The World's Fastest - 1987-92 DJR Ford Sierras

The Australian Touring Car Championship’s switch from Group C to Group A was not easy for Dick Johnson. He was forced to replace his championship and Bathurst winning Falcon with an uncompetitive Zakspeed Mustang. Dick knew something had to change. Keen to stay in a Ford, he devised a plan to buy two Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth body shells  and engines and build two new cars. He took that plan to Shell, who agreed to fund the project. Dick Johnson Racing built and ran six Sierras from 1987 to 1992, winning Bathurst in 1988 and two championships. It would be the most successful period that DJR ever had.

The first Sierra, the right hand drive DJR1, was built by DJR in Queensland from an imported bodyshell. It was debuted by Dick Johnson at the opening round of the ATCC in 1987 at Calder Park, where he finished ninth, a result that was then repeated in Tasmania. The season that followed was an inconsistent one with speed and unreliability in equal measure. At round three at Lakeside, Johnson charged to an early lead before retiring with a turbo failure. DJR had bought some unfinished turbo wheels and machined them themselves. These turbo wheels were deemed illegal and Johnson was suspended for seven days, not long enough to miss a race.Things improved dramatically after that with a second at Wanneroo and a win at Adelaide International Raceway, the first win for a Sierra in Australia.

Johnson at Lakeside in 1987

Johnson at Lakeside in 1987

Then things turned sour again.Johnson retired three times in a row at Surfers Paradise Sandown and Amaroo Park, each time due to the turbo. He bounced back again to finish the sprint season with a third at Oran Park.

For the endurance races, DJR1 and 2 were upgraded to RS500 evolution specification, bringing a larger turbo and intercooler, and a redesigned bumper and intercooler. At the Sandown 500, DJR1 and 2 were both entered. Johnson and Hansford would share DJR1. Dick put the #17 on pole, but later suffered an engine failure during the morning warmup. At the time, the rules allowed drivers to swap cars during the race, so Johnson and Hansford switched to the #18, sharing with Neville Crichton. Johnson started the race in 14th place and was leading by lap seven. He set a new touring car lap record and and was well ahead of the BMW M3 of Jim Richards and Tony Longhurst when DJR2 also suffered an engine failure on lap 86. At Bathurst, both cars were excluded from the shootout due to irregular fuel, and in the race, Johnson lasted just three laps before his differential failed. More bad news came in the form of DNFs at the World Touring Car Championship round at Calder Park and at the Wellington 500 in New Zealand.

Dick took it upon himself to improve the Sierra’s weak drivetrain for the 1988 season. Working with Harrop Engineering, he successfully homologated a version that utilised a modified Ford 9 inch rear differential. The DJR 9 Inch proved popular in Sierras in Australia, where standing starts were used. DJR also replaced the Getrag gearboxes used in Europe with locally designed Hollinger units.

The Sierras were heavily dependent on their turbos to produce power. Without the turbo, they produced just 90hp. With the turbo delivering 2.4 bar of boost, they produced 680. Dick remarked that the accelerator pedal felt more like an accelerator switch. The Sierras were extremely lairy as a result and would often catch out unsuspecting drivers

The changes allowed DJR to put a shocking 1987 season behind them and have a much better year in 1988. John Bowe was recruited to drive the #18 and inherited DJR1 from Johnson, who ran the new DJR3 as #17.Johnson and Bowe won all but one race in 1988 (Lakeside, won by Tony Longhurst in a Sierra), and Dick was on the podium at every race except Winton, where he retired.  Dick won the championship ahead of Bowe by 38, points, and a further 36 points separated Bowe from Colin Bond in third.  

Dick knew that he built the world's fastest Sierras, but he hadn't had the chance to prove it. Having been embarrassed at Bathurst in 1987 by the Eggenberger Sierras at Bathurst the year before. DJR had a point to prove. After Johnson won the 1988 championship, DJR3 was flown to the UK where Johnson and Bowe would compete in the RAC Tourist Trophy. Johnson qualified on pole half a second ahead of the Eggenberger Sierra of Steve Soper and Pierre Dieudonné. In the race Dick built up a lead of about two seconds before handing the car over to John, who continued lapping faster than the competition. A water pump failure just as Johnson got back in the car, resulted in a 21st place finish. They still had the fastest car on the track, with Dick setting the fastest lap of the race. Dick had proven that DJR built the world’s fastest Sierras.   

