Wednesday, 20 September 2017

13 September: From Spa to Sandown

By September 1987, Allan Moffat's time in the wilderness was almost over.

Granted, his years away from Ford weren't always what you'd call "wilderness." After being abandoned by Broadmeadows following their steamroller year in 1977, Moffat had made himself front-and-centre for a new manufacturer seeking Bathurst glory (and ironically one that was partly owned by Ford) – the Mazda Motor Corporation. In 1983 they'd given Moffat his fourth ATCC title (one more than Peter Perfect) but that hungered-after Bathurst win never came, and with the advent of Group A in 1985 Moffat had once more found himself abandoned by his patron. Until he got a phone call from Peter Brock, and suddenly found himself, against all auguries, a Holden driver.

Which of course fell apart when Peter started listening to the indigo children.

And so he'd spent the first half of 1987 driving for his own Allan Moffat Racing, but in a HDT-built VL Commodore, on the wrong side of the world. After that stunning and unexpected win at Monza, however, Moffat and co-driver John Harvey had found the inaugural World Touring Car Championship hard going – once the BMW M3s were sorted, the results dried up in a hurry. At the Jarama 4 Hours, Moffat and Harvey ran as high as 8th before a wheel stud broke during a pit stop, leading to retirement; in the Burgundy 500 at Dijon, venue for Villeneuve-vs-Arnoux, Moffat found himself dicing for 9th spot when a conrod broke, again ending his race. With two DNFs in three races, the Aussies decided to give the Nürburgring Touring Car Grand Prix, disappointingly held on the three-year-old GP-Strecke rather than the awesome Nordschleife, a miss to focus their efforts on Spa instead. Commodore numbers were maintained, however, thanks to another Holden runner making his belated WTCC debut – Tom Walkinshaw, with a new Herbie Clips-sponsored VL built in his own TWR workshops, using parts flown over by Holden themselves. HRT fans, take note – the road to the Lowndes/Skaife golden age began right here, in Germany.

Appropriate for a modified Opel.

The Spa 24 Hour was the final highlight of Moffat's WTCC campaign. In theory the powerful, unstressed Holden V8 would be in its element on Spa's ultra-fast straights, especially the long climb from Stavelot to the Bus Stop Chicane, theoretically giving it the edge over the fragile Fords and underpowered BMWs. It seemed others agreed, because there were three other Commodores entered for the race – one entered by Dutch team Jeroen Hin Racing; one entered by "Formula 1 Invest. Ltd" and headlined by Michel Delcourt, Allan Grice's Belgian co-driver from the previous year (the car must've made an impression); and one entered by the Mobil Holden Dealer Team, driven by Peter Brock, hired Tasmanian gun David Parsons, and former JPS team sidekick Neville Crichton.

But the weekend was not without its complications. A 24-hour marathon meant three drivers rather than two, so Moffat and Harvey drafted in Tony Mulvihill to complete the trio. Unfortunately, any chance of a podium complication were eliminated when Mulvihill failed to qualify: the car had made the race, but Moffat and Harvey would have to look after the driving duties alone. "The longest drive I've ever had," was Moffat's weary comment. "It was 14 hours at the wheel and it rained all day." Brock's car blew a piston with 206 laps completed, or just over 1,400 kilometres on the car's overworked odo – remember that fact, because this car would become important later.


But Moffat and Harvey kept going throughout the night and all the next day, and took the chequered flag with the full 24 hours completed and 468 laps on the chart – agonisingly, just short of the 469 of the 3rd-placed BMW. It seemed nothing could live with the M3's absurd tyre life, even on a power circuit like Spa-Francorchamps, and the Bavarian screamers took a 1-2-3 finish... but 4th was a deeply impressive result for a team with such limited resources. Deciding to end on a high, Moffat and Harvey wisely called time on their WTCC fling and started heeding the siren song of home. Australia's season of endurance was about to begin, and given the machine FISA was about to rubber-stamp, the Commodore's time at the head of the grid was surely nearing its end.

Ford Firepower – the Sierra RS500
The Ford Sierra RS500 – with apologies to Godzilla, the signature car of the Group A formula – didn't quite arrive with the calm efficiency of a plan coming together. The reality was more like everyone saw the pace of the BMW M3 at Monza, shat a collective brick, started badgering the factory for updates and forced Ford into a mad rush to get the thing on the market before it was too late. Whether for reasons of budget, logistics or simple expertise, the job was not undertaken by Ford themselves, but by a third-party tuner who would become familiar to Aussie Ford fans in later years – Aston Martin Tickford Ltd.

