Saturday, 1 November 2014

When Gricey Scalped the Greats

God, I love this.

So I'm most of the way through a great video providing good insight into the time the Holden Dealer Team went to Europe, when I'm distracted by a tale of outrageous theft. This is why racing is awesome, people.

Let's start at the beginning. It's 1986, a year that started on a high note as Peter Brock's long-delayed Commodore evo  finally arrives. The car - the VK Commodore SS Group A (a bit of a mouthful, better known as "Blue Meanie") - was well worth the wait, fast out of the box and responsive to good driving and careful preparation.

The first Australian Touring Car Championship for Group A cars had been won (by a BMW), as well as the first Group A Bathurst (by a Jaguar), leading some to decry this invasion from foreign cars as a misstep. Peter Brock, however, grabbed the stick from the other end - he realised the Commodore was now eligible to race in Europe. With a brand-new "World Touring Car Championship" having been announced for 1987 (which would visit Australasia thrice, including races at Calder Park, Wellington in East Bondi, and the big one at Bathurst), it would probably be a good idea to send a car to Europe and get a taste of the opposition. Ergo, a VK SS Group A was crated up and flown to Italy for the 500km race at Monza - Round 1 of the '86 European Touring Car Championship.


In those days the ETCC was as cutthroat as touring car racing got: a marathon 13 races, each 500km long, plus the prestigious 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps (these days it's a GT race for gran turismo cars, but back then it was for ordinary touring cars, or piccolo turismo, as I like to think of them). People who could make a living out of this were not to be trifled with, and 1986 saw more works teams on the grid than ever before (or since): BMW's Schnitzer Motorsport; reigning champions Eggenberger, who'd just signed on as the new Ford works team; the Volvo Motorsport Division, who after the breakup with Eggenberger were on the rebound with Belgian team RAS Sport; and Tom Walkinshaw Racing's ongoing stint as the Bastos Texaco Rover team.

To stand against that, Holden would have to field the very best – so Peter Brock got on the phone to his old rival Allan Moffat, who'd spent 1985 on the sidelines, unable to get a drive. Yes, do not adjust your screens, Moffat actually signed up to co-drive a Holden with Peter Brock! Despite their old rivalry, Moffat was the ideal man for the job, a driver with plenty of overseas experience and a wide range of international contacts, not to mention amazing mechanical sympathy. Moffat signed to do development work and the co-drive the famous #05, which the FIA sadly reduced to just #5 for the European events. More promisingly, as part of the global General Motors caliphate, Brock and the Mobil HDT were allowed to operate out of Opel's racing skunkworks in Germany. 


And funnily enough, Allan Grice made the trip too, showing once again was sort of the antimatter version of Brock. Grice's car was also a VK Group A, but unlike Brock's, it hadn't been prepared by the factory. Instead, it had been put together by Les Small's Roadways workshop in Melbourne, one of two VKs Les Small built for Gricey that year and widely considered the best two cars he ever built. One of them stayed in Australia and was raced locally, while the other was flown to Europe to contest the ETCC alongside Brock. It had almost no sponsorship (just frozen chicken magnate Graeme Bailey's Chickadee logo, plus some help from Yokohama as he outlines in the video), and the car was run not from a glossy manufacturer's factory, but from Aussie expat Alan Docking's Formula 3 workshop. It was the ultimate contrast of factory glitz and gritty privateer.

And amazingly, it was advantage Grice. At Monza Brock snapped an axle within six laps, a mechanical failure unthinkable back home, while Grice led the race for quite a distance and caused quite a stir among the Establishment. The race fell to Tom Walkinshaw, but the Volvo, BMW and Rover drivers still left the circuit muttering to themselves and staring disconsolately at calendars, checking the dates for their next round of factory upgrades. It's only been okay to say it since the announcement that Broadmeadows is closing, but it now seems it was true: Aussie cars were actually pretty good.


Oh yeah, and the theft? At Spa Gricey broke a seat, so he pinched one out of Tom Walkinshaw's unused display car. Not to be outdone, Win Percy confirms that yes he did, then goes on to describe cannibalising some poor bastard's brand new Mazda in the car park, because a Mazda team needed the parts! Tacitus once wrote, "Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity." The people in motor racing all got that memo.

Damn, I love this sport.

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