Bathurst bridesmaids: the 10 best drivers who haven't won The Great Race
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Australasia's greatest race is now mere days away. By this time next week, the full Virgin Australia Supercars Championship circus will have descended onto the quaint Bathurst township, fans up the top will have spray-marked their viewing plot for the weekend, and that cut-it-with-a-knife tension will well and truly be in the air.
There are always two sides to measuring success at big blue-chip events like the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000. For those drivers lucky enough to win it, it can be a life-changing exercise. A victory at Mount Panorama can kick-start or extend a career overnight. The flip-side to all of this however are the unfortunate ones — the drivers who 'could've would've should've', who's careers may well have been transformed had it not been for the quintessential '$2 part' failure, errand drama with traffic, or good old fashioned bad luck.
Today we look at, and rank, 10 of the latter. From champion drivers that logically should've won at Bathurst, to perennial battlers that always lifted their game, to those still tying today.
10. Mark Larkham
Bathurst attempts: 10
Best result: 3rd (1997)
Did somebody say "perennial battler?"
Having made a name for himself in open-wheelers initially, 'Larko' arrived on the touring-car scene in the mid-'90s and raised eyebrows almost immediately. His cars, compared to the rest of the Supercars paddock, were incredibly wild in their creation. The drivers seat was shifted inwards in a 'monocoque' format to improve weight distribution, and under the skin the philosophy around suspension tuning was very sophisticated for the period.
Larkham in his own team and cars had instilled the values he had learned in open-wheelers. This was impressive and logical in theory, but over time the measures made his cars less reliable and more fragile than the rest of the field. Ironically, if he had started off in the series by buying someone else's cars 'off the shelf', he would've likely had a much more successful (and lengthy) career.
In 1996 his hot-shot entry with Cameron McConville lasted just three laps. That must've been disappointing, given his previous start had lasted an enormous 22 laps.
Eventually Larkham 'saw the light' and tied up his operation with Stone Brothers Racing. And the results started coming. He finished an exceptional third in 1997 with Andrew Miedecke, and scored a memorable pole position in 1999. But it was 1998 that will be remembered as 'the one that got away'. He and Brad Jones were on target to shadow the other Stone Brothers Falcon of Jason Bright and Steve Richards, until a late-race mechanical gremlin that saw the Mitre 10 Falcon crawl to a stop on the front straight.
After nearly dropping a lap, the issue fixed itself and Larkham was able to press on. But he would never get a better opportunity to win.
9. James Courtney
Bathurst attempts: 10
Best result: 2nd (2007), 3rd (2006, 2008)
It's almost surprising to think that James Courtney can't yet call himself a Bathurst 1000 winner, given his high level of success in just about everything else.
For a period he was considered to be Australia's next potential Formula 1 hopeful, following success in Britain's open-wheel circuit and a role with Jaguar F1 as a test driver. He also tasted plenty of success in Japan in Formula 3 and Super GT with Toyota, before eventually returning to Australia for good at the end of 2005.
His early years were marred by questions of whether he was a bit overrated — flames fanned by strings of crashes and incidents. He'd eventually prove the doubters wrong by helping turn Dick Johnson Racing around in the late-noughties; eventually winning the title in 2010. But ironically, those patchy early seasons with Stone Brothers Racing were also his strongest years at Bathurst.
He kept his nose clean to finish third in 2006 behind the incredible race-long battle for first between Lowndes/Whincup and the Kelly brothers. And then the next year he could've very easily bagged a win in the late-race wet-weather chaos as he, Craig Lowndes, Steven Johnson, and Greg Murphy fought nose-to-tail. In latter years, strong probable results in 2013 and 2014 with Greg Murphy went begging thanks to mechanical issues.
But, 2008 was unquestionably the year he came closest to winning. Unlike the podiums in the previous two years — results that arguably 'fell into his lap' somewhat — he and co-driver David Besnard were among the quickest on track. They led the race early and looked comfortable, until the year's big cut-tyre saga that swept many of the best combinations struck them early.
