This was no motor race. This was a heavyweight title fight, slugged out between two prize fighters, each with a distinctive style of landing blows over a 12-hour match-up where only one would emerge victorious. Battle scarred, yes, but with the soothing tastes of the victory champagne to ease away the aches and pains of a 12-hour scrap.
Fifty-five cars started the Bathurst 12 Hour with the sun not yet risen and the air already stifling, the mercury reading 30 degrees at the 5:45am start time. What followed was an all out slugfest between millions of dollars of exotic cars from Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari, BMW, Lamborghini, McLaren, Bentley, Nissan, Porsche and Audi.
Some would fight courageously, lifting themselves off the canvas time and time again even after having been delivered a knockout blow. Others would scrap and dance and feign and jab, looking to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. Others still, would suffer terminal blows before rhythm of the fight had been found.
And some were found wanting, knocking themselves out like punchdrunk fighters of yore, too old to know when to stop, staggering from a broken and crushed machine, their heads wobbling, their eyes glassy, knowing within themselves the end isn’t near, it’s already here.
For six hours, the brawlers brawled, as one after another fell to the canvas, maybe not terminally, but hurt enough to no longer be in a winning corner. For six hours, the dancers danced around the ring, before they too had had enough, retreating back to their corners battle scarred and spent. For six hours, the contenders jostled and hustled, avoiding hits and timing their moves, for good or bad, until only two remained with the stamina and energy to continue the fight to the end.
It wasn’t enough to just be fast on the Mountain (it never is), you also needed stamina. And smarts. And, if you wanted to have any chance of holding the trophy aloft, filled with the sweat and blood of the vanquished, you also needed a killer punch.
For the Maranello Motorsport squad and its Ferrari 488, that killer punch was Finland’s Toni Vilander, although we didn't yet know it. And why would we? This is the team with Bathurst legend Craig Lowndes in its camp. This is the team with six-time Australian touring car champion Jamie Whincup in its corner. Who then suspected it would be a largely unknown Finn doing the damage, landing the blows, the jabs and the knocks that would unsettle his opponents?
In the Mercedes-AMG corner, Shane van Gisbergen was enlisted to provide the killer kick in the AMG GT R, having already successfully conquered all before him in 2016. The defending race winner, the reigning Supercar champion, the reigning Blancpain GT endurance champion, the Kiwi with talent to burn, with unrivalled speed and control and a win-at-all-costs approach to racing, to fighting.
As their rivals fell, weak-kneed to the canvas, as mere makeweights fell too far behind the hunting and hungry frontrunners, as one after another ‘I coulda been a’ contenders realised their shots at glory on this hot and dusty and sweaty day would have to wait another 12 months, it was left to Ferrari and Mercedes-AMG to duke it out for Mountain supremacy.
And duke it out they did.
First, Ferrari’s fast Finn put in an unbelievable stint, punching out laps regularly one, two, three seconds faster than Germany’s Maro Engel in the rival Merc. Vilander was sublime, building a lead bridged only by daylight and a shimmering heat haze that left even the most battle-hardened pugilist exhausted. Vilander and his Ferrari opened up the tap to an endless and effortless supply of speed, enough to take the fight out of his AMG foe.
But, the Mercedes team wasn’t going down without one last heavyweight effort, a sheer will of force that would either make or break the race. Enter van Gisbergen, his lanky frame shoehorned into the tight confines of the Merc’s cockpit, strapped in and laced up ready for battle.
He stared at the gap between himself and the rampaging Ferrari, and it was a big gap, and set off in pursuit. And make inroads he did. When Vilander pulled into his corner to hand over to Whincup and a fresh set of rubber, van Gisbergen and his Merc found themselves in the lead.
Vilander emerged from the car, red-faced, sweaty and triumphant and a little punchdrunk. When asked how he found conditions in the confines of his car and a searing hot track that had already left others weak-kneed and crying for their mummas, he replied:
“You can train as much as you can but nothing prepares your for this… It’s 90 per cent battle with your mind and 50 per cent fitness.”
The Finn’s maths didn’t add up, but those who saw his stint behind the wheel forgave him.
The lead see-sawed between the Merc and the Ferrari, eash assuming the front-running as their respective corners cycled through their pit stops for fuel and brakes and new tyres.
With an hour to go, Whincup, in the lead by around 20 seconds, made what would be the Ferrari’s final pitstop, the seconds ticking by agonisingly as his corner worked feverishly to service the 488 in just over a minute. The team watched on as van Gisbergen roared past their stationary steed and into the lead.
But, with the Merc needing one more stop before the end, Whincup set off in pursuit of the black and green AMG, some 55 seconds up the road. It would not be enough to retain the advantage. This would need something special from the Kiwi and his AMG team, one more counterpunch to keep the fight going.
As the clock ticked down with Whincup throwing everything at his opponent, AMG made its move, bringing in the #22 machine for one last spruce, one last sniff of the salts, one last splash to give its man and machine a shot at the title.
Like any fight, the best-laid plans can come to nought when in the heat of the battle. For AMG, that meant sacrificing fresh tyres to give van Gisbergen track position ahead of the Ferrari. It worked too, with the Kiwi exiting the pits with a three-second advantage over the rosso rumbler.
But it was never going to be a fair contest, the Ferrari holding the advantage thanks to its sticker set of sticky slicks. But in motor racing, track position is king. And that advantage belonged to the brawling Kiwi. Whincup would have to punch his way past the AMG if he was to deliver victory. And as teammates in their regular day jobs with Red Bull Racing in the Supercars championship, both were keenly aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Just a lap later, Whincup made his move, tailing the Kiwi across the top of the mountain before pouncing on him down Conrod straight. He drew his Ferrari level with the Merc, the two, literally, trading blows at 300km/h. Van Gisbergen feigned right, pushing the Ferrari on to the grass. A lesser brawler would have backed off, a makeweight fighter would have spun out of control.
Not Whincup. Undeterred, he kept his right foot in it and as the dust and grass and debris mingled with the heat and fuel haze, his Ferrari emerged in front of the Merc, a knockout punch that left the Kiwi reeling, dazed, confused, scarred.
Just one lap later, with van Gisbergen still feeling the effects of Whincup’s punch, the Kiwi took out an innocent bystander in the shape of Andrew McPherson’s Porsche. The resulting penalty would have ended the fight but it didn't come to that. Before the umpire could deliver the countdown, van Gisbergen knocked himself out, crashing heavily at the top of the mountain, crippling his AMG as it spilled its guts all over the track.
Whincup now held a one lap lead over his nearest rival and could cruise to the end, while the broken AMG came to a stop in the middle of the track, its fight over.
To add insult to injury, the recovery crew dropped the broken Benz off the flat bed, akin to medics dropping the stretcher carrying a beaten and bloody fighter while still ringside. It was funny, but only if your heart is cruel.
So an epic heavyweight battle ended with a victorious Ferrari. On paper, it looked like a no-contest. The Ferrari started from pole, led the most laps and posted the fastest race lap on its way to victory. But paper doesn’t always tell a story. This was a bruising encounter, fought out between two titans of motorsport and the men and women in their corners.
In the red corner, the grace and flair of the Ferrari team, in the silver corner, the Teutonic might and precision of the Mercedes-AMG outfit. And at their heart, six drivers who brawled it out in tag team fashion until only Vilander, Lowndes and Whincup were left standing.
It’s a tough race, the Bathurst 12 Hour, especially so for the beaten. But it’s a beguiling race too, the mountain luring its combatants with its siren call promising glory and riches. The losers may be beaten, they may be down, but they will be back to do it all again.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the Bathurst 12 Hour below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.