FORMULA 5000’S FORGOTTEN BATHURST TEST

Max Stewart rounds Forrest's Elbow in his Lola F5000 in October 1976. Pic: Chevron

BIG capacity open-wheel racing will return to Mount Panorama for the first time in half a century when S5000 races during the Repco Bathurst 1000.

Before touring car racing and the annual October endurance race took over, open-wheel cars were once the headline attraction at Mount Panorama.

A cross-roads occured in 1970; the Australian Touring Car Championship round took top billing at the circuit’s traditional Easter meeting, where Niel Allen drove his F5000 McLaren M10B-Chevrolet to set the outright lap record at 2m09.7s during the Formula Libre support races.

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Allen could potentially have gone even faster; his was the only F5000 on hand and he was unchallenged by a field of top 2.0 and 2.5-litre entries in what proved the last race appearance for a large-capacity open-wheeler at the circuit.

However, that wasn’t the last time a F5000 tackled Mount Panorama in anger.

Kevin Bartlett and Max Stewart piloted their race-prepared Lola T400s, powered by five-litre Chevrolet V8 engines, around the circuit on a press day in October 1976.

The pair drove a series of what were ostensibly demonstration laps … but that didn’t mean they weren’t having a decent go!

Racing Car News doyen Max Stahl reported that Stewart and Bartlett were travelling at “almost full-chat racing speeds” with the former recorded as doing a best of 2m12.0s during the day on the original pre-Chase 6.172-km layout.

In contrast, Allan Moffat’s pole time for that year’s Hardie-Ferodo 1000, held just a few weeks earlier, was a 2m25.0s.

“It was a thrilling ride in a ‘5000 around here,” Bartlett told me during his induction into Mount Panorama’s Legends Lane in 2017.

“We were doing near-on 200 miles an hour down the straight. Miles an hour. Unbelievable!”

Kevin Bartlett, Jackie Stewart and Max Stewart stand with the former’s Lola F5000 on Mount Panorama’s pit straight. Pic: Chevron

“But we ran into, not difficulties, but a situation that we had to be very, very aware of: the tyre that we were using wouldn’t heat up enough.

“Across the mountain they’d start to heat up, and by the time you got to Forrest’s Elbow the tyres were just starting to grip.

“But of course, you’d run down the straight and they’d cool right off and your brakes would be cold, because we were setup for shorter tracks.

“The next two corners, Murray’s and Hell, we’d have to be heating the brakes up going down the straight.

“By the time we got to the top of the Mountain to go into what was then XL corner (Griffin’s Bend), the tyres were dead cold again and so were the brakes.

“But I’m sure with the right setup, tuned to the track with the right springs and shocks, all of the mechanical things that you would’ve done, and the right tyre, they would’ve been very quick motor cars around here.

“Albeit in those days there were no concrete walls, so if you miscued you were in trouble…”

Stewart enjoys the view at Skyline; to his right is David McKay. Pic: Chevron

The day was essentially a publicity event for Goodyear, who had brought three-time Formula 1 world champion and brand ambassador Sir Jackie Stewart to Australia for a whirlwind tour.

Amid a host of events and functions was a visit to Bathurst and Mount Panorama, where Stewart drove countless laps of the circuit aboard a Ford Falcon XC road car with media and dignitaries on board.

“This is, without a doubt, one of the finest road circuits in the world,” he said multiple times during the visit, per Stahl’s RCN report on the event.

While Sir Jackie told journalists he’d love to have a Tyrrell F1 car on hand for a few laps, he baulked at the chance to slip into the cockpit of one of the V8-powered Lolas.

“We invited Jackie to have a drive of the cars around here and he said: ‘No way, Jose!” Bartlett laughed.

Stewart told media, local councillors and business people that the circuit could – with the addition of guard rails, concrete walls and catch-fencing to protect drivers and the trackside crowd alike – hold a Formula 1 Grand Prix as soon as in 1979 with an precursor F5000 race in 1978 as a trial event.

History shows that a world championship grand prix at Bathurst never came to pass, and the big-capacity F5000 cars never graced Mount Panorama again … until now.

Will Dale is V8 Sleuth's Head of Content - Digital. He began his media career as a breakfast radio newsreader before joining SPEED TV Australia and FOX SPORTS Australia in 2012 as its Digital Editorial Lead - Motorsport, covering all forms of motorsport both in Australia and internationally. He became part of the V8 Sleuth team in 2018.