8. Warren Luff
Bathurst attempts: 19
Best result: 2nd (2017, 2018), 3rd (2012, 2013, 2015)
Warren Luff's name probably seems like a bit of an outlier on this list. Here's a guy who excelled in the V8 ute series, had just the one full-time Supercars tilt in 2004 (with Dick Johnson Racing), and then never rejoined the series in a full capacity again.
But, one look at Luff's track record shows just how impressive he is at Bathurst. He's rarely among the quickest co-drivers, but he's easily one of the most dependable.
Think about it. Over the last seven years, Luff has finished on the podium five times. Very, very few drivers can boast having a statistic like that on their resume. And, those two races where he didn't claim a podium were somewhat justified. In 2014 Craig Lowndes' car was taken out in practice by Luff's out-of-control car (ironically, they became teammates down the track). And then in 2016, he and Garth Tander's race was cut short by the now infamous late crash between Tander, Jamie Whincup, and Scott McLaughlin at the Chase.
That race, in fact, was probably Luff and Tander's to lose had they avoided that chaotic moment. Unlike McLaughlin, they were in the clear for petrol to the end of the race. And, with Whincup getting handed a 15-second penalty post-race, they would've likely romped home with the win. Luff's other big close call, one that's somewhat forgotten these days, was in 2005.
There he was teamed with Marcos Ambrose. The duo were the car to beat for much of the race, before Ambrose was found to not be wearing his balaclava under his helmet. The rule violation knocked them from the lead group, with Ambrose's tiff at The Cutting with Greg Murphy sealing the deal.
7. Scott McLaughlin
Bathurst attempts: 7
Best result: 3rd (2018)
In a very short space of time, Scott McLaughlin has made a huge impact on the Supercars Championship. He went from being 'the next Craig Lowndes' to being a qualifying guru, to being the face of Volvo, to being DJR Team Penske's results saviour rather quickly. Just about the only thing that's alluded him is a Bathurst 1000 crown.
It's weird to say, but Mount Panorama on paper looks to be a bit of a bogey circuit for the 26-year-old. Only twice has he finished in the top five, with last year's quiet-achiever podium being his strongest result.
Apart from 2016's clash with Whincup and the mechanical failure at a wet 2017 race, McLaughlin's other big Bathurst 1000 chance came in 2014 with Volvo. He was right among the leaders in a race filled with safety cars (something that helped the Volvo's noted poor fuel economy), but crashed at The Cutting while battling with Shane van Gisbergen.
There is plenty more to tell in the story of McLaughlin's racing career. And you'd be a brave punter to bet against him knocking off a Bathurst win at some point.
6. Brad Jones
Bathurst attempts: 24
Best result: 2nd (1994, 1997 2-litre, 2001), 3rd (1993, 1998, 2004)
If anyone could claim to be a polar opposite of McLaughlin on paper, in terms of Mount Panorama, it's probably Brad Jones.
He and his brother Kim Jones (who some have alleged was a better driver back in the day, funnily enough) were dynamos in AUSCAR — Australia's once popular summer-series oval-racing formula. Pivoting to super touring with Audi in the mid-'90s, they were championship winners there too.
But the move to transitioning their operation into Supercars in 2000 was a tricky one full of early issues. Jones had already established himself as a handy steerer in Supercars with stints at the Holden Racing Team, Stone Brothers, and Wayne Gardner's operation, but being an owner/driver proved to be quite the challenge. Still, he would always lift his game for the Bathurst 1000.
Second in 2001 with John Cleland still goes down as one of the best giant-killing feats in mountain folklore, while they would've arguably at least challenged for first or second in 2002 (they led the first 59 laps) if it wasn't for an unfortunate mechanical failure.
Apart from podiums in both of the 2-litre Bathurst 1000s, Jones' other big win that went begging was way back in 1994. His co-driver, some young nobody with the surname 'Lowndes' managed to chase down race leader John Bowe and pass him around the outside of Griffins Bend. Bowe quickly bit back (aided by a lapped car), got back by, and that was that.
