The 2017 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour race at Mount Panorama Circuit, Australia was one for the ages, with the Maranello Motorsport team taking outright victory from pole position, their Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by the all-star lineup of Australian racing legends Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup, and Finnish Ferrari GT racing ace Toni Vilander.
There were a handful of notable current and former drivers from the Autobacs Super GT Series entered as well, headlined by the two factory-run Nissan GT-R GT3s and drivers Katsumasa Chiyo and Jann Mardenborough.
But in the end, it was former Lexus Team TOM’s and Lexus Team SARD driver Oliver Jarvis who was the best of the Super GT contingent, scoring a third place finish in his debut for Bentley Team M-Sport, with he and co-drivers Steven Kane and Guy Smith climbing from 22nd on the grid to the podium at Bathurst.
After a disappointing qualifying run, the #17 Bentley Continental GT3 set to work on climbing through the field. Within three hours, the former Le Mans 24 Hours champion Smith had driven the car as high as second place in his opening stint alone, as atrition began to set in before the sun had fully risen over Mount Panorama.
Smith, Kane, and Jarvis maintained a steady pace throughout the rest of the race, and took home Bentley’s second podium in the Bathurst 12 Hours in as many years, having scored their first podium on the mountain last year.
“It’s great to get a podium on my debut with Bentley and to do it on a track that is notoriously challenging and unforgiving makes it even more rewarding,” Jarvis said after the race. “We have started the season with a podium and that’s the way we intend to continue.” Jarvis was part of the TOM’s team that won the 2007 Suzuka 1000km, and drove the full 2014 season for Lexus Team SARD in GT500.
Nissan’s two-car effort were one of the many pre-race favorites to win the Bathurst 12 Hours, but their emotional, hard-fought weekend at the mountain would only be rewarded with an eighth-place finish for the #24 Nissan GT-R of Mardenborough, Todd Kelly, and Florian Strauss.
The race came unraveled for the #23 GT-R of Chiyo, Alex Buncombe, and Michael Caruso in the very first hour of the race due to a gearbox issue that would leave them in the garage for several hours, ultimately forcing their retirement after completing just 174 laps.
“Today wasn’t our day,” said Chiyo, who won this race in 2015 and has since become one of the star drivers of this race. “Both cars had mechanical issues. We had a big problem with an aero vibration and the gearbox. After I started my stint we had to stop and spend a long time in the garage. I couldn’t show a good race for the fans in Australia.”
“It was a shame. That’s racing, but I hope we can come back stronger again next year.”
On the other hand, the #24 GT-R was on pace to complete one of the great comebacks in Bathurst history. The car was rebuilt overnight after a heavy crash in Friday practice, and the GT-R affectionately dubbed “Zombie-zilla” came to life in the hands of the 25-year-old Mardenborough, making his Bathurst racing debut.
Within two hours, “Jann tha Man” was leading the race ahead of decorated champions Craig Lowndes and Maro Engel, and Zombie-zilla was in the hunt for an overall victory.
But with just over four hours remaining, the cruel hand of fate struck the #24 GT-R with a gearbox gremlin that cost them three laps, and relegated them out of the fight for the win.
Nissan’s fighting spirit would still be on display in the final hour, as Mardenborough turned in a blistering lap of 2:03.309 – the third fastest lap of the entire twelve-hour race – on his penultimate lap, and got back one of the three laps they’d lost, to propel the #24 GT-R to an eighth place finish overall.
“It goes to show that if we didn’t have that actuator issue with the gearbox we would have been on the podium for sure,” Mardenborough said. “A small part in the gearbox got a bit dirty and clogged up and we couldn’t change gear. That cost us three laps, and we ended up two laps down because I passed the Ferrari at the end.”
“It is a bit annoying, but this track is awesome. It is so good and I was having so much fun in the last few laps when I was going flat out. I was going quicker again on my last lap but the last corner somebody had gone off and it was all dirty and I didn’t want to go skating across the dirt and get into the wall.”
“My voice is completely gone. It was a proper workout in the car in the heat but I really enjoyed it. Thank you to NISMO and Nissan Australia for the chance to have a go at this awesome track.”
Chiyo and Mardenborough will now fly to Malaysia to take part in the second leg of a four-day Super GT test session at Sepang International Circuit.
Former GT300 class race winner Alexandre Imperatori was in prime position to dominate the B Class for Grove Racing in the #4 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, but he crashed heavily at the high-speed corners at Reid Park on the top of the mountain, ending Grove Racing’s day before the sun came up.
Of the Super GT runners in the field, none had a more anti-climactic weekend than Jörg Müller, who didn’t even take the start of the race for Walkenhorst Motorsport. The #99 BMW M6 GT3, one of the potential dark horses for overall victory, was knocked out of the race in Saturday qualifying after co-driver Ricky Collard was involved in an incident on the descent down the mountain.
The M6 of Müller, Collard, and Nico Menzel was not able to be fixed in time, leading to a DNS for the Walkenhorst team.
“Obviously it was a big disappointment for us not be able to race on Sunday with our BMW Motorsport Juniors,” said Müller, who drives for BMW Team Studie in the GT300 class. “But that’s motor racing!”
“However, being part of this fantastic event was certainly an amazing experience for Ricky Collard and Nico Menzel. They did a great job over here and got quicker lap by lap. The experience they gained at the Mount Panorama Circuit will always stay with them.”
In the end, no one had an answer for the Maranello Motorsport Ferrari. Vilander starred all weekend, taking the Allan Simonsen Pole Award on Saturday, in honour of the late former Maranello Motorsport driver and former Bathurst record holder. In his final stint on Sunday, he put in a heroic drive to put the lead further out of reach.
Lowndes and Whincup, the two most successful drivers in modern Australian Touring Car history, continued to demonstrate their skills on Mount Panorama in their part in the victory.
Our congratulations to the entire Maranello Motorsport team, and to everyone who tackled the challenge of the mountain this year.