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THE BATHURST 1000 is Australia's most iconic motorsport weekend. More than that, it is, without doubt, one of the very best motor races in the world.

The town that gives the race its name lies a few hours west of Sydney, and the i oookm, 161-lap epic it hosts started life 50 years ago as the Armstrong 500, an endurance race where manufacturers would tussle to prove the reliability of their cars. Today it's part of the V8 Supercars calendar, a support act that eclipses the headliner. It's a Monaco G P, a Monte Carlo rally, an Indy 500. It's more working class than Le Mans - the title sponsor is Supercheap Auto, a budget car care store. Picture NASCAR on proper tracks and you're getting warm. The Aussies call it The Great Race. It is.

Bathurst's strength lies in the simplicity of protagonists Holden and Ford going head-to-head with domestic Commodores and Falcons, a rivalry that dates to the late '60s. It's red versus blue, motorsport as football.

For most of the year the track is a public road, then it's closed for the V8s that graze its unyielding walls, hammer down its 300kph straights and ride the extreme undulations of Mount Panorama. Says Ford Performance Racing's Mark Roworth: 'When the drivers get out their pupils are like pin pricks - they're wired. It's wild.'

'It's unreal,' confirms Jim Beam driver Warren Luff. 'We've got heaps of power, but not masses of grip. It's fantastic, such a buzz - the undulation, how close the walls are. You've got to drive it. I've done the 24-hour races at the Nurburgring and Spa and it's up there. The guys are tough - it's close, door-handle-to-door-handle. Here it's all about gearing yourself up for the race to the flag - usually there's a safety car between lap 135 and 145 that backs everyone up.'

We've got a pit pass for the Ford teams. Ford has no dedicated works eifort, but it supports several outfits. Two of the biggest are Ford Performance Racing and Jim Beam Racing, an essentially independent operation with substantial Blue Oval backing.

Ford are the underdogs; of the 29 cars that completed Friday qualifying, 19 were Holden Commodores, and only three Falcons made Saturday's Top Ten shoot-out. A Falcon has won only three times in the last ten years, each time with Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup splitting driver duties, drivers who've since defected. But it's far from a lost cause: going into the Bathurstweekend, Jim Beam Racing's James Courtney leads the V8 Supercars series, and Ford Performance Racing man Mark Winterbottomwillheadup Bathurst's starting grid after clinching pole yesterday with a 2:07.5377 lap. It's the Falcon's 50th birthday as well as Bathurst's, too, so there's a feeling that it's rime to turn the tide.

'We've been around since 2002, and had an off while leading with 13 laps to go in 2007,' says FPR media manager Dave Harding. 'This year is our best shot so far, and Mark fpolesitter Winterbottom, with co-driver Luke Youlden] is the driver of ours most likely to win.'

Jim Beam Racing boss Dick johnson.asmall man with a big handshake who's been involved with Ford Australia since 1975 - YouTube Dick Johnson, Sierra Cosworth, Bathurst - reckons any number of teams can win. 'We can win,' he says cautiously, 'but we're working to maximise everything-very small adjustments make a big difference these days.'

Before the cars assemble on the grid, the entertainment ramps up: the Castlemaine XXXX angels whiz by glamorously on a ute

- all hot pants and over-enthusiastic waves

- and stop at the startline to perform a dance;

The car barrel rolls, dust mushrooming, panels flying as it pirouettes end-overend like an Olympic diver it looks like a bunch of drunk girls getting it wrong at the local disco, but the crowd love it. The Aussie Red Arrows rocket overhead, the grandstands heave as everyone stands for the national anthem, tension escalates.

Cars slot into starting positions and, with seconds to the start, there's a thrumming of helicopters and a cacophony of jazz-like drumming from the V8s as the revs are held high for a launch that'll strain against 120 litres of fuel and final drives set for Bathurst's continually high speeds, not o-iookph sprints. Second place Mark Skaife - a semi-retired, five-time Bathurst winner who'll split stints with V8 full-timer Craig Lowndes - has his car pointed at a slight angle towards first-place Winterbottom, all Duel-like psychological menace. The lights extinguish and the cars roar away, Skaife slotting behind Winterbottom, and the rest of the field getting into the first comer largely scuff free, but there's a light touch as Fabian Coulthard sneaks past a stranded car. It proves the first link in a catastrophic chain of events. Coulthard clears the first part of the track, but at the end of Conrod Straight it all goes wrong: Conrod runs straight for 2km before it kinks right into The Chase at around 3ookph. As the cars turn in it puts a huge load through the left-hand tyres and Coulthard's left rear - damaged on the grid - fails under the pressure, pitching his Holden into a wild spin that sends him downhill on the grass and into the gravel. The Commodore barrel rolls, dust mushrooming, panels flying as it pirouettes end-over-end like an Olympic diver. The car rolls for so long that, if you watch the footage, you can see hoons cheering before the accident has even ended. Coulthard walks away unharmed thanks to a rolkage that's left the safety cell intact despite the battered façade of Commodore that once surrounded it. It's a reminder that, much as these r<3.6m racers bear a close resemblance to the road cars, they really have little in common. Each uses a 5.0-litre, iron - block V8 with 2-valve heads that's worth Ri.2m and hits hard with sookW at 75001pm. 'It's old tech,' says Warren Luff. '302 Windsor bottom ends with Yates aluminium heads.' The engine is hooked to a six-speed sequential 'box with set ratios and one of four final drive ratios, the choice pre-determined for each track by the regulations. There's double wishbone front suspension, exhausts that exit on the left middle of the car to keep temperatures lower for the driver - it still hits 6odegC inside - and, for the last couple ofyears, a blend of 85/15% ethanol/unleaded.

