Monday, 7 May 2018

1988: Welcome to Formula Sierra

I entered the 1988 season with vengeance on my mind... – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
If you're wondering why I haven't been covering the events of the 1988 Australian Touring Car Championship this year, it's partly that work has been coming down hard on me again, and partly that season '88 just doesn't need the same kind of in-depth analysis as '87. How things got to this point makes for a good story; what happened once we got there, not so much. (Also, if you're not wondering why I haven't been posting on 1988, congratulations on having a life. It's not something I ever mastered.)

Mostly, the '88 ATCC looked like this – Johnson and Bowe 1st and 2nd, with daylight 3rd.

The short version of 1988 is that Dick Johnson won, a lot. Out of 9 championship rounds, Dick's Shell Sierras won 8 of them, with 6 falling to Dick himself, and two others going to his new teammate John Bowe. The only other outright winner all year was the former water-skiing champion Tony Longhurst in another Sierra, making it a clean sweep for Ford's turbocharged road-rocket. Since the car's debut at Sandown last year, everything else had been an also-ran – but that didn't mean they weren't giving it a red hot go.

Peter Perfect, Gentleman Jim and BMW Australia
If you ever needed proof that Group A was a weird era for Australian motorsport, when everything was all wrong, look no further than this: for 1988, Peter Brock was driving a BMW.

Look upon it, McPhillamy crew, and despair.

Brock had entered 1988 with a huge millstone around his neck – the Bertie Street workshop, former home of Holden Dealer Team Special Vehicles, with its expensive rent that was no longer being paid for by the construction and sale of high-performance Holdens. Even back then land prices in the capital cities were pretty crazy, and racing is of course an expensive business to be in; taken with a useless factory in the Port of Melbourne, Peter would go bankrupt soon if something wasn't done.

Thankfully, his luck hadn't deserted him and he found a buyer for Bertie Street – of all companies, Lada, the Soviet manufacturer of low-budget transport that wanted a foot in the door of the Aussie market. "We probably found the only person in Australia who was prepared to buy the business," admitted Brock's right-hand man, Alan Gow. Lada didn't buy the HDT name, but they did buy the facility to use as their base for importing cars into Australia, a deal signed the day of qualifying for Bathurst '87. Brock did his part in the venture by undertaking "pre-delivery" of Lada's vehicles, which originally meant Australian Design Rules compliance, but soon became a euphemism for addressing the awful Soviet build quality. After they hit the market in July, Brock even sweetened the deal by modifying some 6,000 of Lada's Samara hatchbacks with tweaks to improve the car's low speed ride, creating the "Lada Samara Sedan Brock Delux," but they never really took off. The Porsche-derived 1.3-litre engine gave only 47 kW, enough to boot the car down the 400m in a dizzying 19.2 seconds, a far cry from the kind of vehicle that hitherto had come with a Brock signature. How the mighty had fallen.

Yours for just $13,995. Or for $600 less, you could have a KE Laser with 49 kW and Mazda build quality. Your choice.

But then, in March, Peter got a cheque for winning his last Bathurst. "It was a fairytale," said Gow. "After Bathurst we thought we’d got 3rd place, and considered it wasn’t a bad result, but it wasn’t going to settle our debts for the cost of doing the race. Subsequently, a few weeks after the race, we got the win, and the increased prize money cleared up all the debts."

But there was no way HDT was going to survive another year like 1987. Luckily, JPS Team BMW boss Frank Gardner was ready to get out of racing following a period of ill health, and BMW Australia head Ron Meatchem wanted Brock to take over.
Frank contacted us because he wanted to get out. He was going through some health issues at the time. We thought it was a great idea because we didn't have a deal with Holden, we couldn't have continued to run privately with the funding we had. Peter and I flew up to Sydney after Frank said he wanted to have a meeting with us. The BMW team was manna from heaven for us, because we had manufacturer's support and Mobil sponsorship. It made sense to us.

Peter and I jumped on a plane and headed over to Munich. We were literally there for one day, discussed it with the heads of BMW Motorsport, and then flew back again and did the deal. The BMW was never going to win races outright on its own merits. It was a class car. We knew it wasn't the best alternative for us, but it was really the only alternative for us.

I'm sure he was frustrated, but he certainly didn't show it. He went into everything with 100% enthusiasm. Anything that was his idea, or a new idea, was great as far as Peter was concerned. He enjoyed driving it, he really did, and he didn't sit there bemoaning that he couldn't win a race or couldn't win a championship with it. He just got stuck into it and really enjoyed driving the car. – Alan Gow, Wayne Webster’s Peter Brock: How Good Is This!
With Brock running on Mobil sponsorship, the sinister black & gold John Player livery made way for a crisp white Mobil scheme. Also with the cars came their driver, the reigning champion Jim Richards, who shrugged and rejoined his old HDT teammate, driving the #1 BMW M3 to Brock's usual #05. Last time Brock and Richards had paired up they had won Bathurst by a record six laps, so it's not like they couldn't work well together.