The Tickford name traced back as far as 1820, to the Salmons & Sons coachbuilding business based on Tickford Street in Newport Pagnell, near Milton Keynes. Like Holden, then, Tickford had its origins in the days when coachbuilding meant actually building coaches, and like Holden this had led them into the emerging automotive industry when buyers started coming to them with chassis, engines and ideas for exactly what passenger compartment they wanted to mate it all together. After WWII, this led them to pair up with one of the most prestigious names in the business – Aston Martin – until plunging fortunes for Aston led them, in 1981, to become a mere subsidiary of CH Industrials. A backward step for their prestige maybe, but it did leave them free to partner with other names like Jaguar, MG... and Ford.

Having sampled their work with the RS200 rally car, Ford felt comfortable awarding Tickford a £500,000 contract to convert the necessary RS Cosworths to RS500 spec. With time pressing, Ford simply delivered the final job-lot of Cosworths direct from the factory in Genk, Belgium, to Tickford's workshop near Bedworth, in the British Midlands. That meant the first task was the difficult de-waxing of vehicles that had stood in open storage for months. It also meant instead of getting half-assembled cars that merely had to be completed, Tickford were given brand-new, fully-completed RS Cosworths which then had to be party dismantled and rebuilt as RS500s. This included removing brand-new Cosworth engines, even though they'd never been run; nobody seems to know what happened to the five-hundred junked "Cozzers," but rumour says Ford took them back and recouped by installing them in early Sapphire Cosworths. Even more bizarrely, none of the RS500 logbooks were amended to reflect this change, so to this day every RS500 on the road has the "wrong" engine number.

They were also built in random order, which is why their chassis number bears no relation to the Tickford serial number placed low on the engine block. "Someone would just wander about the 500 cars in the car park with a set of keys in his hand until he found the car to which they belonged," explained Paul Linfoot, of the RS Owners Club. "That would be the next car that got built." Nevertheless, the job was done swiftly. Production began on 9 April, and within a couple of weeks Tickford was churning out 15 a day.

Compared to the standard RS Cosworth – which was already a pretty exciting piece of kit – the RS500 scored a thicker-walled cylinder block, upgraded oil and cooling systems, a throttle body widened from 52 to 76mm, larger air-to-air intercooler, and an upgraded fuel pump supplying fuel via two rails feeding a total of eight injectors (four of which weren't plumbed on the road version, as they just weren't needed). All of this was to feed the engine enough fuel-air mix to justify a huge Garrett T04E turbocharger, as big as a soccer ball and operating at 0.7 bar. The massive turbo was probably never going to be used to its full potential on the road cars – it existed solely to provide the race teams with a bigger measurement in their FISA paperwork – but the aftermarket tuners certainly appreciated it.

In the same vein, the revised rear suspension package included lots of extra brackets with nothing attached to them, so the teams could fit their own suspension components and still satisfy the rule that they were using "standard" attachment points. The fog lights were removed, but supplied in the boot, hidden beneath the new secondary rear wing and 30mm Gurney flap extension to the RS Cosworth's existing "whale tail" wing. Tickford claimed 90kg of downforce at 160km/h, which mightn't sound like much compared to the tonnes of an F1 car, but it was certainly enough to make a difference.


Perhaps most importantly, Tickford redesigned the front bumper with extra ducting to funnel lots of air through to the engine bay and keep temperatures under some semblance of control (hence the missing fog lights). This goes a long way to explaining why the RS Cosworth was the one you wanted to own day-to-day, and not the RS500 – all you got on the RS500 was about 10% more power (some 167 kW at 6,000rpm), no extra torque (281 Nm at 4,500rpm), lots of extra drag from that ventilated front end, and much, much more turbo lag. Ergo, on the road it was a cranky, unforgiving beast, a caged lion always looking for an excuse to lash out.

It also cost £19,950, or £4,000 more than the RS Cosworth, which was north of $37,000 in contemporary Australian dollars or just over $80,000 today. That was the U.K. list price, too, so for an Australian buyer there'd be import fees and taxes on top of that, a lot of money when, as I've noted before, you could get an XF Fairmont Ghia for less than twenty grand. But you certainly got a lot of car for your money: 0-100 took 6.2 seconds, the drag strip took 15.5, and the top speed was around 245km/h – respectable figures for a stock car with a boot and back seats, even by today's standards. (For comparison, the nearest Australian equivalent – Holden's VL Calais Turbo – boasted an identical time over the 400 metres, but was slightly slower to 100km/h (7.8 seconds); in theory it was capable of a similar 250km/h top speed, but because it was over-geared it was out of puff at 220 or so. On the upside, its local manufacture meant you could get one for less than $27,000.)

