 or Ford Windsor engine (both 5-litre V8s if you're part of the civilised world and think in metric). That meant the steering wheel and pedals were on the right-hand side of the car, which, combined with the Coriolis effect, meant AUSCAR races turned right for 500 miles; if that's how the water was going to run down the plughole, then obviously we'd have to follow it. For the same reason, getting drunk on Australian beer makes the room spin the other way. And like Australian beer, it made long-time NASCAR fans dizzy.

This Falcon-versus-Commodore formula really caught on, especially since the touring car scene was in the middle of the Group A years, dominated by cars from overseas, but only when the cloud of official protests that hung over it like a bad smell dissipated enough to get an actual race started. Australian petrolheads needed something else, and AUSCAR answered the call.

Surprisingly, it lasted right up until 1999, although by then it was a weed of a championship compared its popularity before V8 Supercars stole the show. But in its glory days the grids were full and the racing was hard, and the undisputed king of the Thunderdome was the man from Albury, Brad Jones. These days he runs a V8 team with his brother Kim, but in those days he taking his Commodore and pulverising AUSCAR to the tune of five championships in a row. In our video above, filmed just hours before taking his final crown in 1994, he scares the life out of Channel Nine presenter Simon O'Donnell with a few laps around the circuit he made his own (incidentally, O'Donnell is one of those elite few who have played both cricket and Aussie Rules football at the highest levels. In Australia that should have made him a demigod or something. These days he breeds horses. Go figure).

It's still there today, a monument to Australia's pathological desire to have a go at literally everything, but although it's largely forgotten it would be an exaggeration to say it rots. The Thunderdome isn't part of the cohort of old abandoned ovals from the early 20th Century - Brooklands, Monza, AVUS, Sitges, Montlhéry. It's too new for one thing, but more importantly, it still receives a modicum of TLC. Because for a surprisingly reasonable sum, you too can don the Nomex pyjamas and hit the Thunderdome to have your bladder emptied by a maniac with a CAMS license (weather permitting). Which keeps it in just good enough nick to preserve the hope that maybe, just maybe, the dome might once again see some days of thunder.