It’s the late afternoon of Saturday 11 October 2003, and although the punters surrounding the Mount Panorama race circuit just outside of Bathurst don’t know it, they’re about to witness something remarkable.
“The Mountain” holds a special place in the hearts of Antipodean petrolheads with thousands making the trek to the rural NSW centre for the race each year, extending to those hardy souls who camp at the top of the hill and where the daily alcohol allowance they can bring in is measured by the slab. It’s the ultimate southern hemisphere test of man, team, and machine. 161 laps and 1000km on 6.2km of asphalt as revered as the great circuits of Europe; Le Mans, Spa-Francorchamps, Imola, Monza, and the ultimate of them all – the mammoth “Green Hell” of the Nurburgring Nordschliefe.
For Kiwis, The Great Race been the scene of triumphs; Jim Richards was the first from these shores to claim victory, in 1978 with Peter Brock, and his seven wins span four decades, followed by his son Steven, Greg Murphy, and just last year, Scott McLaughlin. There’s also been tragedy; Denny Hulme’s fatal heart attack while at the wheel of his BMW in the 1988 race, and the horrific crash in a support race in 2006 that claimed the life of Mark Porter.
But back to that Saturday afternoon. Murphy’s K-Mart sponsored #51 Holden Commodore has topped the Friday practice timesheets and Saturday’s qualifying session, the latter as one of three cars to dip under the 2:08 mark and meaning he’d head out last for the Top 10 Shootout to determine the front of the 39-car grid for the following.
There’s a strong aspect of redemption for Murphy as well, despite his two wins in 1996 and 1999, his race the previous year was marked by the biggest in-race penalty given in the events history. A pitlane fire caused by him leaving with the refuelling hose still connected to the car saw him parked by the race director for five minutes (or “five f*^$#ng minutes” as described by an agitated Murphy at the time), effectively ending his challenge.
By the time Murphy headed onto the track for his one hot lap, veteran Ford pilot John Bowe has already set a time of 2:07.95, slightly ahead of his own earlier time and nearly matching Murphy’s. It was too hot a mark for Holden ace and defending champion Mark Skaife running immediately ahead of Murphy to match, a small error putting him towards the back of the top-10.
It’s now Murphy’s turn. He’s in race trim into and out of Murray’s corner and onto the main straight. He’s smooth through Hell, up Mountain straight, through the tricky Griffins Bend and up the hill through the Cutting.
At the first split he’s a full four-tenths up on Bowe’s time. In the commentary box Neil Crompton is incredulous.
He flashes across the top of the mountain in front of those campers, through Reid, Sulman, and McPhillamy Parks and then the descent down through Skyline, the Esses, and the Dipper. It’s an incredibly precise section of track, and Murphy and his car are more than up to it. Then it’s Forrest’s Elbow – the place where Dick Johnson famously crashed 20 years before – but it’s negotiated.
It’s also where the second split is, and he’s nearly seven-tenths faster than Bowe. Crompton goes off again, and the camera cuts to Bowe in the pits who can only smile and shake his head.
Murphy nails it down the 1.5km Conrod Straight, into the Chase complex and out, through Murray’s again and across the line. The time flashes up but it takes a moment to register.
2:06.85. Two minutes six-eight
More than a full second faster than Bowe’s time, and where hundredths of a second can mean everything, it’s practically the equivalent of an epoch.
The crowd goes nuts.
Crompton sums it up – “That is insane”. At home watching it I can only agree.
Murphy celebrates inside the car and out. The other competitors form an impromptu line of honour in respect as he tours down the pitlane, almost undoubtedly in awe of what they’ve just seen.
While it all sinks in, Murphy admits he thought he’d blown it. Coming out of the Dipper he’d accidentally put the car into first rather than third (cars then used a traditional ‘H-pattern’ gearbox rather the sequential box of now) – you can see the car bobble at 1.44 of the clip below – costing him time. In other words, it could have been even faster!
For context, it would be over a decade before someone bettered his time in the Shootout.
Murphy and his co-driver, young Aussie Rick Kelly, would win the next day and again the following year. There would more moments for Murph at the Mountain – the infamous clash with arch-rival Marcus Ambrose and a surprise return to pole in 2011 – but 2004 would be the last of his four victories.
But as moments go, that Saturday afternoon flying lap was as good as it gets.
So good it even earned a name that any motorsport fan will instantly recognise…
“The Lap of the Gods”
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