Words: James Holloway
Photos: Speed Shots Photography, Nicole Pearce, James Holloway, Michael Stillwell
Like every motorsport enthusiast, I dreamed of endurance racing at Bathurst, so when I spotted an advertisement in JUST CARS for a race-ready Toyota Celica almost two years ago, it put the wheels in motion for what would prove to be a big adventure in the 2021 Bathurst 6 Hour at Mount Panorama.
For those unfamiliar with the Bathurst 6 Hour, it’s an endurance race like the annual Bathurst 1000, but takes its inspiration from the era before V8 Supercars, when class–based racing saw all manner of production car makes and models go up against each other.
First held in 2016, the 6 Hour brings a wide variety of vehicles together, from compact four-cylinder hatchbacks to big V8 coupes, with more than 30 different models competing in the 2021 event.
Being a production car race, modifications are limited, with the philosophy being to take a car from the dealer’s showroom, bolt in a roll cage, safety gear and a limited number of go-fast bits only. This approach makes it accessible and affordable for amateur racers.
So, while the likes of Shane van Gisbergen and Chaz Mostert have been past winners, they’ve been part of ProAm teams in a grid made up almost entirely of privateers.
Having raced Sports Sedans, HQ Holdens, Hyundai Excels and Historic Touring Cars since 2004, I would be classed as an (enthusiastic) amateur. Historic Touring is where I've raced the most, campaigning a Morris Cooper S off and on for the past decade. My father, Michael, is a big Mini nut, too, and has also raced in a variety of classes, predominantly in Historic Touring Cars of late.
A Celica for the 6 Hour
As fun as the historics are, the desire for Bathurst still burned, so when the 6 Hour first ran, I started looking at cars to do the event in. I spent a lot of time looking at vehicles for sale and, being a bit of a dork, even made up a spreadsheet of eligible cars.
In mid-2020, I saw a Toyota Celica race car for sale in JUST CARS. It was a 1999 model, which meant early seventh generation. Researching the Celica and its history, I discovered it was one of two purchased by Colin Osborne and was originally a Toyota press fleet car, but had been racing since 2001 – so a race car virtually from new.
Colin Osborne is a legend in production class motorsport in Australia, racing Toyotas for almost 20 years and Celicas from 2001-2009, taking the Australian Production Car Championship in 2002, 2005 and 2008. Under the ‘Osborne Motorsports’ banner, he also raced Celicas at the 24 Hour and 12 Hour endurance events at Bathurst.
Of that pair of cars that Osborne Motorsport built to race two decades ago, Colin Osborne still owns the lead car, #13, while the #31 car passed through a few hands after Osborne Motorsport switched to Mazda 3s in 2010.
The pedigree of Celica #31 - as part of the most successful team in Australian production car racing – was part of what convinced me to buy it. A spare engine and boxes of parts clinched the deal, even though the car was a non-runner and in need of some love.
Preparing for the Mountain
As I bought it, the Celica was tired and its age meant that the seat, seat belt and fire extinguisher were all too old for use at the 6 Hour.
The engine, however, was a relatively fresh Neil Trama-built unit and had done very little work. The bodywork had plenty of scars from past activities, so a visit to Action Motor Industries sorted that out.
Preparation for an event like the 6 Hour involves a degree of paranoia – anything that can possibly break is replaced with a new component, or at the very least carefully inspected.
To refurbish the Celica, a vast array of spares were assembled, as the idea of not finishing the race because a part breaks and a replacement isn’t available is not palatable. Some teams take an entire spare car, which is a very effective way of ensuring you have every part you could need. Our budget didn’t extend that far, but Automotive Superstore were brilliant at sourcing parts for us.
When I say ‘our’, I mean my dad and I, but this 6 Hour campaign wouldn’t be a two-man show. We drafted in fellow Historic Touring racer David Brown as third driver, with Michael Stillwell as Team Manager and a pit crew of seven: Steven Lynch, Josh Bowles, Peta Faragher, Krystian Jackson, James de Leur, Scott Long and Geoff Lewis.
We had plenty of logistical challenges to work out in terms of personnel alone, which increased when dealing with all the spares, tools and required equipment like an overhead refuelling rig.
