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April 04, 2020

Five things we learned from the Bathurst 12 Hour

Five things we learned from the Bathurst 12 Hour
Photo Credit To Christian Hartung

The 2017 Bathurst 12 Hour really was a race that had everything – moments of inspiration and moments of madness, heroes and villains, great overtaking moves and controversial one-liners. The Maranello Motorsport Ferrari 488 of Toni Vilander, Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup was the fastest car over Mount Panorama all weekend and duly won, but only after an almighty battle with the Scott Taylor Motorsport Mercedes which at times got too close for comfort. Here’s what we learned from an unforgettable opening act to the Intercontinental GT Challenge.

1. Vilander enjoys his day of days

There were no end of storylines for the assembled media to pour over at Bathurst.

Craig Lowndes and Maranello Motorsport enjoyed a successful reunion, three years on from their victory in 2014, while Jamie Whincup brought home the bacon on his first start in a GT3 car with a committed pass on Shane van Gisbergen in the final hour. But it was Ferrari factory ace Toni Vilander who was the real star of the day, turning in a colossal performance for the second weekend in a row.

Last week at the 24 Hours of Daytona, his efforts went unrewarded as Risi Competizione slipped from first to third in the final hour, but there was to be no denying the Finn this time around.

With engineering support of Triple Eight team manager Mark Dutton, engineer Grant McPherson and mechanic Ty Freele, the car ran like clockwork throughout the weekend and gave Vilander the platform to impress. He was the emotional recipient of the Allan Simonsen Trophy after a last-gasp effort to deny Chaz Mostert in the top 10 shootout and ran at the sharp end of the field until he was penalised for weaving at a restart.

In his second period behind the wheel, which came after Craig Baird had turned Lowndes around and almost cost them a lap, Vilander put in a virtuoso performance. Despite running on older tyres, he was able to pull out almost 20 seconds on Baird before a safety car wiped out his advantage, but in typical style, he wasn’t overly flustered.

Emerging from the pits in fourth, Vilander carved his way back to the lead – taking advantage of an ambitious move by Patrick Long on Maro Engel at the Chase to gain two positions in one fell swoop – then after another safety car interruption, proceeded to clear off into the distance.

Despite the stifling heat, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees in the cockpit, Vilander managed to maintain close to qualifying pace, at times three seconds per lap faster than his pursuers.

When he emerged from the car, he did so to a guard of honour from his mechanics and with almost half a minute in his pocket over Long.

From there, Whincup did the rest and showed emphatically that he isn’t merely a one-trick pony, but this truly was Vilander’s day of days.

“Sometimes you have those days, you have a clear track and just feel really comfortable in the car,” Vilander said.

“Even all the traffic seemed like it was dropping in the right places with the right timing. I had clear air with the car and it felt like it was working perfectly. Sometimes when you’re fast it feels like it’s easier so today was definitely one of those days.

“I was fed up with all the stories from Mika Salo that he is the only Finn who can win here, so now we are even at least!”

2. Van Gisbergen: hero to zero to anti-hero

And so to arguably the biggest talking point of the race, the downfall of the Scott Taylor Motorsport Mercedes.

Every showpiece needs its pantomime villain, but in this case, it was unclear who the villain should be. The role appeared tailor-made for Shane Van Gisbergen, after a quite extraordinary sequence of events saw him punt the Class B Porsche of Andrew McPherson into the wall on the exit of the Chase, then crash out himself on the exit of the Dipper in a fruitless pursuit of Supercars team-mate Whincup.

The Mercedes had struggled for straight-line speed all day and even with circuit lap record holder Van Gisbergen at the wheel, STM knew its best chance of beating the Ferrari would come from not taking tyres at their final pitstop.

The Kiwi emerged from the pits ahead with a little over 40 minutes to go, but when he came across the slow-moving Objective Racing McLaren of Tony Walls at the Dipper, Whincup was on him in a flash and powered past on the Conrod Straight, putting two wheels on the grass as he did so.

Where another driver would have weighed up the situation and settled for second, that just isn’t in Van Gisbergen’s nature. It’s this never-say-die attitude which makes him one of the hottest properties in GT racing and endears him to fans around the world, but on this occasion, it was also his downfall.

With his much older rubber, Van Gisbergen was always fighting a losing battle and it was perhaps in his efforts to transcend the limitations of the car that he had his race-ending shunt with 20 minutes to go, moments after the confirmation of his drive-through for the contact with McPherson.

But when TV crews pursued his livid team-mate Maro Engel for a response, nobody could have expected the outburst that followed.

“That’s not motorsport in my book,” Engel said. “All I’ve seen is a lot of mistakes by Shane. It’s a tough one.”

In the eyes of many, Van Gisbergen now became a kind of vilified anti-hero, his forthright apology drawing widespread sympathy in the wake of Engel’s comments.

“It was just a mistake. I’m a pretty critical person on myself, I hate making mistakes and that was 100% my fault,” he said. “I was pushing hard and thought I got away with the drive-through [for the McPherson incident] and I thought I could try and run with Jamie, but I just stuffed up. Sorry to my team and my team-mates, it’s the not the way we wanted to finish.

“It’s a big shame and also sorry to Andrew McPherson, he just backed off trying to get out of the way and I couldn’t get off him. I was pushing on the limit, sometimes over it, we were so slow on the straights and I was just doing everything I can, it’s a tough one.”

Engel would himself later apologise for his public criticism in the heat of the moment, although at least in the eyes of many Supercar fans, who quickly brought up the German’s unfavourable record in the series when compared with reigning champion Van Gisbergen, the damage was already done.

