It was a huge privilege to be able to attend the Bathurst 12 hours. It was an adventure to visit Australia, as I had never been before, but it was Mount Panorama itself that made the most impression.
Arriving in the middle of the Australian summer after a journey of more than 30 hours from freezing temperatures at home, was bound to jolt the system more than somewhat, and I have to admit that my anticipation was high, having been told by many people of the treat that I had in store, being able to visit one of those iconic circuits that I had seen on TV so many times.
The reality, to my surprise, exceeded the expectations. Bathurst is a very special place, and the Mount Panorama circuit is a very special race track. It is of course defined by its ‘Mountain Section’ – a roller-coaster ride up and over the ‘Mountain’ that gives the circuit its name. It may not be a mountain in the alpine sense of the word, but is certainly big enough to be what the Scots call a ‘Ben’, rising up to a height of 862m above sea level, and towering 174m above the pit and paddock complex below. The views from the top are simply stunning: on a clear day, it feels like you can see the whole of Australia (you can tell that I still haven’t quite taken on board the enormity of the continent, can’t you?). The layout of the circuit is classic; the corner names familiar – Skyline, the Dipper, the Elbow; unmistakable, if often corrupted by the names of a corporate sponsor.
I took a walk during one of the practice sessions, to get a feeling at first-hand what it is that makes Bathurst a mecca for racing fans. I started at Reid Park, already part way up the elevation, a series of fast corners where the need for delicate positioning of the car must be balanced against the commitment to use raw horsepower to get up the hill. A sweeping series of multi-apex left-handers brings you onto Skyline, and here I was for the first time surprised. Here you can marvel at the vista spread out before you; the paddock in the foreground, and the mountains in the distance; capped, if you’re lucky, by acres of blue skies. The circuit straightens up, cars travelling from left to right, and under a bridge – but drivers seem tentative, unwilling to commit to full-on acceleration. It’s early in the session, though, so I press on round the circuit… the esses are next. And here is the explanation. Driving over the top of Skyline is a bit like jumping off a cliff. Except that rather than free falling, you have to negotiate the right-left-right sequence of corners going downhill – think Craner Curves, but three times as tight and five times as steep!
Then it’s the Dipper – more of the same, but even less visibility of the track ahead – if you’re a skier, think of a steep mogul field with a blindfold on to get an idea. The spectator enclosure is not large, by any means, but affords a simply fantastic sight of cars on the limits of adhesion, threading the needle. The contours are packed, the slopes sheer. You can look down on the top of a car at one point, scramble down a slope, and suddenly the cars appear above you as they exit, trying to stay off the kerb, which will upset the balance before the next turn. Which is The Elbow, virtually a hairpin, and the final corner before another iconic name in motor sport - the Conrod Straight.
Conrod Straight is aptly named. Unlike some ‘straights’ in motor sport, Conrod Straight is arrow-like for two kilometres. Downhill but undulating, it finally arrives at the ‘Chase’, a fast right handed swerve into the newly built-chicane that leads back to the start finish straight.
Anyone who has visited a famous place will know the feeling: the recognition that the images hitting your retinas are images that you’ve seen before, in pictures from books, magazines or TV. It happened to me the first time I went to Le Mans. Seeing the Dunlop Bridge, knowing that cars would be going light before heading downhill towards the esses, where they would swing left, then back to the right and slightly uphill. It was all familiar and yet simultaneously wonderful.
The same thing happened as we came to Bathurst. First had been the sight of the words ‘Mount Panorama’ painted on the side of the hill, but then as I turned the rental car through the gates and into the circuit came the recognition that we were on the startline, driving over the grid markings, heading towards Turn 1 – Hell’s Corner! The pits were on our left, and countless replays of touring car races from the eighties flooded my mind.
A few minutes later, and I was lost in a camp site, trying to find my way into the paddock. “Can I help you, mate?” came a voice from a man dressed in a singlet, sounding a bit as if he meant: “Get off my land!” I explained my predicament and his swarthy features cracked into a smile. “You need to turn round, head back up there, turn left up the hill, then go back down again!” he said (I think).
Finally, we (Shea Adam and I) found our way to the media centre, and found an even more hearty welcome. Without question, they do things (motorsport-wise) differently in Australia (timing to four decimal places for example). Unlike in the USA though, they don’t seem to justify – nor defend – such differences; simply put, it is merely different, live with it.
As a race, it worked extremely well. I could go off on a rant about safety cars, but that would be churlish. The 12-hour format, all in daylight, was great, the entry was good, and the most deserving, if not the quickest, team won.
As a circuit, it is a bit like a cross between Nürburgring and Cadwell Park. But somehow that over-simplifies the matter, as it fails to take account of the ‘Australian-ness’ of the place. Despite being more famous for its Grand Prix circuits at Adelaide and Melbourne, something about Bathurst encapsulates Australian Motor Racing. They called the Bathurst 1000 “The Great Race” for a reason.
If you get the chance to go, then take it, you won’t be disappointed. The organisers said that there were 22,000 there this year, and that is likely to continue growing. I hope, I really, really do hope, that I get the chance to go again – and it’s the sort of place that my family would enjoy as well.