Friday favourite: The unforgiving mountain track that captivates a Le Mans winner
The most legendary racing circuit in Australia and the scene of its most famous race, the Bathurst 1000, Mount Panorama has captivated touring car and GT racers for years. Most of David Brabham's racing career was spent overseas, but the track holds a special place in the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours winner's heart
David Brabham agonises for a while before picking the Mount Panorama Circuit at Bathurst as his favourite track, when we pin him down backstage at the Autosport International show.
The 1997 Bathurst 1000 winner has raced on more circuits than most would care to name across a glittering career that took him to all corners of the globe. From his native Australia to the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States, he also enjoyed international exploits in Formula 1 and sportscars – taking in the dying embers of Group C in the World SportsCar Championship to FIA GT, the short-lived GT1 World Championship and the early days of the World Endurance Championship.
Brabham explains that he would put circuits into mental boxes to “keep a consistent mindset at every track I went to” as, “that way, I knew it wasn’t a factor” in his performance. And while he preferred fast, flowing venues, he also had a liking for the “completely different animal” of street tracks – following up his 1989 British Formula 3 title by winning the Macau Grand Prix on his first visit to the track earned him the FIA Superlicense needed to race in F1 the following year.
“When it came to Mickey Mouse little tracks that you sometimes had in America, I’d have a bit of a psychological battle because I didn’t like them and I had to learn to like them,” he explains. “So, I thought ‘when I go there, I’ll treat them like a street circuit’, I put my street circuit head mode on and that helped me.”
Lime Rock, where he won outright in an LMP2 Acura in the 2008 American Le Mans Series, is an example of that: “That was one track I went, ‘I need a different mindset when I come here’. And then after that I was always really good there.”
But the Connecticut bullring isn’t a true contender for the top spot. And despite his family’s history of success at Le Mans – his father Jack won there in 1967 on the Bugatti Circuit’s sole occasion hosting the French Grand Prix, elder brother Geoff won the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours, while David followed suit, also with Peugeot, in 2009 – neither is the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Brabham singles out Sonoma, the scene of a giantkilling ALMS victory for Panoz against the Audi R8 in 2002, for its “variety and challenging, blind corners”, reckoning it’s “right up there” among the circuits he encountered Stateside. But the lure of Mount Panorama, home to the Bathurst 1000, proves impossible to ignore.
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Brothers David (left) and Geoff Brabham took victory in the 1997 Bathurst 1000 for Super Tourers after their BMW team-mates were disqualified
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“The Bathurst 1000 is the biggest race in Australia,” he says. “I grew up watching it as a kid and ended up racing there and winning with my brother which was really cool and makes the track a little bit more special too. When you’ve got little things like that, they mean a little bit more.”
His first recollection of racing at the track was in 1993, when paired with Anders Olofsson in a Fred Gibson Motorsport Holden Commodore for the Bathurst 1000. Although he’d raced a touring car before, winning the Spa 24 Hours at the wheel of a Group A Nissan in 1991 alongside Olofsson and Naoki Hattori, the Commodore was a different beast that he’d have to learn while acclimatising to the famously tricky 3.861-mile track.
“It was a bit of a baptism of fire to get your head around one of those cars,” says Brabham, who acknowledges he had “slightly more closeness to the Ford badge than I did to the Holden one” growing up. “To learn the track and the car, they were a bit of a handful back then! You arrive there, straight into practice and ‘where is the gearstick, what happens when I do this? Ooh, its locking, arrrgghh’. The tyres are so small on those things, but they’re big and heavy and they weren’t what I was used to. So there was a big learning curve.”
"Back then there was not the runoff that you have now over Skyline. If you made a mistake, you were in the wall. Simple as that. You’ve got to be so spot on with the line" David Brabham
Having seasoned veterans Mark Skaife and Jim Richards on the other side of the garage at least provided a reference for Brabham, who soon discovered he was losing time on the downhill descent from Skyline down to Forrest Elbow. But he came away with fourth place and still has his Denny Hulme Rookie of the Year Trophy.
“Even when I left, I would say I still probably left a bit on the table,” he says. “You’re learning at the race, ‘how much am I going to find the limit’ because there’s no room whatsoever for error there.
“Back then there was not the runoff that you have now over Skyline. If you made a mistake, you were in the wall. Simple as that. You’ve got to be so spot on with the line.”
Brabham would have to wait another four years for a second crack at Mount Panorama. For 1997, the Bathurst 1000 was held for Super Touring machines, and an influx of drivers from the British championship made the trip to go up against locally-entered cars.
