Tuesday, 8 March 2016

On this day... the A.N.L. Cup

30 years ago today, Round 2 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship: the A.N.L. Cup race at Tasmania's Symmons Plains.

"A.N.L." stood for Australian National Line, a coastal shipping company backed by the government. Our government used to do things like that, you know, invest in infrastructure and provide services when Big Business couldn't be bothered. Our railways have always been state-run, Telstra was still Telecom in those days and government-operated before Little Johnnie sold it off, and it's often forgotten today that Holden's jump to local manufacturing was funded by a Commonwealth Bank loan brokered by then-Prime Minister Ben Chifley. That was back when the Labor Party really was the party of labour, before they decided they wanted to be the Liberal Party instead, and now both sides seem to resent the idea that the people of Australia should be their problem.

Politics aside, with the Australian National Line sponsoring the race it should've been easier for weekend warriors to make the trip to Tasmania, but the final entry list was astonishingly short. It was really only the the big professional teams that had made the trip: the Mobil Holden Dealer Team, who brought a pair of VK Commodores for Peter Brock and his faithful lieutenant John Harvey; the Mark Petch Volvo team with Robbie Francevic; Dick Johnson in his Greens-Tuf Mustang; Fred Gibson's Peter Jackson Nissan outfit, with a Skyline for George Fury; Toyota Team Australia had sent a single Corolla GT for John Smith; while Frank Gardner's John Player BMW operation had brought four whole cars, two 635s for Jim Richards and Charlie O'Brien, and two 325i's for Tony Longhurst and Garry Rogers. But that was pretty much it; the only private entrant was former motorcycle racer Graeme Crosby, who'd sworn come hell or high water he was racing in every round this year. Add them all together and you had just 11 starters on the grid at Symmons Plains.

But unlike Amaroo Park, which was right on Sydney's back doorstep, racing in Tasmania on Sunday meant a 12-hour boat ride back to the mainland on Monday. Ergo, if you weren't a professional racing driver like ten of the eleven listed above, you were probably going to be MIA on Monday morning. I guess nobody could get the time off work!

It didn't matter, though. As Ron Dennis said, the race is at the front and the A.N.L. Cup was a fantastic little race from start to finish. Francevic ultimately wore down George Fury to take the win, sitting behind him and applying pressure until his tyres gave out - the Nissan was only two races old and the team were still sorting it out. The only other man who might've caused a problem, Peter Brock, dropped out with ten laps to go with a split oil filter.

Spotlight car: the Nissan Skyline RS DR30
If you ever want to start a flame war, go on a car forum and ask whether Gibson Motorsport counted as a works team. Former Ford factory driver Fred Gibson had bought the team off the Australian branch of Nissan when they decided to outsource the racing team, but it remained the designated team of Nissan Australia. Their budget however (the largest on the grid) came from Imperial Tobacco's Peter Jackson brand, and their cars came as a kit from NISMO in Japan (NISMO fans refuse to consider these Aussie-assembled  cars in the same breath as a NISMO car out of Omori). Confusing it further, Gibson Motorsport went on to design and engineer their own parts, which Nissan Japan would add to the production line to meet homologation numbers on their behalf. So, was Gibson Motorsport a works team? A customer team? Somewhere in between? I suppose it depends on your definition of "works." With their intimate relationship with the factory, I'm inclined to believe they were the Australian works team – certainly they were a cut above the many private Skyline entrants that would pop up over the years. But NISMO? NISMO they weren't.

Anyway, Nissan is of course best known for Godzilla, the finely-crafted Group A weapon built to exploit every loophole in the rulebook, but it was a long way from here to there. Their first Group A car was almost naively simple; just a an enormously powerful turbocharged engine on wheels.

It was based on the sporty two-door version of the Skyline R30 sedan, the RS DR30, nicknamed the Tekkamen or Iron Mask after its distinctive 1983 facelift. The engine in the front was then the most powerful Japanese production unit in existence, the FJ20ET, 1,990cc of turbo-boosted savagery capable of 140 kW in road trim and over 240 in race trim (that's 190hp vs 320hp in silly arbitrary units).

Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, adding power was all Nissan had done. Under Group A rules the bodywork had to remain stock, and that had been designed for maximum air penetration – not a single wing or spoiler to be seen. Then the suspension was basically the old Datsun 1600 with longer control arms, which was far from sophisticated and completely inadequate to transferring that much power to the road. Throw in that by the Group A rules a turbo car only had to multiply its engine capacity by 1.4, putting the Skyline in the 2,501-3,000cc "class" where it was restricted to 10-inch tyres and a 1,035kg minimum weight... and you have a problem. All Group A cars were designed to have just barely enough tyres, but with that 1.4 turbo allowance so far out of whack, the turbo cars were left with way too little. With no weight to hold it down, the turbo would spool up and kick the back end sideways with absolutely zero warning. Wheels writer Peter McKay got to test-drive one in 1987 and reported it was twitchy under braking, slow to turn in and snapped into oversteer if you even breathed on the throttle. Bo Seton, whose son Glenn was about to jump to the big leagues aboard one, was a bit more blunt: "The DR30 was a monster."

But from the footage of the race, it was clear the DR30 was fast, provided you could keep it on the track. Tip it into a turn and time the boost just right, and the rear would squat and track straight, firing you at the next corner at warp speed. Get it wrong, and you'd get half-a-dozen tank slappers followed by a sharp exit going backwards. To tame it, then, took a very special sort of driver...

Spotlight Driver: George Fury
Source: Speedcafe
George Fury, "the Albury farmer" as Mike Raymond tagged him, was a wool grower from Talmalmo on the NSW side of the Hume Weir. To my mind, he's never gotten enough credit for his exploits in touring cars; the man was simply awesome. He's most famous for that pole lap at Bathurst '84, and then-boss Fred Gibson has never held back praising his driving that day:
No one else could have done that lap in that car in those conditions, because the Bluebird was not an easy car to drive. It was nervous and unforgiving on the limit, because with those big tyres and all the grip it had, when it let go it would let go in a big way.

I went in the passenger seat with George at Oran Park and I’ve never seen anyone work a car so hard and also work the car so well control-wise. The boost would be wound up down the straight, then he’d wind up the brake balance for this corner, then wind it back for the next corner. He was constantly adjusting the car to suit each section of the track and was absolutely on the case.

George was also a very game driver, he’d take punts like you wouldn’t believe. And he could just pick the whole car up and carry it on his back if he had to because he could adapt his style to drive around problems. Other guys who drove the Bluebirds just couldn’t believe what he did in those cars. (Shannons)
Compared to that, the '86 Skyline probably seemed easy as anything – the same issues, but with less grip, so it was all happening a bit slower. All I can say is that the body language of the car when Fury was on a charge reminds me of Ayrton Senna – the same sense of a huge crash indefinitely postponed, of a car just barely under control, the same sense of, well, fury. And that's about as high as racing driver compliments get.

Yes, this image is technically from 1987, but it's too awesome not to share (Source).

Fury was the main obstacle to Francevic's title in 1986, a fact that's not mentioned often enough today. The man should've been a touring car champion as well as a double ARC winner. As it was, he remained loyal to Nissan through the tough decade-long struggle to get to the top, then retired to look after his ewes just before Godzilla arrived. Nissan's young gun by that stage was Skaifey, who was always a toey bastard in those days; imagine what he would've been like with George on the other side of the garage!

Anyway, the DR30 eventually ate up its tyres, leaving the A.N.L. Cup in the hands of Robbie Francevic. It was a pretty clear case of a fully-developed Volvo against a Nissan that was still being sorted out. The points table now had Francevic leading with a perfect 56 points, last year's champion Jim Richards on 36, Dick Johnson on 32, Fury on 26 and Peter Brock with just 15 for his finish at Amaroo.

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