FEATURE: WHEN AUSSIES RULED THE WORLD [SORT OF]
The World Touring Car Championship of 1987 was a farce. But 30 years ago, for one shining moment, an Australia car and team took on the world, and won
By Any measure, it was an amazing achievement.
An Australian-built car, prepared by a small but enthusiastic band of gypsies, take on the best in the business, half-way across the world, with almost no notice.
That is what happened in Italy, 30 years ago. It was the opening round of the then-new World Touring Car Championship. The big guns were there – well, some of them were there. There was a World title up for grabs and two Australian drivers came out on top.
You would think that this was motor racing’s America’s Cup moment. It wasn’t. Outside the tight-knit motor racing community – still coming to terms with the news that Holden and Peter Brock were getting divorced – it did not cause much of a ripple.
But in hindsight… well, if Jack Brabham’s 1966 World Champion is Australia’s motor racing Everest, this was much, much bigger than, say, Mount Kosciuszko.
First, some background. The WTCC was a World Championship in slightly more than name only. It was based on what had been the European Touring Car Championship, a series that had in 1986 degenerated into a farcical succession of protests and counter-protests. By the time that the engines fired up for the opening round of the ’87 series, there was still no clear ETCC winner from the year before…
There were some relatively late changes to the championship which, just before the racing started, required entrants to register to be eligible to score points. That process was subject to a fee payable to the sport’s governing body FISA of US$60,000 fee – per car. As a result, Tom Walkinshaw, who had tested his cars at Monza the week prior, kept his Holdens at home, and others skipped the race. By the time the cars assembled – 41 entries, spread across three classes – only 11 of them were registered.
Some fingers were pointed at the FISA’s decision to put its newly appointed Vice President Bernie Ecclestone in charge of the championship a month prior to the opening round – and he was not even at Monza to sort out what would quickly become a mess.
In his absence BMW were taking things very seriously. The new M3 was the car to have and plenty had them; Schnitzer, with Roberto Ravaglia and Ivan Capelli in one car and Emanuele Pirro and Roland Ratzenberger in the other. At CiBiEmme, Ricardo Patrese (subbing for Gianfranco Brancatelli) joined Johnny Cecotto, and at Luis Sala/Olivier Grouillard were in a BMW factory car. They were the four ‘registered’ M3s. Other entries were there, some to score points in the ETCC. In all, there were 10 BMWs.
Maserati brought two of its Bi-Turbos, for Armin Hahne/Bruno Giacomelli and Mario Hytten/Marcello Gunnella. Alfa Romeo had two works cars, with Paolo Barilla/Giorgio Francia teaming up, but Alessandro Nannini had a fresh co-driver. Jacques Laffite was out after an F1 crash, so they drafted in Michael Andretti – who then proceeded to give the Alfa regulars a hosing…
There were seven other Alfas in privateer hands, but it was soon obvious that the 75s were not going to be a match for the BMWs, or much else for that matter.
Then there were the Ford Sierras. The American company was serious about winning and with the Cosworth-fettled cars, they looked to be well-placed to do so. Reudi Eggenberger arrived at Monza with three Sierras in Texaco black and they took to the track for Practice. And that was as far as they went.
The problem was the cars’ electronics. The rules said that the cars had to run original fuel injection systems, in spite of documentation that appeared to allow alternatives. The Eggenberger cars ran Bosch systems, with Bosch identification. After some discussions, the cars were packed away before any serious lappery started.
Then there were the Commodores.
Both Brock and Allan Grice had raced in the ETCC the previous year – and both at Monza – but a lack of backing meant that neither fronted up for the WTCC.
But there was an Australian car there. Moffat had quietly acquired one of the Holden Dealer Team’s Commodores, and was interested in selling it. The car was advertised in the British press, without response. So two weeks before the race, Moffat had an idea…
“Why not take the car over?” he told AA at the time.
“If it’s going to sell, it’s more likely to [sell] there.”
With the assistance of Qantas, the car quickly was booked on a flight, eight days before it needed to be on the track in Italy. The Aussies packed their bags and followed the car out of the country on Saturday. Moffat, Harvey and crew chief Mick Webb were joined by three former HDT mechanics, Russell Levy, Andrew Cowcher and Dennis Watson.
