Last weekend was supposed to be my first weekend at home for a while after going away to the Dubai 24hrs in early January and then on to visit family in Australia. I was due to fly home last Tuesday but instead found myself heading to Bathurst to compete on the famous Mount Panorama.
Since Le Mans I have been quite busy. 2015 saw me racing for four different co-drivers and team in the Radical European Masters series and I am proud to say we led races and scored podiums with each one. There was no let up at the end of the “normal” racing season. I did a round of the AsLMS for AAI Motorsport helping them make progress with their Adess LMP3, and I drove a Ferrari 458 for Dragon Racing at the Gulf 12hr and Dubai 24hr working with long time co-driver and friend John Hartshorne. While most of my experience is in prototype machinery I have been trying to get more GT miles as there are far more opportunities for pro drives available in GT than prototypes. Driving a GT is a very different style to learn but I am glad to say that I feel I finally cracked it around Bathurst this weekend. Here is what happened…
After the Dubai 24hr my wife Jenna and I flew to Sydney to visit her sister who has just had a new baby. I had my kit with me and was conscious that Bathurst was the week I went home, this seemed too good an opportunity to let pass and so my first few days in Sydney were spent making contact with teams on the entry list to see if any of them still needed a driver. The feedback was there were no spaces and almost all had their driver line ups sorted. I contacted the series organisers and got myself on their driver/ride board just in case anything changed.
I heard nothing and gave up hope of being at Bathurst this year so on Tuesday morning I got up and packed my bag ready to head home. We had a couple of hours to kill before the flight left so headed down to Bondi beach for one last hour of sun before heading to the airport. As we arrived at the beach I received a message from Mirco Schultis asking if I was still in Australia as he would be keen to chat if so. I replied that I was, and the message came back, “Well you are European so I guess you are at Bondi, come and meet me for a coffee”. From where I was I could almost see the café where he was sitting, and within a few minutes we were chatting. Mirco had flown his Mercedes SLS over for the race and was being partnered by Renger Van Der Zande and Patrick Simon. I had met Mirco at an ELMS race in 2011 and had been copying him on my press releases ever since so he was up to date on my progress. He had decided that he wanted a fourth driver in the car and had seen my name on the driver/ride board. Within the hour were in a car on the way to Bathurst.
Mirco, Patrick and myself at Mirco’s new Bondi Office – Gusto Espresso Bar
We arrived at the circuit late on Tuesday night and the first thing we did was do a few of laps of the circuit. The word awesome is overused but not when describing this place. Parts of it make the Nordschleife look tame. Imagine the faster sections of the Nordschleife with more extreme elevation and waist high concrete walls lining the track, many of which have a steep drop on the other side. All this with the stunning backdrop from Mount Panorama makes what is now my favourite and the most challenging track I have ever driven.
By the third lap in the hire car we had figured out which way it went and had a little speed on turning into Turn 2 just as a five foot high kangaroo jumped over the fence, bounced off the apex kerb and shot in front of us. We missed it but were all in hysterics about how crazy the place was. As if it needed to be made harder we now had Skippy and his mates playing chicken.
The car was entered under Mirco’s Mishumotors banner but was being run by the excellent Erebus Motorsport. The Erebus owned cars had all been prepared weeks ago and had also been to a shakedown test to iron out any bugs. When we got to the circuit on Wednesday to meet the team, the car had not arrived yet, a delay meaning that it did not arrive until late on Wednesday afternoon. When it did turn up it looked stunning in the Martini livery and certainly drew a lot of attention in the paddock as the team set about seeing what they had to work with. The guys found a few issues with the car and worked late into the night to try to get the car ready before scrutineering on Thursday.
The car looked great in the Martini livery
For the drivers most of Wednesday was spent with Bathurst local driver Mike Reedy. Mike now spends his time as a driver coach in Europe but his home town is Bathurst. He was at home over the European winter and had offered to show us around the circuit and give us a few tips. This was really helpful as all four of us were new to the circuit and I really want to thank Mike for giving up his time to help us.
By now I was getting to know Mirco and Patrick and was really enjoying their company. Co-driver Renger van der Zande arrived later on Thursday afternoon after a delayed flight from Daytona via Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi and I was pleased to find that he is one of the nicest guys in racing. He knew the Mercedes well and is down to drive for them at the Nurburgring and Macau this year so it was nice to know we had a good benchmark in the car. Erebus were also employing no less than four AMG works drivers for the race namely Bernd Schneider, Maro Engel, Thomas Jaeger and Nico Bastian so we were not going to be short of a reference lap or two.
There was an Erebus team barbeque on the Wednesday evening put on by team owner Betty Klimenko. She does a great job of making everyone feel welcome and looking after us all. I met all the other drivers in the team and had to pinch myself at one point when I realised that instead of being at Heathrow collecting my luggage I was at Bathurst having a joke with and being taught German swear words by Bernd Schneider.