The BMW Motorsport Australia cars were most favoured, although it was the Renault Laguna of Jason Plato and Alain Menu that made the early running until Menu went off and broke a diff following a brake change that cost him a lap. In the latter stages, the BMWs of Craig Baird/Paul Morris and the Brabham brothers Geoff and David were locked in battle with the two works Audis.
Despite a biff from Hemroulle, Brabham recovered to pass the Audis and move into position to inherit victory when the sister BMW was booted out
Photo by: Motorsport Images
As Autosport’s Marcus Simmons reported: “In order to get out from his last stop still in the lead, Baird was compelled to stay in the BMW while Morris - helmet on for 20 minutes - was forced to stand down. Had the driver change taken place, the duo almost certainly wouldn’t have won. But at least they wouldn’t have exceeded the maximum three-and-a-half-hour stint demanded by the rules.”
Baird, his car set to be disqualified for the rules infraction, therefore led Frank Biela’s Audi and David Brabham, who had just taken third from Jean-Francois Hemroulle in the second four-wheel drive Quattro when the Belgian turfed him into a spin at the Cutting. The track was briefly blocked, causing a safety car.
But both got going again and were able to take the restart following a visit to the pits, with Hemroulle’s repairs not taking as long as the battered 320i – its “butchered rear bumper requiring removal, under pain of a black flag,” per Simmons. Despite its tracking being askew, Brabham had enough in hand to pass Hemroulle and Biela to finish second at the line, which became first several hours later.
Brabham admits that the Super Touring machines made the track “less daunting because the cars weren’t as fast”.
“They were easier to drive,” he says. “They were more engineered I would say to do what you want, but it was still great fun.”
Brabham made a further seven starts in V8 Supercars in the 1000, but was never again a victory contender and managed a best finish of 12th in 2003 with Brazilian Max Wilson in a Dick Johnson Racing Ford Falcon.
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“Sometimes you rock up, you jump in the car and eight times out of ten the car behaviour and performance is out of the window and they’re not sure how to get it back,” he says. “So you’re driving something which is a bit more scary going across the top, because you don’t know what it’s going to do – it’s just unpredictable. Then you turn up there and they’ve just got the set-up right, and it’s so much more enjoyable around there because you can focus on what you need to do.
A 12th place finish alongside Wilson in 2003 was Brabham's best result at the Mountain in the V8 Supercars era
Photo by: Edge Photographics
“I’ve found it mentally quite draining to go down there because I was always more of a lead on car development wherever I went [in sportscars]. So I would be giving the feedback and also going ‘we need this, we need that’ and off we go. I went down there and I got totally lost with what they needed to do with those things.
“You could make a lot of changes and they made big differences, and you can get lost really easily. Then you focus on that, and not your driving. I walked away once and thought, ‘no, I wasn’t happy with my driving performance’. But I got so embroiled in trying to help fix their problem with the car that I went back next time – ‘whatever the car is, the car is, they can sort that out, I’m just going to go and drive’ and I drove better. So that’s what I did after that.”
He fondly remembers his first stint in the 2011 Bathurst 1000, settling into eighth after taking over from Alex Davison and being told by his engineer that his pace was comparable with the leaders. Jamie Whincup had just climbed aboard the leading Triple Eight car at the stops, but “I could see the guys in front weren’t pulling away, so I was like ‘that’s good’, I was literally a tenth of his laptime”. Having to double stack behind the sister Stone Brothers Ford of Jon McIntyre/Shane van Gisbergen under a safety car set them back, but Brabham came away satisfied.
"I found those cars a little bit tricky to drive to get the ultimate pace out of them. I could be half a second off and the team would be happy, but I wasn’t happy" David Brabham
“If I’m doing Le Mans and one of those guys came over and was within a tenth of me, I’d be going ‘fair dos’,” he says. “So me doing that over there, I thought ‘that’s good, I feel like I’m doing my job, I’m keeping pace’. That was quite a good car where you felt ‘yeah, I feel like I’m part of the car now’.
“I found those cars a little bit tricky to drive to get the ultimate pace out of them. I could be half a second off and the team would be happy, but I wasn’t happy.”
Brabham’s last race outing at the Mountain in the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour ended in a trip to hospital when his Bentley Continental GT3 was elbowed into the wall at the Cutting by Stefan Mucke’s Aston Martin. But there was still another memorable at the track for Brabham when his BT62 supercar claimed the closed car lap record in 2019, at 1m58.68s, with Luke Youlden at the wheel. That was despite an electrical glitch which Brabham believes cost two seconds.
“That was really cool,” he recalls. “The customer that bought that car, he’s been trying to break lap records in Australia with it and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted to go back to Bathurst and beat that time – which they should do easily.”
Brabham derived huge satisfaction from performing well as a ringer in Supercars on Australia's most difficult track
Photo by: Edge Photographics
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