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.
Small wonder that Bentley isn’t about to predict a result here - although this caution should not be mistaken for a lack of ambition, though. “We don’t go anywhere not hoping and aiming to win,” says Gush. Game on, then. Bring on qualifying.
Saturday, 14h30 local time
Qualifying has just finished for the Bathurst 12 Hour, and it's seen a dazzling battle at the head of the field. In the end, the Audi R8 of Laurens Vanthoor set an incredible time of 2m02.5521s to grab pole position, just over 0.6sec clear of the Lamborghini LP 600 of David Russell. The best Bentley was the number 10 car driven by Steven Kane, in ninth.
I took the opportunity to grab a lift to the top of The Mountain for the session. I'm told the fan base is a lot more polite up there for this race than it is for the V8 Supercars thrash, and it does just feel like any other sophisticated motorsport crowd. They're a pretty lucky bunch, mind you, because they're watching one of the most dramatic stretches of race track in the world, complete with a stunning backdrop view of dozens of miles of gorgeous countryside. The cars use every inch imaginable - including some well beyond the track perimeter markings - and try their best not to trip over each other. Traffic is clearly a major factor here, because the contrast in speed between the likes of Vanthoor's R8 on full attack and the 135is or RX8s is quite startling - and there are plenty of stretches where only one car can get through on anything approaching the racing line.
We'll wait to hear what Kane thought of his lap, although he'd previously said he'd be happy with a top-10 qualifying position and ecstatic with the top five, so I guess he's somewhere between the two. Tomorrow's race starts at the ungodly hour of 05h50, allowing for some dark running before the sun comes up properly and stays up for the rest of the 12 hours. It promises to be an epic day's action.
Sunday, 05h30 local time
Thank goodness for jet lag. I've woken fresh as a daisy and with 10 minutes left before the start of the race, we're already in situ trackside. There's no doubting that this event is a popular one among the locals, though; the line for a medicinal coffee was 15 deep and the queue for the car park was deeply impressive for 5am - at a circuit that's three hours' drive from Sydney. Small wonder that every half-decent restaurant in Bathurst had 'reserved' signs on pretty much all of their tables last night.
Question is, can Bentley transform a lukewarm qualifying performance into a better race result? Guy Smith, who jokingly referred to himself as 'hashtag The Sensible One' yesterday in interviews, will take the first stint of the number 10 Continental GT3. He'll have to focus on staying out of trouble during those early laps, when darkness will only compound the challenge of such a varied field running through the narrow stretch over the top of Mount Panorama.
Sunday, 06h10 local time
You can forget Le Mans-style pomp at Bathurst. There's a bit of old-school drama as the sirens indicate it's time to clear the pit lane, then the race, er, starts the moment the pace car leads the field away. Still, he only does a lap and once he's finished, the pack is let loose in a spectacular cacophany of V6s, V8s, V10s and V12s. One of the things I really noticed when spectating yesterday is the terrific variety of exhaust notes out there. The leading Audi R8 and the Ferraris seem to sing, the second-placed Nissan GT-R and the Bentleys have more of a menacing thud as they drive past. There are also a couple of mad Mazda RX-8s at the back of the pack, and their rotary motors have that trademark high-pitched scream. In fact, one of the Mazdas has just caused gasps in the press room, as he got caught out at a tricky uphill area called The Cutting and proceeding to reverse back across the track, just as the pack blasted through a blind corner behind him.
Bentley's boys predicted yesterday that this race could have a lot of full-course yellows with the pace car, and sure enough, after barely 20 minutes, we've got our first safety car period. The cause? A BMW with heavy front-end damage. He's not clipped the wall over the top of the mountain, though. Nor has he struck another competitor. Apparently he's thumped a kangaroo - and the local wildlife has certainly made its mark. Right now, they're winching the stricken M3 onto a trailer, and it looks like its Bathurst 12 Hour is over.
Guy Smith has indeed negotiated the first few laps safely, and the number 10 Continental currently holds eighth position. The Bentleys can run for about an hour between refuels, and the drivers are expected to run for at least two stints each time - although that could be extended to three if the Conti's tyres hold up.
In other news, the sun has already started glinting over the horizon, and this is already a race being held in dawn light instead of darkness. Can't imagine the guys running at the sharp end of the field and lapping backmarkers are too unhappy about that.
