Saturday, 12h45 local time
It is, I am reliably informed, 75 years since Bentley last competed in anything approaching an official capacity on Australian soil. But this weekend the firm is back, running a pair of GT3-spec Continentals at the Bathurst 12 Hour.
Yes, you read right: Bathurst. Mount Panorama is really known for one race globally - the annual 1000-kilometre V8 touring car thrash. But the 12-hour enduro race, which starts at sunrise on Sunday morning and finishes around teatime, is gaining popularity. Word is that most of the camping in key parts of the circuit is already sold out for this weekend, and the rest is filling up fast.
Anyway, Mount Panorama has always high up on my list of racetracks to visit, so when Bentley invited Autocar along to watch its return Down Under, I grabbed the e-ticket - and 24 hours of travelling later, I'm here.
Qualifying starts in about an hour, but I've just had a sneaky look at the circuit, thanks to Bentley factory driver Steven Kane (above) and a Continental V8 S. First impressions? The gradient and elevation of the place is extraordinary. And there appears to be but one line across the top of The Mountain, and bugger all run-off to boot. Small wonder that the Bentley drivers - many of whom have never been here before - compare the place to a 'mini-Nurburgring'.
I'll keep updating this blog as the weekend progresses, starting with qualifying - but already there's a pretty special feeling around the place, with a mixture of old-school Aussie charm and a paddock that's rapidly filling with supercars. I have little fear that Mount Panorama is going to disappoint.
Saturday, 13h00 local time
Interesting pre-qualifying chat with the Bentley motorsport boss Brian Gush and the driver line-up from the number 10 Bentley Continental GT3, Guy Smith, Steven Kane and Matt Bell. As you may expect from endurance racers, they’re not getting too hung up on the forthcoming qualifying session - although they’re understandably keen to see how the Bentley holds up on outright pace.
Experience of Bathurst, it is fair to say, is not exactly in abundance in the Bentley team. There’s bags of knowledge from elsewhere, of course - Smith won the Le Mans 24 Hours for Bentley as long ago as 2003, for example - but the trio acknowledge that this place isn’t quite like anywhere they’ve been before.
“It’s so narrow and unforgiving,” says Smith, who will take the first stint in tomorrow’s race. “We watched as many laps as we could before coming here, on YouTube and whatever, but it can’t really prepare you for how tight it is in some places, and how much elevation change there is. The simulator gives you some idea but it doesn’t tell the full story.”
Kane, meanwhile, is entrusted with the car for qualifying. “A very small mistake here has huge consequences,” he says. During a passenger lap with him in a Continental V8 S, he points out the spot where the much-fancied Ferrari 458 ended its weekend before it had really started. “They basically got it wrong once, it snowballed and then they pinballed along,” says the Northern Irishman. “Happened in a moment. And it can happen on your own, let alone when you’re passing slower traffic.”
Ah, yes, the slower traffic. The machinery here seems to range from GT3-spec cars like the Bentleys, Audi R8s, Ferrari 458s and Mercedes SLSs, right through to a BMW 135i and a Mazda RX8. If one of the faster cars comes across those guys halfway up The Mountain, they can wave goodbye to that lap.