Wednesday, 3 May 2017

3 May: The Wanneroo Kid & Walking on AIR

It really is a remarkable thing that Wanneroo Park remains a permanent fixture on the ATCC/V8 Supercars calendar. Do you know what year it joined the tour? Truly? 1978, which I don't believe is a coincidence given the road across the Nullarbor was fully paved in 1976. I know Westralians will fume at my east-centric view, but let's be honest here: Dick Johnson Racing was based at Acacia Ridge, Brisbane. JPS Team BMW? Sydney's Terrey Hills. Gibson Motorsport, Dandenong on the eastern side of Melbourne, while the Holden Dealer Team was still operating out of Bertie Street in the city's port.

Deceptively simple

So regardless of bias, the simple fact is most of the teams were based in the eastern states, and from that point of view Perth is an awfully long way away – over 4,000km, in fact, which was handily brought home by the NSW Police recently arresting a 12-year-old attempting to make the trip solo. They only stopped him at Broken Hill, which everyone who's read the story agrees was a pretty good effort. The Sydney Morning Herald (which I'm not linking to because strike) even included this handy map:

To be clear, New South Wales – the state he very nearly crossed – is bigger than Texas.

In the 1980s, when the teams were impoverished by today's standards, there really weren't many options to get there except climb aboard the transporter, point it at the sunset, set the cruise control and then wait a week (and hope like hell you remembered to pack your cassette collection). Nowadays of course team bosses and their star drivers can fly, but even that's not exactly the work of a moment. In fact, I was given a great anecdote in the comment section of one of my favourite blogs not so long ago:
I flew to NZ via Sydney (Heathrow->Bangkok->Sydney->Auckland) to visit my folks some years ago. Now, I hate flying, not least because I cannot sleep on planes. So when the little map showed our plane reaching the north-west corner of Australia, I was like "Sweet! Australia! Almost there!"

I'd forgotten how sodding huge Australia is. Corner to corner is like a five-hour flight. (For comparison, London to Moscow is three.)

I now count it among my blessings that I live in a small country where nothing is more than about three hours away on the train.
So I'm genuinely impressed that the people behind Wanneroo Park cared enough to make the trip worthwhile, because in an age when Kylie was still an actor and not a singer, it couldn't've been easy.

Hooley, at what looks like Oran Park
Round 4 at Wanneroo Park took place on 26 April 1987, with an entry list of 15 cars. The first 10 of those were the hard core of full-time regulars – Fury, Seton, Johnson, Hansford, Richards, Longhurst, Perkins, Brock, Grice and Bond – and not coincidentally, they were the ones who lapped under the '86 race record in practice. John Bowe had set pole last year in 1:01.96 in a Volvo 240T; this year, Fury had lowered it to 1:01.15, and the next three cars behind him were all under Bowe's record too. It showed once again how quickly the field was moving on as the cars were developed.

Emmerling/Hine, Bathurst '85
The last five entries were the WA stars, just as committed and professional as their eastern counterparts, but restricted by budget and the tyranny of distance to WA races only: Graeme Hooley in his #71 VK Commodore (most likely the same one from last year, still sponsored by Scheel seats); Tim Slako in the ex-Andy Rouse #96 Rover SD1 (still paaaank!) which I covered last year ; Ian Love in the #24 ex-Dick Johnson Mustang GT; John Farrell in a #34 VK Commodore (from the livery, almost certainly an ex-HDT machine); and Simon Emmerling in the white #29 BMW 635 CSi (probably also the same car as last year, which I've since heard was ex-Schnitzer, but likely an early one since he had it at Bathurst 1985).

For all that, though, it wasn't really a classic race. Don't get me wrong, there was no shortage of on-track quality with some truly epic-tier driving, but Glenn Seton took the lead at the end of Lap 1, and never looked like losing it. The truly important moment of the race came as soon as they waved the green flag, when Fury dropped the clutch on his DR30 Skyline and fired some 400 Nm at the rear axle, which, trapped between the engine and a set of pre-heated racing slicks, snapped instantly. Fury lost several laps having it replaced before retiring with an overheating engine. Taken together with his DNF at Lakeside, this was probably the moment he lost the championship – from here on young Seton was the team's great championship hope, and it was Fury's job to support him. For the first time in his life the Talmalmo wool grower found out what it was like to be a number-two driver. How Gary Scott must've laughed.

So, the Drivers Championship after Round 4:
  1. Glenn Seton: 93 
  2. Jim Richards: 86
  3. Larry Perkins: 59
  4. Tony Longhurst: 53
  5. George Fury: 45
At the next round, however, was would be another matter, as Dick Johnson found himself walking on AIR...

