I couldn’t get on the phone fast enough to say I’d be in it for sure!
After a seven-week break, the Porsche Carrera Cup Australia and Australian GT Championships burst back into action at Sydney Motorsport Park this weekend. For some drivers, the break was a chance to kick back and get away from it all, but for V8 Supercars endurance regulars Steve Richards, David Russell and Steve Owen the gap in the calendar provided an opportunity they just couldn’t turn down – the chance to compete in one of the world’s top endurance races, the famed Spa 24 Hour.
All three are experienced endurance specialists having taken part in several Bathurst 12 Hour races. Both Richards, now competing in the Australian Porsche Carrera Cup, and Russell who is contesting the Australian GT with Lago Racing have previously competed in the short-lived Bathurst 24 Hour races (2002 and 2003), with Russell also coming fourth overall and third in class at the 2008 Dubai 24 Hour; but for Owen it was the first time he’d taken part in a twice-round-the-clock endurance race.
V8SCGlobal caught up with the trio after the race to find out how the experience of taking on some of the most famous corners of any race track lived up to expectations…
“It was going really well,” said three-time Bathurst 1000 winner Richards. “We qualified a little further back than we thought we would, but the first part of the race went really well. We made up five or so positions in the first stint. We then probably took a wrong call with strategy early on, electing to try and get a bit of space and got caught up in a big group of cars, which put us in the realms of the leaders.
“We then got lapped pretty early on, but apart from that the car was going really good. We were relatively competitive with the mid-pack group.”
The race was then interrupted by a run of four safety-car periods before the race had even reached the three-hour mark, just as Russell stepped in for his first stint.
“I hopped in and took over,” said Russell. “Then there was that safety car period and I hopped back out to try and not use up any stint time on that, but by the time I got back in again there was another safety car period, surprisingly enough!
“We swapped over and put Roger, our bronze-backed driver back in the car for those safety car periods, and I said safety cars breed safety cars, but jeez, I really didn’t expect that in the first few hours!
“We had a good stint after that – I think we were 32nd and when I hopped out we were 22nd.
“When we were in our pit-stop phases and I was confident talking to the team manager, I was asking who was in front. Each time he said there’s your guy, he’s close, we managed to clear them quite quickly. It was always hampered by a safety car period, but once we got a chance to get flowing and got some clear track I was pretty happy with the pace.”
“I didn’t jump in until about 10:30 and then I did a double stint at night,” added Owen. “Just because of all the safety cars and red flags it made sense to put Roger in the car and tick off some of his compulsory time. So after that I jumped in and did a double which was great. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to get back in so that was a bit of a shame.”
Sadly for the Australian entrants, they were unable to emulate the success of fellow compatriots Peter Brock, Allan Moffat and John Harvey who won the 1986 Spa 24 Hour King’s Cup trophy (the award for best manufacturer). The sole Lamborghini entry was withdrawn from the race with electrical problems after 13 hours. However, with no prior experience of the technically challenging Spa circuit, the team walked away with heads held high after a very impressive debut.
“During the night we had an intermittent problem where it would almost cut out,” said Russell.
“The car would cough, and when it coughed it shut its eyes as well, so we had no headlights!”
“It did happen to the other guys as well momentarily, but when it starts to frequently happen during a stint it becomes quite dangerous when you’re tipping into Blanchimont and you lose headlights and you lose power and you’ve got dudes up behind you!
“We came in, swapped ECUs and we rebooted, but we just couldn’t iron out the problems that we had. This isn’t the sort of track where if the engine’s running off-song you can go into Eau Rouge or Blanchimont or any of the faster corners and have the car cut out. It’s a safety aspect but we wanted to make sure we fixed it properly as well and we weren’t 100% sure that was the case.”
While Australia’s premier GT sports car endurance race, the Bathurst 12 Hour, has certainly captured international attention drawing an ever more impressive list of drivers wanting to tackle the famed mountain circuit, for many Australian drivers it presents the only opportunity to race at these distances on a global stage. A full roster of domestic races and the small matter of being on the opposite side of the world, mean opportunities to pit their wits against the world’s best and expand on their international portfolio are largely restricted. So, of course when Australian GT campaigner Roger Lago (Lago Racing) put it to team mate Russell and fellow V8 Supercars co-drivers Richards and Owen that he wanted to enter the 24 hour race, they didn’t have to think very hard before saying yes!
“I was over here in 1998 with Nissan as a test driver for their British touring car programme, and we actually, through a totally separate thing, came down to Spa to do the 24 hour race,” revealed Richards. “I was a mechanic, I wasn’t actually driving the car. So just to come back and race here… well, it’s a pretty iconic event around the world, but from where we all are over in Australia, it’s a bucket list item.
“Roger sent me a text message earlier this year when we were heading up to pick up the new Carerra Cup cars in Sydney. I couldn’t get on the phone fast enough to say I’d be in it for sure!”
“It’s a dream come true for me to come to a circuit like this,” added Russell. “I haven’t done a whole lot of racing in Europe, so to experience the prestige of the event, to be a part of it and to drive the circuit having studied it and looked at the corner names and wondered what it would be like; and then to experience it, it’s something that’s a career highlight for me.
“Obviously the conversion wasn’t into a finish for us, but I think we can still be pretty proud of what we achieved here this weekend.”
