The world is loaded with picturesque drives, Utopian ski slopes, Umbria's verdant Italian hillsides, Thai coast lines like underwater moonscapes, Botswana's Okavango Delta soaked in wildlife, but there's also the gorgeous climb out from Sydney up through the Blue Mountain passes, twisted and turning for 3 hours of wide open views, deep valleys and scorching dry farmlands after a spate of hot, hot summer weather down under. After the pass' apex, though, you wind downhill through dense and unlimited forested acres onto straighter roads with higher speed limits, closer to the wide open spaces where the unsuspecting kangaroo tend to hop around innocently waiting for an inattentive driver to mow them down. Saw no dead wombats this time, but a red fox and at least 8 roos rendered finished, kaput, no more - all in just 30 or 40 miles. I couldn't help thinking how fortunate it is that way back when this country was occupied more by convicts than kangaroos, there were no cars nor highways, or we'd have lost lots of convicts and actually have a much smaller Australian population right now.
A week ago, tin cup in hand, I flew from New York to LA to Melbourne and for anyone who hasn't experienced the joy of insanity, this is the flight to take. We came to meet with some superannuation funds (long word for pensions) and lunched with a dozen Aussie billionaires which is always fun when, if they knew better, we'd be washing their dishes and shining their shoes for minimum wages. Repeated the process in Sydney on Wednesday-Thursday, spreading the gospel like a born-again money manager should. Then Avis let me take one of their small cars through the Blue Mountains and the world's largest kangaroo cemetery until far in the distance on the left you could see some vague white painted stones high on a hilltop, spelling Mount Panorama, all in capital letters. Los Angeles built massive individual letters on scaffolding that tower white into the sky, bellowing HOLLYWOOD for miles around, nothing subtle at all. Here the local convicts just used some white wash and rearranged the indigenous stones from their fields for the sublime hint that you are about to mount a massive racing challenge, so don't bother to comment on any PR strategy shortcomings or engineering deficiencies. You get a sense that this is Australian damn it, drive our track, if you dare!
Our team is engineered by Taka (same guy who worked with me on the Murphy LMP2 car at Le Mans last year), managed by Flower (Paul Haigh to his parents and daughter), our team of mechanics the same loyal and competent crew led by Ken and Streaky - I know, impossible to know where that kind of nickname comes from except prowess in running naked at midnight through his picturesque village near Leeds - but the English insist on expunging some of the simplest of names like Paul and you end up with Flower or Streaky or Squeaky or whatever his name is. Then of course, the nervous and respectful 3 man driver team, all in awe of this magnificent race track: Markus Winkelhock from Germany (and I am purposefully not distorting his name into Wrinkled something, wouldn't think of it), Eric Lux, star snow boarder and race car competitor the world over and then grandpa who in human years, not dog years, exceeds the combination of the other 2 drivers' ages by at least 3 years. Despite my advantage, they are quicker than I am. Markus is fresh from a very exciting P2 finish 10 days ago at the Daytona 24 Hour in the GT class (actually stood on the P1 podium and picked up a Rolex watch, but 4 hours later after a fresh ruling from officials, had to give all the toys back). Like here, he drove for Audi. Eric and I are fresh from the Sydney airport.
New race suits, boots, gloves, balaclava etc awaited us, so I went through all the gear scribbling my initials on every sock, every flame proof T shirt, even the brand new Stand 21 United Autosports racing boots. Only a solid graduate of the Richard Dean School of Perfecting Anal Compulsive Disorder would ever bother doing this. I looked down with pride, but was a bit humiliated when I saw the team had already asked Stand 21 to stitch our first and second names onto the outside of the boots. Why in the world would I indelibly add my initials to a fine pair of shoes that have my name spelled out like neon signs? The explanation lies somewhere in the RDS of PACD.
Friday morning at 9 AM Markus took the car out to bed discs and try out the expensive new paving - the entire track has been re-done, so any advantage from knowing nuances from prior years is gone. It's dark, it's black, it's shiny but it's sticky. We were all nervous it would take lots of laps to rubber in, but not a problem, except for the flat snouted and wiggly tailed among us who did a great job punting each other off track, three times actually in the first Free Practice session.
In the first Free Practice Session , Markus brought the car in almost immediately to rid the car of a vicious twitch right on the nose of the car - way too tight even in a straight line. Funny, the team used our unchanged and perfect set up from Donington's win last year, but 6 weeks in an unairconditioned container can wreak havoc with your bits and pieces. Right away after the set up changes it became very drivable but the traffic was really abysmal. It was hard to judge much more than sector times - a whole clean lap was really tough to find. There are 6 classes of race car with Matchbox toys like the FIAT Abarth near the bottom of the stack...the Class A Merc's, Audi's, Ferrari's, Nissans, McLarens just swallow those little toys whole and on race day at least one major crash will ensue from having too big an unmatched field on the track together. The promoter loves the year by year increase in a better and bigger field (we're up to 15 Class A GT cars already, 14 GT Class B cars, mainly Porsche and Audis a year or more old in terms of updates). Eric nailed some good sector times and I jumped in just in time to hit a red flag, so did no laps at all.
Our second Free Practice was better for all, including Markus wheeling in a 2 minute 9.9 second lap and P5 when he got out of the car. Truly pretty stunning given he's never driven here before and we're still setting the car up. Eric went out and became a top 5-6 middle stint driver, beating even renowned V8 driver Craig Lowndes' mid-sector times. I got 3 laps at speed and quickly discovered last year's Mercedes have still escaped ant reasonable interpretation of homologation equality. They walk by us like we're camels without water on the uphill and the downhill straights - pretty embarrassing, as there's nothing we can do about it. This year they've introduced a Nissan team as well and they have even more than the Mercedes 15 kph advantage over us.
In our third Free Practice at 4:15 when the high midday heat had begun to slip down to almost bearable, we were experimenting with triple stinting tires to know how far we could stretch the tires under races conditions. The organizers intentionally issue too few sets of tires so everyone has to double stint a few drivers with no tire changes. One set of our Michelins lasted all 3 stints incredibly well, so maybe we can make up some time in the pits.
Markus was going bezerk at an Audi driver holding him up on a fantastically quick lap and it turns out to be an old United Autosports hand, Richard Miens. Winkelhock would lose his factory driver status in a nanosecond if he took out another Audi, but today he came close. In this 1 hour session I did 4 hot laps...not hot as to lap times, as traffic was worse than Times Square on New Year's Eve, but the car was in fine shape just nailing 15-30% of the track at time until I had to slow up for the Matchbox racers. Strange, having flown 9,925 miles to get here, on day one I got to drive a total of just over 27 miles, almost all of it in heavy traffic. Make any sense yet?
All in all, this is a happy occasion except Richard Dean wasn't able to be here this year and my trusted old partner Alain Li said his helmet or boots were too old. He's stopped racing forever actually, I found out when a mutual friend forwarded me his Youtube video of being smacked into the walls of Macau, braking lots of bits, not just on the car.
Tomorrow morning two long mixed Qualifying sessions will be followed by a single 15 minute Class A-only qualifying session...and then we'll know just how far up Markus Winkelhock will start at 6:15 AM on Sunday. Already one car has had significant enough damage sustained in practice that they know they can't fix it in a day and a half, a reminder of how chillingly complex this 6.2 kilometer track is to drive without consequences. Cool, no?
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