Testing the Celica at Sandown and Winton, the most pleasing outcome was how quickly all three of us felt comfortable in the car. There was also a lot of crew training beforehand – in both car familiarity and use of the overhead refuelling rig, as regulations covering the pit stop process are significant.
Countdown to the 6 Hour – Wednesday, 31 March
Most teams arrive at the track on Wednesday to set up. For a Melbourne-based team like us, that meant an early morning departure with a mid-afternoon arrival at Mount Panorama. The mood was pretty jovial and a number of people involved in the Celica’s previous outings wandered up to say hello, including Colin Osborne and several of his long-term crew.
As he gave his former #31 Celica a good look over (this was the first time he’d seen it since selling it), Colin told me Celicas were some of the best race cars he’s ever owned - which explains while he still has the sister car to mine!
“We had a lot of success with them, including winning the Australian Production Car Championship outright. It’s good to see it back in action looking good,” he enthused, adding that my car had completed nearly 60 hours of racing (plus practice and qualifying) at Bathurst prior to my purchase.
Countdown to the 6 Hour – Thursday, 1 April
Thursday didn’t feature any track time, but there was still a lot to do.
First up for us was Scrutineering, which we sailed through, thankfully. You don’t want to be trying to fix something at the track that you failed to notice whilst preparing the car. The car has to be presented with no fuel in the tank, too – another little detail to be organised for.
There’s also apparel checking for the drivers and pit crew that need to wear fireproof gear.
For the tyres, all starters would be on MRF rubber for the 2021 event. They’re supplied at the track, which meant we didn’t have to bring tyres with us. Each tyre needed to be labelled and its usage tracked through the weekend, though, with temperature and tread depth monitored to ensure optimum suspension setup.
Teams can use between 8 and 24 tyres over the course of the 6 Hour, but on race day, most teams will only do one tyre change as the MRF rubber is quite durable. There are no on-board jacking systems allowed for pit stops in this category, so it’s trolley jacks and two wheels at a time for tyre changes.
In terms of pit stops, each of the 6 Hour’s classes have their own minimum amount – between 3 and 6 – which need to occur inside a specified window. The variation is designed to even out the performance between different classes.
Pit stops take a lot of planning, too, as there are restrictions on what can be done and when. For example, refuelling and a driver change has to be done first - work on the car can’t be done until refilling is completed. It’s a long way removed from a Formula 1 pitstop!
There’s also a minimum transit time – 90 seconds between the control lines at the start and end of pit lane – so you need to manage that.
On the Thursday afternoon, many teams did a track walk, which provides valuable information. For newcomers, the steepness of the track is the most surprising aspect and something that’s not evident when looking at TV footage.
Also, if you haven’t been to Mount Panorama before, you’d be surprised at how many houses are dotted around the circuit, which is a public road for all bar a handful of days each year.
Countdown to the 6 Hour – Friday, 2 April
After a nervous night’s sleep, track time for us began with a pair of one-hour practice sessions. The objective was driver comfort, track familiarisation and car set-up rather than outright speed.
The nature of the Mount Panorama circuit – being long in lap length and tricky - means that track experience is vital, so teams try and make use of every minute available.
Our first session didn’t go to plan – a rear wheel vibration (easily fixed) and a misfire made it a write-off for us. It took some serious analysis deep inside the MoTeC system from engine guru Neil Trama to diagnose a sensor issue causing the misfire.
The second session went according to plan – with a driver change halfway through to spread the track time around between David and Michael. There was much relief when the call came over the radio confirming that the misfire had been cured.
Both drivers recorded similar lap times and felt good in the car. It meant we had two drivers comfortable, so I could tackle the remaining 40-minute session on Saturday morning.
Practice 2 on Friday also saw crews practice refuelling – the only session where refuelling practice via the overhead rigs was allowed. The rigs are quite expensive and their use is subject to a lot of rules. The refuelling team certainly earnt their pay keeping on top of everything.
We also used these practice sessions to put the first heat cycle on the tyres and bed in the brakes. The Celica stopped fantastically well, which was very reassuring for us drivers, as a car with good brakes makes for a good long-distance racer.
Countdown to the 6 Hour – Saturday, 3 April
Saturday morning began with a 40-minute practice session followed by a late afternoon qualifying session, split into two sessions of 20 minutes each, for the fastest and slowest 50 per cent of the field, based on practice times. As one of the older cars entered and up against a Class D field made up mostly of modern Toyota 86s, our Celica fell into the slower half of qualifying.
