I’M SURE many of you, like me, watched on with great interest when Casey Stoner made his four-wheel race debut at the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide.
Casey was rightfully nervous and bounced back from his first race brush into the wall to charge through the field in race two of the Dunlop Series. No-one is more aware of the mountain Stoner must climb to dominate the feeder series and break into V8 Supercar than Casey himself. It is an added hurdle than Wayne Gardner never had to face when he jumped from GP bikes to the taxis 20 years ago.
Casey has a good car, the ex-Craig Lowdnes Triple Eight Holden Commodore, and enormous support from the Red Bull team. He is under no illusion that he can translate 25 years of motorcycle racing experience into tin-top racing, stating before his first race that the only thing he can bring to his new profession is his gigabyte memory full of traction sensing through the tyres.
It was ironic then that Stoner flat-spotted his right front tyre in his first race, something that never happens in bike racing, which eventually sent him wide into the wall when the tyre punctured. It was a big learning experience, but one that Casey will take on board. One senses that he likes being back in Australia racing full-time for the first time since 1998.
Among a long-list of reasons why he quit MotoGP racing was the Euro-centric manner in which the series was administered and reported by the media. He narrowed this down to Dorna and the proliferation of Spanish rounds at Jerez, Catalunya and Valencia, labelling it the ‘Spanish Championship’. Another Queensland-born legend with a searing sense of reality delivered in an unfiltered tone beat Casey to the punch by 15 years; in his prime Mick Doohan called it the ‘Spanish Cup’.
Stoner, who has never liked doing PR, seemed keen enough to talk to the local motorsport press, who weren’t asking him what he really thought about Valentino Rossi, or the prospect of a fourth Spanish MotoGP race at Albacete. Although he faces a long journey to reach the upper echelons of V8 racing, he seemed happy enough racing at home and facing a new challenge, however it may turn out. MotoGP and $15million dollar contracts seemed to be the furthest things from his mind.
When Craig Lowdnes was on the dais celebrating the first V8 Supercar race win of the year, Stoner stood below applauding in pure admiration and happiness for his mate. In that moment, he would’ve realised if he’s running around in the top ten of the Dunlop Series, what kind of experience and magic does it take to win a big V8 Supercar race like the Clipsal?
Wayne Gardner won V8 Supercar races, hell, he should’ve won Bathurst at least once, maybe twice. Gardner was leading the great race in 1997 on lap 90 of 168 when the engine let go at the end of Mountain Straight.
After uttering an expletive, one-time co-driver Mark Larkham lost control on the oil, and slammed into Wayne’s stationary Commodore for good measure. Oh, the joys of motorsport. It was a rocky road for the 1987 world 500cc champ, one that Stoner has taken note of. Gardner’s four-wheel career is instructive, for it was his foray into Japan that really made him as a cage driver.
Straight after he quit GP racing in 1992, Gardner immediately turned to V8 touring car racing in Australia.
As the premier class in Australia, other drivers took exception to his rapid rise and high profile that attracted sizeable sponsorship.
Gardner became a target. It was an attitude he had never encountered in bike racing. Tapping, nudging and straight out barging became the order of the day. The victim, and sometimes the innocent catalyst for many multi-car mishaps, Gardner quickly earned the epithet ‘Captain Chaos’. The media picked up on the name. It hurt. Chipping plenty of his own money in to his team and saddled with some very big crash bills, a somewhat disillusioned Gardner scaled down his Australian V8 activities in the late 1990s and began racing GT cars in Japan.
It’s a country where he’s nick-named ‘Mr 100 percent’ for his grit and success in the Suzuka 8-Hours. Gardner tasted success at the Fuji Speedway in front of 62,700 when he took out round five of the 1999 All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship Series in a Toyota Supra. The GT car that Gardner raced was some piece of work. Although they were based on production models such as the Honda NSX, Nissan GTR and the Toyota Supra, these things lapped much faster than a 500cc GP bike. In race trim, they weighed 1000kg compared to the 1350kg of a Supercar, and produced 600bhp. Although the V8 touring cars produce similar horsepower to the GT cars and are capable of 310km/h, Gardner said there is no comparison between the two.
“The Japanese GT cars were much quicker than the V8 Supercar, using a lot more down-force and aerodynamics,” he said. “Technically, they were far superior and are approximately eight to ten seconds a lap faster than a V8 Supercar.” To put that into a perspective, a V8 Supercar produces lap times very close to an Australian-spec Superbike.
In 2000, Gardner returned to claimed pole at Bathurst by a second, and cleared off in the early laps in one of the most remarkable getaways in the 1000’s history. Checking his mirrors up mountain straight with no-one in sight, Gardner said to himself, “Where have they all gone?” He ran into problems later, but he was undeniably the fastest man in V8 Supercar racing, although he was no longer a full-time participant. It’s unfortunate that his career ended at Bathurst in 2002 when he crashed heavily into the barrier at Griffins bend during practice, leaving him badly concussed. If Casey can win Supercar races, and say he had Bathurst in the bag twice like WG, he’d be a happy man.