On the other hand, since that's exactly how the Group A rules worked, it took remarkably little aftermarket fiddling to liberate the engine's full potential – the crank, rods and valves could all remain standard, so throw in a ported head, hot cam, lowered static compression ratio and a new chip to crank the boost from 0.7 to 2.4 bar, and suddenly you had a 370 kW road car (for how long? That was up to you and your sense of restraint). Lest we forget, with a kerb weight of 1,240kg, that was more power and less weight than a Ferrari F40, and the sticker prices for those started at U.S.$400,000. No wonder so many tuning houses stepped up to the plate, and the car became a deity to teenagers of a certain tax bracket.

All were intended to be black, but the rush meant that wasn't possible; only 392 came in black, with 52 in Moonstone Blue and another 52 in Diamond White, including the four prototypes. But by the time the last car emerged from Tickford on 30 August 1987, the RS500 had already been homologated by FISA, and had already taken its first scalps. The #7 Texaco RS500 of Eggenberger drivers Klaus Ludwig and Klaus Niedzwiedz had taken a dream win on debut for the new car in the Grand Prix Brno, Round 6 of the WTCC, on 16 August. On the same day, Graham Goode had taken the car's first class win in the BTCC round at Donington Park. A week later, Mike Newman and Rob Speak took the car's first outright win in the following Oulton Park enduro. The writing was on the wall: the RS500 was far faster and more durable than the outgoing RS Cosworth, and relegated the M3 to a class car overnight. It would never win a round outright again.

Enter Sandown
So it was with some mirth that Allan Moffat fronted up to the Castrol 500 at Sandown International Raceway on 13 September – not to drive, but to join the commentary team with Channel Seven and witness the RS500's Australian debut. The other commentators (mostly Mike Raymond and Garry Wilkinson) needled him a little, trying to get him to spill the beans, but Moffat remained tight-lipped.
Allan Moffat: I think with the speed the Sierras are showing, Mike, there'll be a quite a number of people keen to campaign them.

Mike Raymond: What would you prefer to be lining up at Bathurst in a couple of weeks' time?

Allan Moffat: In a winning car, Mike.

Garry Wilkinson: Succinct!

Mike Raymond: Right. Clearly we're not gonna get anything out of him today, although we've got four hours to try... 
With 20/20 hindsight, it's clear Moffat had already done a deal with Andy Rouse for a pair RS500s at Bathurst, and it seems like the commentary team knew it too, or at least heavily suspected it. But for commercial reasons, perhaps, they weren't allowed to say anything – Moffat's main sponsor was the ANZ bank, and they weren't exactly without clout.

But the new ANZ Sierras weren't here yet, so that left just four of the new Fords entered for this year's Castrol 500 – the two Dick Johnson cars (DJR1, the right-hand drive car with Dick's #17 on the doors, and DJR2, the left-hand drive version with the #18) and the two Oxo Supercube cars (unofficially known as MM1 and MM2 for Miedecke Motorsport; they raced as the #34 and #35, respectively). All were Rouse kit-cars, although there's something of a question mark over the DJR entries: at some point Dick had a major falling out with Andy Rouse over the question of programming his own chips, which Rouse wouldn't allow as he owned the Zytek software that did the job, and selling chips was a major source of income for his team.
I was at my wits' end and grabbed Jillie and my passport and jumped on the plane to the U.K. looking to start a fight.

"This is bullshit," I said, striding into Rouse’s offices, trying hard to keep my cool. "I need to be able to have the machine in order to program the chips myself. I'm getting belted over there and this is the only way forward. I'm willing to pay you whatever you like so I can control things myself rather than rely on the customer chips you send out."

He shook his head.

"What do you mean no? I've spent a fortune on this!"

Rouse stayed silent and shook his head again.

I could feel my blood boiling.

"You are the biggest c*%t I have ever met in my life!" I screamed. "You can jam the whole deal right up your arse."

Jillie was there too and reckons that was the angriest she had ever seen me. I don't think I'd ever used the c-word in my life, and right there and then I blurted it out in front of my wife. I walked out of the office, feeling totally dejected, and with an icy breeze chilling me to my core, I looked to Jillie.

