Wow, what a weekend! It wasn’t my first race at the legendary Mount Panorama track in Australia, but it was my first Bathurst 1000 and it turned out pretty good all round. Teamed again with Nick Percat in the #222 Walkinshaw Racing Holden, we survived an eventful race to finish third in the 2014 Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 which was a mega result for Nick and the team. I am also extremely proud to be the first international rookie for this particular event to stand on the podium since Frank Biela (partnering Alan Moffat in a Sierra Cosworth) did so in 1989!
From the first day of running on Thursday it became clear that the new track surface is smoother and has more grip, but everyone was finding it harder to harness that grip and get the most from their cars. You’d see when a particular would suddenly fall into a window of performance and be doing fantastic lap times, while others would be flying off the road and going into the wall. There were so many accidents and incidents – the driving wasn’t necessarily poor but, because of the surface and way it worked, you were always on edge with the car. You had to be so accurate with your line, and how you drove the car, and at times it could be quite unforgiving.
Nick and I worked through a lot of stuff in practice on Thursday and the following day was qualifying. Nick just missed out on the top 10 shoot out by 4/100ths of a second so we knew we had a pretty solid race car. Starting from 11th was by no means a disaster as the race had been won from there many times before. As it turned out, it was won by a car which started last!
So, while people knew the 8-hour race would be eventful no one thought it would be so much of a roller coaster with 10 safety cars, yellow flags, the circuit breaking up so badly at the second corner that they eventually red-flagged the race for an hour while it was re-bonded. They did a good job with that but the corner was very slippery from then on.
Just as at Sandown, the racing was very intense and it was a 1000 Km sprint race where you had to be willing to fight for every inch of the track. You had to be aggressive both in passing and defending; there are a couple of spots which are pretty good for overtaking but they’re mainly at the bottom of the mountain and not up the top.
I knew right from the start of the weekend that my job was going to be to make sure I could hand the car back to Nick in good order and that’s what happened, with Nick driving to the finish. The ambient temperature was around 26/27oC but the sun was strong and track temperatures were up into the high 40s. It seemed like a lot of teams were struggling with cooling in the car whether that was a problem with the cool suits, helmet blowers or whatever, and it was really quite tough for some of those guys towards the end because of heat exhaustion. You’re running the car for so long and, with heat soak, the cabins were getting so hot. One of our Walkinshaw team mates, Tim Slade, had a big problem with his cooling systems and got very overheated which ultimately caused him to have an incident at ‘The Tree’, going off into the wall. Nick was on the radio as we also had some problems in this area within the last 60 laps, and during safety car periods he was opening the door of the car to cool himself down.
Considering all that, he did an amazing job to get to finish without incident. He managed the fuel well, carried off some great passes and moves and got his head round the whole thing, driving with great maturity. Knowing that Jamie Whincup was running low on fuel right at the end created plenty of excitement and tension and set things up for a grandstand finish; everyone was waiting on the pit wall, doing the numbers, and right on the limit of holding it together.
Getting that podium finish was a great relief for so many reasons and, because it was such a tough race for everyone, I had a real sense of achievement. Standing on the podium at Bathurst is up there with Le Mans in intensity and with the huge crowd all around you, screaming for their favourite team. It was magic.
I’m staying now in Australia for a couple more weeks as my next race is the Gold Coast 600 on the 26th October. Cervélo Australia kindly gave me a great deal on a new R5 bike so we’ve got some training going on and then Nick and I are going up to the Gold Coast early because his housemate is racing karts there and he’s going to spanner for him. It won’t be long until we’re into another V8 Supercar race and then it will be all over for another year of racing. Let’s hope Nick and I can finish on an even higher note!
Images thanks to Ben Auld