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Mount Panorama
Tuesday, June 25, 2024


IN 1997 Williams Grand Prix Engineering was at the peak of its powers.

It was in the midst of a second straight year in which it won the drivers’ and constructors’ championship double with its Renault-powered, Rothmans-backed rockets.

The relationship with Renault had also spawned a sister company, Williams Touring Car Engineering, that operated next door to the F1 outfit in Oxfordshire, UK.

By 1997 the Williams tin-top program was also in devastating form, as Alain Menu and Jason Plato dominated the British Touring Car Championship with their Lagunas.

And their year finished with a special assignment on the other side of the globe.

The split that resulted in the Super Tourers taking over the traditional October ‘Great Race’ date brought the world to Bathurst in a way that hadn’t been seen since 1987’s World Touring Car Championship round.

A deal to bring the Renaults to Bathurst was brokered by Sydney-based businessman Graham Moore, who had previously competed in the Australian Super Touring Championship as a privateer.

Alan Jones aboard the #23 Laguna. Pic: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

Moore actually pulled off two major coups for the race.

He snared not only the presence of the team with Menu and Plato in the lead car, but the signature of Williams’ own 1980 F1 world champ Alan Jones to share a second entry in which Moore would co-drive.

While it technically wasn’t the Williams F1 team that came to Bathurst, and indeed neither Frank nor right-hand-man Patrick Head made the trip, the Williams touring car team was still one heck of an operation.

According to The Great Race annual, Williams arrived at Bathurst with 21 staff, two cars and 4,400kg of equipment, including six engines, three gearboxes and 60 wheels.

It was an operation led by Belgian Didier Debae, who later moved to New Zealand and acted as technical director for the short-lived NZ V8 Super Tourer series.

The Renaults proved rapid once track action commenced; Swiss maestro Menu raised eyebrows by topping the opening day of practice as a Mountain rookie.

Menu narrowly missed out on pole position to the BMW of Paul Morris, while Jones put the second Laguna 10th on the grid after a mistake in the Shootout, and then crashed out early in the race.

The damage to car #23 after Jones’ crash. PIc: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

“The Renault was a front-wheel drive car (and) I hated it,” wrote Jones in his autobiography, ‘AJ’.

“I came through the Cutting about 40 laps into the race and there was some oil there and being front-wheel drive, the bloody tyres have hit that, and they’ve just spun.

“I was going straight into the wall and that was it.”

While Jones wasn’t impressed by the car, the team itself was a different story.

“It was good to be back with Williams, even if it wasn’t the real team,” he added.

“It was a European team, and they had all the right computers. Everything had a place… it was a well-oiled machine, which made me think a little more about my (V8 Supercars) team.”

While Jones and Moore were sidelined, Menu and Plato were the race’s clear pacesetters.

Plato led by more than a minute when he pitted to hand over to Menu on lap 99, only for a slow brake pad change to leave Menu to rejoin in excess of a lap behind new leader Craig Baird aboard Morris’ BMW.

The #3 Renault eventually joined the retirements list. PIc: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

Menu then put the hammer down, circling at up to three seconds a lap quicker than the Audi ahead of him before a slide at McPhillamy Park dragged the Laguna over the exit kerb.

A short time later the car was in the pits with what turned out to be terminal trouble; a moment spent airborne after clouting the kerb thought to have damaged the differential.

It was a sad end to an otherwise impressive Mountain assault.

The Lagunas did not return for the second Super Touring Bathurst in 1998, and the Williams Renault BTCC program was shut down at the end of the following season.

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