Round 5: Adelaide International Raceway
Oh yeah, the debut of the RS Sierra Cosworth with the piss farting turbo... – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
When they got to Adelaide's combined paved oval, drag strip and link road that turned them into a permanent road circuit, the competition had kicked up another notch. Weekend warriors from both East and West had bumped the entry list up to 20 rather than 15, which included Graeme Hooley's #71 Scheel Commodore, Murray Carter in his #14 Netcomm Skyline DR30 (which has a Facebook page – built by Carter with assistance from Gibson Motorsport, the ex-Ford boys looking out for each other), a couple of minnows in the tiddler class – and most relevant to our purposes, another three Ford Sierras. One of them was 1967 F1 World Champion Denny Hulme, having another ride in the ex-John Andrew Motorsport XR4 Ti, a car I covered last year. The other two were the returning Oxo Supercube RS Cosworths of Don Smith and Andrew Miedecke.

The era of XR4 Ti was now over, and it wasn't much lamented – it had only been a development mule anyway. At Calder Park that March (the same day as the arch-rival BMW M3), Ford had debuted their real car, developed by their friends at Cosworth Engineering. No ex-Mustang SVO engine for them: looking to squeeze in under the 3.0-litre tier, where they could race some 80kg lighter, Cosworth summoned all their F1 and tuning expertise, and gave it the engine from a Pinto. Which, if you've seen Fight Club, is a car you're already kinda familiar with – a cheap, poorly-located fuel tank meant this was the car that would explode if rear-ended, and the controversy over whether a recall was worthwhile is probably the inspiration for The Formula.

Okay, so it wasn't really the engine from a Pinto – it just used the same Ford YBD block, the blank canvas Cosworth would be painting on. But starting with the 1,994cc block, Cosworth gave it a specially-developed 16-valve DOHC cylinder head with a Garrett T03 turbocharger and intercooler setup, bringing roadgoing power to some 152 kW and giving it that distinctive engine note, like Satan's vacuum cleaner – Cosworth always did like their flatplane cranks. This engine was then lowered into the three-door Sierra body, the hatchback being slightly stiffer than the sedan, with the excessive lift generated by this body countered by the addition of a massive "whale tail" rear wing. It was given the dashboard from the Merkur to make it available in both LHD and RHD, and was put on the market for £15,950 (roughly equivalent to $30,000 Australian at the time, a lot of money when you could have an XF Fairmont Ghia for less than $20,000). Only 5,545 were ever built, but they all sold – from the car's launch in July 1986 to its first race in March 1987, they hit the 5,000 registrations they needed. The Sierra RS Cosworth was approved for Group A.

And truth be told, if you were a Blue-blooded revhead in those days, this was the car you wanted, not the later RS500. It might've been the basis for a racecar, but the RS Cosworth was resolutely a road car and all the better for it.

Two major teams had decided to run two-car operations for the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1987 – Dick Johnson Racing, and the team later to be known as Miedecke Motorsport. They had two choices as far as sourcing cars went – Andy Rouse, or Rudi Eggenberger.

Rouse had already won the 1985 British Touring Car Championship in the Merkur, which showed he had promise, but he was expensive and his cars had trouble finishing anything longer than a sprint race. Eggenberger on the other hand had been finishing the 500km endurance races of the European Touring Car Championship with a usable combination of speed and reliability, but he refused to supply customer cars for any price. Oh, he was happy to sell engines (Rouse charged £15,000 for a race-ready unit, Eggenberger twice that), but they didn’t come with the computerised engine management system that only he had seemingly got to the bottom of. For Johnson, that defeated the purpose.
So I gritted my teeth, grabbed my passport and headed to London. The season finished after Bathurst, when I went straight to the U.K. Andy Rouse was the main man when it came to Sierras and he was the first bloke I went to see. On a dreary English day, he told me what I was up for when it came to the engine and parts, racing a Sierra.

"It will cost you about 200k for all your engine management systems and parts," he said. "I’ll ship the entire thing to you and provide you the support you need."
I agreed.

I then went and saw Alan Barnes, who was the contact for Nordic Supplies. They were the guys that supplied Ford Motorsport parts for race teams and I bought the rest of the gear from him: panels, seats, wheels, the dash, etc.

While I was in Europe, I also bought myself an RS Cosworth Sierra road car for my daily drive. Not only would it be a brilliant car to rip around in, it would also provide a good guide for helping me build my race car. I seriously didn’t know what went in where for these machines and there was no race car building manual.

And although I could have bought a complete race car from Andy Rouse, I didn’t have enough money even with my new budget. Andy charged through the roof! Besides, I’d been building cars for years, so it couldn’t be that hard.

