Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Zero to Hero

How do you go from never winning a single race, to completely dominating your series in only six months? With the same car?


Yes, it is a trick question. Racing cars tend only to exist as cars on race day anyway, spending the rest of their time lying around the workshop in bits. Ship of Theseus-type questions are inevitable. But it's still the question Jim Richards, the John Player BMW Team and the BMW 635 CSi were facing at the conclusion of the 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship. Nobodies in December, Champions in July. What gives?

Wise readers will already know what changed: the ATCC made the jump from the local Group C regulations to the FIA's international Group A. Frank Gardner's JPS team'd done their best campaigning the BMW, running it for four years straight without managing a win, because sometimes there's nothing anyone can do. Group C had recognised four classes based on engine size: 1,300cc (a tiny Fiat or something), 2.0 litres, 3.5 litres and a whopping 6.0 litres. Tyre regs had split the field into only two, giving the smaller cars 8½-inch tyres and the bigger ones 10½. With minimum weights up to the none-too-transparent discretion of CAMS, that really left only two kinds of car in the ATCC: big, stonking, V8-engined muscle cars, and backmarkers.

Click here for a great article by Mark Oastler on this car. You have to sign up for Shannons Club to read it, so it's up to you whether it's worth providing free market research for (hint: totally).

The BMW fit into the latter category. The design dated from 1979, and it showed, with a forward-tilted radiator grille and that fat '70s airdam (in those days engineers weren't interested in using the airflow under the car to produce downforce, they were trying to keep it from getting under there in the first place). That made the car an aerodynamic nightmare, but that was slightly offset by its smaller overall size, which kept its drag figures manageable. But it had one handy ace up its sleeve - its engine, which had been taken from the stillborn BMW M1 supercar. Since the M1 had begun as a homologation special for a defunct sports car series, that meant the 635 got its power from a racing engine that had been sanitised for road use, not a production engine that had been tarted up for racing.

That should have given the Beemer a major advantage in the endurance races, where its drivers could keep revving it hard while their rivals were falling by the wayside, but there was just no living with the V8-powered XE Falcons and VH Commodores. Bentley's Maxim - that there's no substitute for cubes - was proved right time and again on racetracks across the country, which tended to be stop-start affairs sorely lacking in the long, flowing corners the BMW was used to. By the European definition, Australian touring cars weren't so much "touring cars" as "drag cars that could go around corners."

Until 1985, that is. Suddenly the old rulebook was torn up, and a new one brought in that had been written around machines just like this one. Like Group C, Group A used an equivalence formula that matched bigger engines with heavier weight limits and fatter tyres, but in much finer increments, letting the engineers match everything up a lot more closely. Since the JPS team was a "works" effort with support from Munich, they got access to BMW's collective parts bin, giving Frank Gardner's crew a huge head start on Group A. The result? Suddenly the BMW's 3.5-litre engine was producing some 250 kW, but only had to haul around 1,185kg, and was dancing around on bespoke fully-independent racing suspension - a recipe to make any racing driver drool.


Compare and contrast the opposition. Ford had picked this moment to kill off the V8 Falcon, leaving Dick Johnson with little option but to buy a gutless Mustang from Zakspeed in Germany. Peter Brock had it even worse - the Commodore's 5-litre donk left it at the extreme end of Group A, saddled with a beefy 1,300kg minimum weight. Even worse, the production-based engine was far from sophisticated (pushrods and carbs, oh my) and Brock's cash-strapped Holden Dealer Team couldn't have afforded custom suspension gubbins like BMW's even if Holden was making any.

Even so, Brocky drove out of his skin to win his home ATCC race at Sandown, while Robbie Francevic drove one of those Swedish refrigerators to win the following race at Symmons Plains, and the season closer at Oran Park. But all the rest - including six races in a row from Barbagallo to Amaroo Park - fell to Gentleman Jim and the black-and-gold BMW team, at last earning Jim the crown of Australian Touring Car Champion (one of those races, the Eurovox Trophy at Calder Park, appears on one of Channel 7's "Magic Moments of Motorsport" DVDs, Group A Touring Car Classics. Yeah, free plug for them, but I'm trying to incentivise them to release all the races from 1960 onwards, so go buy it already).

Wait, the best bit was yet to come. For Bathurst, tyre magnate and retired champion Bob Jane indulged both his taste for European machinery and his deep pockets in equal measure, and brought over another BMW 635 to compete with the John Player team. Not just any 635, either - one built by Schnitzer Motorsport, BMW's much-feared works DTM team, which had already placed 2nd outright in the Spa 24 Hour race (apparently Janey had wanted the winning car, but it had sported one of those famous "BMW Genuine Parts" paint jobs that advertised all the bits and pieces under the bodywork. Jane of course was going to run his Bob Jane T-Marts colours, which would obliterate the BMW Genuine Parts livery - and putting it back was going to cost $10,000. Jane swallowed, blinked and shelled out for the silver-medal car instead. It's now in the Bowden collection, and you can read the car's whole history here).


Anyway, so there was a rival BMW on the grid for the Great Race of '85, one built by the pros in Austria and funded by one of the wealthiest men in the country... and it was still out-qualified by the locally-built JPS car of Jim Richards! Richo's Hardie's Heroes lap was a solid 2 minutes 21.396 seconds, while in the same session Jane's driver only managed a 2:22.874. One-and-a-half seconds faster in - really, truly, genuinely - the same car. That's some class. Imagine Australia's surprise when we found out our touring car scene was on a level with the professionals in Europe! Cultural cringe is a funny thing.

So to answer the original question, how do you go from never winning a single race to dominating your series in only six months? Well, it doesn't hurt to have the rules rewritten in your favour... but to make it work, you also have to be among the best in the world.


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