Craillsy’s Column: 2017 a record year

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of several records lately, not the least of which was helping the Shannons Nationals knock up its 100th round a week or so ago at Phillip Island.

The other was a few months ago now at an even more iconic circuit, the staggeringly excellent place we know and love called Mount Panorama.

There we welcomed a field of 64 cars to the rolling start for the second running of the Hi-Tec Oils Bathurst 6 Hour race – and what a sight it was.

As the green dropped on pit straight the field was still pouring past the Rydges hotel on Conrod Straight and by the end of the first lap they took up more than a third of the track on the funky circuit tracker graphic we’re lucky to have at our disposal up there.

Within four laps the fastest of the leaders were lapping the slowest cars at the back of the field and as that happened you could almost see the grizzly old traditionalists breathe a sigh of relief that ‘Bathurst was like it used to be’.

Be that as it may, the 64 cars represented the largest ever field to start an endurance race at Mount Panorama that, if you think of it, is quite an achievement in these economically challenging times we inhabit.

The strength of the race this year was as much a commentary of the solidity of the Production Car world almost as much as it is on the lure Bathurst provides.

Stable regulations and the rationalising of rules by the governing body has seen numbers grow and interest in the class reach a high not seen since the brief peak of GTP in the ‘Good Old Days’ that was PROCAR.

For some time the mainstay of Production Car racing has been the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X.

As a road car it made a near perfect racing machine for production-based competition – mainly because the earlier EVO derivatives on that it is based were all but homologation specials for rallying around the world.

But by the standards of the day, the old Evolution is an old car now and though the current generation car is still road-relevant it’s been around for a long time now – almost 10 years.

Fortunately, a rash of new cars has helped regenerate Production Cars’ relevance to the road going market and ensure that a good chunk of the field are the same shape as what you can buy on the road.

Garth Walden’s team led the way with their AMG A45, something that Rod Salmon has since followed with effective results at Mount Panorama.

The Sherrin’s new BMW M4 is an absolute weapon and there’s always a newish BMW at the front of the field.

Of course, the Ford Focus RS that Barry Morcom built for his son Nathan and Chaz Mostert to race at Bathurst could be the new benchmark – it’s shaping up as a battle between that, the M4 and the AMG A45 for what takes over as the ‘new Evo’ of Production Car Racing … and that’s exciting.

Through the grid there’s a rash of Toyota 86s, Renault Meganes, a new Alfa Romeo and several other mooted projects being talked about. Some are also whispering ‘Ford Mustang’ around the paddock and getting one of those on the grid would be a great result.

As the Production Car field gathers this weekend at Winton it won’t have a 64-car grid because, for all its charm, the race track just outside of Benalla is no Mount Panorama. But all the signs are pointing to a larger, more competitive and more up-to-date grid than what we’ve seen in recent years.

The die-hard traditionalists who think Production Car racing is going to return to being the preeminent form of circuit racing in Australia, as it was in the ’60s and early ’70s, will be disappointed because that’s not going to happen.

But the improving strength of a national Production Cars tour is only a good thing for the sport and keeps the history of ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ motor racing alive … and that’s only a good thing.

An interesting weekend in store

We all know there’s a chance it’s going to be chilly at Winton this weekend so I’m not going to bang on about that in this column.

Get the gloves out and get trackside because there should be some high quality racing to watch, regardless of temperature.

Winton marks the start of the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge presented by Pirelli’s Jim Richards Enduro Trophy season this weekend – a series of three, longer distance races to test the Porsche pack across the Winton, Sydney and Queensland Shannons Nationals rounds.

In changeable conditions and with tyre wear to play a role the long races have often been unpredictable and adds another level of intrigue to the series.

In GT Trophy land, there’s talk of a bigger than ever field for this ever evolving series, which has a sensational mix of last-generation GT3 cars mixed with MARC Cars entries to spice up the racing.

There hasn’t been an enormous amount of GT racing at Winton in the last five or six years, so this will be a welcome addition to the grid.

And finally, the Prototype Series returns for their second hit-out of the year.

This could be one of the most weather-dependent series’ on the calendar, with the heavier, chunkier Radicals loving the rain but the lighter and more nimble Wests better and (generally) quicker in the dry.

It makes for interesting, roll-the-dice racing, and if country Victoria throws up its usual mix of climactic conditions then it could be anyone’s weekend, which sounds like a good excuse to get trackside to me.

Now, excuse me as I go and find the thermals…