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Why the Bathurst 12 Hour is an event not to miss


Rod Salmon is not your average racecar driver, and neither is Felix Baumgartner.

Salmon is a Sydney hotelier and online entrepreneur, while Baumgartner is best known as the crazy Austrian who parachuted from the edge of space.

But both of them fit right in at the Bathurst 12-Hour, a race that takes Mount Panorama back to its showroom roots.

It's not your everyday showroom, as exotics brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Bentley and McLaren dominate the entry list, but these are still cars that are far closer to the real world than any V8Supercar.

Best of all, they all look and sound different. And, since they have different strengths and weaknesses, there is constant track action as they swap places around Mount Panorama. And that's without worrying about the tail-end tiddlers in cars such as the 1-Series BMWs who contribute to the healthiest starting grid since the 1980s.

"Why do I race? I caught the bug and I cannot get it out of my system," Salmon tells CarsGuide.

"I'm a gentleman driver, not a professional, but I can still compete here with some of the best blokes in the world.

The 12-hour includes some of the world's best long-distance racers

"I'm 55 next week, so I have a few things to tick off the Bucket List. This is one."

Salmon owns his Audi R8 racer but Baumgartner, a world- class and world-renowned thrill seeker, is at Bathurst as a guest of Audi. He's in an R8 to satisfy his need for speed.

"This is fun. Just great," he says.

The driver lineup for the 12-hour includes some of the world's best long-distance racers, and former V8Supercar runners John Bowe, Warren Luff and Greg Crick, but the current stars have been banned from the action by a clashing touring car test at Sydney Motorsport Park.

No-one is remotely surprised that Craig Lowndes and Rick Kelly would prefer to be spending the weekend at Bathurst, or that the 12-Hour telecast comprehensively trumps the broadcast numbers for the rival event in Sydney.

The 12-Hour is a wacky race, from the drivers to the cars, and the Mercedes-Benz pacecar is called out a record 20 times after some sort of on-track incident.

But the cars are fast and spectacular and it's easy to tell them apart. Especially when you see a brutal Benz SLS going head-to-head with an exotic Ferrari 458 and a giant-but-gentlemanly Bentley Continental.

There is a respectable crowd at the 12-Hour and the carpark is full of old Bristols and MG sports cars, shiny new McLarens and even a 50-car cavalcade of Mercedes-Benzes, dominated by the brand's hot AMG models.

As always, Mount Panorama stars — from the spectacle of a start in darkness through to the final fight to the flag.

The 12-Hour is more than just a race and it is growing fast

In the end, it's a Nissan GT-R that gets home first — as Godzilla conquers the Mountain for the first time since Mark Skaife and Jim Richards — with a blanket finish for the minor places.

But the 12-Hour is more than just a race and it is growing fast. There are seven factory-backed teams in 2015 and this will grow again for 2016, with Audi, Bentley and Mercedes-Benz already committed to next year's race.

"This race and this place is something special. It's not only the track, it's the atmosphere and the racing and all the rest," says Romolo Liebchen, head of Audi's giant Customer Racing Division.

GT sports car racing is more than a passing fad

"Australia has a relatively small car market, but it is very important for performance cars and also as a place to compete with our customers. It is clear this race will continue to grow."

GENTLEMEN RACERS

A Bentley at Bathurst is so wrong that it’s right.

I feel as if I’ve been invited into the sitting room of Le Mans winner Guy Smith’s home in Britain as I slide into his Continental GT3-R for a relatively quiet lap of Mount Panorama.

This is the roadgoing version of the car Smith is racing in the 12-hour, with everything I expect from an ultra-luxury Bentley coupe. There are sumptuous leather seats and all the luxury fruit.

  • Bentley Continental GT3-R before the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3-R before the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3-R before the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3-R before the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3-R before the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3-R before the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.

 

Then Smith opens the taps on Mountain Straight and we’re aa-www-aaaay.

It’s not remotely what I expect from a car that weighs nearly two tonnes and costs more than $600,000.

Bentley has done a serious job on this car. It has 427kW and 700Nm in the engine room, which — with special gearing and a bunch of other changes — means it can slingshot to 100km/h in just 3.8 secs. That’s exactly what Smith does, calmly giving his first impression of the circuit. “It’s a tricky place, isn’t it? It takes a bit of learning,” he says.

On Sunday afternoon, long after this memorable run down the mountain, he and his team should have been podium finishers. A cruel punt on the final corner drops them to fourth at the flag. Bentley is committed to come back in 2016 and I’m looking forward to another visit to Smith’s sitting room.

BIG SPENDERS ON THE GRID

GT sports car racing is more than a passing fad. A total of 13 car brands now have official programs in the global category, following a decision by Cadillac this year to join the track action with its CTS-V coupe, and they are spending big as bait for buyers.

Cadillac will be joining everyone from Aston Martin and Audi to Lamborghini, Ferrari, and even Mercedes-Benz at the sharp end of GT racing.

It's a crazy category because the cars look so outrageous. The purchase price, from about $600,000, makes them relatively affordable.

In comparison, a homegrown V8Supercar can easily top $500,000 as a turnkey racer.

The big difference between Australia and the rest of the world is the scale, with carmakers doing big numbers and making serious dollars from their motorsport divisions.

Mercedes-Benz still has 20 cars to build before it switches from its current SLS to the GT3 version of the new coupe.

  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.
  • Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour. Bentley Continental GT3 at the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour.

 

Bentley has built 18 Continental GTs for racing.

Audi tops the pile, having built 136 track versions of its R8, with 126 currently still in action including the car that took pole position for the Bathurst 12-Hour.