Interestingly, Richards remained faithful to Gardner's setups even after he moved to Brock’s outfit, in stark contrast to his new boss.
Frank always went his own way. The suspension on the 635s and M3s was totally different to the German cars, front and rear. When I say that, the components were the same, but the shock and spring package was totally different. Frank’s cars were a lot lighter sprung, and we had less camber than the German cars.

When the cars went to Brock, he was, "Schnitzer, Schnitzer, Schnitzer – I want everything Schnitzer." My car stayed exactly as it was when we finished with Frank, with the same spring/shock package. Brocky went totally to the German setup – more camber, twice the poundage of spring rate – but I was quicker in my car. I wasn’t offered any other setup, they were tinkering with Brock's car, but I was buzzing along and was quick enough. – Jim Richards, AMC #93

Just Holden On – Commodores in '88
The Commodore remained the mount of choice for the weekend warriors, but that was largely attributable to how cheap it was to run, because there was no hiding 1988 was a bit of a gap year for Holden. Only a year on from the Polarizer scandal Peter Brock was still persona non grata at Fishermans Bend, and their "B" driver Allan Grice was busy in Europe this year, driving for the factory Nissan team in the European Touring Car Championship. That left just one man to be the Holden tentpole for the year, Larry Perkins, driving for a new organisation calling itself Holden Special Vehicles.

Seen here in Round 1 at Calder Park.

By now it was common knowledge Holden were focusing all their energies on the deal with Tom Walkinshaw and his upcoming Commodore evo, which included creating a new tuning company to handle the high-performance market formerly served by HDT Special Vehicles, but with the greater oversight afforded by keeping it in the family à la AMG. Holden had released the tender in May 1987, and by October TWR had signed a ten-year agreement to create Holden Special Vehicles, both a subsidiary of and competitor to the main Holden factory. TWR would own 75% of HSV, and Holden the other 25%. John Crennan left his job as National Marketing Director to become HSV Managing Director, while the all-important marketing and public relations job was given to a man hand-picked by Walkinshaw, Brock's lieutenant and co-driver from the old days, John Harvey.

While they put together a factory to build the cars and a dealer network to sell them, HSV's recognised they'd need at least a token presence on the racetrack to keep the brand visible. With Brock and Grice both out of the picture, Perkins was the best in a field of one, a man who'd already shown he could fly the flag for the lion with a string of good results in 1987. As the builder and co-driver of Brock's Commodores in the early-80s golden age, his engineering and driving cred was beyond reproach. Knowing what a stable income was worth, Larry took on the thankless job of being Holden's flagship team for 1988, committing himself to driving an uncompetitive muscle car right as the turbo Sierra came into its own.

It should be noted, however, that this was not quite the start of the famed Holden Racing Team, which was wound up just last year (2017). Under the skin the outfit was really Perkins Engineering, with HSV signed on basically as a sponsor. The car, PE 004, was a new one built by Perkins late in 1987. It had debuted at the Calder Park WTCC round with Perkins and Denny Hulme driving it to 6th place. There hadn’t been any major improvements since then, so Perkins' best result in 1988 was a 3rd at the Sandown sprint round, and through consistency he finished the championship 3rd overall. Other Commodores worth mentioning included PE 003, Perkins' first customer car, owned by Bill O'Brien and raced in his pale blue Everlast Batteries livery; and HDT 16, the car in which Brock had won Bathurst, now sold to Chris Lambden and raced in Beaurepaires colours.

Toyota's Tiddlers
After the events of 1987, the incentives for small-car manufacturers to compete in the ATCC were fairly marginal. Given the lack of promoter and media interest in the standalone 2.0 litre championship, CAMS abandoned it and instead awarded drivers in the ATCC points for outright placings, 1st to 10th on a 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 basis. As a result no Corolla driver scored a single point all season.

John Smith racing TTA3 at Sandown in 1989. Production of the AE86 had ended in late 1987, prioritising the hatchback, but the rear-wheel drive Sprinter was faster and stuck around longer.

However, Toyota Team Australia continued to fly the flag in 1988 with multiple entries in the ATCC. Why? Because after a character-building '87 season, they'd been thrown two significant bones. Firstly, because CAMS had reverted to a three-class structure for the Manufacturer's Championship, the Corolla was no longer being unfairly pitched against the M3 in an unrepresentative "Under 2,500cc" class. Secondly, Gibson Motorsport, the works Nissan team, had abandoned their 2.0-litre Gazelle programme to focus on the upcoming HR31 Skyline, leaving Toyota free reign in the restored Class C (Up to 2,000cc). The marketing value of being the first 1,600cc car home outweighed the technicality that they were basically racing against themselves, as their only competition was privateer Colin Fulton in what was presumably Mark Skaife's old Gazelle. Fulton was no Skaife, so he hardly made a dent against the Toyota juggernaut.

It's surprisingly tough to find images of the hatches. Maybe a TRD fan will correct me, but I'm 90% sure Smith is driving an E90 series in this one, apparently taken at Sandown.