5. Norm Beechey
Beechey, right, pictured with Peter Manton (left) and fellow Bathurst non-winner Brad Jones (centre). Photo / Supercars
Bathurst attempts: 2
Best result: 12th (1971)
Norm 'Stormin Norman' Beechey is a bit of an odd one.
Through the late '60s and early '70s his name was as synonymous as Brock, Johnson, Moffat and more. He finished in the top three of the Australian Touring Car Championship across five straight attempts, with championship wins coming in 1965 and 1970. For a long time he was the only driver to win the ATCC title in both a Ford and a Holden, with only Jamie Whincup repeating the unique feat.
His Holden HT Monaro GTS350s are arguably some of the most iconic cars from that 'pre-Brock' period.
Before 'The Great Race' moved to Mount Panorama, it was staged at Phillip Island in the form of a 500-mile race. Across 1960, 1961, and 1962 he finished second twice and third once. Career trajectory would indicate that he would be a sure-fire chance to give Bathurst a good shake when the race moved over in 1963, however instead Beechey went on hiatus.
Since retiring from the sport in 1972, Beechey has kept quite a low profile. And perhaps that goes some way as to explaining why he didn't take on the Bathurst 1000 more often.
4. Shane van Gisbergen
Bathurst attempts: 12
Best result: 2nd (2016)
The record books don't really tell Shane van Gisbergen's full Bathurst tale. A second place in 2016 — narrowly beaten by Will Davison and benefiting from Whincup's 15-second post-race penalty — remains his only 1000km podium. He also has a Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour win to his credit, achieved in 2016 in a McLaren shared with Jonathon Webb and Alvaro Parente.
Delve deeper than the numbers though, and you'll find a driver who has come achingly close to Bathurst gold.
The obvious one is 2014. Van Gisbergen and Webb were in the prime spot to win after a chaotic and crazy race. But, he stalled at his last pit-stop. The starter motor then failed, and that was it ... race over in a flash and what looked like a certain win gone begging.
The other big year to circle is 2017. Paired with talented youngster Matthew Campbell, the pairing went up and down the top-10 totem poll like a yo-yo all race long in the wet. But when it came down to the crunch, they were in the lead group.
That was until on a race restart, van Gisbergen came into the final corner too hot and spun. After falling to the base of the top 10 he rebounded through the field like a flash, he dived inside Scott Pye for second place with 11 laps to go — only to hurl his Red Bull Commodore through the sand on the other side. Had the move worked out, a win wouldn't have been out of the question.
3. Paul Radisich
Bathurst attempts: 18
Best result: 2nd (1990, 2000)
Naming the most heart-breaking story of Bathurst 1000 wins lost is something done every October in bars all over the small town's main road. For me, that (dis)honour goes to the 1999 race and the unlucky duo of Paul Radisich and Steve Ellery.
The duo led well over 100 laps. Their pace was devastating, with even poor pit-stops (Ellery being twice Radisich's height might not have helped) unable to shake them from the lead of the race for long. A late right-front puncture handed the lead to Murphy/Richards, and an eventual engine failure on Mountain Straight killed Radisich's campaign entirely.
He came back fired up the following year and nearly ran down an invigorated Tander in the closing laps, but he couldn't quite get there. He and Max Wilson were competitive in 2004 too, until yet another mechanical failure. A post-career of co-driver duty beckoned for Radisich, who still had plenty of race-driver meat on his bones when he finished up full-time in mid-2007. But, that frightening brake-failure practice crash in 2008 sealed his fate.
It's rarely talked about, but there was one other win that went begging. In 1990 a lesser-known Radisich teamed up with Brit Jeff Allam in the second Dick Johnson Racing Ford Sierra RS500. Entering the final phase of the race they led, and looked likely to resume ahead of eventual race winners Allan Grice and Win Percy after their last pit-stop. But, team owner Johnson wanted to share the win ('cross entering' star drivers in secondary cars was common at the time).
The crucial seconds of faffing about trying to fit the tall Johnson into Radisich's tiny seat was all it took to cost the unlikely pairing their on-track advantage. And second was the end result.
