Monday, 5 June 2017

31 May: Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

Funny thing – in 1983, Allan Moffat climbed into his Mazda RX-7 and absolutely blitzed the Surfers Paradise round of the Australian Touring Car Championship. This wasn't exactly unusual for 1983 – Moffat won four races that year, setting five new track records on the way to his fourth title (one more than Peter Brock, by the by) – but it was especially crushing here at Sufferer's Parasite. The wide, sweeping turns of the Queensland circuit kept his Mazda's Wankel engine up in the power band while forcing severe tyre wear on the heavier V8s he was racing, demonstrating pretty convincingly that a light car with only modest power was had a huge advantage at this venue.

Of course, that was in 1983. By 1987, Moffat was racing on the other side of the world, but the result of Round 6 of the Australian Touring Car Championship would've been very familiar to him...

The Grid
Most of the usual suspects showed up for Surfers: Fred Gibson's Peter Jackson Nissan team, Frank Gardner's JPS Team BMW, Dick Johnson's Shell Ultra-Hi Racing, and Peter Brock's Mobil Holden Dealer Team, back to a two-car outfit as Brock at last debuted the VL Commodore, allowing Gary Scott to reclaim the older VK. Also in VKs were Larry Perkins in his Enzed #11, Tony Noske in his (Perkins-built) Kalari Transport #26, plus lesser privateers like Lester Smerdon and Wayne Clift. But Brock fans, sit up and take notice – the VL having its maiden outing would eventually become the car that won Bathurst... not that you'd have guessed it at this stage...

Behind the big and stable names, however, there were developments among the lesser teams. The Oxo Supercube team, hitherto the Ford Sierra "B-team" (even though their results had generally been better than Johnson's), was now well on the way to becoming Miedecke Motorsport. Andrew Miedecke himself had been 2nd-fastest in first practice, only to miss out on second practice with a broken right-front suspension component. In addition to missing out on a qualifying session and starting from the back of the grid, it meant he fitted different tyre compound (softer Dunlop D05 instead of D03), different front wheel camber and a different front shock absorber to compensate for the lack of a replacement part. From the sound of it I'm guessing he broke a spring and had to fit a stiffer one than he would've liked, though I'll bow before anyone with superior knowledge (i.e. anyone).

Team founder Don Smith, however, had thrown in the towel. Instead of racing himself, he'd found a greater fool to buy his stake in the team – 2-litre competitor John Giddings, who'd established himself as a minor player in a Nissan Gazelle. Seeing a chance to get into a top-tier car, he'd taken over the #34 Oxo Supercube Sierra in Don Smith's stead. Smith was an old campaigner, vastly experienced in the business of tintop racing, and remember these were Rouse-built cars – putting two and two together, it would seem he'd decided there was more to life than contributing to Andy Rouse's cocaine fund.

Similarly, a whole new team were making their debut at Surfers. Nissan Racing NZ had made their way across the Tasman with, as you might've guessed, a pair of Nissan Skylines, to be based at Calder Park with their eyes firmly on the upcoming season of endurance. This represented the full flowering of the team we'd seen in the bud in Wellington: longtime partners Graeme Bowkett (#25) and Kent Baigent (#24), each driving a plain white Skyline RS DR30 (although there were rumours they'd landed a major sponsor for the future), probably kit-cars constructed from parts supplied by NISMO in Japan. Indeed, the name "Nissan Racing NZ" suggested they were just as much the "works" team of Nissan NZ as Gibson Motorsport was the "works" team of Nissan Australia.

The other bit of intrigue, however, was that this was Gary Scott's last drive for HDT, and the reason why had to do with another new addition to the grid – a very young Brad Jones in a #16 Dulux-sponsored Mitsubishi Starion. The promise of this team represented the reason Scott never drove for Brock again, as he recently revealed to Australian Muscle Car magazine:
Peter wanted me to go to Spa for the 24-hour race and I sort of hinted that I was doing something, and of course George Shepheard was Peter’s old team manager from the Repco... so Peter found out I’d done the deal. But we left on really good terms. Peter and I never had a bad word. – Gary Scott, AMC #94
Scott had signed the deal with Mitsubishi way back in January – before Holden had even kicked Brocky out of bed.

