The camera never lies
Armed with some new evidence, David Greenhalgh has another look at the epic 1976 race – and casts serious doubt on recurrent claims that the second-placed Colin Bond/John Harvey HDT Torana had actually been one lap ahead of the winning Bob Morris/John Fit
The 1976 Bathurst 1000 was a classic. It had a strong and varied field, including two of the biggest names in the sport. There were numerous lead changes. It had a very close and dramatic finish. And there was even a post-race controversy which rather curiously bubbled away quietly for a few decades.
The weapons of choice for the outright win were the Ford Falcon XB GT and the Holden Torana LH L34. Falcon numbers were painfully thin at just three, but on the credit side, the Ford factory was making one of its intermittent returns to the sport. Allan Moffat’s team was now styled Moffat Ford Dealers, a works campaign in all but name.
John Goss, who had won in 1974 but failed early in 1975, was looking for more of the former and less of the latter, and enlisted Jim Richards as co-driver. Murray Carter in the third Falcon attracted descriptions more in the way of dependable and consistent than fast.
Ranged against the Fords was a veritable armada of Holdens. They were led by the Holden Dealer Team, still under the leadership of Harry Firth, who fielded Colin Bond/John Harvey and Charlie O’Brien/Wayne Negus. Defending winner Peter Brock chose his brother Phil to support him in the Bill Patterson entry. Bob Morris (for Ron Hodgson) had Englishman John Fitzpatrick, while Allan Grice/Frank Gardner (for Craven Mild) also looked like a very strong team.
Amazingly, Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham were also present (see AMC #75 for a full account of their attack), in a Torana. In the context of world motorsport, they were undoubtedly the two illustrious names who had ever contested the event – and they were sharing the same car!
And in retrospect, the two of them had a better chance of winning the race than was generally recognised at the time. While they may have lacked outright speed, the victory was there for the taking for anyone who could maintain a fair pace and persuade these very fragile cars to run faultfree for 1000km.
Sadly, Brabham’s car fell a mere 1000km short of that goal – his gearbox managed to select two gears at once when the race started, leaving him to be clobbered by a Triumph Dolomite on the grid. Some hours later, the patched car was sent into battle. Moss was disappointed with his own pace (his fastest lap of 2:32.2 was well off Brock and Moffat’s joint fastest lap of the race at 2:28.4), but on a day when speed wasn’t the key, Moss actually wasn’t far off the race pace.
Meanwhile, at the head of the field, Moffat and Bond traded the lead in the early laps, until Moffat gradually began to pull away over the course of the first stint. Brock, Morris and Grice filled the next three places in varying orders, while HDT boss Harry Firth kept Negus in the second HDT car a bit further back. Above: Moffat’s Falcon is out of frame and in the lead as Brock swings his L34 into Hell Corner for the first time. Fittingly, Morris and Bond are already battling.
It also looked like Frank Gardner may have instructed Grice to play the long and cautious game, as he too started dropping away from the lead pace, and ran his first stint out to lap 46, taking the lead as his rivals pitted. Ideally, the quick cars could do the race on just three stops, but those who stopped before lap 40 would obviously struggle to do so. Grice/Gardner therefore looked very well placed in that respect, but not long afterwards, the car started running rough, and was retired with a broken rocker retaining nut.
Leader Moffat had pitted for co-driver Vern Schuppan on lap 41, but Schuppan gave the Falcon back to Moffat on lap 80, which meant they were now very unlikely to go the 163-lap distance on just one more stop. However, such tactical questions were soon the least of their worries: the crank pulley broke, taking the fan belt with it.
The car was parked on lap 87, and with it went Ford’s chances. Neither Goss nor his Falcon was all that well; Goss was so off-colour that Richards drove nearly all the race. The car needed a new clutch, and also ran into other problems, so the striking white and blue XB was a long way behind at the flag. Murray Carter didn’t have the speed to get into a position where reliability could make
the difference – and in any event, suffered late-race engine problems when running seventh. So, which Holden was going to win it? Moffat’s demise left Bond/Harvey leading by over a lap from Morris/Fitzpatrick. Peter Brock had pretty well dealt himself out of the game: a fuel pickup problem curtailed his first stint, but worse was to come towards the end of his second stint. He ran out of petrol coming down Conrod, and thought he had broken an accelerator linkage as the pedal was on the floor. He hopped out to fix it, and in the course of doing so, bogged by the side of the track, necessitating him to push it out. He later ruefully reflected: “We lost about three laps in that episode, and I could’ve just coasted in and lost about 10 seconds, so I’m kicking myself.”