The surprise comes with what looks like a stock bodyshell: V8 Supercar dimensions were fixed in line with Fords and Holdens of 2002, but subsequent models have grown - there's 43mm cut between a Falcon's B- and C-pillar, and 23mm less between sill and roof too. ►

Two tribes, red vs blue, Holden vs Ford. Makes your head vibrate

Yeah, but really seri drinkers use a beer carrier based on a Veyron engine

'And Coulthard crashes out on lap one.' Sound familiar?

Our man Barry (above) with five-times Bathurst winner Mark Skaife

They dont shift many leather Chesterfields at the Bathurst branch of Discount Furniture Stores

The chopped 'shell explains the composite doors ('it would be too expensive to re-tool the factory to make race-car doors,' explains Ford's Mark Roworth), but not the composite front wings and rear quarters, ifyou had metal wings, then any contact might fold onto the tyres and damage them,' says Roworth. 'Composite panels stop that happening, which encourages wheel rubbing, which makes the racing more exciting.'

We head to Mount Panorama - aka The Mountain - to take a better look, it's colder up here, flags whip in a wind that carries the sweet scent of eucalyptus trees and musty campfires. Far below, vast plains bleed out to the horizon - it's a battlefield vantage point, tents, beer cans scattered, the clean red and blue corporate coats of Holden and Ford fans now outnumbered by weathered oilskin jackets and well-worn leathers. The place is notorious. 'Five years ago they were burning cars, girls were getting raped, it was out of control up there,' a middle-aged couple tell us. 'We're not racing fans, but we want the race to stay - it's good for the economy, so we're glad they've cracked down.'

Jn fact, 350 extra police are now drafted in for the Bathurst 1000- most dressed like they're cleaning up a grisly crime scene - and, as you drive to a checkpoint before the hill that leads to the campsite, big signs warn of 'drug dog in use'. Yes, there's a kind of post-apocalyptic Mad Max feel on Mount Panorama, but we witness no bad behaviour, and, while some people are thoroughly refreshed by mid-afternoon - one group of five guys claim to have drunk 20x24 beers in four days but can't quite manage the maths.

We meet John Boy, a gnarly looking Holden fan with piercings and a knee-length green jacket covered in badges. He's been camping on The Mountain for over a week with 13 mates and has been coming to Bathurst for 30 of his 49 years. Like many of the fans up here, he can vividly recall key moments from the past three decades. He looks scary, but he's knowledgeable and incredibly passionate.

By the halfway-point of the race there have been seven leaders, and it's still incredibly close - the cars scorch over the summit of Mount Panorama, staying freakishly flat through the fast turns, then it's on the brakes, the engines popping on the downshifts as cars bounce over the kerbing and skim the walls. When a pack screams by, your whole head fizzes.

By lap 100, David Besnard's been fending off the quicker Craig Lowndes with a cool head under the most intense pressure - and the occasional nudge from behind. Polesitter Mark Winterbottom's co-driver Luke Youlden hits a wall, delaminating a tyre. They re-join, but are already out of contention.

With 130 laps gone, the top three cars are all Holdens, Craig Lowndes now leading - he's been driving since lap 82 and has ever)' intention ofbeing behind the wheel at lap 161, well over two hours with his heart poundingi82bpm, and a dry ice-chilled cool suit only just keeping his core temperature to a still feverish 40-42degC. With 27 laps to go Lowndes' lead is reduced to nothing when a broken down car brings out the safety car - it's the race to the flag that Warren Luff predicted.

They're away again soon after, but Lowndes, facing the very real prospect of running out of fuel, successfully builds a cushion from teammate Whincup early on, then short shifts and cools the pace in an attempt to get home on fumes. The racing might not be as dramatic now, but the tension is unbearable. Lowndes's salvation comes when a safety car bunches them all back up again - and slows the fuel burn rate - thanks to a Holden hitting a wall on lap 152. Lowndes crosses the finish line in formation with Whincup nine laps later in front of euphoric grandstands.

Holden fans flood onto the track for the podium: 'Lovvndsey! Lowndsey! Lowndsey!' 'Holden! Holden! Holden!'

You can't help but feel for Ford - the teams wanted so badly to win to mark the Falcon's 50th. In the event, Holden notched up its 20th win on The Mountain. For the fans, though, it's been a great Great Race, to

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