"We're stuffed," I said. "This could be the end because I really don’t know where to go now." – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
With their technical alliance over, Dick entered a period of chasing boost via "tricking" the engine management system, manipulating other parameters like fuel flow to get the result he wanted – with about as much success as your uncle jailbreaking his iPhone. Dick's autobiography doesn't give a precise timeline of events, but his performance at Bathurst that year – and here at Sandown – can certainly be read as engines that badly needed proper management. Yet it seems unlikely he'd have broken up with Rouse on the very trip that gained him the full RS500 upgrades. So I can see two possibilities: either Dick bought all the RS500 upgrades from Rouse, probably in the mid-year break between the ATCC and the endurance rounds, and then fell out with him soon after; or the falling-out happened in the off-season after his final race in Wellington. If the former, then it could be that Dick bought his RS500 kits not from Rouse, but directly from Ford Motorsport in Europe – the same people who would ultimately point him toward the person who would solve all his problems.

But that was all in the future. Right now, at Sandown, both the Shell Sierras and their Oxo Supercube rivals were right at the start of their development and were rated for around 335 kW – which was already more than the 5-litre Commodores, and way more than the 260 kW Skylines that shared the same weight class. Although this was still the "international" version of Sandown with the twisting infield section (built to attract a Formula 1 deal, which had instead gone to Adelaide), the long "grandstand" front straight and even longer uphill back straight were enough to give the RS500s a serious advantage, and they dominated qualifying. Andrew Miedecke set the pace in the main qualifying session, taking provisional pole with a time of 1:49.45 in his #35 Oxo Supercube Sierra – only for co-driver Don Smith to wreck the car in a spectacular series of barrel-rolls in the dying minutes of the session.

For anyone unable to watch the video, his comments (in true racing driver's monotone!) were:
Well, I was watching the times as I was going around, I was doing 51s and I thought, "I've gotta go a bit quicker than that." I knew I was losing time up here [the end of the front straight], not braking late enough and that. I just tried a bit later and missed third gear as I was changing down and locked up the back. It just sort of skated a bit, which I thought I had under control alright, and then I just clipped the ripple strip and it bucked the car up. I tried to get it back down, but it just started this slow roll business. I was starting to count them by the finish.
The wreck was later sold to a guy named Mike Ceveri, in whose hands it was rebuilt and returned to the track as a Sports Sedan. But that was the end of MM2 as a Group A car, and also the end of Miedecke & Smith's chances of winning this year's Castrol 500. For whatever reason, they hadn't cross-entered themselves in their other car, the #34 to be handled by ring-ins John Giddings and Bruce Stewart. So the owners behind the Oxo Supercube team would have to sit on the sidelines and watch their hirelings drive the most promising new car in the field without them!

This was not a problem that affected Dick Johnson, however. With Miedecke out of the way, Johnson stepped up and took pole in the Dulux Dozen, a Bathurst-style shootout between the twelve fastest cars in the main qualifying session. Nissan driver George Fury had posted an intimidating 1:49.43, so with the pressure on and one lap to make it count, Johnson stepped up and posted an incredible 1:47.59 to take an undisputed pole.

All was looking well, but then the engine on his #17 Sierra failed in the pre-race warmup, leaving it unable to take the start for the race.
The fuel that we had was made for hot temperatures. There were two types of fuel used then – winter and summer – and somehow we ended up with the wrong fuel in. It ended up letting go but that’s not to say that we weren’t running a bit too much boost or something. – Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson Racing: 30-Year Anniversary
Seasoned campaigner that he was, Dick had made sure to cross-enter himself in both cars, so with 15 minutes to go until the race start he commandeered the #18 that had been earmarked for Charlie O'Brien & Neville Crichton, and strapped himself in (forcing the Channel Seven crew to hastily transfer one of their RaceCam units to the #18). So out of four RS500s entered, we'd lost two before the race even started. Sandown's notorious attrition rate was already creating casualties.

Other teams that had doubtless done their cross-entry due diligence were Gibson Motorsport and their brace of Peter Jackson-backed Nissan Skylines. Gibson's prime drivers George Fury and Glenn Seton had won this race last year, but this year they'd been put in separate cars, Fury to drive his customary #30 with relief from Terry Shiel, and Seton to share his #15 with former Volvo sidekick John Bowe. Both were therefore looking like strong pairings, but if they wanted to become repeat winners they'd have to beat each other – like the Highlander, there could only be one.

A curiosity was the Gibson team's third car – not a Skyline, but a Gazelle entered for Seton's good friend and sometime housemate, Mark Skaife. Paired with Sports Sedan racer Grant Jarrett, the 20-year-old Skaife had been racing the #60 Nissan Gazelle – basically a rebadged coupe version of the S110 Silvia, fitted with a 150 kW FJ20E engine (the same engine as the Skyline, but without the turbo) – in the Australian 2.0-litre Championship all year, and had clinched the title at Amaroo Park after winning three of the four rounds. Clearly young Skaife had talent, and there was already talk about how long it would be before Gibson would be moving him up to the primetime.

