The Lizard of Oz

Waking at 3:45 AM this morning probably gives you some sense of the anticipation and enthusiasm we all feel as race day approaches.  Swung back and forth between naps until the alarm said it's 5:30 AM and time to go.  Micro-bite for breakfast and togged up by 6:40 (which would have been 10 minutes into last year's race) so we could go out comfortably in the 5 minute pit lane window.  Last year it was pitch black at the race start, but a 7 AM start is just perfect.

Having studied the rules like a Talmudic scholar, it was a bit puzzling that the 3 driver average Quali time rule had been ignored; apparently the wombat was on holiday so they reverted to a simpler qualifying rule - the tried and true fastest driver time.  I was starting in P14 (Brendon's time), but most teams were starting the race with their ace driver versus us with a bloody grandfather.  This meant I'd be conceding more passes than any self-respecting driver can stand - and that's exactly what happened.  However, before going out I was determined to improve on the average Quali results Alain and I had managed to deliver - quite a disappointment for both of us...just ego, not grid position.  So I asked both Alain and Brendon to walk me through each turn one more time, especially all the wriggly bits at the top of the mountain where I knew I was leaving makable time on the track.  Alain like me had precise points of vision, braking markers, turn-in points and lift versus light braking choices to discuss.  Brendon really struggled to remember what he did where, why and was intrigued that we had a crossword puzzle approach to this whole art of driving.  He could barely remember gears for each corner or where he braked.  The sign of a master.  This little lap-chat made all the difference calming me down and raising my confidence that we'd find more speed, but within a few laps we were in P17 despite the car being very stable after our team had raised the ride height a penny and added a sixpence of rear wing to balance the change.

My stint was marred by two long safety car periods, the first a huge hit beyond Turn 2 that took out 2 cars that had looked immaculate before the race started.  On the restart things were moving around, broiling like a Moroccan souque right before Ramadan and I was cursing at a miniature racing car that was impossible to pass right at the top on Skyline, yet again destroying my lap.  In 20 seconds or less I was worshiping at the miniature car altar, as 3 cars had crashed with reckless abandon right at the start of the massive Conrod downhill straight, again creating vast amounts of very high quality scrap metal.  Had I passed the mini-car at the Skyline, our gorgeous Audi would have been wrapped up in that schlamozzle, probably ending our race in under an hour.  Fortunately we resumed in a good place and through the first 3 driver stints we all hovered harmlessly around P14 hoping for more harmony for garage # 2 and an incredible amount of witchcraft voodoo in every other garage.

Once the race found it's pace, it became abundantly clear that the grid had definitely expanded enormously from last year, though irregular homologation and scrutineering had allowed for silly differences in power/speed within our leading class - and you'll be shocked to read that we believe the Audi was not allowed to cheat as much as the Mercedes, Ferrari and Porsches.  The promotors and municipality have worked very hard to improve the entry depth and quality, but . . . without an even hand in the scrutineering bay, interest in the race will fall off fast.  This isn't next door for American, English and German racing teams and unless they level this out, no thanks.

If our ire was roused by changed qualifying math (not a big deal), poor homologation (huge mistake), ignoring the Wave-By rule was an injustice only western movie plots could allow.  Normally the safety car picks up the race leader and let's lapped cars in the leading class get by.  Creates much more dynamic finishes for endurance racing.  Works well in all other series.  In endurance racing, this keeps the field competing to the end and stops processional racing.  After 3 hours, for example, and after 4 safety car periods, we should have been a lap down, but were 3 laps down.  Sure fire wire to have this field shrink over time.

Eric Petersen sent me out on a 2nd stint with no new tires and the car handled everything perfectly.  I broke down into the 13 second lap area repeatedly and pulled a 2:12.5 out of somewhere obscure..  And so it went with lots of crashes, lots of safety car periods, though not a misstep by our 3 drivers, not a scratch on the car.  The stints dragged on and Audi relentlessly provided high quality dining and relaxation in air conditioned space upstairs.  Feeling like a million bucks and disappointed to be the first guy hopping in for his final stint, we were running P7 with a fighting chance at another position or two.

Halway through Eric radioed an idea they'd discussed, which was to save one driver change and have me stay out longer and then hand the finishing stint to Brandon, hurting my feelings irreparably.  Loved it.  The car was on fire and the lap times kept looking good, up and down in traffic and depending on where you caught it, but another 2:12.7 showed up which made the whole trip start to feel rewarding.  Out of the blue, vast black clouds towered into the sky and predictions were for heavy rains, possibly hail, severe winds and a 10 year locust outbreak.  No hail and no locusts, but out on slicks, down came the rain in buckets, reducing the field to 70 kph and cars sliding all over the place.  Some cars pitted immediately for wet tires, while we stayed out.

Up to this point as a team the sum of our sins was one drive through for pit lane speeding.  Not a mechanics hand had been misplaced, not a driver finding a wall, not a scratch on the car, not a single Audi part parted ways....this was classic endurance racing of the best kind.  We only missed Mother Luck - got no easy breaks on pitting strategy, bit otherwise a perfect race.  We were 5th and had a slight shot at 4th, but then the lizard got loose and things didn't go to plan.

Somehow we were back in P7 again and it began to rain heavily again though less so in the pit area.  The race had only a handful of laps left when our car spun and slid across the quicksilver coating on the road, tapping the wall and hurting our left rear wheel.  Out of slicks in the rain at Bathurst is not a recipe for edible cake.  Turns out we couldn't get the wheel off in the pitts before the race ended and under the brutal rules that apply out here, the 23 car that was running P7 with less than 6 minutes to go, was designated not to have finished (DNF).  Ouch.

So much to be grateful for, so much we learned, so much went right and one or two tiny calls at the end proved too adventurous at the time and we have to return home knowing we were less than 1% away from completing on of the world's toughest and most challenging 12 hour endurance races very close to the podium in a flawless car.

We traveled more than halfway round the world to compete here and can't help but feel like we're leaving a bit empty handed.

End     R A C E    R E P O R T #2