In motorsport, you win and lose as a team, that’s a given. But while perhaps ill-advised, Engel’s show of emotion was a welcome reminder that racing drivers aren’t corporate robots, but intensely competitive human beings.

The Bathurst 12 Hour is a notoriously tough race to win and after coming so close, emotions were understandably running high. That’s something that no amount of apologies can change.

3. Positive start for Bentley Boy Jarvis

Oliver Jarvis planned to treat Bathurst as an opportunity first and foremost to get accustomed to his new surroundings at Bentley, but came away with a podium as carnage reigned around him.

The No. 17 Continental GT3 wasn’t expected to challenge for a result after qualifying only 24th, but became the marque’s de-facto challenger when a rapidly deflating tyre caused Maxime Soulet to glance off the wall on lap three and damage his suspension.

Guy Smith started the car, a brand new chassis which hadn’t turned a wheel before being sent to Australia, and was fortunate not to incur damage after clipping the stricken Audi of Frank Stippler at the Dipper in hour one, but handed over to Steven Kane firmly in the top five.

The Northern Irishman briefly led after Baird was penalised for dumping Lowndes into the gravel, then pulled off one of the moves of the race on Whincup into the Chase before handing over to Jarvis shortly before half-distance.

On his first visit to the mountain and his first time in the car, Jarvis enjoyed an uneventful stint in fifth, which became fourth when Todd Kelly’s rocket-powered Nissan was forced into the garage for gearbox repairs.

As the Maranello Ferrari and STM Mercedes fought over the lead, Bentley their switched attentions to the battle for the final podium spot with the Pro-Am leading Competition Motorsports Porsche crewed by Marc Lieb, Patrick Long, Matt Campbell and David Calvert-Jones.

A slow final stop handing back from Jarvis to Kane looked to have scuppered their chances, but when Van Gisbergen hit self-destruct with 20 minutes to go, the Porsche moved up to second and Bentley were confirmed in third after all.

“I am pretty happy I have to say. This is an incredible place and I don’t think I have ever been in a race as brutal as that!” Jarvis reported.

“We had a game plan and that was simply to stay on the lead lap. We didn’t have a great run up to the race due a lot of issues with the brand new car but the team did a fantastic job. It didn’t stay issue free throughout the race, but coming out third is a great result and a credit to my team mates.”

4. Tekno Autosports never give up

McLaren had the pace to match anybody on the mountain, but defending winners Tekno Autosports were unable to make use of it after losing three laps early on to engine issues.

Their topsy-turvy race was a microcosm of the event as a whole: the No. 1 650S GT3 spent much of the race rooted two laps down, then came into contention for a podium after Van Gisbergen’s accident, before slipping back to fifth with a late spin.

Rob Bell had started from the back of the grid following a post-qualifying engine change, and was making steady progress when the car ground to a halt at Griffins Bend in hour two. Bell attempted to perform a system reboot, but the McLaren would not comply, and spluttered back to the pits belching oil and sparks.

After a quick repair, Alvaro Parente took advantage of the contact between Baird and Lowndes to get one of their laps back in hour four, but the next would prove significantly harder to come by and took another four hours, when Peter Paddon ran out of road and crashed his Ginetta at the Dipper.

With three hours to go, Parente was just a few tantalising seconds away from getting back on the lead lap, but found Toni Vilander in the form of his life and could never get close enough to attempt a pass. Like Sisyphus trying to roll his boulder up a hill, that final wave-around always appeared just out of reach, as the Ferrari consistently managed to stretch its fuel longer than the McLaren, meaning any safety cars were of little or no consequence.

All the same, their consistent pace had put Come Ledogar up to fifth when Tekno were thrown an unexpected lifeline from one of their former drivers. Van Gisbergen’s stranded Mercedes brought out the safety car and put Ledogar onto the same lap as the now second and third-placed cars, just a few seconds down the road. But any hopes of a podium were cruelly dashed when Ledogar was turned around by Matt Halliday at the Chase and dropped behind John Martin’s Walkinshaw Porsche.

After a brutally frustrating 12 hours, fifth was a bittersweet reward.

5. BMWs flatter to deceive

Bathurst was a lesson in why qualifying matters little in endurance racing, as all three BMWs fell out of contention by half distance. In the top 10 shootout, the M6 GT3 was the only car capable of challenging Toni Vilander’s Ferrari as Chaz Mostert and Marco Wittmann qualified second and third, but their early optimism didn’t last for long come raceday.

After catching Vilander cold at a restart, former Bathurst 1000 winner Mostert had a 25 second lead in hand when he handed over to co-driver Max Twigg shortly before Alexandre Imperatori’s Class B Porsche thumped the wall to bring out the safety car. Attempting to fight his way back to the front after resuming in the midpack, Twigg clipped the wall and broke the suspension, leaving the two Steven Richards Motorsport BMWs to fly the flag.

The No. 60 car which Richards started himself ran well in the early stages, before encountering power steering problems. Despite the best efforts of two-time DTM champion Wittmann and Supercars star Mark Winterbottom, a frustrated 14th was the best they could manage.

That made the sister No. 7 Timo Glock shared with Bathurst legends Mark Skaife, Russell Ingall and Tony Longhurst the last car standing. Despite a little ring rustiness, the car was running well and was fighting back from a loose bonnet when Ingall crashed at the Dipper shortly before half distance.

‘The Enforcer’ was almost inconsolable afterwards, but he at least got further than the fourth M6 entered by Walkenhorst Motorsport, which was forced to withdraw after qualifying when Ricky Collard was turned around by Lee Holdsworth and thumped the wall at the Dipper.

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.