Other Skylines included a growing list of privateers, starting with the Nissan Racing NZ pairing of Graeme Bowkett & Kent Baigent, in a Gibson-supported #25 engineered by Ross and Jimmy Stone (of later DJR and Stone Brothers Racing fame). The other notable name was reliable old Murray Carter in the #14 Netcomm entry, a man who'd begun his career in Humpy Holdens in the 1950s, and believe it or not didn't finally hang up his helmet until this very year (2017)!

Their rivals for the ATCC, Frank Gardner's JPS Team BMW, were set to team their prime drivers Jim Richards and Tony Longhurst in the #1 BMW M3, with the #3 to be handled by their engine man Ludwig Finauer, and 1986 Australian Touring Car Champion Robbie Francevic. Francevic hadn't really been seen on our shores since the Volvo Dealer Team had imploded here 12 months earlier, so it was nice to see him back, apparently keen to sample the car that was the talk of 1987. Behind them were a further two M3s, the only one of note the #44 Viacard Services entry, a JPS-built machine owned by Trevor Crowe and co-driven by Jim Keogh – both highly experienced, if not necessarily blindingly fast. A curiosity in the field was a car from BMW's crosstown rivals, a Mercedes-Benz 190E in the hands of Phil Ward and Llynden Reithmuller – sweet-handling, but let down by an underdeveloped engine and insufficient weight-saving. Moffat commented that he'd love to see what'd happen if Mercedes fitted the car with a nice V8, and if you know your DTM history you'll be wondering if someone in Germany heard him... but that's a story for another day.

With the Mobil Holden Dealer Team now 8 months into their divorce with Holden, there was no "works" Holden team at Sandown (indeed, the official "works" team had last been seen at the Nürburgring!), but if Brock wanted bragging rights as the Holden spearhead he'd have to fight for it. Larry Perkins had been the one actually delivering the results this year, meagre as they were, in his outdated but highly-developed #11 Enzed VK. With relief driving to come from 1967 Formula 1 champion Denny Hulme, it was debatable whether the strongest Commodore entry was indeed Perkins, or the #2 Bob Jane T-Marts VL of Allan Grice. This car had been built by Les Small, the same man responsible for Grice's indestructible Bathurst-winner last year, and his nominated co-driver was the vastly experienced Briton, Win Percy. So, were Holden's hopes riding on Perkins, or Grice? It was a coin flip – certainly they weren't riding with Brock.

Brock had brought one new car – bearing his famous #05, but known internally as HDT 17, the third and last VL Commodore the team had built this year which had only debuted at Oran Park's Pepsi 250 a couple of weeks earlier – and an old one, a re-panelled version of the VK he'd shared with Moffat at Bathurst the previous year ("Slightly modified in practice," was Moffat's sheepish comment, all too aware whose fault those "modifications" had been). He couldn't race the newer VL he'd taken to Spa, because it was still being shipped back, and anyway the team just didn't have the money.


Indeed, Brock had seemingly scraped the very bottom of the barrel to find drivers with wage demands low enough for his impoverished bank account. David "Skippy" Parsons, here to share Brock's #05, had driven for the team back in the Marlboro glory days and was here mainly out of enthusiasm; Jon Crooke, co-driver for the #6, was the former Australian Formula 2 Champion making only his second start in a tintop. But the one that really set the cat among the pigeons was Channel Seven's own commentator Neil Crompton, nominated as prime driver for the #6. Some saw it as a cynical attempt to curry some favour with the TV people after a year that had seen more bad press for Brock than he'd ever had in his life, but even if so that wasn't the whole story. The reality was also that he was giving a hungry young driver a chance in a decent race seat... and of course as a Promoted Fanboy, Crompo came cheap.

Behind them was a sizeable contingent of privateer Commodores, fourteen of them in total, mostly VKs but with more VLs appearing at every race. Since they made up a fair percentage of the 42-car entry list, there was a feeling in the air that it was all going away for these guys. Sandown would be the last all-Australian race of the year; the next race was Bathurst, where half the world would be descending on the regional NSW town, and there was already some grumbling that the surge in entries from Europe were pushing the locals out of their own race. And after it would come Calder Park, Wellington and Mt Fuji, which would be more of the same – and since at this stage the inaugural World Touring Car Championship was looking like a roaring success, there was every chance they'd be doing it all again next year too. Sandown '87, it seemed, would be the last time the average Aussie privateer with his hotted-up family Commodore would be able to compete in the same race against his heroes in the big teams. This was the retirement party, the call for last drinks, the final hurrah. We would not see its like again, et cetera, et cetera. Or so we thought...

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