All the bits and pieces finally arrived in our new race shop at the back of Ross’s factory, Palmer Tube Mills, in Acacia Ridge, where he had generously built us a two-car garage as I clearly didn’t have enough room at home. And the team went about building a race car that we’d hoped would be good enough to win me another Bathurst.

We built the roll cage with Greens-Tuf tubing and it was outstanding. Ross even advertised the tubing’s success in his marketing campaign. The rest of it came together fairly easy. There was a bit of trial and error, but the pieces gradually fitted and we had something that looked like a race car after a couple of days. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography 
Working off the homologation plans, DJR’s crew stripped the cars of all unnecessary weight, and when finished their Sierras tipped the scales at only 1,184kg. Internally the cars were designated DJR1 and DJR2. The first Johnson Sierra, DJR1, was built in right-hand drive and given the #17 of Dick himself. DJR2, contrarily, was built in left-hand drive, in imitation of Allan Moffat’s idea of having one car for tracks with mostly right-hand turns, and one for tracks that mostly turned left. Alas, the idea turned out to be an expensive flop, and DJR2 ended up spending the whole year with the #18 on its door being piloted by Moffat's former teammate – ex-motorcycle racer Gregg Hansford.

DJR1, seen here at Lakeside, because photos from Adelaide and Wanneroo are hard to find

Overall the Sierra was much more about power than handling, but with the roadgoing Garrett T03 turbo and Weber Marelli fuel injection, there was not yet enough power to win races. At this point even Rouse’s own cars only had around 275 kW at 6,750rpm, and his customers had to make do with less.
The engine was probably the easiest bit until we got the computers – we just didn’t have a clue. Luckily, we’d hired an ex-Gibson employee, who had experience with the Nissan turbo, and he became our go-to guy, setting up the computer program for us. Still, the idea of it was a nightmare.

For my entire life, I’d gone on steadfastly believing that the power of a car could be controlled by the carburettor, which in turn controlled the amount of fuel, and the distributor, which provided the spark. Now all that was done with a computer? We were totally reliant on what Rouse gave us in the way of computer chips and I didn’t like it one bit.

I was also ignorant. It’s to my detriment – and probably the worst mistake I have ever made – that I refused to learn the new system. I understood the principle of the new technology, but to me it was just weird electronic shit, and I decided then and there to leave it in the hands of others. It would come back to bite me in the arse, of course, because that was the moment I relinquished a lot of my engineering control.

Not wanting to fully learn the new technology, I stepped back and hired Neal Lowe to be our team manager for 1987. I felt that I was out of my depth and also thought it was about time I concentrated on my driving and leave the day-to-day operations to someone else. But it was a mistake. A big one. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
The two Oxo Supercube Sierras didn't have official chassis numbers, but are sometimes known by the fans as MM1 and MM2 (for "Miedecke Motorsport," even though technically it wouldn't become Miedecke's team until the following year – at first it was very much Don Smith's outfit). MM1 was driven by Smith himself under the #34, while MM2 was Andrew Miedecke's #35, bought off Smith with the proceeds of his car dealership in Port Macquarie.

MM1, here seen at Bathurst, long after Smith had sold his stake in the team

Both were Rouse kit-cars, which explains why Smith was "getting dudded" and needed someone to shoulder some of the financial burden. Miedecke stepped up on the advice of Glenn Seton's father Bo.
He doesn't talk much but he said, "A mate of mine, Don Smith, has got these Cosworth Sierras and is getting dudded," and told me to give him a call.

So that was the '87 touring car championship. The deal I struck with Don was that I bought a Sierra from him for $125,000 and he paid all the expenses to run it, with OXO sponsorship. We were pretty competitive. That first year I remember we were the dominant Ford Sierra team. – Andrew Miedecke
It was true that the Oxo Sierras were better than their Shell rivals for most of the year, a fact that would be savagely highlighted by the upcoming Bathurst 1000. But here, today, it was Dick Johnson who stepped up to take the win in Adelaide and not Miedecke or Smith.

From 4th on the grid, he rose steadily and irresistibly to the race lead, holding it to the chequered flag. The car was still fragile – Denny Hulme's XR4 DNF'd with a blown turbo, while the sister car of Hansford suffered broken drive pegs – but the Oxo cars were nowhere, finishing 9th and 12th. Through careful preparation or sheer luck – or both – Johnson had found a combination of speed and reliability that allowed him to outpace both the turbo Skylines and the ultra-reliable Commodores. It was Dick's first ATCC win since Surfers Paradise 1984, and the first of what would be a long, long list of victories in the Sierra.
It was a relief I can tell you. It was just the reliability issues because of the turbo that had stopped us from getting results, there was nothing else. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary

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