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.