Saturday, 29 October 2016

On This Day... Tourers in Adelaide

Seeing V8 Supercars and Formula 1 back-to-back is one of the greater pleasures in life. If nothing else, standing by the track in Melbourne taking in the sight of the monstrous Aussie tintops – which have 450 kW, can nudge 300km/h, and still corner at more than 2G – being made to look as clumsy as drunk mastiffs does wonders to remind you just how fast F1 really is. That's why I get annoyed that they paint over all the white markings on the road when they turn Albert Park into a track each year. I know the white hi-gloss is slippery and dangerous, but if you lose that reference point you lose your feel for how crazy fast it's all happening.

Back on topic, tourers and F1 always made a great double-header, and probably never more so than in 1986. The long-neglected Australian Grand Prix had gone through some hard years – from the glory days of the Tasman Series, it had hung on as a Formula 5000 and Formula Pacific race – until it got a shot in the arm in 1980 with the World Championship of Alan Jones. Some quick rule changes allowed Jonesy to race his title-winning Williams FW07 against whatever F5000 and FP machinery was lying around – mothballed local open-wheelers against a modern, championship-winning F1 car. The only other F1 car in the race was Bruno Giacomelli's Alfa Romeo 179; F1 star Didier Pironi had to scrounge a local Elfin MR8 Formula 5000 car (also in an MR8 was a very young John Bowe, who was about to hit the big time as a double Australian open-wheel champion). So of course Jones won by a lap. It wasn't smooth, but it was poetic; his father Stan Jones had won the 1959 race at Longford in a Maserati 250F, making them the only father-and-son duo to claim the title.

It brought the Australian GP back from the brink, and by 1985 it was where it belonged – part of the Formula 1 World Championship. And with it came the touring car support race, which in '85 wasn't a classic event, but was a significant one for two reasons.

Firstly, it was the race that got Dick Johnson noticed by future sponsor Shell, and it happened entirely by accident. Sitting on the grid waiting for the start, Johnson realised they'd put the starting lights up too high for him to see. In an open cockpit F1 car it wouldn't have mattered, but when you were strapped well back in a Group A Mustang with a roof and a narrow windscreen, the lights were completely obscured.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and leaned across the dash. With my arse out of the seat and my body stretched across the cabin, I could see the start lights. But I couldn’t reach the clutch and could barely touch the wheel. I thought about giving it a go, but I wasn’t too keen to blast down the straight without a seatbelt on.

The panic grew.

I stayed there, full of indecision, until the first light came on. Almost a natural reaction, I jumped back into my seat and clipped the belt back in. Again I could see nothing. I decided I would guess. I counted to three and dropped the clutch.

In a minor miracle it was the best damn start I had ever had. I had timed it to perfection. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
From there Dick won the race easily, against admittedly feeble opposition – most of them were leftover cars from Bathurst a couple of weeks earlier, often with both drivers' names on the windscreens, even though, as a 15-lap dash, this was a decidedly one-driver affair. But the titans that year, Frank Gardner's John Player BMWs, had stayed home, so apart from a following Peter Brock Johnson had the track virtually to himself. And so he won it by miles.
What was significant about that race is that a guy from Shell who was coming back to Australia after running Shell in Ireland was there. John Rowe was a motor racing freak and had returned to head up Shell in Australia.

We were trying to put together a deal going forward and he was at the race in Adelaide and I’ll never forget it because he was standing over the fence every lap and I won the race which just blew them away. I won the race and my name was up in blazing lights. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
The road to the Shell Sierras started there.

It was also the last time an F1 driver pulled double-duty at a race meeting. In the old days it had been the norm – once upon a time, it wasn't unusual for Jim Clark to claim the Formula 1, Formula Junior, small-capacity sports car and touring car races all in the same weekend – but as F1 got more organised and professional, a rule had been introduced forbidding a driver to take part in a "major event" in the 24 hours before a World Championship race. Mario Andretti had fallen foul of it in 1968, finding himself barred from that year's Italian GP because the day before he'd flown back to America to take part in the Hoosier Hundred, a USAC-sanctioned dirt oval race at the Indiana State Fairground. It delayed his F1 debut by a month, and ensured it came at Watkins Glen rather than Monza as he'd dreamed.

Apparently though, a non-championship touring car race at the arse-end of the world didn't count as a "major event," so special permission had been given for the young Austrian Gerhard Berger to take part. As a driver for the Barclay Arrows team, which used BMW engines, a deal had been worked out for Berger to drive the Bob Jane T-Marts BMW 635, which had been built by (and technically still belonged to) BMW's works team Schnitzer Motorsport. Putting one of F1's rising talents in the dominant car of the season really put the wind up the Aussies, especially with the eyes of the world on them for the first time.