The Starion: Mitsubishi's Prancing Horse
Okay, to tell the full story here we need to back up a bit. By 1987, Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd was based in the former Chrysler Australia offices in Tonsley Park, Adelaide. This was because, as the 1970s had ground on, Chrysler Australia had hit harder and harder times, unable to give their flagship Valiant more than a token annual facelift. Chrysler U.S. however had acquired a 15% share of Mitsubishi Motors back in 1971, so Chrysler was able to supplement their meagre income with the Galant in the small-car class, which despite interference from the Holden Torana, the Japanese manufacturers had made their own. This proved the thin end of the wedge: over the course of 1979 and 1980, Mitsubishi bought Chrysler Australia out for a cool $79 million (about $315 million in 2015). The last Valiant rolled off the line in August 1981, but healthy sales for the Sigma saw Mitsubishi rejoin the local manufacturing game in 1985 with the original TM Magna (basically just a wide-body Galant). I think this illustrates how swiftly times change: in 1948, Holden had been set up to give Australia an industrial base in the aftermath of Imperial Japanese aggression. Fast-forward three decades, and the company behind the notorious Zero is setting up shop in Adelaide!

So, by the mid-1980s Mitsubishi was established and enjoying a growth spurt and ready to earn some recognition. They got some, starting from 1982, thanks to the original JA Starion.

Let's be clear, the model's name was not "stallion" filtered through a bad Japorean accent (as if a huge company like Mitsubishi wouldn't have an English-language expert on staff, although the automotive world is admittedly full of stories like this, and the Pajero 4WD certainly slipped through the net). Instead it was meant as a portmanteau of "star" and "orion," borne out by other astronomical names Mitsubishi was using, like the Sirius engine. Native English diction just failed to come to the party, and spoiled it for everyone.

Regardless, what the Starion was underneath, was brilliant. It was based on the platform of the hot Galant Lambda, sold here in Australia as the Scorpion, and fitted out with whatever parts were in the bin at the time. Front suspension was MacPherson strut, rear was fully-independent four-link; the interior was a bit bland, but dynamically it was excellent, the only criticism being the unnecessarily vague recirculating-ball steering (a bit of a theme with some cars back then – watch Gary Scott's sizzling pole lap at Bathurst '86 with that in mind). But apart from that the basic package was pretty good. Racing deity Kevin Bartlett said of it, "The wheelbase and track dimensions were well suited to racing. I liked the way it handled and overall it was quite a good little car to drive."

Most important was the engine, which was Mitsubishi's 4G63, a 2.0-litre version of the 1.8 four-cylinder turbo developed for the Lancer EX1800. That gave the Starion an engine remarkably close to that of the Sierra RS Cosworth, 1,997cc to 1,994, four-cylinder and turbocharged. Power figures were 125 kW at 5,500rpm and 245 Nm at 3,500, well short of the Sierra's 152 kW, although with better handling it arguably didn't needed as much power. More to the point, the JA retailed for just $19,950 compared to the $30,000-plus of a Sierra. This made it the chariot of choice for the emerging class of braces-wearing "young urban professionals" – yuppies, for short.

This guy, basically

So all those junior managers, stockbrokers and commodities traders who lusted after a Porsche 911 Turbo but hadn't landed the necessary bonus now had an alternative at a quarter of the price. And happily for Mitsubishi, it had landed just in time for the rebirth of production car racing in Australia. The Supercar Scare of 1972 had made "production cars" a dirty word, the category disappearing for a full decade, but by 1981 CAMS had decided it was time to wake it up again. They positioned their new "Group E Production Car" category (a domestic ruleset unrelated to the FIA's Group N) as a low-cost feeder series in which young teams and drivers could hone their skills before making the jump to the big-dollar ATCC. At first turbo cars were banned, as CAMS rightly feared it would be impossible to police the technology properly, but as the 1980s went on more and more consumer performance cars were turbocharged, threatening a split between what you could see on the track and what you could buy in the showrooms. When in 1984 (against their better judgement) CAMS relented and allowed turbos, the category immediately became Formula Starion. Among the many drivers who chose the little Japanese coupe were Allan Grice, Kevin Bartlett, Colin Bond, Peter Fitzgerald, and a kid from Albury named Brad Jones – as seen in this Production Car race supporting the Adelaide ATCC round earlier in the month.

Mitsubishi Ralliart Australia
Success in Group E Production Cars meant there were suddenly lots of people around with skills tuning and racing Starions. In theory, most of that would transfer across to Group A Touring Cars with ease – since Group A cars were made out of road cars, it would just be a matter of taking one of their Group E specials with the roll cage and fire extinguishers already fitted, and bolting on lots of go-faster bits like better suspension, bigger brakes and an upgraded engine.

But that was the rub – Ralliart, Mitsubishi's in-house performance arm, just never did the homework necessary to turn the 4G63 engine into a Sierra-killer. In theory the Starion – by 1987, the upgraded JB version with the more efficient TC06 oil and water-cooled turbocharger – could've been the match of any Sierra out there, with the same 2.0-litre turbo four layout, leading to the same minimum weight (1,035kg) and same maximum tyre width (10 inches). Intriguingly, they even had the same drag coefficient (0.32), so their top speeds might've been neck-and-neck – except the Starion would've had the edge on handling, giving it that all-important tyre life.

