CONTENDER: Lee Holdsworth will take the wheel of an Irwin Racing Mercedes in Sunday’s Bathurst 1000.
CONTENDER: Lee Holdsworth will take the wheel of an Irwin Racing Mercedes in Sunday’s Bathurst 1000.

Nissan and Mercedes back at Bathurst

AS JAMES Moffat drives into the New South Wales town of Bathurst with the rest of the racing contingent, the butterflies start to tickle his tummy.

Their dance will gather momentum before launching into a barely containable frenzy while he sits on the starting grid on Sunday waiting for the green light, waiting for the nod to chase his destiny.

For Moffat, the excitement associated with tackling the Mount Panorama course goes beyond the technical intricacies of handling Hell Corner - a 90-degree left-hander - negotiating The Dipper or bracing himself for the 300kmh burst down Conrod Straight. His dad, Allan, is a legend in these parts, Ford's most successful driver at Bathurst, winning four titles in the 1970s.

"I remember driving the circuit as a boy with my dad most years before the race and even at 60kmh it was bloody scary," he says. "You just don't realise how frightening it is and how much skill is required until you're actually racing it.

"Growing up in the sport, I thought I was totally prepared the first time I drove at Bathurst, but after the first couple of rounds I quickly realised that TV doesn't do this place justice.

"This is such a special race for all the drivers and I know how important it was to my dad, all the high highs and lowest of lows it can bring, and that is part of the thrill of it I suppose. I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

This year, Moffat will have more than family expectations on his shoulders. He and co-driver Taz Douglas will be ensconced in a Nissan Altima - with the marque competing in the Great Race for the first time in more than two decades. Michael Caruso and Daniel Gaunt will drive the other Norton 360 Racing car, and the Kelly brothers, Todd and Rick, will partner David Russell and Karl Reindler in a second set of Nissans.

Motorsport enthusiasts will remember well the Japanese manufacturer's last outing at Mount Panorama in 1992, when Jim Richards and Mark Skaife claimed victory in a Nissan Skyline. So dominant was that car at the time with its all-wheel drive and 2.6-litre twin-turbo engine, it was given the nickname Godzilla.

Organisers stopped that race on lap 143 after heavy rain caused several cars to crash out, including Richards and Skaife. As per race regulations, the pair was awarded the win because they had held the lead in the last lap before cancellation, even though Dick Johnson had passed Richards on the final lap. Fans booed the Nissan duo on to the podium, causing Richards to famously remark, "In all my years of racing in Australia, I've never seen anything like this. You're a pack of a***holes".

Moffat is well aware of the bubbling pressure. After all, he claimed Nissan's only win this season in an exciting drive at the Winton 360 in August.

"There is generally a lot more pressure at Bathurst," he says, "but this year for me it will be more intense. To win Bathurst at this stage of my career would be what dreams are made of.

"And you know the car is starting to go well.

"Of course we are out of contention for the championship, but winning here would mean the world to the team and really it would be better than a championship victory."

The Nissan Altimas will have to share the spotlight with aanother manufacturer making a return to the circuit.

Mercedes-Benz last raced a car at Bathurst in 1994. This year there will be three AMG E-Class V8 Supercars on the grid under the banner of Erebus Motorsport.

It has been a fairytale V8 comeback for Mercedes. Faced with reliability issues for most of the first half of the season, Erebus found some success at the Sandown 500 courtesy of a fourth-place finish from Lee Holdsworth and Craig Baird in an Irwin Racing AMG.

"We are finally starting to hit our goals now," Holdsworth says. "Hopefully at Bathurst it will translate into a good showing for us, and we will be looking for at least a top-five result."

Holdsworth's co-driver, Craig Baird, who has 19 Bathurst starts to his name, concurs, saying that although Erebus started the season behind the eight ball, with the team having to make significant changes, the progress is there for all to see.

"It's very much a development year for them, but I think if you look at the stepping stones they have taken since the beginning of the year, the first round to now, they've made a lot of progress and that development process will continue for a few years," he said.

The German-born Maro Engel, for four years a Mercedes-Benz factory driver before joining Erebus this year, will make his first appearance at Bathurst and can barely wait.

"The Bathurst track reminds me a lot of the Nurburgring in Germany," Engel says. "It may be shorter, but it is just as punishing and just as daunting.

"All the drivers talk about how wonderful it is, what an incredible feeling, and I am looking forward to experiencing that."

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