Great race, third time lucky, but more water please

So, as in all endurance races, most just tried to endure, but many didn't. 28 of the original 44 entrants didn't make the checkered flag, and a handful had the gross misfortune to not even get to see the green flag. The surprising survivors en masse were the minute little Fiat Abarths, always the most irritating with whom to negotiate passes on the twisted turns, hanging in there throughout, bugging all the fast cars with reliability no one would have wagered on. With temperatures rising throughout the day, few drivers risked a double stint - track surface temps hit 60 degrees celsius at one point. The 2 long straights make for mandatory relaxation intervals as the mountain top eats your arms and powers of concentration like a wood chipper.

 

I took the wheel for a third stint and was shocked at how the temperatures affected lap times - 2 seconds worse than the early morning levels. My second stint was on double stinting Michelins that in fast corners only slid a tad towards the end of my stint, but lap times were still 2 seconds better than new tires at the day's peak temperatures. Aggressive ambient conditions, even without rain, accelerate driver errors, mistaken judgments and tire failures. Our little team got through 12 hours with none of that, barring Markus and my hip check hits, one each, that at worst left a little paint on a wall or the enemy car.

 

Almost exactly halfway through the stint my drinks tube seemed to strongly resist any further water induction (not sure what that word means) so I kept plugging away till It stopped functioning entirely. I thought the drinks bottle was empty (strange after only half a stint), but it turns out the helmet clip holding the tube to the helmet had induced (that's where that word came from) a crink or fold in the tube, denying any more water flow. So you either decide to wave a white flag and wail at your team for an off-cycle and therefore harmful pit stop, or you suck it up even though there's nothing left to suck on, and see it through. So I ran through the stint to 90+ liters of fuel consumed (100 per fill max) when Taka at last radioed me into the pits. Now I know what an abandoned camel feels like trying to find Marakesh from a 200 miles away in the middle of dunes, and they even have the advantage of a hump or two.

 

Markus and Eric whittled away at the laps with reliable consistency, with Taka asking me to consider jumping right back in within an hour for one more stint before letting Markus run us to the checkered flag.  Fortunately we encountered enough Safety Car incidents (not fortunate for the aggrieved vehicles) that Markus was asked to simply tackle the final one hour-50 minutes on his own and fight for a long shot 1 position pick-up - hardly an enviable task in these conditions. We never did pick up that spot (the Audi team of factory drivers next door). We'd bumped around between 9th and 6th for much of the first half of the race with P2 being our best place during the entire race. As the clock ticked down, we were sandwiched safely in P6, a lap down to P5 and more than a lap up on P7. Once again, due to the balance of performance oversight regarding all Audis entrants, the only way we could move up was through the demise of our good competitors - hardly what you want to wish on anyone. Due to Audi's near perfect reliability (btw, we never did change the brake pads - ran them 12 hours straight in very demanding conditions), no drive-through penalties and drivers almost devoid of big mistakes (so no damage stops - this is how you win endurance races today), Taka had managed to keep us down to 9 pit stops all day, one of only 2 of the 29 Class A or B cars to do so. The top finishing cars chalked up11 to 13 stops each, in effect handing us between 1 and 3 more laps gratuitously. Yet the record book will show we finished 2+ laps BEHIND the winner...a small part of which can certainly be explained in part by the combination of our driver line up versus their all-pro team, but lies mainly at the feet of improper Balance of Performance reviews and subsequent up/downgrades on ride height, weight and air intake size. So simple. So frustrating given the quality of race we were able to run this time.

