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May 23, 2016

CRAILLSY'S PENRITE PREVIEW

 

I think there is a real chance that two of the more significant motor races of the 2016 season could be on the program when the Shannons Nationals heads to Phillip Island for Round 2.

In the Australian GT Championship Phillip Island 101 and the Australian Production Car Series’ four-hour enduro there are two key endurance races that will define the respective seasons for both categories.

For the GT cars it’s the first true long-distance test for the field since the outrageous Bathurst 12 Hour earlier this year. For the production machines, it’s the first race in a new era and will hopefully kick-start the series into its new season.

Also it’s Phillip Island, which is truly a special place.

When you’re driving to the track along Gap Road and the breathtaking vista of the sea, framed by Gardner Straight, comes into view from behind the pine trees it gives me the same feeling as cresting the rise on Panorama drive and seeing another iconic motorsport location about ten hours north. Hairs. Neck. Etc.

I’ll start on the GT cars because, let’s be honest, they’re what everyone wants to talk about right now.

Phillip Island is a mighty place for GT machinery. It’s almost as if the people that created the rules for the category in Europe all those years ago had a photo of Phillip Island on their desk and said, ‘Let’s make a racing category for that place!’

If you can make it to the track get around to the back of the circuit opposite the hay shed and watch as they fire out of Siberia – framed by the deep blue sea in the background – and thunder up and over Lukey at warp speed. The combination of sticky rubber, great drivers and phenomenal downforce make it truly spectacular.

The location goes alright, too.

The fact that there now exists separate sprint and endurance championships this year is, I think, a good thing. As good as the sprint racing has been, the Australian Endurance Championship will likely be the more prestigious title to win. It’s also the place where the cars, drivers and regulations that govern them are at their best.

Across the two brief years’ of its existence the 101 has become something of an instant-classic, mirroring it’s Bathurst big brother in the same way the Sandown 500 has always been the perfect counterpoint to October’s 1000.

Like the 12 Hour, the 101 has always delivered some remarkable racing, dramatically close finishes (the lead has changed hands within the final 15 minutes twice in the last two years) and the all-too-brilliant sight of GT cars disappearing down towards Bass straight in the fading light at one of the world’s best circuits. It’s surely something to behold.

The big question is, of course, who is going to win? Based on the way the championship has gone so far this year it would be easy to argue that the fight will probably be between the Melbourne Performance Audi’s and the many McLarens that fill the grid. But at the same time I have no doubts Maranello Motorsport’s brand new 488 GT3 will be a weapon and that the experienced, tenacious Erebus squad will have their Mercedes’ on the money. Oh – it’s also hard to go past any car with Steve Richards behind the wheel in races like this so you’d have to add the still brand-new BMW M3 GT3 he’ll drive with the experienced Max Twigg to that list.

But knowing that race, there’s probably someone in there that I’ve not mentioned (Tony Quinn, who is uncannily good at long races like this, for instance) who’ll come through and get the chocolates.

On the Production Car side of the fence it seems like there’s new life in the old dog, with organisers attracting more than 20 cars to the season opener.

Production Cars, like their bigger GT brothers, love endurance racing and also like their brothers have been given a kick in the pants via the creation of a new Bathurst enduro for their class.

The Bathurst 6 Hour might not be affiliated with the APCS at the moment but the regulations are the same and Bathurst is famous for dragging cars out of garages. If just half of them stay to play for a national championship based on similar-style endurance races then the sport should be in good health.

Like the GT 101, The 4 Hour has been a cracker in recent years. On more than one occasion has the speedy Mitsubishi’s belted away from the field only for the tenacious BMWs to haul them back via excellent reliability and fuel economy. Two years ago they (a Pro Duct EVO and Beric Lynton’s BMW) battled for the lead in the closing laps and ended up finishing two seconds apart after nearly 450km of racing. It was a cracker and this weekend should be more of the same.

And unlike the GT machinery, the Proddy cars aren’t bestowed with an enormous amount of mechanical or aero grip so they move and slide around the 4.46km of Phillip Island like you wouldn’t believe.

To round out this column, I’ll add that Formula 3 are also on the program. Last year Tim Macrow got within 0.2s of the fastest ever race lap at Phillip Island and if the weather conditions play the game there’s a very good chance it could be knocked over this weekend.

Now I know lap records aren’t the be-all and end-all of motorsport, but – and I trust you’ll finally see a theme here – there’s only one place in Aussie Motorsport where a lap record counts more than the sinuous, flowing, epic, dramatic and wonderful confines that is the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit.

There’s streaming both days or tickets are cheap from the gate if you’re within a few hundred kays.

Even if it’s belting down and minus 50, which is incredibly likely at some point in the weekend, I promise that you’ll enjoy it.

Craillsy.