Bathurst: When turbos roamed the mountain

Nissan Skyline GT-R. Photo / Brad Lord
Nissan Skyline GT-R. Photo / Brad Lord

For a long time the Bathurst 1000 has been a V8-dominated domain. But as anyone who has followed Australia's Great Race for more than 20 years will know, it wasn't always that way.

In the mid-1980s the Australian motor racing establishment adopted new international Group A regulations. The move ultimately paved the way for a breed of small-capacity, high-output turbocharged race craft that turned Australian saloon car racing on its head.

Nissan Australia had given local touring car racing its first taste of turbo a few years before when it employed the engineering talents of Fred Gibson and took the Bluebird to the track. Although the Group C machine was built on an Aussie-delivery four-door sedan base, it was far removed from the production car, featuring large aerodynamic bolt-ons, an independent rear suspension arrangement and a race-tuned 1.8-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine good for 225kw.

Not surprisingly the Bluebird proved to be a formidable performer and at 1984's James Hardie 1000, George Fury drove the car to the top of the Hardie's Heroes shoot-out for pole position and set a new qualifying record (not beaten for seven years).

In its final year of eligibility, this was the Group C Bluebird's defining moment.

Although the Group A era began in 1985, it wasn't until a year later that the turbocharged cars really started to shake things up. Nissan's new DR30 Skyline RS Turbo joined Group A's turbocharged ranks, which already included the Volvo 240T and the Mitsubishi Starion.

At Bathurst, Garry Scott put his Peter Jackson-sponsored Nissan Skyline on pole and finished third. That and other good performances from the angular Skyline during its debut season put Nissan in good standing standing for 1987.

But then came Ford. In road trim its limited edition 167kw Sierra Cosworth RS500 was something special. Uncorked for Group A racing, it was a 400kw force to be reckoned with. The RS500 Group A variant didn't appear until the latter stages of the season but when Bathurst rolled around the high-performance Sierra wasn't only in the hands of Ford's Texaco-sponsored, Eggenberger Motorsport works outfit, but also a number of local teams.

Although Hardie's Heroes was an RS500 whitewash - Sierras occupied the top five places - the race is remembered for other reasons. Texaco RS500s crossed the line first and second, but the cars were disqualified for illegally enlarged wheel arches.

For the next two years turbocharged cars ruled the Mountain. In 1988 all three podium positions belonged to RS500s; by 1989 even Peter Brock was winning in a Sierra. That year three of the Fords finished in the top five; Nissan's new turbo HR31 Skyline GTS-R claimed third and fourth.

Holden's Commodore V8 was dealt a slight reprieve in 1990 when Win Percy and Alan Grice won in their VL SS Group A SV. But the following year everything changed.

Late in the 1990 season Nissan Motorsport Australia replaced its successful Group A Skyline GTS-R with a new Gibson Motorsport-built Group A BNR32 Skyline GT-R. With 4WD and a 2.6-litre twin turbocharged inline-six engine pushed to 450kw, the GT-R was the ultimate embodiment of a Group A touring car.

No surprises that it dominated the 1991 season, with Kiwi Jim Richards and Mark Skaife winning seven of the nine rounds. At Bathurst the Richards/Skaife combo qualified first, then convincingly won. Wheels magazine dubbed the Nissan "Godzilla", and for good reason.

The next season brought a similar outcome, even with turbocharger restrictors taming output to 350kw.

With new regulations excluding 4WD and turbochargers pending for the 1993 season, the 1992 Toohey's 1000 at Bathurst would be the GT-R's swansong. The Richards/Skaife Team Winfield Nissan won, of course, but in bittersweet circumstances that 20 years on are still the subject of pub debate.

By now the Holden and Ford fraternity had had enough of the GT-R and the spectators' reception at the prizegiving was hostile, as Richards recounts in our interview on page 35. Bathurst's Group A turbo era was over.

- NZ Herald

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