 

After 296 grueling laps, 9 Safety Car periods and 14 of the original 40 starting cars already parked for the day, some in small disposable bags, the checkered was out and Ferrari pulled off the win by a few car lengths with two Mercedes Benz taking P2 and P3. The last 15 minutes was a screamer of a race for the well balanced front 4 - truly an epic race finish, gluing a large live, online and TV audience to their seats: a huge toe to toe battle between P1 and P2 with track record holder Craig Lowndes in a Ferrari versus a charging Mercedes, plus the P3-P4 fight  between another Merc and a twin-turbo McLaren, right down to the wire. What a race! The thundering Panzer tanks from Germany growling their way to the front while the Ferrari whistled by like an Italian movie actress trippling along a sidewalk to whistles from a crowd of cheering sailors. Then the sensuously designed turbo whining McLaren with it's instantly recognizable orange and black color scheme, blasting away at the broad shouldered Merc who ceded no spare inches where passes might have been possible. Wonderful to watch, but it's not a great fact to have Mercedes occupy 50% of the past 2 races' podium slots.  Unless you own one of the few Mercedes who entered the race, of course.

 

After the race, Hannes the Hun, an invaluable engineer who is Romolo's senior side kick running Audi's sportcar programs worldwide, gave me some insight into why promoter James O'Brien had brushed me off the day before. Erroneously I had used "homologation" to describe the poor equivalency issue for the Audi's versus all the other car brands...Hannes clarified that the issue is Balance of Performance (homologation is is either phobia about men light in their loafers or it's a very large book of technical descriptions for each part of each car makers products), so I wrote James an apology for getting the terminology wrong, but reinforced the ineptitude of the FIA officials at this race who seemed to perfect the BOP process right up to the moment they took a coffee break when the Audi group of entrants showed up. They're obviously capable, as proved by how tight the sharp end of the grid was across 4 or 5 wildly different race cars, but the FIA had to have dozed off when reviewing our data, which is quite unfortunate.

 

After the race I was given the ultimate compliment when Markus Winkelhock said: "You are nutz, ja! I know what it takes to do 2:08s on this track" (footnote - he did a 2:04, totally insane).  Coming from someone with his skill and blinding speed, this felt wonderful. Taka swore me to silence, but in my third stint, I was lapping at times comparable to the Audi driver, or better occasionally, so I will retire from racing after this report is done. For the team as a whole, for Flower and for Richard Dean who couldn't be there this year, at last on our third try down at Bathurst, we finished this amazing race and came home 6th.

 

Vijay had to leave before the end of the race for business reasons and given we didn't win the race, Les and Gerhard Vorster drove back to Sydney instead of partying all night with lavish trophies, champagne and naked mechanics. Talking about mechanics, they had to rise at 3:30 after changing the gear box and prepping the car on Saturday till 11 PM - if drivers are focused and blindly fanatically, we are no more so than these super-competent, mechanically gifted souls.

 

I had volunteered to meet a wealthy family for breakfast in Sydney at 8 AM on Monday (no choice, flight left for NY at noon), so had to move along myself. Namibian Pete Bassingsthwaighte (spellcheck is having a heart attack with this one), a high school pal from South Africa back in the '60s, and his son-in-law Vic Pearson now living in Australia, decided we'd grab a last quick meal together in gorgeous downtown Bathurst at a cute, thriving, live music pizza spot that offered many selections not normally found in Italy, especially the kangaroo steak one and the crisp spicy crocodile one. I stuck with something the Mafia normally trusts - mozzarella, black olives and pepperoni.   

 

Sadly, I pulled out of Bathurst for the last time at around 9:15 PM but was still flying high from the effects of the race, not worrying about dozing off on the 200 kilometer drive to the hotel.   Maybe 65% back towards Sydney on the edge of their suburbs, I was reminded of the risks of dehydration in racing and what can happen to unravel the best laid racing plans, especially when team mates are involved. My right leg suddenly went bonkers with cramps on the inner thigh, toes and places where I didn't think muscles existed. I whipped the car off the road, dived into a side street and leapt from the car like a drug addict hopping about unbalanced, doubled over and yelping like a wounded critter in the pitch of night. This incident (grateful that conversion to left foot braking saved the day inside the race car) and the long drive itself, ensured I checked into the hotel right after midnight and met with the client at 7:45 AM Monday morning for some eggs, toast and hedge fund talk. I was barely coherent. 

 

However, February 9th 2014 had been a very good, full day in my life.

 

 

E N D    OF   R A C E   R E P O R T   # 5