I drove for the entire practice 3 session, but handed over to David for qualifying, as he has extensive experience at Bathurst, including driving his rapid Datsun 1600 in the Historic Touring Car races.
Despite having to abort his last few laps due to incidents on the track, David managed a 2:50.6 time that put us 50th on the starting grid of 60 cars. Given some more clear laps, David said he would have gone quicker, so we were pretty happy campers, especially after getting some good coverage on the TV.
Compared to other races, qualifying position isn’t all that important in a 6-hour race, but it was nice to get what we felt was a good result.
After qualifying, all cars were held in the Scrutineering Parc Ferme for legality checks before being allowed to return to the garage.
That evening’s activities included spanner checks, fitting race pads and tyres, as well as fuel filling and other little tasks.
We left the track at 8pm, but others were still working. The team sharing our garage were pulling a diff out while other team members were driving to Sydney to pluck a diff from a donor car. A late night beckoned for them!
In endurance events, few teams manage to avoid problems – it’s how they respond to them that makes the difference.
The 6 Hour Race Day – Sunday, 4 April
The big day dawned with sunshine and, courtesy of the end of daylight savings, an extra hour’s sleep, which was great for a tired crew.
Any race at Bathurst is not “just another race”, so ahead of the 11:15am race start, there was plenty of nerves, even amongst David, Michael and myself, despite our collective experience.
Checking, double checking and triple checking things didn’t really help the nerves, so it was a relief watching the car go out, as there wasn’t anything more that could possibly be checked over!
The 6 Hour features a rolling start, so there’s no chance of a stalled car, and while our race start was uneventful, the Celica became the first retirement after contact with the wall at McPhillamy. Extensive damage down the passenger side meant we were unable to continue, so our race was over after one lap.
Mount Panorama is a challenging track where small mistakes can have big consequences. We got bitten hard, but that’s motor racing and broken cars are a part of the game.
We weren’t alone on the retirement list, as only 39 of the 60 starters greeted the chequered flag and in our block of four garages, only two of the eight cars finished.
Obviously, our pack up began very early, interspersed with watching the race on the TV in the pits.
Given that BMWs have dominated the 6 Hour recently, it was no surprise that the M4 of Shane Smollen, Rob Rubis and Shane Van Gisbergen took the win. In Class D, a Toyota 86 GTS driven by Lachlan Mineeff and Tom Sargent took the honours and finished 15th overall.
It’s fair to say our team left the track with a sense of unfinished business. After an enormous effort to get there, to finish the race on a tow truck was tremendously disappointing.
Back to Bathurst!
Even before entering last year’s Bathurst 6 Hour, I’d been told that the mountain is addictive, and it certainly proved to be so, because myself and most of the 2021 crew are going back this year!
The Celica has been repaired and the final countdown is on for the 2022 event this April.
Mount Panorama is an amazing track - a driving challenge, an engineering challenge, a logistical challenge, a financial challenge and an emotional challenge. It’s not easy, but an absolutely amazing experience.
We aren’t alone in our enthusiasm, as the 70-car grid for this year’s event was oversubscribed with 88 entries. If that number holds, it’ll be the largest ever field for a Bathurst enduro of any type.
Bring on the 2022 Bathurst 6 Hour!
2022 Bathurst 6 Hour
This year’s Hi-Tec Oils Bathurst 6 Hour is scheduled for 15-17 April.
The schedule will follow a similar pattern to the 2021 event, with the first practice sessions on Friday 15 April, followed by qualifying on Saturday 16 April and race day on Sunday 17 April.
Public entry tickets start at $15/day for adults pre-purchased or $20/day at the gate, with race day Sunday entry from $25 pre-purchase and $30 at the gate. Concession and multi-day tickets are available, with kids under 12 admitted free.
For the VIP experience, ‘Bathurst 6 Hour Club’ and ‘Bathurst 6 Hour Pit Lounge’ corporate hospitality packages are available, both of which have been enhanced this year.
Camping is available within the circuit, too.
Check the event website –bathurst6hour.com.au – for all ticket prices and availability, along with the event schedule, updates and information regarding COVID-19 requirements.