Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Button at The Mountain // Jenson Button swaps drivers for the day at Mount Panorama

Published by Matt Garrard

During the lead up to the 2011 F1 season opener in Melbourne, Vodafone and McLaren flexed their marketing muscles to organise an F1/V8 driver swap day at the famous Mt Panorama circuit in Bathurst NSW. The swapping was done with local V8 Supercar hero Craig Lowndes and his Vodafone sponsored Holden Commodore racer, essentially a (heavily regulated... a rant for another day!) locally produced, Vauxhall Omega based, sedan kitted out with a 5.0 litre V8 engine making around 650ps.

The city of Bathurst is about 200kms (125 miles) west of Sydney. The city itself has history dating back to colonial days, however, for us motorsport fans dotted around, Bathurst means one thing... Mt Panorama!

Mt Panorama (or 'The Mountain' or 'Bafferst' in some circles) is a 6.2km, undulating street circuit draped over the mountain itself. The 1st and 3rd sectors of the circuit are rather fast straights, The Mountain and Conrod Straight (guess how that got its name) in particular, where our popular, local V8 Supercar racers are hurtling downhill in excess of 300km/h. Sector 2, heading up to and across the top is where the fun stuff lies.

Due to the incline and tightness of the turns, seeing the corner exits is tricky at times and the faster bits here see cars out on the kerbs scrabbling for grip to keep out the the concrete barriers that lie very close to the road. Pictures and TV really don't capture just how steep some the rises and drops on this track are, the road just drops away at times and has to be seen to fully appreciate.

Mt Panorama is a public road, there are actually residential properties that are entered from the track! I can tell you from experience, having been around a few times in my previous Golf, road cars struggle with the hills. Also the 60km/h speed limit is well enforced with regular patrols by the local fuzz.

My view of 'The Mountain'
My view of 'The Mountain'Credit: Matt Garrard

Enough of the circuit though, lets hear about Jenson and the McLaren

Having seen, over the years, many forms of race car (V8 Supercar, GT Production, Sportscars etc.) head up the mountain and disappear for a couple of minutes before coming back down, The McLaren MP4/23 smoked them all! From my initial spot halfway between The Chase and Murray's corner (just after the 'Armour-All bridge in the videos), I could momentarily see the top of the tiny McLaren before it vanished up the Mountain Straight and away.

The stars of the show
The stars of the showCredit: Matt Garrard

While not being visible, the McLaren more than made its position across the top known with the sheer howl of the Mercedes V8 and you could actually feel the popping of Jenson's downshifts from I'd say at least a kilometre away! I can't decide what was the better sound, that, or what was next. The sound of a GP car on full song as it hurtled down Conrod Straight, where the McLaren's top speed was hampered by a setup issue (still up around 300kph though), leading to excessive bottoming out. Then down through the FAST chicane that follows, then over the crest to where I was for Jenson's first of a 5 lap run. Hair on the back of the neck stuff! Amazing! This happened 4 more times, in which Jenson posted an Unofficial Lap Record of 1.48.88, smashing the official record by an incredible 19.5 seconds!

Over the crest
Over the crestCredit: Matt Garrard

Also of note: F1 cars are UNBELIEVABLY difficult to photograph! Literally, there one second and gone the next. I actually remembered reading an article by Paul Henri Cahier (I think) about the cars coming over a crest in Hungary (similar to what I needed) where he pre-focussed on a spot on the track and just shot when the cars number on the front came into focus. This helped a lot, but they still beat my camera more often than not.

Next up was the V8 Supercar, first with Jenson, who put in some impressive laps for first time out in a new beast, around 3-5 seconds off Lowndes' laps in the same car a few minutes later. By this time I had migrated closer to Murray's Corner for a different photo angle. Also of note, the V8 Supercar was MUCH easier to photograph.

I am by no means an expert on this series, but they also make an impressive sound - much more throaty then the McLaren. The drivers aren’t afraid of hammering kerbs either, these beasts are regularly seen on two wheels through chicanes or kinks where a tight apex is required. The similar liveries were a nice touch too I thought, both cars all nice and silvery.

Button in the V8 Supercar
Button in the V8 SupercarCredit: Matt Garrard

The final run of the day was by Mr Lowndes, taking his turn in the McLaren. Lowndes, noticeably taller in the car then Jenson, also put in some impressive times in the unfamiliar machinery, closing out just a second behind Jenson's best. Just seeing the McLaren on-track again was enough for me. I always like how this particular McLaren looked. At the height of the era when the cars looked more like starfighters than racecars, low and wide with all the appendages and curves in that front wing, and the slick tyres top it all off. I’m so glad those are back.

Lowndes rounding Murrays Corner
Lowndes rounding Murrays CornerCredit: Matt Garrard

All up, the day was more then worth the 2 hour drive to get there (looking in your direction Jeremy...) and it's a nice speedy drive through the country to boot. I was hoping for a McLaren merchandise stand, but lucked out on that one. Something that did surprise me was the turnout, the Pit Straight spectator area was pretty much full. Around the final corner and the hill overlooking The Chase were also well covered. A good smattering of silver McLaren shirts too happily.

Nice work by Vodafone, Team McLaren and the Bathurst council for letting it all go ahead. Hope you guys are back next year.

Even more pictures can be found in my Flickr set.