2. Marcos Ambrose
Bathurst attempts: 6
Best result: 4th (2004)
It might look straight to put someone with just six Bathurst 1000 starts to their name in second. But, few — not even his critics — can deny that Marcos Ambrose was one of the best and most naturally gifted drivers the category has ever seen.
Ironically, Ambrose's time at Bathurst was largely uneventful. In 2002 his car (shared with Paul Weel) had numerous punctures, which ruled them out of contention quite quickly. In 2003 and 2004 he and co-drivers Russell Ingall and Greg Ritter simply didn't have the pace to hang with the leaders (a delaminating tyre in 2003 didn't help, admittedly). And in 2015, his fleeting return to the series, he and Pye looked on for a top five until Pye had a huge shunt up the top.
It was those years that book-ended his full-time career that will go down as Ambrose's most probable results. He scooped a shock pole position in 2001, only to crash into the tyre bank at pit-entry during the race (Larry Perkins did it too). And we all know what went down in 2005, with 'Balaclavagate' followed by one of the most talked about and debated crashes in Bathurst history.
Given that Stone Brothers Racing remained strong at Bathurst over following seasons, the chance that Ambrose had a Bathurst 1000 win in him had he stayed is high. But, perhaps it underlines the strength of his mindset to have committed to a career in Nascar as early as he did.
• Neil Crompton: He and Lowndes led in 2001 when the latter crashed in the hail. Would've likely won in 1992 if the race had stayed green.
• Jason Richards: Always a gun at Bathurst. For a while held the lap record. Second in 2005, 2008 and 2009.
• Steve Ellery: Three Bathurst 1000 podiums. Like Larkham, a battler that lifted when it came to Bathurst.
• Craig Baird: Was a Bathurst winner momentarily in 1997 until he and Paul Morris were deemed to have broken driver-limit regulations.
• David Besnard: Out of nowhere led the 2000 race comfortably until the last handful of laps when he crashed with traffic. Quickest co-driver in 2010.
• Steven Johnson: Was at the centre of the 2007 chaos in the rain, led the race briefly until a bout of wheel-spin on Conrod Straight.
• Fabian Coulthard: Has always been quick over a single lap at Bathurst, but poor luck on Sundays (and a few crashes) haven't helped.
1. Glenn Seton
Bathurst attempts: 26
Best result: 2nd (1987, 2003, 2004), 3rd (2006)
Glenn Seton has to be number one, on all of these lists.
While Paul Radisich's 'loss' in 1999 was heart breaking, Seto's engine failure in the dying laps of the 1995 race was utterly soul destroying. What made matters even more emotionally charged was the fact that Channel 7 still had drivers directly hooked up to the commentary team. So when Seton's misfire developed into a fully-blown failure with nine laps to go, the commentary team were able to give viewers a direct insight into 'The Smiling Assasin's' mindset.
Mark Oastler's unforgettable call, "there is a Toohey's 1000 waiting for you. I guarantee it", remains sad today. Since time proved it to be such an untruth.
The two-time series champ's best phase at Bathurst was ultimately that period of racing in the mid-'90s with Peter Jackson Racing and his own single-car Ford Credit Racing operation. But so many promising races were cut short by mechanical failures. And when they weren't, something else would go wrong. Like the minor mechanical issues that saw he and Crompton drop two laps in 1998, or the clash with a lapped Matt Neal in 2000 in the wet.
He hung around long enough to grab two second-place finishes in a row with Lowndes in 2003 and 2004. Ironically, while the well-oiled machine of Ford Credit Racing kept having engine failures at Bathurst, the somewhat shambolic Ford Performance Racing squad of the early thousands proved solid enough for two podiums. One final third in 2006 was his last podium in the 1000.
Silver linings? He did claim an emotional race win at Bathurst in the Touring Car Masters series a few moons ago. And, much like he and his father did all those years ago, he's now coaching his son Aaron. Keep an eye out for him, he's quite the young gun.