Wednesday, 15 June 2016

On This Day... Motorcraft 100 With A Vengeance

Round 8 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, the third race of the year to be called the Motorcraft 100. Ford's Parts & Services division, Motorcraft had really shelled out on the races this year, probably because they had lots of spare budget to go around after not having to support any of the teams. The only Ford in the field was Dick Johnson's Mustang, and the only Motorcraft parts on that were the stickers that read, "Motorcraft." Despite  that, it ended up being the race of the year.

It was Lakeside Boogaloo.

Lakeside, just north of the Queensland capital of Brisbane, lies on the shores of Lake Kurwongbah, a fact that has influenced the sport on a few occasions – at least one championship meeting had to be rescheduled when heavy rains caused the lake to burst its banks and left certain corners underwater. That minor handicap aside, the Lakeside circuit is a fabulous place to go racing, almost Australia's answer to Brands Hatch. Fast and technical, it has the same swooping, up-hill-and-down-dale feel as its U.K. cousin, with the same blind corners that ask a driver to line their car up with a turn they can't see and keep their foot in it right the way through. Bathurst, of course, towers above everything so high that today's V8 drivers joke that the real question is, "What's your second favourite track?" But if you do ask them that, all the guys over a certain age will tend to answer, "Lakeside."

It was also Dick Johnson's home track – as a child in the late 50's he used to ride his bicycle out there to watch the races. When he finally got a racing car of his own, a clapped-out Humpy Holden, he won his first-ever start there – then didn't win another race for almost a decade. Although he eventually found his form when he returned to the path of righteousness with Ford, the fact remained that nobody knew Lakeside's secrets better than Johnson. Put him on home tarmac, and he could still embarrass the best right up until his retirement in 1997.

So, a circuit for the brave, experienced or just seriously lacking in self-preservation, and the starting grid showed a little of each. The top five were covered by less than a second, with pole falling to the experienced Peter Brock at 56.8 seconds, thanks to endless miles in the car this year (in both Europe and Australia), and a return to Pirelli and their sticky specialist qualifying tyres. Second, starting from the front row for the eighth time in eight races, was George Fury in the #30 Peter Jackson Skyline, only two-tenths slower than Brock. Third went to the #15 Skyline, today driven by Gary Scott, who'd been given a ride in Glenn Seton's car to give him some practice ahead of his co-driving duties in the upcoming endurance season.

But Robbie Francevic, the championship leader? He was starting dead last. Assigned the new Eggenberger-built Volvo 240T, he'd managed to qualify only 10th before the engine blew up, seemingly leaving him to twiddle his thumbs for the rest of the weekend. But John Bowe, who'd qualified a hugely impressive 5th, was having none of that: knowing his place in the team, he generously stepped down and handed his car over to Robbie to race and keep his title hopes alive. The catch was, because he hadn't set a qualifying time in that car, he'd have to start from the back of the grid. Oh joy.

A pre-race interview, shown during the broadcast, revealed Francevic's state of mind:
What a circuit to pick! Here I am going to have to go smashing my way through everybody, because Lakeside is the worst to pass on! With 35 laps I just ain’t got the time to wait around. Here I am with all these slower cars, and they can be a second a lap slower than me and nowhere to pass them. Unfortunately I can’t be polite with them, and I’m going to have to just muscle my way past!
16 cars in 35 laps: that was his challenge this mild June day. Remember way back at the start of this series, how I said Francevic's championship year played out a lot like Jenson Button's? Well put your phone on silent, grab a beer and sit back to watch this one, because this one was Francevic's Brazil.

It became a race of tyre strategy: both title contenders, Francevic and Fury, had opted for Dunlop's experimental D12 tyres, which nobody was sure could last 100km around here. Given they were the softest compound Dunlop had ever offered, it seemed unlikely, but Francevic had nothing to lose. Fury, starting from pole, had everything to lose but apparently fancied a gamble – or maybe he just thought he'd better cover off his main championship rival.

In the event, Brock's race had been ruined straight away when Fury got ahead of him off the start line. That left him stuck behind both Fury and Graeme Crosby, whose tyres died within ten laps and forced both into tyre conservation mode and held him up for about a third of the race – effectively ruining his strategy. Brock had deliberately opted for Pirelli D3s, the hardest compound they offered, so he had the tyres to drive hard all race long. But stuck behind those trying the soft-rubber trick, he couldn't use them.

