Feature: History of Bathurst - Mount Panorama

By: John Wright, Photography by: Marque Publishing/Autopics

Presented by

History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst
Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst Feature: History of Bathurst

Tighten your helmet strap as we look at how a pleasant country drive became the greatest racetrack on the planet...

Feature: History of Bathurst - Mount Panorama
Feature: History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama

 

History of Bathurst: Mount Panorama

THE SCENIC TOUR

Racetracks that serve as public roads for most days of the year are usually different in kind from purpose-built circuits, but none is more different than Mount Panorama. There are sections of this circuit that prove demanding on a normal weekday drive at 60km/h. Take the Dipper, for example.

I raced at Bathurst once, in the 1995 James Hardie 12-Hour, and I decided the best way to familiarise myself with the track before it was closed was to do plenty of laps.

My resolve was not to stray far above the speed limit, always remembering there is two-way traffic and often a police presence. It’s not the Nürburgring, where you just pay up and drive as fast as you like. Even at 60km/h, though, dropping down the Dipper on your own side of the road feels almost like racing…

When the Black Falcon/Erebus Mercedes-Benz team inspected the racetrack prior to the 2012 Bathurst 12-Hour, there were two particular sections that provoked astonishment from driver Jeroen Bleekemolen. One of Black Falcon’s race engineers, Rick Kemp, says that when they walked down from Skyline to the Dipper, the outspoken racer expressed the view that his SLS would not be able to negotiate such a drastic change in elevation, that the car would not physically cope with the track.

But the bit that causes the greatest consternation to most drivers new to the circuit, says Kemp, is the right turn at the end of Mountain Straight through Griffin Bend. Bleekemolen thought that this would not normally be part of the racetrack but would be an access road.

Such responses have not stopped many from mastering Mount Panorama. Back in 1965 Paddy Hopkirk and Timo Makinen finished third outright in their Mini Cooper S. The following year Bob Holden and Rauno Aaltonen won the race, while Nissan works drivers Moto Kitamo and Kunimitsu Takahashi won Class A (up to $1800) in their Datsun 1300. As Bill Tuckey wrote in his memorable Australia’s Greatest Motor Race: 1960-1989: "the old myth about European drivers not being able to handle the circuit had been well and truly laid to rest by the performance of the TWR and Schnitzer crews in the 1985 Great Race."

The Mount Panorama tourist drive of just over 3.8 miles (6.2km) was completed in 1938, but it was always going to be a racetrack.

Walter J. McPhillamy, a former mayor, owned much of the land in the Bald Hills area and donated 15 acres at the summit to be used as a park. A quaint sign expresses the purpose: ‘Relax for a spell, enjoy the view, stop at McPhillamy Park at the top of Mt Panorama’.

Of course, it’s the last place a driver would want to stop. The legendary Allan Moffat has been filmed at McPhillamy, commenting on overseas drivers saying, "Thanks for the scenic tour, but shouldn’t we get to the track!"

Perhaps it’s fitting that the bend which begins the serious climb up the montain is named for Martin Griffin. In 1936, as mayor of Bathurst City Council, Griffin proposed a Mount Panorama Scenic Drive; the previous year there had been an expression of desire for a racetrack, sponsored by the Light Car Club of NSW.

Griffin knew that once the NSW Government had contributed funds for this so-called Scenic Drive, it could then be used as a racetrack bringing extra revenue to the state’s first inland town. The Light Car Club contributed guidelines on achieving this in 1937. Hughie Reid (yes, Reid Park!) designed the road, using existing tracks wherever possible.

On 17 March 1938 Mayor Griffin officially opened the Mount Panorama Scenic Drive. Racing began at Easter with the Australian Tourist Trophy for motorcycles on 16 April followed by the Australian Grand Prix two days later. It now seems difficult to believe that bikes and cars averaged 60mph (96km/h) on that treacherous dirt track with no safety guards. More than 20,000 spectators consumed all the food and drink that Bathurst could provide, and there were just 12 toilets at the circuit; six on Pit Straight and six at McPhillamy Park. After the early successes, the track was sealed in November 1938.

Thanks to World War II, there was no racing after Easter 1940 through to 1946. A large army camp situated near Forrest’s Elbow caused some damage to the track.

Until 1963 the Mount Panorama circuit was more famous for motorcycle racing than cars, but the relocation of the Armstrong 500 for the Series Production category gradually changed that. Now, when the single word ‘Bathurst’ is uttered, most people think ‘motor racing’.

By this time the track had been paved but remained otherwise pretty much as it had been in 1938. Slowly, safety improvements were made, with armco introduced on the hairier sections such as Skyline and the entry to Pit Straight. Still, a small mistake could mean a colossal crash.

The opening lap of the 1969 Hardie-Ferodo 500 highlighted the perils of this tortuous track. Bill Brown attempted an inside pass over Skyline on Mike Savva in a similar car. Savva didn’t see Brown coming, leaving Brown to swerve to the right and put two wheels up on the steep grass bank. The car rolled horrifyingly and a quarter of the field was caught up in the ensuing melee.

Two years later the luckless Brown had an even more terrifying rollover at McPhillamy and escaped death only by virtue of his rollcage...and his seat breaking!

In 1983 Dick Johnson brushed the concrete wall at Forrest’s Elbow, then clipped the protruding tyre wall as he tried to gather it up. The XE Falcon’s steering broke and the car flew off the track and into the so-close trees, utterly destroying itself. Amazingly, Johnson incurred no serious injury.

