The carpark at Mount Panorama never looks as tasty as it does on the first weekend of February for the annual running of the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour Race.
The best badges in the business all gather for an annual polish at an event where Audi, BMW, Benz and Porsche are the big guns, and the support crew runs to Lamborghini, McLaren, Bentley, Aston Martin and Ferrari.
The annual 12 Hour has become a de-facto motor show, complete with eye-catching displays of new-model arrivals and the chance to get up-close-and-personal with some of the world’s most desirable drivers’ cars.
And that’s before the on-track action fire up, where bragging rights are up for grabs as some of the world’s best sports car teams kick off their season at one of the world’s most iconic circuits with Sunday racing action from pre-dawn until early evening.
It’s not only the cars that are a world away from the event for which Bathurst is most famous, the annual Bathurst 1000 supercar race in October, featuring a majority of Ford and Holden racers.
Well-heeled and wheeled
Walking the paddock and lining the top of the mountain are doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers, to name but a few. The majority have a serious profession but also a serious passion for motorsport, in which they can indulge in suitable style at one of Australia’s most upmarket racing events.
It’s also a chance for such well-heeled enthusiasts to wheel out a favourite sports car of their own for the weekend, well away from the day-to-day commuter grind.
The run over the mountains from Sydney to Bathurst is not what it was, with long sections of boring freeway. But a diversion along the Bells Line of Road is always a fun route to Mount Panorama, albeit with a stringent eye on the actively enforced speed limits.
I’ve been coming to the Bathurst 1000 for decades and the 12 Hour for many years, and I can tell you that the 12 Hour weekend has a very different feel, starting from the Thursday parade as race cars are driven in convoy from pit lane to the centre of town. It’s a lot like the ritual of technical checks for the Le Mans 24-Hour, in the cobblestoned central square of the French town.
The Double Bay of the West
As the days continue, the roads in the regional capital begin to look more like Toorak or Double Bay, and winning a table at the town’s better restaurants is all-but impossible unless you booked early.
And then there is the Rydges Hotel overlooking the track, which becomes the most prestigious place to park as visitors flock to the trackside rooms that provide an unbeatable view of the race.
Audi and BMW have used the 12 Hour as a major marketing exercise in recent years, debuting new models and also hosting on-track activities for their owners. The circuit across the top of Mount Panorama is a 60km/h public road for all but a few days each year, so any chance to drive the closed track at full noise is a bona-fide lifetime highlight. And a passenger ride with a gun driver in a factory racing car? That’s even better.
Ferrari and Porsche have also run tag-along drives, where owners can exercise their own cars behind a professionally driven pace car in a money-can-buy experience.
The star of the show
Mercedes-Benz is the biggest brand at Bathurst, and has been for eight years. It runs factory-backed cars in the 12 Hour, provides the official Safety Car for the race, and leverages its involvement with an invite-only party on the top floor of Rydges that runs for three days with five-star food and the best views of the track.
In 2020 there are 200 customers of Mercedes-AMG booked for Bathurst, on a package that includes everything from a hotel room and VIP parking to insider pit visits and a celebration t-shirt.
“It sells out within a day. It’s the second-hottest ticket we have in our calendar for the year,” Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman Jerry Stamoulis, tells Executive Traveller.
Benz has even taken over the track in the past, running post-race AMG Driving Academy events that run from straight-line sprints up the Pit Straight to complete Mount Panorama laps with a professional racer alongside as a mentor.
Driving in cars from the silver star, many participants learn to drive quicker and more safely than ever before, without worrying about a speed camera as they are coached at speeds of up to 200km/h.
Stamoulis believes the prestige appeal of the 12 Hour is what lures so many committed owners and prestige wannabe fans to a race which is building every year. “It’s the closest we can get to the old ’Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra,” he says.
The winners’ list has been varied since the 12 Hour switched to international GT3 regulations, built around the world’s most aspirational sports cars including the Audi R8, BMW M8 GT, McLaren 720, Mercedes-AMG GT and even the Bentley Continental GT.
No-one was surprised when Porsche claimed the crown in 2019, but even Nissan has been a winner at Mount Panorama with the ‘Godzilla’ GT-R which provides a halo for the whole brand and will continue its 12 Hour odyssey in 2020 as part of the biggest, fastest and most expensive collection of cars anywhere in Australia.