Despite that, about halfway through the race Brock managed to elbow Croz aside, and set off after Fury – which forced the Nissan driver to start driving like he meant it again, putting more strain on his tyres. But then, at about two-thirds distance, came the moment that defined the race.

Earlier on Garry Willmington, running a private Jaguar XJS, had pulled over and lifted the bonnet of his Jag to fix some obscure thing that had gone wrong (in the commentary box, Mike Raymond joked that he was putting more oil in it). He rejoined several laps down – completely legally, as no-one else had touched the car – but because he was driving a broken car built with church change he wasn't what you'd call fast, and it wasn't too long before the leaders came up to lap him. George Fury got by without much hassle, but Brock was badly held up and that gave Gary Scott ideas. Down the hill they came three-wide, a heart-stopping moment as Brock's Commodore squirmed violently trying to get its power down. They all made it through unscathed, but Fury now had a nice gap back to Brock and Gary Scott to act as his tail-gunner – he was free to nurse the tyres and win as he pleased. Game, set and match to George Fury, taking another 1-2 for Nissan.

And Francevic? Well, with ten laps to the flag Dick Johnson pitted for a new left-front tyre, leaving the Volvo driver free to inherit 4th place. Yep, 16th to 4th in 25 laps. In fact, he'd overtaken five cars before the first corner! Sure, they were mostly tiddler class cars or weekend warriors out for a laugh, but it wasn't like he was waiting around for them to say, "after you." And it all could have ended in tears when, ten laps from home, Tony Longhurst overcooked it into the Karussell and forced the following Jim Richards into a spin to avoid him, leaving Robbie to drive right between them with literal inches to spare! Sang froid in pursuit of the silverware? That's what championships are made of.

And the car, let's not forget, was the old left-hand drive one he had started the year in, which wasn't exactly young anymore. It had already been through a full ETCC season when it began its career in Oceania, and it had done nearly two full ATCC seasons, two Wellington street races, numerous Aussie enduros and a Bathurst 1000 since then. John Bowe estimated it now had 40,000km on its overworked odometer, equivalent to nearly half a million in the real world. GTM Engineering, you built good cars.

So, at the end of the day, George Fury had closed right up with 158 championship points – but Robbie Francevic, with his excellent recovery drive, had stretched his total out to 179. There were two rounds to go.

Spotlight Car: Jaguar XJS
Let's take a closer look at that troublesome Jag.

Garry Willmington had been a presence in the local touring car scene for about a decade, usually in second-hand Falcons – it had largely been Willmington who homologated the XD Falcon back in 1979, transferring all the racing internals from his XC Hardtop into an XD bodyshell and taking photos to send to CAMS for their paperwork. In the process he'd managed a bit of sleight of hand, slipping a ridiculously low minimum weight past the rulemakers and turning what would've been an okay car into a rocketship. It was Willmington's performances in his XD rocketship that had tempted Dick Johnson back into the sport in 1980 – if Willmington's doing that well, Dick said to himself, what might I be doing?

A second-rate driver, then, but some top-shelf grey matter. The real blockage in the s-bend of his career was a shortage of money – he just never attracted the kind of major sponsor that Brock, Johnson, Fury, Seton and Richards all made their BFFs. That left him running on his own wallet, and it showed. Back at the start of 1985, with the arrival of Group A, Willmington thought the Jaguar XJS was the car to have – in 1984 it had just finished tearing up the racetracks of Europe with Tom Walkinshaw Racing. That roll had continued into '85 as well, as TWR switched to the Rover SD1 in Europe, freeing the Jags to ship Down Under for that year's James Hardie 1000 – which they won.

Those cars, however, had started life as special bodyshells walked down the production line especially for TWR, stamped out in thinner-gauge steel and devoid of any unnecessary brackets or trimmings. They'd then been fastidiously put together by TWR's experienced mechanics, using only the finest heavy-duty competitions parts, including a finely-tuned version of the 5.3-litre Jaguar V12 producing close to 400 kW – which they needed, because they sat in the highest tier of the rules and were slapped with the full 1,400kg weight penalty. The Jag was a winning proposition, but you needed a full crew of mechanics, wheelbarrows of cash and a special relationship with the factory to get the most out of them.

Willmington's operation was nothing like that. He'd built his XJS with his own hands, in his Garry Willmington Performance workshop in Sydney, starting from a second-hand car – meaning forget the Jaguar badge, the original had been built by British Leyland. The problem with that was explained by James May in S04E06 of Top Gear.
You see, in all its 21 years in production, Jaguar never made a good one. In the beginning, it was built by work-shy Lefties who spent more time standing around a brazier than they did loosely screwing your new car together, so it broke down all the time. In fact, early XJS's were so bad that when British Leyland offered them to their senior managers as company cars, even they said no.

