The annual enduro at Mt Panorama pulls drivers and dollars from around the globe – for one significant reason.
RECORD crowds, race records and lap records – the 2016 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12-hour was another classic motor race for the hallowed circuit.
And with five makes in the top five, it’s as much a manufacturer battle as a dog-fight between the drivers.
Ferrari, McLaren, Audi, Mercedes, Bentley, Porsche, Nissan – this year’s race drew some serious race cars, world-class competitors from around the globe and some proper manufacturer money. And it’s only going to get bigger.
Fresh metal, such as the new Audi R8 GT3 car, joined last year’s winner, the Nissan GT-R, plus the factory Bentley squad and updated Mercedes SLS. But almost every car came with a manufacturer’s bona fide presence at Mt Panorama.
In fact, while Audi wheeled out the first of its new-gen R8 road cars, positioned strategically behind the Phoenix Racing pits in view of its corporate box, Mercedes used the Saturday to pull the wraps of its AMG GT GT3 car, with the help of previous 12-hour winner and ‘Mr DTM’ Bernd Schneider, who drove an SLS at this year’s race.
Ferrari – who won the race in 2014 – has upped its visibility at the event because it suits the Italian maker’s race-road heritage emphatically.
“This is the first real time that officially, Ferrari has got behind the event,” Ferrari Australasia CEO Herbert Appleroth said. “We’ve obviously got two private teams racing with Ferrari – Maranello Motorsport, a previous winner, and Vicious Rumours Racing, which was on the podium last year. The event has grown in popularity and stature. It’s important for us to have an official presence.”
The company invited 50 customers, many of whom drove their own Ferraris to the track to form a 30-car static display. It also gave its customers full access to its pit bays during the event.
“I came up last year to see the event – the positioning of the event and people who attended the event and how much passion was behind the event, and I have to say I was really impressed with the true motoring fans, no matter what brand it was,” said Appleroth.
It’s the fan-friendliness that has drawn in the Ferrari boss. “They’ve [the event organisers] been wonderful at thinking about motorsport from the eye of the fans, and I think that’s really refreshing. So allowing us to do things we want to do, like the pit garage (that’s never been done before) and being open to it – what about this, what about that – you know they’re looking for ideas, they’re wanting to be something new to the motorsport landscape, and we’re really looking forward to being a part of it.”
The fact that the Ferrari 458 GT3s didn’t win – despite being the most-winning GT3 race car of the modern era – hasn’t blown a Ferrari fuse.
“We don’t doing anything half-heartedly, but from a timing perspective, it’s not our year. But what it’s about is the family getting behind the men and women who are out there racing for Ferrari,” said Appleroth. “Of course,” he added, “winning is everything!”
Audi – also previous 12-hour winners – raced its new R8 at Mr Panorama literally days before the Australian media launch for the road version. There’s a full factory support crew at the event, and serious Audi branding in the form of billboards and advertising around the circuit too.
It’s the layout that prompted the sparkle in the eye of Romolo Liebchen, head of Audi Sport customer racing.
“This is a real challenge, and every race driver wants to be here one day,” he told Wheels. “The track is really demanding: if you’re successful at Bathurst, you’ve shown that your product must be good. Of course the drivers and the teams will have done a good job, because like the Nurburgring, mistakes are not allowed. You never forget this track. If you have been here, you never forget about it.”
Audi sees the event as a way of promoting its racing heritage. For Audi Australia, it’s about giving the brand a strong racing identity, and there’s no bigger place to do that than Bathurst.
“The company understands that the cooperation between road and racing – especially for high-performance cars – is working very well,” says Liebchen. “And this is a story that people believe – I think there is no other brand that can tell the story like that, because no other GT3 car is so close to the road car.”
A man who has won both the Bathurst 12-Hour (in multiple eras) and the 1000km Great Race in touring cars is racing legend John Bowe. “You’ve got to give credit to [Bathurst 12-hour promoter] James O’Brien who a few years ago said that it would no longer be a production race; he was going to allow GT3 cars in,” Bowe said.
He said the re-born 12-hour, which started in 2007 after the previous iteration’s last event in 1995 (which Bowe won with Dick Johnson in a Mazda RX-7 SP), had benefitted hugely from heading down the GT3 route.
“From 2007 to when it re-started to the GT3 era … it kind of struggled to get a big field; it should have got more cars than it did. It was a terrific race – any car you drive on this track is enjoyable anyway. It was still a great event, but it needs 40-odd cars plus to make it a great 12-hour race.”
The 2016 grid, which saw the McLaren driven by Shane Van Gisbergen, Jonathon Webb and Alvaro Parente take victory, saw 37 cars begin the race at 5:45am in the cover of darkness. Twenty of the field were GT3 cars.
“GT3 worldwide is in a growth phase, and a popularity phase – the popularity of it is because they are turn-key race cars,” said Bowe. “So as long as you can write the cheque out, you can go and buy a car that all you have to do is a few fiddles with it and find a nice set-up for it, and it comes with a book – an instruction manual and a helpline.”
He also said that V8 Supercars, who bought the 12-hour late last year, had improved the event and would only make it stronger.
“There was a lot of negative comment about V8 Supercars buying the event – all the keyboard warriors were saying that they’re going to ruin it – but they’ve already added to it: it’s better organised, it’s got much more presence, and it will continue like that. It’s going to be a huge event,” Bowe said.