Thursday was another day of preparation with another trackwalk, getting radios checked and working, seat fits for all four drivers, and again it ended up being another late night as the team found more things on the car that were not to their liking.
After what seemed like endless waiting, Friday practice finally came round and the first two sessions were used by Mirco, Patrick and Renger to get some laps. I got my first six laps of the circuit in FP3 after lunch. The track was every bit as challenging as it looked but the car felt very nervous at the rear which was not what we wanted with the walls so close. We kept working on the set up and the guys felt that they had improved it by the end of the day. I did not get another run that afternoon but knew we would benefit more if we could give Mirco more seat time and it worked as his times came down as he got more confident and was much more relaxed as we left the circuit on Friday evening. As a silver driver you generally get the least running as the gold driver usually sets the car up and does qualifying and the bronze driver needs the lion’s share of the laps to get more confident. As we had four drivers in the car we each were going to get less time. As most of my drives come at the last minute I have got used to learning circuits and cars quickly and this helped a lot this weekend. I normally make sure I have done a simulator session before heading to a new track but this time I did not get chance for obvious reasons.
Saturday morning saw me get another short run and the car actually felt worse. We had copied the set up from the other team cars overnight but something did not feel right. We had tons of oversteer and so again we kept changing the car to give a more solid rear end. Myself and Patrick did another three laps each at the start of qualifying and we both felt we had improved it but were not quite there yet. Our times all dropped by a few seconds but when Renger qualified near the back of the field we knew something was still not right.
Driver’s briefing had a few interesting extras that you do not get in Europe, namely instructions on the “Kangaroo Flag” and a warning that if you park the car and climb over the wall out on track, then “Things that look like sticks may not be sticks” referring to the deadly brown snakes found in the region…as if it was not dangerous enough already!
As we headed back to the house the Erebus guys again worked late on the car on Saturday night and when we arrived on Sunday we were told they had found a cracked suspension pick up point. We are not sure if this definitely was the issue, but it felt like a different car on Sunday, it even had a bit of understeer, probably from all the changes we had made trying to cure the oversteer issue. I want to thank Betty and all the guys and girls from Erebus Motorsport who worked so hard not only to make our car fast and reliable but also to make us feel welcome.
The other unusual thing about the Bathurst 12 Hours is that the race starts at 5.45am on the Sunday morning. In Australia the TV schedules are planned around the six o’clock news and apparently this never changes. The race has to finish at 5.45pm in order to allow time for the podium to be broadcast before the news. So this means a very early morning start and driving the mountain in the dark for the first half hour or so. There are no mandatory night practice sessions here at Bathurst, that stuff is for those soft Europeans trying to make it easy on themselves again!
Renger was down to start our car with me second then Mirco and Patrick. We left the house at 4.45am and it was a strange feeling being stood on the grid before the sun came up.
Renger and I on the grid before the start at 5.45am
At the start Renger did extremely well to dodge a spinning Mika Salo at Turn 2 and as the sun came up he worked his way up from 20th to 13th. He was obviously happier with the car as he beat his qualifying time despite starting on his qualifying tyres and having more fuel on board. We pitted at 1hr 15mins and I jumped in. We opted not to change tyres as we expected that we could double stint them. Our stop only cost us one position and I headed back out in 14th. It was great to get a decent long run in the car and immediately felt that the car was way better than in practice. I got into a rhythm and got down into the low 2m05s fairly quickly. About forty minutes into my stint the safety car came out so I pitted again for fuel only. By now I was really feeling confident. Bathurst is a place whether confidence means laptime and I managed to get down to a 2m04.095 on my last lap before pitting despite the tyres now being three stints and a qualifying session old. We pitted in 8th overall and 2nd in class. I was really happy with that as now it was looking like a good result was possible and I also knew there was more pace to come later on new rubber if we needed it. The highlight of my weekend was walking up to the timing screens to see where we were and Bernd Schneider and Jochen Bitzer (Head of Customer Sport from Mercedes AMG) saying “Well done, good job”. That felt good and meant a lot coming from them.
Mirco and Patrick continued the race for us and were showing well, running inside the top ten overall after five hours, when a small mistake during Patrick’s stint put the car in the wall at the top of the mountain. The car could not be driven back and the damage was too much to repair, we were out.
It was such a shame as we felt we could have won our class had we had a clean run. However anything can happen on a circuit like this and we were all aware of this when we started. If it was easy it would be no fun. Despite the disappointment we had come and shown well on the mountain despite being a team of four Bathurst rookies. Most importantly Mirco had enjoyed the experience.
Personally I was really happy with my performance and my time on old rubber put me 3rd quickest of all the rookie drivers over the weekend behind Maxime Soulet and Rob Bell. I know that I would have been able to find more with another stint but it will have to wait for another visit to the mountain. Considering that at the start of the week I was not even expecting to be there at all I cannot be unhappy. Another great experience chalked up and I am far better prepared if the opportunity arises to return.