Bathurst '85

But that never happened, because, well, it's right there in the name – Ralliart. The company's focus was on rallying. The official Mitsubishi Ralliart Australia team wouldn't be founded until 1988 but Kevin Bartlett, keen for a new project after overturning his Camaro at Bathurst twice in as many years, had sewn the seeds of the team that preceded it as early as 1984. After some promising showings at Sandown and Bathurst, the touring car programme was just sort of orphaned before they got around to developing a Starion Evo.
The Starion fell short at the homologation stage but I can understand Mitsubishi’s attitude at the time because the Starion wasn’t a prime car in their eyes. They were focused on their rally program and they went ahead in leaps and bounds from there with the development of the evolution style of motor car [Lancer Evo] into the 1990s. ... A few years later Mitsubishi brought out some brilliant engines for their world rally program. It’s frustrating to look back on it because a Starion with one of those [Lancer] Evo-type engines as a touring car would have been an absolute rocket-ship!

The big problem with the Group A touring car was that the road car it was based on never evolved beyond a certain point. The Starion worked very well in production car racing but the major constriction of Group A was that everything on the car had to be one of a minimum production number. Everything had to be homologated by the manufacturer, which meant we couldn’t change major things like the road car’s fuel system and that was a real problem.

It had huge injectors so we could get plenty of fuel into it, but there were only two of them feeding into a mixer [throttle body]. This created a big blob of fuel that was very difficult to make work with a single cam two-valve engine and the big camshaft profiles we needed to run.

We couldn’t get enough power without using an enormous amount of boost and to do that we had to use an enormous amount of fuel, but you just couldn’t manage the fuel volume down low. The engine just wouldn’t go below a certain rpm and then of course at high rpm, with the tiny turbochargers we had to use, they were overspinning to blazes and we had endless turbo failures.

We just didn’t have the engine management system in those days that could enable us to get the car to run cleanly either at the bottom end or the top end. We were using an HKS system which was only in its early days. We tried many things and HKS helped us out tremendously but overall we were nowhere near the mark.

Another weakness was the homologated gearbox which was just the Mitsubishi five-speed 'box. We couldn’t use a proper Getrag or anything like that, even though a manufacturer could easily homologate one for racing if they chose to.

Early on I tried to help them out with homologation. I submitted photographs of some Brabham-style suspension that needed to go on the car and a bigger brake system and what have you but nothing eventuated.

With proper development and homologation of parts, they could have been equal to the Sierras... but the huge amount of development that went into the Ford engine with Cosworth was light years ahead of where Mitsubishi was at that stage. – Kevin Bartlett, Mark Oastler's Mitsubishi Starion: The Series Production Stars and Group A Cars, Shannons Club
The team was kept alive by rally veteran Doug Stewart (who would be establishing that local Ralliart franchise the following year), who had the means to go it alone, albeit while maintaining a special relationship with the factory – another works-but-not-really team. The project was managed by rally maestro George Shepheard, who'd masterminded Holden's 1-2-3 in the 1979 Repco Round-Australia Trial, with prime sponsorship coming from Dulux Autocolour. It managed to lure both Brad Jones and former Nissan co-driver Gary Scott, both fairly experienced at racing turbos, and also both hungry young guys with everything to prove.

Even when Mitsubishi showed no interest in developing the Starion, the Mitsubishi team deal still seemed enticing to these two thanks to the upcoming Mitsubishi GTO, called the 3000GT in Australia and the Dodge Stealth in the U.S. In its American form, the GTO came with a 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 with ceramic turbos and five valves per cylinder, which made 560 kW on the dyno – more than Godzilla would eventually make. But again, it was Ralliart, not Touringcarart – by the time the GTO dropped in 1990, the company was busy working on the Lancer Evolution I to pitch against the Lancia Delta Integrale, and then its real nemesis, the Impreza WRX. Although it's nice to imagine the GTO sharing a JGTC grid with the Toyota Supra, R33 Skyline and Honda NSX, I think the rally fans will agree our loss was their gain.

Anyway, that explains the presence of baby Brad Jones, in a Dulux-backed Starion, here at Surfers Paradise.

The Race
All the other machinery on the grid, however, was reduced to utter insignificance by a simple fact – JPS Team BMW had built another new car. This one included all the latest updates from Munich, such as improved alloy suspension (until now they'd made do with the heavier and less sophisticated 325i setup) and an engine with an extra 7.5 kW thanks to a bigger inlet manifold opening, which also allowed them to open up the intake ports. This freed up a little more top-end power, Jim Richards commenting that it didn't punch out of corners quite as well, but pulled much better up near the redline.

