The first six hours of the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour provided an encapsulation of why sportscar fans flock to the famous Mount Panorama Circuit each year for the race that has quickly become an Australian classic.
Fast lap times, screaming GT cars and plenty of wheel-to-wheel action have provided spectators with a thrilling first six hours of racing. Erebus Motorsport’s Jack LeBrocq held the lead under the safety car as the halfway mark passed, ahead of the #15 Phoenix Racing Audi LMS Ultra. LeBrocq took the lead of the race after the leading #15 Audi came into the pits for a routine service, having previously built up a substantial lead over the course of the stint.
The race began at 05:50 local time, with the field of 50 GT and touring cars streaming through Hell Corner and off into the darkness of the fabled mountain. The first lead battle featured Markus Winkelhock in the #15 Audi and Wolfgang Reip in the #35 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, with both drivers exchanging fastest lap times.
After an early caution for an incident between a Class D BMW and a local Kangaroo, Winkelhock took charge of the race by recording a new Bathurst 12 Hour lap record of 2.03.3091 on lap 29. The German’s impressive time was half a second quicker than the previous lap record set by Shane van Gisbergen 12 months ago.
The race has featured nine safety car periods, including one on lap 96 to retrieve former Bathurst 12 Hour winner Peter Fitzgerald’s stricken #2 Audi R8 LMS ultra that had been forced into a high speed spin at The Chase following contact with a Bentley.
Cautions were also called in the second hour for separate incidents involving the #14 Peter Conroy Motorsport Class B Porsche and the #51 IMAK KWIKMIT Porsche 911 GT3 which lost control at Forest Elbow.
Nissan’s NISMO Athlete Global Team has been one of the stand-out entries so far. Pro driver Wolfgang Reip was the only competitor to provide an answer to Winkelhock’s early pace, while his relatively inexperienced team-mate Florian Strauss showed maturity and skill by taking the Nissan GT-R NISMO into the lead of the race with a pass on Dean Canto’s #36 Erebus Motorsport Mercedes SLS AMG on lap 115.
The race leading #36 Erebus Motorsport Mercedes has inevitably been in the thick of the top five action, with former V8 Supercar driver Canto engaging in a particularly exciting period of close-quarters racing with Christopher Haase in the #16 Phoenix Racing Audi. LeBrocq then inherited the lead of the race after the leading #15 Audi of Vanthoor came into the pits for a service under yellows
Meanwhile, the #97 Craft Bamboo Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT3 of Alex MacDowall has continued to put pressure on the leading cars. The former WTCC driver used his tin-top racing ability to harry the Erebus Mercedes for much of the fifth hour. The #97 machine is currently 4th overall, with Stefan Mucke at the wheel.
Bentley’s first visit to Mount Panorama has not come without incident. The #11 car has been the recipient of a number of penalties for pitlane and restart violations, while the #10 sister car experienced a scary moment at the top of mountain when Matt Bell missed his braking point and careered through the gravel. Bell later took the lead, but was forced to pit immediately after falling ill at the wheel.
The #8 Am class Flying B Motorsport Bentley was given a promising start by David Brabham, and has been on par with the leading cars in terms of pace. However, a spin on cold tyres for Australian motorsport legend John Bowe and a penalty issued at the halfway mark reduced the team to 12th overall.
While the 2014-winning Maranello Motorsport Ferrari 458 Italia was unable to compete following a crash in practice, the #77 AF Corse SRL entry has been quietly lurking in the top ten for much of the race. The team’s alternative pit strategy of refuelling at every safety car period has paid dividends, with Australian driver Stephen Wyatt sitting comfortably in 6th place.
Other cars that are looking to make an impact on the top ten in the second half of the race include the #27 TFM Ferrari Motorsport NZ entry of Graeme Smyth and the #49 Vicious Rumour Racing Ferrari of Andrea Montermini, which has slowly worked its way through the Class A field.
In the all-Porsche Class B category the rate of attrition has been high, with most of the safety car incidents involving cars from this class. The #4 Grove Group entry has dominated proceedings thus far, although the #47 Supabarn Supermarkets 991 GT3 of James Koundouris has managed to regain its place on the lead lap.
In Class C, the #54 Donut King Lotus Exige Cup has ben locked in an intense duel with the #76 Aston Martin Saint Galeen Vantage GT4 for the past hour, however their dice was interrupted by a safety car callout for the retrieval of the #48 Interlloy/M Motorsport Lamborghini Gallardo. Despite leading much of the first six hours the #54 car surrendered the lead at the halfway point, promoting the Aston to first position, albeit with a slim advantage.
Class D has seen the #23 Bruce Lynton BMW M Coupe E82 form a healthy three lap lead over the #28 GWS Personnel BMW 335i E90 entry. Beric Lynton is currently in control, although the aggressive overtaking exhibited by the GT3 cars in the first six hours suggest that the Class D order is far from cemented.
The non-production invitational category has witnessed several exciting turns in fortune for the five squads competing. The #91 MARC Cars Australia Focus V8 was leading the class until the end of the fifth hour when Tim Miles stopped at the beginning of the mountain section. The sister #93 Mazda 3 V8 then inherited the lead, and now holds a slim advantage over its recovering stablemate. In third place is the #43 Stawell CARTage Mazda 3 V8 driven by Michael Robinson, although it sits ten laps behind the class leaders.