I'll show you where Jaguar went wrong: this is a suspension bush, and it's made out of a really rubbish rubber so it completely mucks up the feel of the car. This is an electrical connector; now there are hundreds of these on the XJS and they're of a really poor quality, so after five or six years they all corrode and whole car dies. And it's the same all over the place: the door seals let water in so the doors rust from the inside, the engine components are built down to a price and strangle all the power. Jaguar had the recipe for a perfect shepherd's pie... and then made it with dog meat.
This is what Willmington had bought – one of James May's Grandfather Clocks – so it really didn't matter what he did with it, it was always going to be junk. Stuff like suspension components, replacement disc brakes and general racecar paraphernalia could be sourced locally, but upgrading the engine was an impossibility, because it was a fine example of British engineering. You know how it goes: the Germans design something clever and then build it fastidiously using parts far stronger than they need to be; the Japanese design something as simple as it can be, but not a bit simpler, and then finesse it for the next ten years so it works even better. The British way, however, is to design something unfathomably overcomplicated and then engineer the hell out of it until it works (barely). Hence the old joke that if your Jag's not leaking oil, it must be out of oil – a high-pressure system with badly-designed PCV opened up so many possibilities. Hence also the traditional Jag owner's story of first time they lifted the bonnet and saw that engine – all those tubes and wires running everywhere...!

Oh sure, it delivered oodles of power – 180 kW in an era when 5-litre American V8s were struggling to break 90 – but you paid for it in swearing, because it absolutely never worked. If you overheated it even slightly it dropped valve seats, which required the whole cylinder be removed and repaired, if they hadn't wrecked the engine outright. The rubber fuel lines were prone to cracking and leaking fuel onto the hot engine, where it would sort of catch fire. The Marelli ignition rotor would fail, cutting the spark to one bank – which wasn't so bad on a racing car, as it would only lead to major power loss, but on the road car it would fill the catalytic converter with unburned fuel and explode.

But the one that really hit Willmington was that over the course of its 21-year life the engine was rehashed almost annually, and the components often weren't interchangeable – if you wanted to source parts, you'd better know exactly what year it was made. Just blueprinting and balancing the damn thing would've been a big ask.

To his credit, Willmington gave it a good go, racing the thing for two whole seasons. At Bathurst in '85 he even got a chance to race against Tom Walkinshaw's offerings, and it was here the penny dropped and he realised the difference between a TWR Jaguar, and the one allowed in the rules. The fuel tank in the TWR cars was illegally large, with the car passing scrutineering by having the driver blow up a bladder on the cooldown lap – long speculated, but now a documented fact, as Gossy's winning car has been found and restored and the illegal tank removed before it could go Historics racing. Allegedly they also unpicked spot welds on the firewall so they could move the engine back, Trans-Am style, and modified the wheel housings to give more tyre clearance and called it "the snow-chain option" – then did the same to a road car, so if the scrutineers had questions Tom could point them to the one in the car park. Tellingly, when Willmington asked Walkinshaw if he could have a set of his special custom-made Dunlop race tyres, Walkinshaw told him to sod off. It may be that he just didn't have them to spare, or didn't believe in helping a competitor – or maybe he knew they'd rub on Willmington's guards and reveal his secret.

But finally and most importantly, Willmington didn't have anything like the power of the TWR Jags. The V12 had originally been homologated with the HE or "High-Efficiency" May-type heads, Introduced in 1981 because the Jag's fuel consumption was better expressed in gallons per mile, engineer Michael May's new heads used a high tumble-swirl design to improve mid-range power and give dramatically better fuel consumption, at the cost of strangling the engine at higher revs. Since racing engines are all about the top end, Walkinshaw had bullied the FIA into letting him used the older head design on his cars, sending fuel consumption through the roof but allowing his engines to make power right up to 7,500rpm. CAMS, as we'd learn in just over a year's time, enforced the rules very strictly so there was approximately zero-point-zero chance of Willmington being allowed to do the same. Even if he'd done a real hall-of-fame job tuning the engine, he still would've only been racing with as much power as TWR prior to the head change – 270 kW, probably less.

No wonder he was only a backmarker. Fortunately, the XJS's 5-year homologation papers ran out at the end of 1986, saving anyone else from repeating his mistake. In the meantime... at least he was having a go.

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