Despite busy schedules, all three got in some pre-race homework in order to learn the circuit, although there were differing ideas about how best to prepare.
“I did a lot of work on a simulator before I came here so I knew exactly where the track went,” said Owen. “The only thing that I needed to get my head around was how this car would handle on this particular track as I was practising in a McLaren rather than a Lamborghini. I knew the track quite well it was just getting my head around the car, as I normally drive a Porsche in the GT Championship.
“I also watched a lot of onboard footage and last year’s race, before David and I came here for the test day three weeks before so we knew the track a little bit better than Richo and Roger,” added Owen. “It’s a pretty daunting track. It’s one thing to know where it goes it’s another thing to be able to get your head round going so quickly through corners like Eau Rouge and Blanchimont. It’s easy on the sim because you just press reset when you crash!”
“The simulator isn’t something I really use,” countered Richards. “It shows you where the track goes, that’s it though, you can’t for one minute generate the experience of going up through Eau Rouge with the g-force and the bumps, simulators don’t give you that. Not to mention the fact that in a simulator if you get it wrong the consequences really are non-existent!
“I would say I was pretty comfortable with the track after about 18 laps here. I did about 8 in the daylight and then probably another 10 at night. By the end of the night session I was actually starting to feel pretty comfortable.
“It’s probably more just keeping your body going through the times. It’s two-fold though – we’ve come over from Australia, we’re not quite the reverse but our time zones are a fair bit different and then you’re getting used to the times over here and then you’ve got to stay up at night, so it’s a bit challenging.”
“To be honest I was very busy coming up to it,” said Russell. “We had a test here three weeks before though and I’d studied the track, but because we didn’t have any vision we had to really just use YouTube and jump on a simulator now and then. In the test we were doing 2minute 21s lap times so that was good for a first time here, but in qualifying we didn’t quite get the run that we needed to. We did an early 2:21s which was okay but we expected better, you know. It does take a little bit to learn it to be honest. Even in my stints I was always learning things about the track; even in my stints during the race. You start to get more comfortable with certain corners where you can sort of work out during your stint how to flow it better and that all takes time. A lot of guys that have been here doing a great job up the front have learnt this circuit and have a lot of experience here.”
Having got the 24 hour bug, all three are eager to realise another life-long ambition, the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“That’s everyone’s dream in endurance racing,” said Owen. “The Nürburgring and Le Mans. And obviously we’ve got Bathurst at home. This’ll be my 17th Bathurst and this was my first 24 hour Spa so it’d be awesome to get a run at Le Mans and Nürburgring. But Spa’s an awesome event. I hope to come back and hopefully finish it one day.”
“The Bathurst 12 hour is gaining momentum year on year, so it’s great to see the European teams come out to Australia,” added Russell. “It’d be nice to come over again though. For me, I’d love to come over and do more of these races. When we come over and do these and you turn up as a small team I think you do tend to surprise a few people with pace as well.
“I don’t know about next year but I’d certainly hope to do some more in the Blancpain series if there was any opportunities there, whether it’s with Lamborghini or any other team. It’s definitely on my radar that’s for sure.”
“Yeah I’d like to, but probably the reality of doing Le Mans is a little bit harder because it’s a different category,” said Richards. “The GT championship in Australia is kicking off pretty strongly, so for sure there are probably better opportunities to do Spa again, unless they open Le Mans up to GT3 regulation cars which they’re talking about it in the future.”
Now back in Australia, all three are competing at Sydney Motorsport Park this weekend. For Russell and Owen, it’s the Australian GT, while Richards, having secured his first Carrera Cup round win with a sweep of both of the Sunday races in Townsville, hopes to carry on the winning momentum and overhaul Warren Luff with whom he holds the joint points lead.
Then the attention turns to the V8 Supercar endurance events. Russell returns for a fourth successive year with the Kelly Racing brothers sharing the #15 Nissan Altima with Rick Kelly, while Owen joins Bathurst 1000 defending champion Mark Winterbottom and Richards will team up with PIRTEK Enduro Cup winner, Craig Lowndes.
Having flown out to Belgium later than originally planned after sitting in for Lowndes for a productive test day behind the wheel of the Red Bull Racing Holden, Richards caught up with his new enduro team-mate over the Spa 24 race weekend.
“As a co-driver you never get the opportunity to have a day to yourself in the car, so it was perfect; great preparation for the lead-up to those three races.
“It was a rescheduled test and Craig already had his plans, as I did. He actually came over a week before and went to Red Bull in Austria and had a bit of a play over there as well.
“I was originally flying over on the Sunday night but I was able to put my flight back by a day and it worked out well. It meant that A, I got some miles and B, the team could get through the testing they wanted to get through having two drivers there.”
“We’ve got a couple of sponsor ride days that I’ll attend, a couple of test days and bang straight into the Sandown 500, Bathurst and then the Gold Coast,” added Russell. “Even just turning up to a ride day, it’s good to have your bum in the seat. You might just be doing a few rides, but you start to get a good feel for things even in that time. You might be sitting in there for an hour or two potentially, but it’s good to get that seat time.”
“I’ve got a couple more GT races, but we had a test day on the Monday before I came over here with FPR so they’re gearing up for a big one,” said Owen. “Richo won it last year with Mark, so it’s the team to be in at the moment and it should be an exciting enduro season.”