A DRAMATIC concluding twist to the 2017 LiquiMoly Bathurst 12 Hour couldn’t take the shine from a stunning run by local heroes Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes and their stellar Ferrari teammate, Flying Finn Toni Vilander, as they raced to a deserving victory at a hot Mount Panorama yesterday.
A claimed record crowd of (40,364 over three days) braved the roasting temperatures to watch a fascinating motor race, which thanks to a large field of exotic poster cars, is establishing itself as one of the world’s best sports car events.
It was a contest that started in hectic fashion with some early shunts soon after the 5.45am start, and other crashes at regular intervals that left just 28 of the 52 starters running after the 12 hours, 290 laps and 1978 km of Australia’s famed race circuit.
Only one Ferrari started the marathon but the Maranello Motorsport trio repelled all opposition in the most competitive field in the race’s history.
In Vilander’s capable hands, the 488 model grabbed pole on Saturday, and then on race day proved to be consistently the fastest and best-driven GT3 car in a wild and unpredictable enduro.
For the rest, Saturday’s qualifying proved to be a very speculative form guide. Many quick cars from the Top 10 Shootout went missing in action on Sunday.
Rivals crashed out and hit mechanical issues with very few capable of mounting serious challenges. Lapped cars were a constant headache for the outright GT3 runners – lap times being as much as 26 seconds apart and cornering speeds often a world apart.
In the closing stages, a gamble at the final pit stop thrust the Scott Taylor Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 of Shane van Gisbergen/Craig Baird/Maro Engel into a narrow lead over Whincup.
But Whincup on fresh Pirellis soon monstered the Merc and then, with two wheels in the dirt, powered past van Gisbergen on Conrod Straight.
Another of many safety car interventions closed up the field with 20 minutes remaining. But again van Gisbergen, struggling on old rubber, had no answer, clouting a slower Porsche and soon after crashing heavily at the Dipper.
A clearly disappointed Engel berated teammate van Gisbergen in a television interview soon after. “All I’ve seen this weekend is a lot of mistakes from Shane,” the German told Channel Seven.
Van Gisbergen later resisted the temptation to fire back, instead owning up to making a mistake. It was a classy admission.
The win was the first 12 Hour success for Whincup and the equally impressive Vilander, and the second for Lowndes.
“Beginner’s luck” was how Whincup described the win in his first taste of GT racing.
Whincup laughed as he commented on the tense battle with his Red Bull HRT Supercars teammate Shane van Gisbergen on the GT3 battleground. “He was driving like he usually does, all over the place, which is good. He’s hard and fair. Certainly enjoyed the battle; there is always a bit grass action when we’re rubbing panels."
Whincup refused to join some of his rivals in outright contenders who slammed some slower drivers. “They’re a part of what makes up the category,” said the six-time Supercars champion. “The category caters for drivers who may not have started karting when they were seven. They began racing later in life. GT racing relies on these guys who invest a lot of money. For us professional drivers, they’re a part of the challenge.
“Ninety-five percent of the drivers are extremely aware and considerate. Yes, there are questions about a few who are just hanging on…but it’s a good balance. It’s okay.”
Ferrari also now joins Audi as the only two-times winner of the Bathurst 12 Hour in the modern GT3 era, which started in 2011.
Van Gisbergen’s eventful conclusion to the race elevated the Ice Break Porsche 911 GT3 R to second, one lap down on the Ferrari.
Four drivers shared the Porsche podium – Marc Lieb, Patrick Long, part-time Wheels hot shoe Matt Campbell and David Calvert-Jones.
Third was the big and brand-new M-Sport Bentley Continental driven by Steven Kane, Guy Smith and Oliver Jarvis.
Where then were the Audis, Mercs, BMWs, Lamborghinis, Astons, McLarens and Nissans I hear you ask…?
The best McLaren – the Alvaro Parente/Rob Bell/Come Ledogar Tekno 650S – was fifth, a lap up on the first Lambo, the sixth-placed, well-used local R-EX of Roger Lago, Steve Owen, David Russell.
Many high-profile combinations were left frustrated at the end of a tough day.
Chaz Mostert qualified second, ran in the lead early in the day but watched on as a co-driver crashed their BMW M6 GT3.
Another BMW commandeered by big-name quartet Mark Skaife, Russell Ingall, Tony Longhurst and ex-Formula One driver Timo Glock retired after five hours when Ingall clouted the wall at the Dipper. The veteran was devastated he had ruined the race for the team. The M6 of Steve Richards, GT3 first-timer Mark Winterbottom and Marco Wittman had its woes and slip nine laps down in 14th.
The sun was barely on the horizon when Frank Stippler triggered the first of several safety car periods when he bounced his Jamec Penn Audi off the wall on lap seven. It was all over for one of the fancied Audi R8 combos, gun Europeans Markus Winkelhock and Robin Frijns not getting a drive. The second Jamec Penn R8 of Garth Tander, Chris Mies and Christopher Hasse fell victim of some wayward driving from a Porsche but returned after repairs to be classified 13th.
Other R8s were in the wrong place at the right time leaving the unheralded ASR entry of Daniel Gaunt/Matt Halliday/Ash Samadi the highest placed Audi (seventh).
The works Nissan GT-Rs had gearbox woes. One recovered to finish eighth. Others facing big damage bills were a private Nissan team, Andrew Miedecke’s Aston squad and Tony Quinn’s McLaren.
Race winner Vilander also copped a pitlane drive-through penalty for weaving at a restart, dropping the Ferrari back many places.
This and a later incident when Lowndes was bumped into a sandtrap by Craig Baird at a restart showed that it wasn’t all smooth progress for the Ferrari. After the second incident, Lowndes was quickly whisked from the sand to stay on the lead lap, crucial in the ultimate outcome.
But three fast, measured drivers and a fast and reliable car put the 488 at the front at the right time, 5.45pm.