Sunday, 07h10 local time
Sports car races like the Bathurst 12 Hour are such a long-play game. Right now, on the face of it, the pole-sitting Audi R8 is going to demolish the field. Bear in mind that the time set by Laurens Vanthoor yesterday was an outright lap record for Mount Panorama (Jenson Button's promo lap in 2011 doesn't count because it wasn't in an official session) - and ever since the race proper started this morning, Markus Winkelhock has been pummelling the rest of the field. He's already set a race lap record, and ominously, he posted that on his 29th lap, when still on the tyres that he'd started with. He's often had a second and a bit in hand per lap over his nearest challenger and the gap between first and second, as I type, is more than a half a minute (the GT-R NISMO is currently the lead pursuer).
And yet there remains colossal scope for that situation to change. All it takes is one glitch during a pit-stop and 10 seconds can easily be lost; genuine confusion can wipe out half a minute. Winkelhock has already cut it fine with a couple of backmarkers, including one Porsche 911 that ended up clouting the wall immediately after it was lapped. If it had done that a few seconds earlier, we'd almost certainly be looking at a different leader.
The Bentleys - both of the works cars and the customer Contintental GT3 - stopped within a lap or two of each other, and they currently hold seventh (Guy Smith), 11th (Harold Primat, who was swapped into the number 11 car at the first stop) and ninth (David Brabham). We're an hour and a half in - but things feel like they've barely started.
Sunday, 08h00 local time
We've had our third safety car period already here at Mount Panorama. One of the Porsche 911s got caught out under braking at Forrest's Elbow, the last left-hander before the long run back down Conrod Straight towards the pits complex. The offending Porker slewed sideways and managed to collect one of its rivals with sufficient momentum to take them both into the tyre wall, so even the well-drilled marshals took a few laps to get rid of the wreckage.
In the middle of all of this, the lead Bentley has gone on a bit of a charge up the leaderboard. Guy Smith now holds fourth, 16 seconds or so behind the still-dominant Audi R8. But Markus Winkelhock must be finding it frustrating, as he builds up advantage after advantage, only to have them wiped out by so many yellow flag periods.
The other Bentleys have been hit by drive-through penalties, meanwhile, for 'restart infringements'. There's some confusion here over where the drivers are actually allowed to get back on the gas as the safety car peels into the pit lane. Either way, the Continental GT3 crews need to be read the riot act or they're going to continue handing away time. David Brabham was running right behind Guy Smith, in the top five; now he's ninth, almost 45 seconds behind him.
Sunday, 10h00 local time
We've just gone past one third distance here at Mount Panorama, and a clear pattern is emerging: the number 15 Audi R8 is the pace-setter, but a stream of yellow-flag periods has prevented it from establishing a proper advantage. The safety car is having a busy day here, mainly because it doesn't take much of an incident to force its deployment when there's so little spare space up on the mountain.
Mind you, the latest incident was anything but minor, as the Flying B Motorsport Bentley, driven by Aussie veteran John Bowe, biffed a slower Audi R8 it was coming up to lap as they approached The Chase. Now, The Chase is a fast sweeping chicane that was introduced to slow the cars down on Conrod Straight, but the approach speed is still well over 165mph. Miraculously, the Audi slid over half a mile of gravel trap without rolling, and across a subsequent chunk of track without collecting any of the cars nearby (the driver may secretly have been hoping to tap Bowe's Bentley in revenge, mind you). It did then become beached on the gravel trap, so we're under full-course yellow once again.
The safety car period brought many crews into the pits, but not Matt Bell's number 10 Bentley, which now heads the timesheets. In truth, though, it looks like the Continentals haven't quite got the pace of the Audis or even the Nissan GT-R - so their best hope is consistency and problems hitting their rivals. There's still eight hours or so for that to happen, though - and the Bentley approach has always been to be somewhere on the lead lap going into the final couple of hours. As it stands, then, things are going to plan.
Sunday, 10h40 local time
You know how I said things were going to plan? They're not. Matt Bell was leading under a safety car period in the number 10 Bentley, but then he had to pit before the green flag was waved. It's not quite clear if Matt was only ever going to do a relatively short spell in the car, but he jumped out and Steven Kane jumped in. Matt was reportedly suffering from heat exhaustion, and it's still unclear if he'll be able to get back into the car. If he can't, that means Steven and Guy will have to manage a different stints pattern to get to the end of the race.
