Down Under

Nothing describes our final qualifying position more appropriately that this generic description of where Australia sits on the globe. All 3 drivers feel down and out, and our qualifying position (P9) is well under what our expectations had been, especially given Markus' incredible command of the most difficult section of the track (the middle up and over, back down the wriggling roads across the top of Mount Panorama), where he was consistently quickest, even against really experienced GT and Australian V8 drivers who have competed on this impossible track for years and years.

 

However, structurally, the top of the track is bracketed by 2 very long straights separated by the pit lane straight.  After Turn 1, there's a long uphill straight (max 5th gear) where the Merc's, Nissan and McLaren trot past us like we're walking and after Turn 19, there's an even longer downhill straight (top 6th gear, 170 mph) where they walk past us long before the dangerous kink as if we're standing still. This is not how homologation or leveling of unequal cars is supposed to work.

 

Let me step away from the cavern of depression enshrouding our valiant effort to say that today provided an amazing and exciting buffet of nose to nose, edge to edge competition for all the Class A manufacturers as long as you didn't own an Audi, a manufacturer with one of the most admirable endurance racing lineages imaginable. There are 6 Audis in the field this year.  The early, cold/cool morning Qualifying stint, which inexplicably allowed all 6 classes to qualify together, started at 9 AM....best track conditions coupled with worst traffic conditions - Tag One for promoter dunce award. Markus, despite being last or 2nd last on the straights (inadequate straight line speed versus the front runners), manages a maniacally good P5 in that session, despite 3 red flags in one hour as Class A and Class B teams contributed their race cars to the national scrap metal heap with zero chance of being repaired by 6 AM for Sunday's race.

 

At the 1:30 PM prime heat time of the day, another all-comers Qualifying session lasting 40 minutes allowed all the drivers to chalk up their mandatory 3 qualifying timed laps. Tag two for promoter dunce award.  No one changed the order of the early morning rankings, but several more scrap heap efforts were quite successful, one just 3 laps into the session. Let me stress: this is qualifying, not the race. This is Qualifying where you amateurs are not going to beat your Pro's best time from the early cool qualifying run. And the race will last 12 Hours as long as your car shows up at 6:15 on Sunday, and given you've already paid the team the entire outlandish sum of money to come and race in this hot little hell hole, there is absolutely no possible upside to be derived from overdoing it anywhere, much less on the precarious curves of the lady lying across the top of these hills called Lady Mount. Maybe not.

 

My only happy moment was finding a few open laps without traffic and nailing a time slightly faster than my best last year (2 minutes 12.3 seconds).  This weekend I have done a total of 11 laps in advance of tomorrow'sgreen flag. There are few things in life that can propel you from utter fear and anxiety of failing to ecstasy in a matter of minutes - racing is one of them. My first laps yesterday were the first behind a race car wheel since last October and in just a lap or two, all the butterflies had flown and I was attacking the dangerous corners with abandon.  Anyhow, some more beautiful machines from each category except the Fiat Abarths were relegated to the scrap heap, thinning the 44 car field by about 5 or 6 cars. That normally happens after the race starts.

 

The final Qualifying run was at about 3 PM (Tag 3 for the promoter dunce award - this should have been at 9 AM), but this time only for the Class A cars; however the track was very hot and few were likely to better the morning's cool runs in this short 15 minute window. Wrong. With no traffic the Merc's kicked up a storm despite the temperature disadvantage, taking pole away from Mika Salo's Ferrari and the McLaren snatching P3 while the Audi owners all cringed in their garage corners at how blatantly obviously the officials and promoters had ignored our pleas for straight line speed equality. I won't race here again, no matter how we do in the racetomorrow and no matter how much I love to drive this incomparably exciting race track.

 

In part this decision was made after encountering a smiling James O'Brien (the promoter, or dunce, depending on whether you read the previous paragraphs) near our garage after the final Quali session. He was floating on air after the truly exciting and competitive final minutes of the session for all but the Audi drivers. In fact, he was blissfully unaware of the peasants in the back of his bus, so I told him I'd not be returning to compete till he fixed the homologation problems, at which point he started to shout at me, denying there was any inequality at all, he had the FIA homologation king up in the official box, what more could he do, my emails to him these past 2 years only dealt with messed up Safety car Procedures, not homologation (180 degrees wrong)...so I told him I wasn't going to comment on the intellect or reading skills of any FIA official, but I happen to distribute a racing blog to a few hundred friends, many of whom race in these kinds of famous events and they would soon be hearing my view and my strong recommendation to spend their hard earned racing budgets elsewhere. Pink flesh became beetroot enraged red, but so what. I just reminded him that he was the one who won or lost economically if he did or didn't improve this imbalance, but obviously he felt shouting at a 3-event Bathurst veteran was a better policy than listening to what might yet be an elevated experience for all. In my limited business experience, good managers listen first, shout second.

 

It's late on Saturday night after I enjoyed a fabulous bar dinner with old Afrikaner friends from South Africa, an Indian pal from Wall Street days and even a Namibian who went to high school with me in the '60s in darkest Africa - what more could one ask for? They've threatened to be at our garage by 6 AM for the first warm up lap and to be on hand to watch the green flag fly at 6:15. Our team has asked me to shoulder the starting stint duties, so we don't "waste" the innate strengths of Markus Winkelhock's great speed in the stint where the probability of major crashes is highest (dark, most cars on track, worst decision making early in the race before everyone has settled down and accepted this is actually a 12 hour and not a 1 hour race). Why let him trundle along behind a Safety Car at 60 mph - I'm good at that stuff. Tactically Taka has a schedule of single stint driving for all of us, no double stints, given the increasing temperatures expected tomorrow. Smart.

 

Good night, as I have to rise just before 5 AM.

 

 

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