Dick Johnson proved that he had the world's fastest Sierra at the 1988 RAC Tourist Trophy

Dick Johnson proved that he had the world's fastest Sierra at the 1988 RAC Tourist Trophy

DJR took three Sierras to Sandown and Bathurst in 1988, with DJR4 making its debut at Sandown. Johnson would qualify the #17 (DJR4) and Bowe the #28 (DJR3), and intended on switching to the #17 for the race. John Smith would qualify the #18 (DJR1). After qualifying, Tom Walkinshaw lodged a protest against the three DJR Sierras and the Sierra of Longhurst and Tomas Mezera. This meant that DJR had to disassemble all three of their cars for scrutineering and rebuild them in time for the shootout. DJR team manager Neil Lowe retaliated by protesting against the HRT Commodores. The four Sierras were deemed legal, and the HRT Commodores illegal in a post race investigation. Bowe and Johnson qualified third and fourth respectively, but the quick rebuild resulted in early retirements for the #17 and #28. Johnson, Bowe and Smith finished second in the #18 behind Longhurst and Mezera.

In 1989, Allan Moffat was in his second year running an ETCC works-spec Eggenberger Sierra, and Peter Brock had replaced his two BMW M3s with Sierras. Jim Richards had also gone  from Team Brock to Gibson Motorsport to drive a Nissan Skyline GTS-T alongside George Fury and Mark Skaife . Despite the increased competition, DJR had another dominant year. Between them, Johnson and Bowe won everything except Winton and Oran Park. Between them, they had an 81% podium finish rate, with Johnson missing two and Bowe just the one at Winton. Brock and Fury were the only other race winners.

DJR had again introduced their new car at Sandown in 1989. DJR5 qualified on pole but retired with just 13 laps to go. At Bathurst, things went differently. Peter Brock grabbed pole position by discharging a fire extinguisher into his intercooler up Mountain Straight to provide extra power. Dick put his Sierra in second. Johnson passed Brock on Conrod Straight on lap one and he and Bowe lead every lap of the race. They finished almost a lap ahead of the Allan Moffat Racing/Eggenberger Sierra of Klaus Niedzwiedz and Frank Biela. If the speed at Silverstone wasn't enough to prove that the DJR Sierras were the fastest in the world, the 1989 Bathurst 1000 was. 

Johnson and Bowe lead every lap of the 1989 Bathurst 1000

Johnson and Bowe lead every lap of the 1989 Bathurst 1000

Johnson continued to use DJR5 in the 1990 ATCC, winning at Symmons Plains and Phillip Island, and narrowly missing out on the championship. A tyre pressure issue in the final round at Oran Park left him third in the race and the championship. 

The arrival of the Nissan Skyline GTR R32 in 1990 meant that DJR6 never won Bathurst or the championship. It was raced by Johnson and Bowe at Bathurst in 1990 and 1991, and Terry Sheil and Greg Crick in 1992. Dick used DJR6 in the 1992 ATCC. DJR6 only scored a single podium finish, a third at Symmons Plains in 1992. DJR's three wins in 1992 came from Bowe in DJR5.

The DJR Sierra's second last race was at Bathurst in 1992. Johnson and Bowe returned to DJR5. A wise move considering how much more competitive it had been over DJR6. Proving that the Sierra could still hold its own against the dominant Skyline GTR, Johnson put the car on pole with a 2:12.898. Late in the race, John was running second in heavy rain that had already caused a number of accidents, fast approaching Jim Richards in his wounded Skyline. Richards aquaplaned into a group of crashed cars and Bowe assumed the lead. The race was then red flagged before Johnson crossed the finish line, waving to the crowd under the impression that he had won. On the podium Johnson expressed his anger about being beaten by a crashed car. To everyone's suprise "Gentleman Jim" Richards then  called the crowd, who were obviously unhappy with the result, a pack of arseholes. 

In it's final race, DJR5 was beaten by a crashed car

In it's final race, DJR5 was beaten by a crashed car

Bowe would use DJR5 once more in the 1992 Australian Grand Prix support races, finishing second in both races. It was then sent to New Zealand, where Paul Radisich and Michael Preston would use it to finish second at the Wellington 500 and third at the Pukekohe 500. Pukekohe would be it's final race. After Pukekohe it was returned to the DJR workshop in Queensland, where it was used as a static display. 

The Sierra represented a major turnaround for DJR, who for the previous two seasons had struggled with the Zakspeed Mustang. In 1988 and 89 they were not just the domaniant team in Australian touring cars, but they built the world's fastest touring cars.