The second HDT Torana, which appeared to be the team’s designated tortoise, was also not a contender, making several pit stops around half distance. So the race was between the HDT hare – the Bond/Harvey L34 – and the Ron Hodgson entry.
Bond lost the lead when he stopped for a pad change, but a slow stop for Morris (including a delay with a jack, which cost about a minute) and then a flat tyre for Fitzpatrick left Bond over a lap in the lead. But Fitzpatrick was catching at about five seconds a lap, and sailed past Bond over Skyline – significantly, not a place where you’d expect to pass a healthy car – on lap 131 to get back on the lead lap.
Bond stopped for fuel, which cut his lead in half. Fitzpatrick kept coming, still running four or five seconds a lap faster, until Bond stopped on lap 148 for oil and a new fanbelt. Fitzpatrick swept into the lead, only to run into the famous dramas of his own a few laps from home. A blown oil seal in the front of the gearbox allowed oil onto the clutch, which started slipping badly. Fitzpatrick limped along, going slower and slower, smoke pouring out the back of the car, waiting for Bond to come hurtling past.
But he never did. The HDT car had problems of its own, lapping seven seconds off its previous pace, and Bond was still 48.3 seconds adrift when Fitzpatrick staggered past the chequered flag.
Ifirst became aware of any doubt about these events when I read Bill Tuckey’s The Rise & Fall
of Peter Brock, which doubled as a biography of John Harvey. It was said that the HDT’s lap chart (run by Grant Steers) showed them still in the lead at the end; that the new manual scoreboard at Murray’s Corner missed Fitzpatrick’s slow stop for the flat tyre and credited him with an extra lap; and that Ivan Stibbard told Harvey straight after the race that, if the HDT protested, they would be elevated to the win. However, after the drama of the finish, and with Ron Hodgson being a big Holden dealer, the Holden brass elected not to file the protest.
Not long after Tuckey’s book was published, when I was writing the 1989 edition of Australia’s Greatest Motor Race, I found myself in the very dusty and cramped ARDC archives in their old Annangrove site. With great expectations, I opened their folder of documents from the 1976 race... but not a word did I fi nd to indicate any doubt about the result. Perhaps that was to be expected.
In any event, the controversy lumbered on, with Holden’s Ray Borrett even publicly apologising, many years later, to Harvey for depriving him of the win. One could be forgiven for thinking that Holden’s decision not to lodge the protest straight after the race was a classic situation of ‘put up or shut up’, but Borrett’s comments meant that Holden clearly didn’t see its choices in that light.
In 2004, Bill Woods covered the dispute in Legends of Speed, claiming that the ARDC had in fact discovered the mistake (crediting an extra lap to Fitzpatrick) during the race. Woods also quoted Harry Firth as saying that his drivers didn’t get the credit they deserved. For his part, Morris steadfastly maintained that he’d won, fair and square, while Bond maintained a commendably dignified position of ‘what’s done is done’.
And then in 2014 something happened that nobody was expecting: the film of nearly all of the race was recovered from Channel Seven archives and released as a DVD by Chevron Marketing Services. I sat down to watch the film wondering if it would resolve the dispute, as has happened on other occasions when films surface years later (see breakout).
There is a constant theme running through the telecast: uncertainty about lap scoring. Quite early in the piece, Howard Marsden (commentating with Evan Green) says he doesn’t believe the IBM printout, which was fed from the ARDC timekeepers. Late in the day, Green tells the viewers that Seven chose not to show many of the IBM printouts on the screen, because they knew they were wrong.
But from the point of view of Holden’s claims that the HDT won the race, the most significant part of the film is the numerous shots of the HDT pit board for Bond/Harvey. Every single one of those pit boards agrees with the official version of the race…
On lap 136, the HDT told Colin Bond he was ‘+113’. On lap 142, he gets ‘Morris -52, 32.3, P1, L21’. On lap 143, Bond was told ‘Morris -48, 33.3, P1, L20’. After Bond’s crucial stop on lap 148, he gets a board on lap 151 saying, ‘Morris +114, 35.5, P2, L12’. On lap 155, he gets, ‘Morris +115, 40.2, P2, L8’.
In other words, the person running the HDT pit board told Bond that he was leading before his stop on lap 148, but was second after that stop, and therefore to the end of the race.
Whichever way you look at it, those pit boards present a substantial problem for Holden’s theory.
Pics: While some Holden figures have claimed Bond/ Harvey were a lap ahead of the winning Morris/ Fitzpatrick Torana, recently uncovered TV coverage of the race showing HDT’s pit boards reveal that HDT’s own lap count did not differ from the official chart.