So the car that did such a magnificent job of looking after its tyres now had more top-end power – at the same Surfers Paradise whose sweeping turns recalled the European circuits it had been built for. Seriously, look up an aerial shot of somewhere like Dijon-Prenois and compare it to the Surfers layout. The result here was a foregone conclusion.

In the event, though, it all went wrong for Jim's rivals faster than the worst pessimist would've predicted. Queensland's favourite son Dick Johnson – probably responsible for half of the ticket sales that day – was out with a broken turbo after just half a lap, and teammate Gregg Hansford followed him only 5 laps later. Dick was understandably sour when he spoke to Channel Seven's Peter McKay.
McKay: Dick, a wonderful qualifying effort yesterday, but it all went to nought today?

Johnson: Obviously those little batch of turbos must’ve been made in South Vietnam by Mario Zampaglios or something. It really appears as though there is different standards in turbo wheels and we obviously got a batch that are pretty ordinary.

McKay: So both cars went out with turbo problems?

Johnson: Yeah, and those turbos were brand-spanking new five minutes before the race – had not turned a wheel.

McKay: Okay. With the two Shell Sierras now in the pits, who’s your tip for the race today?

Johnson: [smiling wryly] I couldn’t care less to be quite honest, but I’d say Jim’s looking half good. As far as I’m concerned, after today’s effort, we’ve blown any chance of championship points.

McKay: Do you believe with the lead he now has Jim’s got a soft-compound tyre on and that he might be contemplating a mid-race pit stop?

Johnson: Oh, I doubt it. I doubt it, he’ll just loaf around not and not even worry about his tyres. He’ll cruise it in.

McKay: Okay Dick, commiserations.
I think you can file "made in South Vietnam by Mario Zampaglios" under "shit you can't say nowadays" – Italian and Vietnamese immigration was big in the 1970s, so naturally Italian and Vietnamese prejudices were hanging around in the 1980s (we really are racist AF, aren't we?). I have no idea who Mario Zampaglios is supposed to be – some brief Googling only turned up Facebook profiles – but it's probably relevant that Dick actually did National Service during the Vietnam era (only one barracks away from a very young Peter Brock, believe it or not). He was never deployed to S.E. Asia, but I wouldn't be surprised if he knew a lot of people who were, and probably developed some pretty firm opinions about the region.

Anyway, his predictions about Jim cruising it in proved right on the money: Richards didn't stop for tyres once. Instead, he took the lead on lap 2, eked out a 1.65-second gap by lap 4, stretched it to 6 seconds by lap 10, then a massive 7.2 seconds by lap 12. After that, the Commodores that had made the first ten laps so interesting started eating up their tyres and dropped back, leaving Richards free to nail in the remainder of the 45 laps free and clear. By the final laps, he'd backed off from low 1:16s to high 1:19s, or in layman's terms walking pace – from his guest seat in the commentary box, Johnson said you could do that on the canvas, or steel in the case of the BMW's Pirellis.

2nd place, astonishingly, went to Andrew Miedecke, who scored a better result after everything went wrong than he ever did when it all went right. 3rd place went to the other John Player BMW of Tony Longhurst after a street-fighting drive from him, while 4th and 5th went to the Peter Jackson Nissans of Seton and Fury – the DR30 Skyline was definitely being superseded.

The points table now showed the title would be fought out between Richards and Seton – there were a maximum 87 points remaining, but everyone would have to drop their worst score, so really anyone below 60 or so was beyond even a mathematical chance.
  1. Richards: 135
  2. Seton: 117
  3. Fury: 82
  4. Longhurst: 81
  5. Perkins: 79
  6. Johnson: 54
  7. Brock: 50
  8. Grice: 46
  9. Bond: 32
  10. Hansford: 20
So odds were, it would be either the Kiwi or the Kid.

Grice MIA?
The other curiosity of the race was that Allan Grice was marked absent that day, busy racing in the Coca-Cola 600 in the U.S. instead! It's likely Gricey had a plan to get some NASCAR experience before Bob Jane opened the Thunderdome (scheduled for later this year), and where better than Charlotte Motor Speedway, the very track Jane had used as the template for the Dome? The fact that it was NASCAR's longest race – 970km, starting in daylight, continuing through dusk and ending under the lights five hours later – just meant there'd be more experience to gain!

And so Gricey qualified his #03 Foster's Oldsmobile Cutlass for the race, only to drop out after 161 of 400 laps with a rear end failure. Maybe the racing gods had decreed that 161 was all the laps he would ever do...