The largest and most exciting Production Car race of the year has finally come and gone... This weekend saw the highest of high moments, followed by the lowest of low moments. I partnered up with Mark Caine again for this race as I believed in Mark for his outright speed and talent behind the wheel, but also because he fit in so well to our family team. This weekend the team consisted of some familiar faces to Shockwave Signs Motorsport, whilst also recruiting some new members to assist in the challenge of trying to conquer the most prestigious circuit in Australia. Team Manager remained as Dad (John Vernon), Chief Mechanic was familiar face Tom Dalziel, with his assistant mechanic Ollie Matthews. Craig Odlum was Chief Refueller, followed by new faces to the team Harry Gray and Ollie Shannon. In charge of the technical side of the team was Shelly Ives and her daughter Katey Ison, whilst Mum (Barbara Vernon) remained on catering duty to make sure everyone was hydrated and well fed!
After spending two days up at the Mountain setting up and going through the standard safety checks on the car and driver apparel, Friday was the day we all finally got to get out on track. The excitement was flowing through my blood as I had already walked two laps of the circuit prior to stepping in to pedal our little green rocket around as fast as I could. Friday brought the challenge of two practice sessions both one hour each in length. As I spend all the time in the car on a regular weekend, I went out for a few precautionary laps in the first session, before letting Mark come to grips with how the car reacts to his driving style for majority of the remaining track time that day. Mark was fast from the outset, with both my lap time and his lap time fast enough to be on top of Class D. This rounded out a perfect first day for the team, with Suspension Concepts rolling out an astonishingly fast race car.
Saturday clocked over and it was time for me to get more familiar with the circuit and see how hard I could hustle this car around the mountain. We had a practice session early in the morning and this gave everyone a chance to put together a quick car for Qualifying later that day. I went out and pushed really hard in the morning practice, topping the time sheets in Class D by 3.5 seconds over 2nd place, further dropping my times from the day before by 3 whole seconds. I was closing in on being on the ragged edge of adhesion around every corner on this track, this really pumped me up for Qualifying. Qualifying was a really fun session, although finding clear track was getting increasingly frustrating. My quick laps where hindered by slow cars in front of me, but I was able to string together a lap that was only 0.3 of a second off my quick time in Practice 3. This was enough to give me a convincing pole position and made going through McPhillamy Park sideways all the more worth it!
This left the main focus now onto the race, a whole 6 hours around a picturesque dreamland, a place closest to Heaven on Earth for any racing car driver! The weather was crisp, the butterflies where in the stomach, the lump was in the throat and all the hype and lead up came down to the next 6 hours of my life. All the blood, sweat and tears from everyone in the team was now in the hands of myself for the first stint of the race.
I got off to a good start, then made the task of trying to find some clear track to try and build a strong lead. All was going to plan before a dreaded safety car was deployed for an incident. This closed the field right back up and made me lose the early advantage I had. After a few more safety cars, I found myself stuck in a battle with faster cars, which made me lose time at a rapid rate. Before I knew it, 2nd in class was right on my tail, before eventually being in front of me. I lost a lot of ground due to the other class cars, and I knew I had a fast car underneath me. I found clear track and then set my target on regaining that lead and building a large buffer for when Mark jumped in the car. I found myself right on the tail of 1st and we began an entertaining mirror to mirror battle for a few laps, before I found myself in front before a safety car was deployed. This was our chance to hand the car over to Mark and let him go to work for a little while.
Mark drove a strong stint, posting consistent lap times and keeping the car straight and in a good condition for when I got back in for my 2nd stint. Mark was in the lead when he jumped out of the car, but the time we were stationary in pit lane, meant that we had dropped back to 3rd in class. I pushed like a man on a mission in the early stages of this stint, I could see 1st and 2nd in class up the road in front of me and I knew if I could pass them, then we would have an entire pit stop up on them. I did end up catching them and regaining the lead before another safety car was deployed, meaning they regained the pit stop and the advantage we had was now back to being an even playing field. I pushed on for the remainder of my stint and handed the car over to Mark with roughly a 30 second lead over 2nd in class.
Everything looked like it was falling into place for us with less than an hour and a half to go in the race. We had completed all our stops, we had good track position and we still had a fast car. The one thing we didn't want in this instance was a safety car... but what turned up as soon as we said that? The dreaded safety car. This meant that from having the strong advantage we had, we ended up almost falling a lap behind the leader of Class D and we were now in 2nd place. Mark was driving like his life depended on it! With such a large gap to bring down, he was posting qualifying lap after qualifying lap and really raising a lot of eyebrows in our pit garage. It brought us a glimmer of hope that we could still win this race after getting so unlucky with the safety car times. In the end of the race, Mark had brought the gap to 1st down to less than 6 seconds... This was an astonishing comeback and we came oh so close to claiming victory in our first effort at the 6 hour. Once I saw Mark cross the finish line, I grabbed Dad and squeezed him so tightly. I couldn't control my emotions and started bursting out in tears, because after all the adversity we faced as a team, after all the work that went into one weekend, after all the sacrifices we made as a family, after EVERYTHING, we did it. WE FINISHED OUR FIRST BATHURST 6 HOUR! This in itself was such a big achievement for me, to have built this team up with my Father since 2012, to see that it is now listed as a registered finishing car in what is a grueling race for many teams brought me so much joy. We came so bitterly close to winning it in our first attempt, we had the speed all weekend and just needed the luck to fall our way. That is all part of the game we play, that is why Bathurst is such a legendary race track. I have to say a HUGE congratulations to Chris Reeves and Chris Sutton, who ended up claiming the victory over us in Class D. Reeves has been a fantastic mentor for me and to be able to race hard with him is a great feeling. I have a huge amount of respect for Chris Reeves and I was happy to see him stand back up on the top step of the Bathurst podium.
I have to say a huge thank you to everyone involved in our team, you all did amazing and you all had a vital role in making sure we crossed that finish line at the end of the day. I consider myself very lucky to have you guys on my side, you are all so passionate about racing and I appreciate everything you all do for me. I want to make special mention to my Chief Refueller Craig, I send my condolences out to him and his entire family. Craig is such a down to Earth character and always knows how to bring a big smile to the team, Craig had to return home before the race for personal reasons and I know that he was on the mind of all of us all day on Sunday. We might not have clinched the win we were hoping for, but we gave it a red hot crack for you mate.
Photos: Rhys Vandersyde