Leaving Sydney on Thursday for the 3 hour drive through one of nature's great forests, the Blue Mountains, did bring back loads of good memories, the twisty national roads linking small tourist and agricultural towns, tiny villages and lonely farming families. Last time the weather was completely normal, but this time it's abnormally hot. So while New York and Boston get to enjoys their healthy 100 year snow storm measuring between 24 and 36 inches, we get to sweat it out at 85 degrees with almost no wind. Australia is experiencing far higher temperatures and wild fires abound.
I'd gotten a distressed email while in Sydney from team owner-manger Richard Dean, asking my permission for him to stay in Europe for some important business commitment, which most of us call a skiing holiday. How can you turn the boss down? Now we'd be in the able hands of Paul "Flower" Haigh, a man of racing lore from a bygone era. Deano at least still looks a little bit like a race driver - Flower looks more like he might have swallowed one. Richard's absence meant no physio either as apparently Alice wants to ski too; none of us will let Flower touch us, no matter how bad the injury.
All the Rydge's Hotel rooms face the track so you can't lose, but you can pay more for the suites. This time United Autosports had me booked in a small prison Room 216 down near the final 2nd gear corner on this famous Mount Panorama race track - all at eye level, you can almost touch the cars. The politics of a 40,000 person village wanting or not wanting a loud, famous and noisy race track has been resolved by agreeing to closing this public road 5 times a year, including once for the V8 Super Car race and once for this growing 12 hour bonanza which in a few years won't be the 7 class circus it is now - it'll be a GT-only race cluttered with cars and drivers just like the Spa. 24 and the Sebring 12 Hour GT classes. This year's race line up has 53 cars (versus 27 last year) in 7 classes, 18 in our leading GT "A" class...Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, Lambo, Ferrari, Corvette and a Mosler. As a small sideline, this race also kicks off the first domestic Australian GT race of the 2013 season, normally a 1 hour race. These contestants get to choose to leave the 12 hour race after an hour, or continue on as an entrant in the endurance race. Only four cars have elected to voluntarily leave the race after 1 hour. Involuntarily, a lot more will at this hair raising, demanding racing slinky draped across Mount Panorama, even if it doesn't rain.
This year United Autosports' 23 Audi R8 Ultra has Alain Li from Hong Kong and me accompanied by a Red Bull program driver now working with the Mercedes F1 team, New Zealand's 23 year old Brendon Hartley, born into a committed and experienced racing family. Brendon left home at 15 to room with John Edwards in Europe - I've raced against John as his Dad since the late-1990s. Brendon's got the waist of a bucolic Vogue magazine model, the legs of a flamingo, hair like the king heron and the heart of a lion. He's funny, fast, in fact fantastically fast and Alain and I own him through 7 PM tomorrow night no matter what he thinks of our driving skills. No one's bothered to teach him how to spell that awful 4 letter F word called FEAR.
Despite living in Milton-on-Keynes or Shakespeare-on-Thames (he told me, but I don't recall but it's not far from Silverstone), he's also brought his entire entourage from New Zealand: brother Nelson and his boyfriend Christian, who works for the government, but is much nicer than any other government employee I've ever met. Nelson builds race car parts, races on dirt tracks in overpowered cars and wears a T shirt that says he just broke the Mini Bonneville Flats record (not very small flats, but the tiny British car the Germans bought to prove the Brits didn't really win the war) - at 180 mph...not a sign of triple digit IQ potential.
Friday provided 3 fifty minute practice stints, which Flower dedicated to one driver at a time. Each of us had a new set of tires, but had to live through a red flag event (severe crash) in our stints, forcing a break in the laps. I was sent out first and drove like a bozo who'd never seen the track before. The traffic was horrendous and I was worse, but by the end of the stint had found a very low 2 minute 16 second lap....about the same as last year's practice stint. Not good. "Low" and "2 minute 16 seconds" are not phrases often found in the legendary Bathurst History Book of Racing Heroes. Not to be outdone, Alain went out next and got equally rattled, but trounced me by two-tenths with a 15.9. To add to the embarrassment, the team wouldn't bend and allowed Brendon to go out for his first drive ever in a GT car and his first lap ever at Bathurst. Say no more. Squeezed a bloody 14.8 lap into the books, truly amazing in traffic and given he was still working like a blind kid at a Rubik's cube competition.
That night the charming obligatory driver's reception was hosted by the Bathurst mayor ($500 fine for no-shows), but she's a honey. Spent 10 minutes talking to her and finding out that there are 9 elected counselors and the mayor is elected by them. She is the only woman counselor in Bathurst, but importantly, she has helped muscle Federal and state dollars into the Mount Panorama capital expenditure budgets that have upgraded facilities here immensely.
While earlier weather forecasts called for 3 blue-sky days and zero chance for any rain, these hot and blazing sun drenched days have filled the sky with mountains of moisture broiling into the dark graying heavens, allowing the forecasters now to safely predict 40-60% rain outbursts on Sunday's race day. None of the 3 UAS drivers has run a single wet lap at Mt. Panorama. Saturday's qualifying sessions were dry, but the sky sucked up more and more moisture and by night we saw flashes of lightening and thunder storms, hinting at some good rain tomorrow.
My Qualifying chore was to go out first in the cool of the day at 7:45 AM on new tires and wriggle through traffic looking for the best one-third contribution I could make. Found 2 semi-clean laps in the mid and high 14s (14.4 and 14.8), off of last year's qualifying times by more than half a second. The second third was contributed by Alain in the late morning when the sun was up, as were the temps. He sought once again to pummel my pride with Sino-French racing conviction, hammering home a 14.8 and was almost reduced to tears. To mask our disappointment with his one-third of the qualifying contribution, Brendon put in a near-record lap for a 2nd-stint-ever driver on this track, finding a magnificent 2:08.9. The fastest 5 drivers overall were in the 6s with loads of experience here at Bathurst. Mad salad of nationalities and cars: Mercedes, Ferrari, Ferrari, Lambo, Audi with Aussie driver, a Dane, a Brit, a Dutchman and a German. What counts is the average of the 3 driver times, which left us P14 on the grid for tomorrow's 7 AM race start. Of the 54 drivers competing in the 18 A class GT cars, we ranked 18th, 42nd and 43rd. How mathematically that produces P14 only a wombat could figure out.
After Qualifying two mid-60s South African pals now living in Sydney showed up to revel in the team's activities, attend the Driver Briefing at 4:30 PM and soak up the fumes and burning rubber for a few hours. Away from Bathurst, Gerard Vorster and Les Sharpe are allegedly responsible and adult family men. In garage # 2 today, that would be a hard conclusion to draw.
It's been a great couple of days getting back into the swing of things, especially with a unique talent like Brendon (and you too, Alain, of course). The team has given us a solid car and with the "Ultra" upgrades from Audi, we have even better downforce and more grip...and there are lots of places on a track like this where these come in handy.
Rising just after. 5 AM tomorrow to walk across the Liqui-Moly bridge to the pits to be ready for the 5 minute pit lane window that invites us all out for just one recon lap before gridding up.
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