This weekend is a very special one as the legendary Bathurst 1000 V8 Supercar race celebrates its 50th anniversary on the ferocious Mt Panorama circuit. It is without doubt the greatest production car race in the world after Le Mans and never fails to deliver plenty of excitement. Bathurst is one of the greatest spectacles in motorsport and perhaps there is a big lesson Formula One can learn from the V8 Supercars.
The Bathurst 1000 is not just an ordinary motor race. It is one of the biggest events in the Australian sporting calendar and attracts millions of TV viewers who would otherwise have no interest in racing. It has become an ingrained part of the nation’s culture and has gone well beyond the appeal of motorsport alone.
There are plenty of reasons why the Bathurst 1000 is so popular in Australia. It is sandwiched nicely between the football and cricket seasons and 50 years of history give the race plenty of character. Bathurst’s remote location also makes it an attractive option for a wild weekend away and many thousands of campers take up that opportunity every year. This year organisers are expecting a four day crowd of approximately 200,000 people, many of whom bought campsite tickets that sold out in 33 minutes.
However, the biggest factor that makes Bathurst such a great event is Mt Panorama itself. The race is so popular because the circuit is genuinely epic and even non-racing fans can instantly recognise that.
There is a lesson here for F1.
Mt Panorama is often described as a mini Nurburgring but that’s not entirely fair because the circuit has its own character.
Once drivers turn left after the start line they begin climbing up the kilometre long ‘mountain straight’ and into the treetops. The circuit then winds its way through a cutting towards the top of the hill where drivers are greeted with a series of superfast blind corners. The downhill run is terrifying as the circuit drops away sharply and the lap finishes with an incredibly quick blast along the plains. Just about every corner on the circuit is an exciting challenge and the drivers believe that anyone who hasn’t been scared there hasn’t gone fast enough.
One of the most amazing features of Mount Panorama is the top speed drivers reach because the V8 Supercars hit 300kph at the end of Conrod Straight. Touring cars. 300kph. That’s insane. Admittedly, Conrod Straight is 1.9 kilometres long and is downhill at the start, but to put it into perspective the top speed for a Grand Prix car at Silverstone is just over 310kph.
If that isn’t crazy enough, the drivers negotiate a flat out right hand kink at the end of Conrod Straight before braking. It’s incredible.
Bathurst is one mighty circuit. If you’ve never seen an onboard lap on YouTube, I highly recommend you do so.
The circuit is hugely demanding and punishes the tiniest mistake. There is little run off and most accidents quickly turn into big ones. The circuit is also a real car breaker and back when touring cars were far less refined than today’s machines it posed a very unique challenge. Cars had to be geared short enough to get up the hill but long enough to come back down. It wreaked havoc on differentials and is still the toughest mechanical challenge for any touring car in the world.
The race lasts seven hours, so just getting to the finish without any mistakes in a car that is fully intact is a remarkable achievement.
All this is important to note for F1. If a circuit is spectacular and popular you will develop a spectacular and popular event that adds value to the championship. Every great story needs a great setting. Creating bland circuits in the middle of nowhere develops bland races that do nothing to attract fans.
If Bathurst was a boring cookie cutter circuit in a paddock the event simply wouldn’t exist. There wouldn’t be anyone willing to travel hundreds of miles to camp there, no-one would be interested in watching seven hours of it on telly, and none of the drivers or teams would consider it a challenge. A boring racetrack would never have been given the chance to become something popular with 50 years of history.
As Herman Tilke fills the F1 calendar with unimaginative generic circuits, Formula One bosses would do well to remember that truly great events need truly great venues. Bathurst is a wonderful case study for motorsport categories everywhere. Build it and they will come.
Once a year the Australian Football League holds a ‘heritage round’ during which all teams abandon their modern stylised jersey designs and play in their original plain colours. The fans love seeing their teams back in their original strips (some of them over a hundred years old) and the clubs love it because they can sell a heap of retro merchandise. It’s a wonderful and simple way to celebrate the sport’s long history.
It’s hard to imagine a ‘heritage round’ taking off in motorsport but this weekend the V8 Supercars are going mighty close.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first great race at Bathurst and no less than ten teams will compete with special one-off liveries commemorating the milestone. At first glance it actually seems a tad ridiculous because a large chunk of the field will be racing in new colours, but the idea is still an interesting one. Many of those teams are running in special ‘retro’ colour schemes from previous years to promote their part in Bathurst’s history.
It’s a fascinating concept and it will be interesting to see if it is warmly accepted or downright confusing for everyone. Some of the retro painted cars look sensational.
Could such a thing ever work in F1?
In the corporately branded world of Formula One it is highly unlikely that teams, or their sponsors, would be happy changing their colour schemes for the sake of it. However, maybe some sort of heritage test session in the winter would be a great way to acknowledge the sport’s history. Wouldn’t it be nice watching a scarlet red Ferrari and a plain silver Mercedes against an orange McLaren? Red Bull might have to go back to their StewartGP colours, Force India could paint theirs like the 7up Jordan, and Williams would have that white and green colour scheme they used n the 1980s. It would look fantastic, especially at a historic circuit like Monza, and it would be a nice way to celebrate the sport’s glorious past.
Encouraging Formula One teams to run in their historic colour schemes may never take-off, but the V8 Supercars have certainly embraced the idea this weekend.
My favourite Bathurst memory
Pole position for any motor race is special because it is the ultimate measure of a driver’s raw speed, but around a challenging and frightening circuit like Bathurst it is an immense honour. There is a lot of prestige attached to pole at Mount Panorama and the lap record is the stuff of legend. The qualifying procedure adds plenty of theatre to the contest and Saturday’s one-lap shootout session is a hotly anticipated spectacle.
Heading into the final qualifying session for the 2003 Bathurst 1000, Greg Murphy was favourite to claim pole. He had been fast all weekend and was the last driver to complete his solitary shootout lap. One of the drivers before him had a set a new lap record and Murphy was hoping he could nail a perfect lap himself and maybe nick a few tenths off it.
Greg Murphy took pole position by over a full second and totally obliterated the lap record. To manage that sort of margin in what is largely a controlled series is simply astonishing. To this day, nine years later, nobody has set a faster pole lap.
Completing a perfect lap on any circuit is a great accomplishment, but to do so under huge pressure at a place like Mt Panorama is mindblowing. The excited commentary and reaction from all team mechanics in the pitlane make the YouTube clip worth watching. It still gives me goosebumps and remains my favourite Bathurst memory.