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What’s it like to drive Bathurst’s Mount Panorama racetrack in your own car…at speed?

Bathurst’s Mount Panorama racetrack is one of the most highly regarded in the world, but chances for the public to drive it at speed don’t come often… Enter Challenge Bathurst, and we just took part.

THE MOUNT PANORAMA RACETRACK has several qualities highly prized by drivers – technical difficulty, flowing corners, an unusual layout, history, and a scenic setting. The history needs little introduction to Australians, and indeed if you asked the average non-petrolhead to name just one Aussie racetrack then Bathurst would be the one they’d think of.

Yes, that’s probably because of Supercars, but the track has been host to so much more than touring cars, and in recent years the Bathurst 1000 international endurance race has gained quite a following.

Yet for all its attraction, it’s hard for the average amateur motorsports driver to turn a lap at Australia’s most famous racetrack. That’s because it’s only made into a racetrack five times a year, and for the rest of time it is a public road, with houses, businesses and farms accessible from the track.

In some ways, the fact it’s a public road is great – you can drive your car around the track at no more than 60km/h, take photos, and generally soak up the atmosphere, not something you can do at permanent racetracks. Yet because the circuit is only a racetrack some of the time, then race time on it is at a premium.

Not the Toyota I was driving at the event.

Enter Challenge Bathurst, an annual event where anybody with a club-level CAMS license can drive Mount Panorama at speed. For me, and many others I spoke to it’s a big commitment in terms of both time and money – the normal club-level entry fee for a day at a racetrack is between $250-$350, but for Challenge Bathurst it’s between $1500 and $2500 depending on the event you enter. Steep, yet the refrain was “but it’s Bathurst” and “bucket list” was mentioned more than once. Normally in my articles I do maths to figure out interesting stats, but I’m too scared to divide the total cost by the six 20-minute sessions I had on track with my Toyota 86. That said, there’s much more to the event than the driving, but more on that later.

Now while I don’t know the dollar-per-minute cost of the event, I do know it’s not cheap and therefore preparation is critical to maximise your investment. I’ve found that modern racecar simulators are brilliant for learning tracks before you arrive, most notably Gran Turismo massively helping me with the Nurburgring, and friends of mine trying iRacing’s virtual Phillip Island circuit before their first drive. So I fired up Gran Turismo Sport, the latest PlayStation 4 version, and set to work learning the track using a virtual version of my own Toyota 86. 

You can argue all day long about the merits of simulators vs real life, but what is never in dispute is that they help – the question is to what degree. Personally, I reckon they’re fantastic for learning a track, racing lines, and when played correctly even oversteer/understeer correction and smoothness. I also think that online racing, or even racing against artificial intelligence (AI) opponents hugely helps to build up your spatial awareness of other cars, something that is critical for any track but especially this event when you’ve got over 40 other cars spread around a 6.2km long circuit. 

Our event was on the Saturday and Sunday, but we arrived on Friday and had the luxury of a relaxed check-in and scrutineering, which is where your car is checked for compliance with the CAMS rulebook.

Once the paperwork was out of the way we cruised around the track perimeter, and watched the action as the event prior to ours ran its course. There were hardly any spectators, not surprising as this wasn’t a race, just a ‘sprint’, which is a contest to see who can turn in the fastest lap. Nevertheless, there was plenty of action and plenty of opportunity to pick whatever spot you liked to watch it from. It was also useful to watch others tackle the corners, and note the position of flags and hazards. We wouldn’t get a chance to do a trackwalk, so a spectator-level inspection would have to suffice.

My yellow competitor wristband was spotted, and some fellow spectators from Queensland struck up a conversation, out of the blue. They had been running that day before mechanical failure struck, and they were still pumped full of adrenaline ready to enthuse. That’s what motorsports does, it gives you such a high and you become more sociable wanting to share the excitement with people that understand and know, reliving the moments with smiles and hand gestures, ruing the what-ifs and enjoying again the little successes. That’s part of what I meant when there’s more to these events than just the driving, there’s real adventure-camaraderie too and you cannot possibly put a price on that sort of experience.

Another part of it is the incredible variety of vehicles. There’s something for everyone, from racecars to GT-Rs, to Porsches, Ferraris, Pulsar racecars, and old Minis…if it’s got four wheels and is either fast or can be made fast, it’ll be there and on track with you. Owners are usually happy to talk, as motorsports consists of long, boring interludes between moments where you hurry up and wait. The action makes it all worthwhile though, every second on the track is worth hours in real life.

Then Saturday arrived, the first day of our event. It didn’t dawn, because it was raining. Not hard, but enough to soak the track and prevent any form of dry line forming. My group was D, so A, B and C went out first and not all returned in one piece. Drivers returned with tales of standing water at the high-speed Chase, which prompted several others to sit the initial sessions out. We have a saying in aviation – better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here and that principle applies to motorsports too.

But I was keen to go out, and to be honest the fact my car had stability control put my mind much more at ease than otherwise would have been the case. Toyota’s stability control calibration on my MY12 Toyota 86 isn’t the best, but it is effective and I was sure that as long as I didn’t make any major mistakes and assisted the car to recover itself I’d be fine. I certainly didn’t like the idea of spinning and wrecking my own car, or being cleaned up by others and ruining their day, so I put ego aside and left the electronic aids on.