But on race day, it all went to hell in a hurry. Apparently Dick Johnson wasn't the only one who'd had to guess when the lights went green, because the Holden Dealer Team's second driver John Harvey jumped the start by seconds and passed three rows of cars before the others got moving. The stewards penalised him, obviously, but they took their sweet time doing it and in the meantime he fell into a battle with Berger – and, in a moment of colossal brain fade, bashed him off the road into the Turn 1 chicane. "Not against an Aussie!" laughed TV commentator Allan Moffat, who’d seen it all before. "He’ll be up against politer drivers tomorrow," was Murray Walker’s prim comment.

Berger was given a lot of credit for the sang-froid with which he eyeballed that tyre barrier sidling up to him, but at the same time, that footage probably explains why no-one else has been allowed to do it since. The following day, apparently unrattled, Berger drove his Arrows A8 to 6th in the Grand Prix, taking the final points-paying place of 1985 – which wasn't a bad effort in a car he described as "the biggest shitbox I ever drove in my life."

My only question is, what the hell had got into Harvey? That kind of thing wasn't like him at all. Forgive me Slug, but you were never that fast, and kept your job on being a good lieutenant and a safe pair of hands for the enduros. So what the hell was he doing dicing with an F1 superstar-in-the-making when he was technically out of the race already? The stewards didn't get around to applying his penalty until lap 14 of 15, and even then it was only adding 60 seconds to his race time. On our first day in front of an international audience, it wasn't a good look for Aussie motorsport.

Anyway, that was 1985; I have no idea how the 1986 touring car support race went, because I haven't had the chance to watch it yet for download limit reasons. Consider this saving it to watch later. I was intrigued to find out it was Round 2 of an attempted resurrection of the South Pacific Touring Car Championship, though, the first round apparently being the Calder Park enduro the week before. In the early 70's the South Pacific championship was an off-season dress-rehearsal in support of the Formula 5000 tour, which only drew a small entry list. I have no idea why anyone wanted to bring it back, but I suppose Group A was as good an opportunity as any; to really make it sizzle you'd want to include the Wellington street race too, though, and maybe a support bracket for the New Zealand Grand Prix... but there'd be plenty of that sort of thing coming in 1987.

In the meantime, you got to see Aussie touring car stars hammer it around the streets of Adelaide, followed by the legendary '86 Australian Grand Prix, when a shred of rubber was all that separated Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost from the coveted World Championship trophy. It was a good year to be in Adelaide.

Spotlight Cars: the Australian 2.0 Litre Touring Car Championship
While we're focusing on the obscura, it might do to mention the Australian 2.0 Litre Touring Car Championship, run for the first time in 1986. Class racing had always been the norm in Australia, and Amaroo Park's AMSCAR series had once functioned as a separate championship for the smaller cars, but it wasn't until 1986 they officially got their own silverware to chase. It was a brief five-round series: Round 1 was run as a support race for the Sandown ATCC event; the next three rounds, at AIR, Calder and Oran Park, were run concurrently with the ATCC round. And the finale, at Brisbane's Lakeside Raceway, was a standalone meeting on 27 July, unrelated to the main-game meeting a month earlier.

All five races were won by John Smith, who took a clean sweep and the championship in a Corolla hatchback built by Toyota Team Australia, a two-headed monster that also competed in the Australian Rally Championship. Toyota were rather well represented in this class, with six out of the nine entrants driving Corollas, including Smith's teammate Drew Price, and touring car stalwart Bob Holden, who'd had already been an established racer at the first ATCC in 1960! Holden drove a Sprinter Trueno to promote his dealership in Manly Vale, and ultimately this car would have the record for the most starts at Bathurst, taking its first in the Group A class in 1984, and its last in the "leftover Group A cars" class in 1993. And besides those punishing 1,000km bouts, he also raced it in sprint rounds across the country, and even managed the Spa 24 Hours earlier in the year. God only knows how many kilometres were on the poor thing's overworked odo by the time he retired it. Toyotas, man...

Other possible rides in this series included the Isuzu Gemini ZZ – which was assembled locally rebadged as a Holden, although the sporty ZZ model had to be imported, as Holden focused on their V8 Commodores – and later, the Nissan Gazelle. It went to show how quickly things were changing. When Glenn Seton made his ATCC debut in 1984, it was at the wheel of a Ford Capri Mk.III, because his father Bo built the best Ford V6s in the country. Fast-forward two years and Glenn is about to become Nissan's strike weapon for the ATCC, and the small class is dominated by Japanese hatchbacks. The times, they were a-changin'...

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