Ergo, Toyota Team Australia's two AE86 Sprinters regained their place as the small-car benchmark, John Smith the first tiddler home at Calder Park in TTA3, while the same car with John Faulkner at the wheel was first in class at Adelaide and Amaroo. Drew Price drove it to another class victory in the season finale at Oran Park, by which time Smith was out of favour at TTA for getting himself a Bathurst drive with Dick Johnson instead. By then Smith had already cleaned up the other five rounds in the front-wheel drive hatchback, so he'd already given the Corolla a clean sweep of class victories for 1988, and Toyota its first Australian manufacturer's title – albeit shared with equal points-scorers Ford and BMW. Because the ManChamp classes were scored equally and independently, Ford took a clean sweep of Class A and BMW of Class B, meaning all three ended the series on 72 points. Apparently three heads really can wear one crown.

Sierras for Everyone
Worldwide, the age of the Ford Sierra RS500 had begun in earnest. In the BTCC, the car famously won 41 straight races – the last two rounds of 1987, then every round for seasons '88, '89 and '90 – basically all the remaining races of the Group A era in Britain. In Australia it didn't clean up quite so completely, but it was still eye-opening how quickly the other brands vanished as the drivers turned their loyalty to Ford. Since 1985, Volvo, Alfa Romeo, Mazda, Rover and Mercedes-Benz had all come and gone, and although Nissan would be back mid-season, for the first four rounds the works Gibson Motorsport team were MIA as they hurried to finish their new HR31 Skylines. Privateer Murray Carter was left to run his outdated #14 Netcomm Skyline alone.

The DR30 no longer had the gutsiest engine on the grid, so the results dried up, 'cos that's the only trick it knew.

One of those who'd switched to the Sierra was former Alfa Romeo spearhead, Colin Bond. Last year's Alfa 75 was palmed off on Sports Sedan racer Joe Beninca, while Bondy did himself a deal to take over Andrew Miedecke's original Oxo Sierra, MM1, and run it as the #4 with his ongoing Caltex sponsorship.

In the pits at Amaroo Park.

MM3 had likewise been leased to a customer driver, Andrew Bagnall, who kept the Oxo sponsorship and raced it as the #8. (As you'll recall, MM2 had been written off at Sandown last year.)

Round 3 at Winton.
Miedecke himself however was driving a brand new car, MM4, built during the off-season for the '88 championship. The colours had been reversed, and the number on the doors had changed to a #6, but it was still an Oxo Sierra.

In the pits at Bathurst, late in the year. Although a Rouse-spec car, Miedecke's co-driver for that race was Steve Soper. Go figure.

The most recent addition to the Sierra ranks, however, was also the cheekiest. With JPS Team BMW wound up, the team's junior driver Tony Longhurst had found himself out of a job, so he'd leveraged the contract team boss Frank Gardner still held with Amatil into a brand-new team all his own. The new Tony Longhurst Racing outfit was to be based near his home on the Gold Coast, but Gardner's involvement as an "advisor" was kept quiet at first, lest it set off alarm bells at Ford. It was Gardner who'd led the protest that had cost Ford the James Hardie last year, and with it the World Touring Car Championship. Any hint that he was trying to arrange a car with a Blue Oval badge would've torpedoed the project broadside, so Longhurst used the London-based, Czech-born Australian Tomas Mezera as a go-between, sourcing everything he needed to screw together a Rouse kit-car with the chassis number TLR1. With Ford snookered, the new #3 Sierra emerged dressed in the crisp white-and-red of mining giant Freeport, and as the season progressed Frank Gardner returned to his accustomed role of team manager, and eventually owned a stake.

Round 1 at Calder Park, which seems to've used a variation on the WTCC circuit, combining the road course with the Thunderdome infield rather than the banking.
Good as they were, however, all of these were just Rouse kit-cars. The really shocking one didn't show up until Round 4 at Wanneroo Park, WA – Allan Moffat in a customer Sierra built not by Rouse but Eggenberger! Exactly how he managed to convince Rudi has never been recorded, since the Swiss tuner had always flatly refused to provide customer cars, but the huge "ANZ" signage on the doors probably had something to do with it, because the car was rumoured to have cost $300,000. It was also rumoured to be a former Texaco car, explaining the black roll cage visible in some of the photos, but it's hard to be sure because I've not been able to find a chassis number (the second ANZ team car that debuted the following year was EGMO 7/89, the seventh car built in 1989, but this one remains anonymous). Built for the 500km events of the European championship, however, the car was out of its depth in the ATCC's sprint rounds, and Moffat wisely ran a conservative programme to keep his powder dry for Sandown and Bathurst. The clock was ticking on Moffat's career, and he knew he only had a couple of chances left to take home the trophy they all craved.

It also gave away its European origins by being left-hand drive, which was unusual in Australia.
Yet even this mighty machine was just a blur in the mirrors of the cars that really mattered in 1988, the blood-red Shell Sierras of Dick Johnson Racing – put simply, the fastest Sierras ever built.

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