Over the years this unforgiving circuit has hosted many such crashes. Astonishingly, although three racers (two in cars, one on a bike) had died on the circuit by 1963, it was 23 years before there would be a fatality in the Bathurst enduro. In 1986 Mike Burgmann’s VK Commodore became airborne over the second hump on Conrod. Landing badly, it flew off the track and crashed into a tyre barrier at high speed. For years there had been talk about the risk of this kind of crash with the much higher speeds the cars were attaining.

The major changes made to Mount Panorama for 1987, however, did not occur solely or directly because of Burgmann’s tragic death. That was the first year of the ill-fated World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) and Bathurst was to host the Australian round. There were rules about the length of straights and Conrod had to be shortened. The second hump disappeared and Caltex Chase was built. Protective concrete walls, widened grass verges, upgraded sand traps and debris fencing were also part of what was required for the circuit to meet FIA international standards.

Of course, what suited cars didn’t suit motorcycles. The concrete walls and lack of suitable runoff areas in many parts drove the motorcycles away; Phillip Island is now the mecca for bikes that Mount Panorama once was.

The V8 Supercars have become synonymous with Bathurst but in my view it was always the series production cars that best showcased this awesome circuit. It was a place that might have been designed to prove the old saying that there is no substitute for cubic inches. Few other circuits favour power (or brakes) as much as Bathurst.

Bill Tuckey memorably wrote: "…the R8 Renaults would rush past everything under brakes at the bottom of Conrod and then grind their teeth in rage as they were out-dragged up the hill and out-handled down through the Esses by the Mini-Coopers that were steadily drawing away." In those early years the Studebaker Larks were easily fastest but their appalling brakes meant they were never in serious contention, apart from in the opening laps.

The XR Falcon GT had better brakes than a Lark but couldn’t equal the stopping power of the 1.6-litre Alfa Romeo GTVs. Over 500 miles on any other track the Alfas would doubtless have beaten the Fords, but topography was what made the difference at Bathurst: No matter how much quicker the Italians cars were under brakes or across the top of the mountain, they could not make up for the time lost from the start of Mountain Straight to McPhillamy Park.

For nine years Mount Panorama showcased production car racing probably better than anywhere else in the world. But the special cars created by the manufacturers with the specific purpose of winning at Bathurst became so special that a story by the late Evan Green in the Sydney Sun-Herald brought that wonderful era to an end.

SPEEDS AT BATHURST

Peter Whitehead’s ERA took 2hrs, 46min and 50sec to cover 40 laps and take the chequered flag in 1938. This means he averaged 4min 10sec per lap and 55.4mph (89.3km/h).

Fast-forward to 1963 and Bob Jane and Harry Firth won the Armstrong 500 with an average lap time of 3min 35sec, at a whisker under 65mph (104.7km/h).

It was not until 1971 when Allan Moffat won solo in his Ford XY GT-HO Phase III that average lap times dropped below three minutes (2min 51sec, an average of almost 90mph/145km/h).

Even though an official lap record can only be set during a race, in 1982 Allan Grice recorded the first ever 100mph (161km/h) circuit when he did a 2min 17.8sec qualifier.

With the advent of Caltex Chase in 1987 most experts agreed the extra 400 metres of squiggly track added about four to five seconds to the lap time of a Group A touring car. The fastest race lap that year, in mixed conditions, was 2min 22.5sec, recorded by Andrew Miedecke’s Sierra RS500.

Chris Gilmour set Bathurst’s current lap record at 2min 04.6187sec in his Formula 3 Dallara F307-Mercedes-Benz on 8 April 2012. The fastest Australian GT Championship cars are within a couple of seconds of this time, with the current V8 Supercar crop a little further back.

QUIRKY ENTRIES

Numerous unexpected cars have competed at Mount Panorama. Our favourite oddballs include: The Bill Burns and Brian Lawler Humber Super Snipe, which entered the inaugural Bathurst-held Armstrong 500 in 1963. It completed 21 of 130 laps.

Bill Buckle and Brian Foley’s Citroën ID19 in Class D (£1201-£2000) for 1964. Amazingly it finished third in class and the feisty Frenchie was only six laps behind the first overall car home, the Ford Cortina GT of Bob Jane and George Reynolds.

Barry Sharp and Lindsay Derriman drove a behemoth Dodge Phoenix auto (!) in Class E (over $4500, an unlimited class for the first time) completing 118 laps in 1967, the year Harry Firth and Fred Gibson won with their Ford XR Falcon GT.

The ex-Ken Tubman 1970 Ampol Trial Triumph 2.5 PI was shared by Lyndon McLeod and Brian Culcheth at Mount Panorama that year. The latter had driven a similar car to second place in that year’s World Cup Rally. They qualified 37th and completed 111 laps.

 

*****

More reviews:

> Bathurst Sierras review here

> VIDEO: Bathurst Sierras review here

> Bathurst legends part 1: Ford Falcon XR GT
> Bathurst legends part 2: Ford Falcon XY GT-HO Phase III
> Bathurst legends part 3: Holden LJ Torana GTR XU-1
> Bathurst legends part 4: Ford XC Falcon Hardtop
> Bathurst legends part 5: Holden Torana A9X
> Bathurst legends part 6: Ford XD Falcon
> Bathurst legends part 7: Ford Sierra

Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for more unique car reviews and features plus see the latest unique and classic cars for sale.

Subscribe to Unique Cars magazine
- Print edition
- Digital edition