Our first laps were, apparently, behind a pace car. I never saw it, or noticed the green flag after it had gone in. But I did notice the track condition, which was oceanic. Standing water here and there, wipers on max, and spray…there was a lot of it, especially at speed and when cars fanned out three abreast so each had their own clear view ahead which was fine for them, but not so good for the drivers behind.  

It was at this point I was very, very glad I’d spent all that time learning the track on Gran Turismo, and invested all that effort in driver training, drifting and understanding car dynamics. Those first few laps of Bathurst in the rain were as intense an automotive experience as I’ve had, and I’ve had a few. You have to be so smooth, so careful with your line, and ultra aware of your competitors and surroundings. And if you make a mistake, maybe misjudge the grip, then you can’t panic, you have to quickly but smoothly correct or allow the car to use a little more of the track than planned, even if that means a close encounter with a wall, lest your efforts to correct land you in even more trouble.

With up to 46 cars on track in my group it was impossible to get a clear lap without running into traffic and indeed over the weekend I managed a total of three flying laps in the dry, one per session. While there were five run groups, the mix of speeds was interesting – we had old MGBs in our group alongside a modern Lotus Exige and some racecars. That many cars take a while to file out onto track, and by the time the last car rolls onto Mountain Straight the first drivers are already coming down Conrod, less than a minute or so behind and with laptime differences of over a minute clear space is at a premium. However, this event was what’s known as a Regularity, where the idea is to set a specific laptime and the winner is the one who gets closest to it most consistently. Not that it appeared many competitors cared much about regularity, just hotlapping as best they could. There was a more focused sprint session for a lot more money in the two days prior with fewer cars on track. 

For the later sessions we were gridded according to fastest laps to date, and I found myself seventh, close enough to the front of the grid to see the quickest car which turned out to be a Kia Stinger, with a fellow called Cody Crocker inside. Cody is a 7-time Australian and Asia-Pacific rally champ, which might explain why he was lapping quicker than Porsche 911 GT3s and the like. But talent can only do so much, so all credit to Kia for turning out a good looking four-door sedan which is clearly no slouch around a racetrack. 

As you’d expect, a flying lap of Bathurst isn’t comparable to a sedate drive at 60km/h. The circuit is unusual in many ways, and one way is that the startline and grid is not on either of the two longest straights. So from the start there’s a short uphill run to the 90 degree lefthander known as Hell Corner, and then there’s the 1.1km-long Mountain Straight.

On most circuits that’d be your longest straight – by comparison, Phillip Island’s longest straight is 900m, but not here. I was going to write that the straight is uphill, but that’s true of only the first two thirds or so because then there’s a dip allowing you to gather speed just before Turn 2 which is a high-speed right-hander and marks the beginning of the ascent proper. This is where life gets exciting as there are walls either side, which not only means any mistakes are going to end in tears, but also has the effect of making corners relatively blind so you have to remember which corner is which…it’s really not a good idea to assume a corner is wide when in fact it tightens. It’s also a thrill from the driver’s perspective as you go from wide open farmland to in effect driving in a tunnel without a roof, and when you get to the steep, tight uphill lefthander known as Turn 4 in The Cutting you are having a racetrack experience like few others.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The next few corners are flat out and exciting enough in my standard power Toyota 86, so I can only guess at what they’re like in really powerful cars where you have to lift. You have right, left, right, dip, crest…and the track flows beautifully, with each curve slightly opening out so you can gather speed before arriving over the top via the high-speed left-hand Turn 10 where there’s a brief moment across Brock’s Skyline to catch your breath before the descent begins through the Esses. That’s slower than the ascent, but no less exhilarating as there’s right, left, right…you weave the car in and out, grabbing throttle where you can, the walls flash close but your vision is ahead, and you need to watch oversteer as the back is now light, always aware that catching slides heading downhill is not easy and takes space you don’t have.

Then there’s the final left-hander marking the end of the Esses, the Big Dipper. It’s well-named, because it’s a steep drop and a sharp turn leading onto Conrod Straight, and this is where you are really going to experience speed as it’s a 1.9km straight, but with a short kink before you can take flat out. Conrod is downhill leading into an uphill slope which you really feel at speeds over 200km/h…again how amazing would that be in a really fast racecar! You also get your panoramic views of the wider countryside down the straight, a feeling not unlike flying a light aircraft.

The circuit has one more thrill to deliver and that The Chase, a kink added because the original, very long Conrod Straight was deemed too dangerous. So you have a slight right-hand bend, but at the speeds you’re carrying thanks to Conrod it’s quite a challenge, and then you’ve got to slow the car down during or just after the kink, and then haul the nose around for the lefthander without running too wide and compromising your exit. At high speeds, a slight misjudgement on a braking point leads to disaster, so I was always a bit conservative here. At least there’s a giant-sized sandtrap just in case. And after that there’s just two easy corners left to make a total of 23 turns, and your lap is done.

So should you, the petrolhead, drive Bathurst? Absolutely yes, because it’s the most thrilling circuit in Australia and one of the most exciting in the world. But just like the Nurburgring, I’d strongly advise against making Mount Panorama your first track experience. It’s a long, difficult circuit and you will be sharing it with many other drivers who have lots of experience albeit probably not at that track, which actually makes everything even more interesting. Instead, spend some serious time at two or three other circuits, invest in some quality racetrack driver training, and then come to Bathurst. It’s a true bucket-list experience, one you can do and one you should do because it’ll give you memories to last a lifetime.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper