The luxury car maker from Crewe put one over crack teams representing Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche, as Jules Gounon overcame a late puncture to deliver what deserves to be a famous victory at the Bathurst 12 Hour.
The Frenchman and his team-mates Maxime Soulet and Jordan Pepper were in the thick of the action throughout and proved to be deserving winners of a race that is growing in stature by the year.
The fearsome 3.86-mile Mount Panorama circuit in New South Wales is best known for Australia’s greatest race, the Bathurst 1000, the jewel in the crown of the country’s premier Supercars V8 touring car series. But since 2007, when the once-around-the-clock 12 Hour was revived as a race for GTs, the track that features the famous ‘Mountain’ has had a new peak rising into the international racing stratosphere.
The Bathurst 12 Hour is the opener for the International GT Challenge, a five-race series that also takes in the Spa 24 Hours, the Suzuka 10 Hours, the Indianapolis 8 Hours – an exciting new event for the Brickyard this year – the Kyalami 9 Hours finale next autumn. And what a start to the series it proved to be.
Kicking off in darkness at an ungodly 5.45am, the cacophonous grid of GTs blazed into the suitably named Hell Corner at the start, jostled up the straight and into the twisting, wall-lined Mountain section, then plunged back down the long Conrod Straight, through super-quick The Chase – a right-left-right flick – before braking hard for the 90-degree Murrays Corner. And all in front of a typically enthusiastic and impressively large Aussie crowd, given the hour.
Briton’s Ben Barnicoat led the way in his McLaren, and he’d still be close to the sharp end half a day later – even if the 720S GT3 didn’t quite have enough to live with the green M-Sport-run Continental GT3 up the road ahead of it.
Gounon’s late scare
The winning Bentley scored its victory on genuine pace, setting a new distance record for the 12 Hours. But as ever in big enduros, the Continental was also aided by fast cars around it hitting trouble, either with punctures or crunching shunts into those famous concrete walls. Mount Panorama doesn’t do run-off at its daunting, unforgiving peak.
But Gounon had his own drama late in the race that could have cost him and Bentley the lot. With just over an hour to run, the car suffered a frightening tyre blowout. Fortunately for the Frenchman (admittedly he might not have thought so right in the moment…), the puncture came on the Conrod Straight. Yes, the fastest part of the circuit – but also close to the salvation of the pitlane. Gounon kept the car on the road, made a stop without drama and motored on to his second major sportscar victory, having already won the Spa 24 Hours in an Audi back in 2017.
And if his name is familiar, it should be. Gounon is the son of brief Formula 1 driver and fine sportscar ace Jean-Marc Gounon, who finished second at Le Mans in 1997 and has since become an enthusiastic race-winning visitor to the Goodwood Revival. The apple clearly hasn’t dropped far.
MGruppe’s Mercedes SLS AMG looked to be M-Sport’s biggest threat for victory in the closing stages until it too suffered a puncture. Raffaele Marciello then put in a convincing charge and passed the Barnicoat McLaren with a fine move at Murrays on the penultimate lap – only to lose second place on a penalty. Thirty seconds for a pitstop infringement were added to its race time, dropping Marciello, Maximilian Buhk and Felipe Fraga to sixth.
Thus Barnicoat, Alvaro Parente and Tom Blomqvist took the second step of the podium for 59 Racing. They were joined in third place by Shane van Gisbergen, Jamie Whincup and Maximilian Goetz in their Triple 8 Racing Mercedes SLS.
Daytona heroes out of luck
For one group of hardy souls, the Bathurst 12 Hours marked the second major sportscar enduro in just seven days, as a clutch of star drivers who’d raced in the Daytona 24 Hours the previous weekend flew straight from Florida to Australia for an entirely different sort of racing challenge.
Among them was Daytona race winner Scott Dixon, who switched his Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac for an R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage, sharing it with Briton Jake Dennis and Supercar hero Rick Kelly. But the five-time IndyCar champion was out of luck in Bathurst, his crew finishing a distant 16th after delays that included a stop for a new front splitter.
Another to suffer the slings and arrows was Briton Oliver Jarvis, who finished second to the Taylor car at Daytona in a Team Joest-run Mazda. The former ‘Bentley Boy’ was back in a Continental at Bathurst, but his #8 entry fared poorly, especially in comparison to its winning sister, #7. A puncture pitched Jarvis into a spin, although the big car at least kept itself out of the wall.
One other notable traveller across the Pacific was Harrison Newey, son of Red Bull F1 designer Adrian and an LMP2 class winner at Daytona. The Super Formula single-seater racer accepted the challenge of a Bathurst baptism of fire only in the wake of his big success in Florida and was a last-minute addition to the entry.
Was it worth it? Surely, yes – even if his Mercedes-AMG GT4 ended up the last classified ‘finisher’ on Sunday evening (44 laps off the winning Bentley…), as the threat of rain arrived only after the chequered flag had fallen. All in all, quite a week for the 21-year-old and one hell of a start to the 2020 season for sportscar racing’s band of plucky troubadours.