A fractious Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour was not what many were expecting given the talent on show this year, but the action turned out to be fast and furious. This was an endurance race, but every hour of the twelve on offer had its fair share of action.
The havoc started in the early morning darkness. The #74 Valvoline Audi driven by Frank Stippler spun going into The Dipper and was clipped by three other cars as it blocked the racing line in the tight and twisty section. Countless crashes, spins and drive-through penalties later and we finally had a result.
The #88 Maranello Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Craig Lowndes, Jaime Whincup and Toni Vilander emerged victorious after what turned out to be an event more akin to a destruction derby at your local fair than an endurance motor race around the famous Mount Panorama Circuit.
After a thrilling qualifying session in which the BMWs dominated, it was to be Mercedes and Ferrari dominating the majority of the race around the mountain.
Throughout the event, and especially at the beginning, many of the favorites for victory were unfortunately involved in notorious incidents, including the BMWs. Avoiding accidents was difficult at the best of times and many succumbed to the gaping jaws of the Mount Panorama Circuit or were taken out by other drivers. By the seventh hour, there had already been twelve appearances by the Mercedes AMG C63 Safety Car and by the end of the race, the Safety Car had been out sixteen times.
Thus, the main contenders to take the race win soon emerged: the #22 Scott Taylor Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 driven by Craig Baird, Shane van Gisenbergen and Maro Engel; and the eventual race winner, the #88 Maranello Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Craig Lowndes, Jaime Whincup and Toni Vilander. Both cars had been at the sharp end of the pack since Practice started on Thursday.
Nearing the middle of the race, Craig Baird in the #22 Mercedes spun the leader at the time — Craig Lowndes in the #88 Ferrari after a Safety Car restart. Baird was handed a drive-through penalty and ten extra seconds added onto his team’s final race time. The #22 Mercedes and the #88 Ferrari were consistently at the front of the field in a twelve hour-long battle: clearly, tensions were running high.
One of the most dramatic parts of the race involving these two teams occurred during hour five. Jaime Whincup in the #88 Ferrari was behind his Australian V8 Supercars team mate, Shane van Gisbergen driving the #22 Mercedes, who was behind a lapped Bentley Continental GT3. As the cars powered onto the Conrod Straight, Whincup received a double-tow from both cars in front and passed van Gisbergen and the Bentley to take the lead, only for van Gisbergen to out-brake Whincup into The Chase and re-take the lead! Three passes in three corners!
During the ninth hour, the scrap between the Mercedes and the Ferrari continued, this time with some Porsche intervention. Coming into The Chase, Patrick Long, driving the #12 Ice Break Porsche 991 GT3R, accidentally clipped and spun the #22 Mercedes being driven by Maro Engel. This gifted the lead back to the #88 Ferrari. Long was later reprimanded with a drive-through penalty.
During hour ten, the Maranello Motorsports team took a thirty second lead after a scintillating stint by Toni Vilander in the #88 Ferrari. Vilander was lapping at near-qualifying pace, pounding in 2:03 and 2:04 lap times on a consistent basis. He left the car to a standing ovation from his team during the scheduled driver change.
After the #88 Ferrari driver change, the #17 Bentley Continental GT3 took the lead but soon encountered trouble. The all-British contingent included Oliver Jarvis, Steven Kane and Guy Smith. As Oliver Jarvis came in for a scheduled driver change with Steven Kane, Kane had difficulty getting the car going again. This deplorable incident lost the team around thirty-five seconds in the pit lane.
With forty minutes to go, the #88 Ferrari and the #22 Mercedes were back at it again. In a reprise of the earlier action on the Conrod Straight, Whincup in the Ferrari put two wheels on the dirt as he spectacularly took the lead of the race. Van Gisbergen in the Mercedes wouldn’t give up and gave Whincup a slight tap through The Chase but had to concede the place.
While every hour of the twelve was filled with turmoil, the final hour turned out to be a thriller. After conceding the lead, 2016 Bathurst 12hr winner Shane van Gisbergen in the #22 Mercedes had not given up on Jaime Whincup in the #88 Ferrari. He caught a stroke of luck when a Safety Car bunched up the field with twenty minutes to go.
Chasing Whincup into The Dipper, van Gisbergen’s Mercedes got light and dramatically oversteered its way into the concrete wall, ending any hope the team had of victory. After surviving another Safety Car period, Whincup went on to take the flag and a well-deserved victory for the Maranello Motorsport team.
Maro Engel, one of Shane van Gisbergen’s team mates in the #22 Mercedes was visibly angry after the race. He touched on the “many mistakes” from van Gisbergen and of course one of those mistakes cost the team the race.
Coming home in second place and almost one lap down was the #12 Ice Break Porsche 991 GT3R driven by Patrick Long, David Calvert-Jones, Marc Lieb and Matt Campbell. Due to the aforementioned issues with the #17 Bentley in the pit lane, and some great driving by all four pilots, it took the second step on the podium. The #17 Bentley came home to the take the final podium position.
As for the GT Academy alumni, Jann Mardenborough had an eventful race early on and went on to finish a respectable eighth in the #24 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3. The car — also driven by Florian Strauss and Todd Kelly — crashed out in Practice 3 on Friday. However, the front end of the car was rebuilt overnight and made it into qualifying. It was later donned with the apt nickname of “zombi zilla” after it was brought back from the dead!
The most exciting moment for the #24 GT-R came on lap fifty-two. With Mardenborough in the lead on tires that were over thirty laps old, he managed to hold off former FIA GT3 Champion Maro Engel in the #22 Mercedes and Craig Lowndes in the #88 Ferrari.
The Mercedes and the Ferrari were on fresh boots but couldn’t find a way past. Jann defended for six laps before finally pitting for new tires and a driver change. It was a serious display of skill by the 2011 GT Academy champ, who also managed to set the third-fastest lap of the race with a 2:03.309, as well as the fastest first sector of the entire event — on the last lap no less!
Mardenborough would hand the car off to former Bathurst 1000 winner Todd Kelly, as the #24 GT-R came back out in 12th place but never really made it back to the front of the pack.
It was Ferrari’s second Bathurst 12 Hour victory after it took the spoils in the 2014 event. Vilander and Whincup earned their first Bathurst 12 Hour victories while Lowndes took his second. 290 laps and 1978km were covered in this year’s race.
Congratulations to all competitors who competed in the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12H! This event seems to grow every year and next year’s race could be even better!
You can view the full race results for the 2017 Liqui-Moli Bathurst 12 Hour here.
The Intercontinental GT Challenge continues in July with the Total 24 Hours of Spa.