After a fresh lick of paint in England the team left for Monza. They had one car, one engine, one gearbox, some spares and extra wheels, and that was it. There were not even any extra springs or dampers. By the standards of how the opposition was prepared, it looked like a laughably small effort.
But it was pitch-perfect. After more than 600km in pre-race build-up, the car was running beautifully. The preparation was thorough; the only problems were with a wheel bearing and some fuel surge.
Monza may well have been designed for the Fords, and Andy Rouse took pole in his Sierra, with a six-pack of BMWs close behind. Moffat was ninth, and driving conservatively due to the lack of spares.
“We made it,” Moffat says now.
“I don’t think we were being too careful with it.”
The race started. From pole Rouse took the lead from the flotilla of BMWs, led by Markus Oestreich. Moffat picked off two of the M3s on the opening lap and settled into ninth. But Rouse did not last; after 10 laps the red car slowed, then stopped on lap 12, engine dead. Pirro took over the lead, and Moffat was sixth, having lost a place to an enthusiastic Patrese at the chicane.
Then the new leader pitted, Pirro having blistered a Yokohama. Moffat kept going as the smaller cars pitted, moving up to third as he eked out his fuel load to lap 44 – exactly. The car coughed on the in lap and he coasted in, meaning that Harvey lost some time refiring the car. He lost some seconds, and was lapped by race leader Patrese just after he resumed.
“I still make it to where John was standing,” Moffat says.
“That was good enough! John drove very well, we were happy with everything that played out in the race.”
Cecotto took over the lead and it was an excited bunch of Italians who celebrated a milestone win. Better still, M3s filled the next five placings. Harvey, eyeing his temperature gauge over the last 20 laps of the race, brought the Commodore home in seventh, to win his class.
Then the protest came, and it came from the Kulker SC team. The Czechs could not figure out why their new M3 was nowhere near as fast as some of the more factory-supported ones, and post race scrutineering revealed that all six leading M3s were underweight, by up to 80kg. The BMWs were excluded and suddenly Moffat and Harvey had won, from the CiBiEmme BMW 635 of Georges Bosshard/Jose Angel Sasiambarrena and Helmut Marko’s Mercedes 190E, piloted by Peter Oberndorfer and downhill skiing legend Franz Klammer. The Czechs were the leading M3 in fourth place, four laps behind the Holden.
“All of their bodywork was made out of tissue paper!” Moffat remembers.
“The guy behind me was a dealer-backed BMW and then he started making noise. The BMW people had to unload their cars from the trucks again and that is when the shit hit the fan.
“We got a nod, we took the carburettor off the engine, they didn’t give a hoot about us. But the dealer BMW guy was going off his brain!”
Moffat and Harvey retired to their nearby hotel, had dinner and retired for the night.
“The next morning we came downstairs and the guy behind the counter was shouting, ‘Magnifico! Magnifico! Numero Uno!’ That’s is when we found out we had won the race – and that night we must have made about 55 phone calls back to Australia. That was most of our budget!”
Of course, Moffat’s small team did not have a spare $60K lying around, so with the disqualification of the BMW fleet, they scored no points. Nearly no one did; but the Walter Voulez/Marcello Cipriani Alfa, which had finished 14th on the road and seventh in the revised results, was registered for the championship. So they scored 40 points and led the World Championship.
Their Albatech car finished 16 laps behind Moffat and Harvey. In a 500km race, they were nearly 93km behind. Yes, it is ridiculous.
Moffat has achieved much but winning a round of the World Championship…
“Achievements come and go but this one, I remember fondly,” he smiles.
“You say thank you to the Almighty for some of them, and some of them are down to good luck. Sometimes good drivers and good cars run out of gas.”
So it was that two Australian drivers, aged 47 and 49, and their undermanned team took on the world’s best and came out on top. Three decades later, it remains one of motor racing’s great David and Goliath stories – even if David had a 5-litre V8 and Goliath a 2.3-litre four…
Date posted: June 4, 2017