As if that weren't bad enough, Kane has now incurred a drive-through penalty and while no reason has yet been given, the suspicion is that it was another restart violation; that'd be the second for this car, and the fourth for the works Bentleys. It's frustrating stuff, because there's clearly enough to contend with without dropping half a minute and track position with something as procedural as a restart.
Sunday, 13h45 local time
We're slowly inching towards the business end of this race now, and it would certainly be a brave pundit who'd predict a winner. There are regular figures in the top five or six places - the GT-R Nismo remains a threat, clearly, as do both of the R8s from Phoenix Racing (including the number 16 car, which has ace sky-diver Felix Baumgartner among its driver line-up). The lead Bentley is in the mix too; Guy Smith has just spent the bulk of a stint in and around the top three, and Matt Bell - fully recovered from heat exhaustion caused by a poor connection on his drinks tube - is back in the car and currently running in fifth. I doubt he's enjoying the fragrance inside the Conti GT3, mind you, because he left some of the contents of his stomach there earlier.
All sorts of factors start to come into play now. The teams will already be thinking ahead and looking at fuel strategy, which tyres they're going to be on for the final push, and crucially, which driver they want to have behind the wheel when it comes down to squeaky-bum time. Don't forget that last year's Bathurst 12 Hour was won by 0.4sec after a thrilling duel over the closing laps.
And then there's the factor of the safety card periods. We're into our 14th full-course yellow now, with incidents occurring every few laps - and that means the teams will have to second-guess the fuel and tyre strategies based on a certain amount of time behind the pace car. It's still a bit of a lottery, in other words - and the teams on the lead lap will just be hoping that their numbers come up.
Sunday, 16h40 local time
We've just over an hour to go here at Mount Panorama, and you'd still be crazy to pick a winner. However, we can say it's likely to come from three or four cars now. The pole-sitting Audi R8 leads as I write, with the Bentley Continental GT3 of Matt Bell running in second. Throw in the Craft Bamboo Racing Aston Martin and the Nissan GT-R Nismo and you've probably got the winner in there - but who it turns out to be is going to be down to fuel readouts, tyre condition, traffic and, crucially, whether we get another safety car period between now and the end of the race.
Yes, I know that seems a crazy thing to say, seeing as we've already had 17 full-course yellows. But we're currently enjoying the longest batch of green-flag running that we've seen so far. If it stays put and fuel use continues at its current rate, then it's going to be terribly close - with the edge possibly going to Laurens Vanthoor in that pole-sitting Audi - or, dare I say it, the Bentley. Look at it this way: I don't see any of the faithful in the grandstands making an early break for the Sunday-evening drive back to Sydney just yet.
Sunday, 15h51 local time
There's been a quite remarkable finish to the Bathurst 12 Hour, as the Nissan GT-R Nismo driven by Japanese hotshoe Katsumasa Chiyo stormed from third to first on the penultimate lap to claim a gritty victory. For the team, many of whom worked through last night to repair damage after a qualifying shunt, it barely looked possible with 20 minutes to go - but then a couple of late safety car periods bunched the field up and Chiyo picked off enough of the backmarkers to get himself into contention.
At the front of that final restart, with only two laps remaining, was Matthew Bell in the number 10 Bentley, bravely holding off Bathurst lap record holder Laurens Vanhoor as the R8 - clearly the faster car - showed its nose approaching every corner. Crucially, the Continental GT3 had enough shove on Bathurst's two long straights to fend off the Audi - but once Chiyo moved alongside at the start of the penultimate run up towards the mountain, it was game over. To add insult to injury, Bell - who had fully recovered after suffering from heat exhaustion during his first stint earlier in the day - was then involved in a final-corner incident that dropped the Conti from second to fourth. A podium finish would have been an awesome result for the M-Sport team, with three drivers who'd never visited Bathurst before, but it wasn't to be.
It was a fitting climax to a race that's had bags of drama, some supreme precision driving in traffic and, yes, perhaps two or three safety car periods too many. But it shows the strength of the current sports car rules that the line-up of manufacturers from first place to seventh was as follows: Nissan, Audi, Aston Martin, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Lamborghini. That's the range of brands that can get fans excited - as the applause coming from the grandstands as the crews crossed the line here at Mount Panorama proved.