Monday, 4 October 2021

Big Red Car: the (Don't?) Drink Drive Sandown 500

Yes, the annual Sandown enduro went to a Nissan GT-R – this was 1991, after all – but unlike the ATCC, this one wasn't a foregone conclusion. Two-time winner Glenn Seton made the Nissan side work for their win, and in the end it was all settled like my relationships – with a sudden and catastrophic breakdown.


Mo' Money (Would Solve) Mo' Problems
Ask and ye shall receive! Last year I complained about the lack of available race footage for historic Sandown 500s. Lo and behold, a year later I've found a couple of juicy YouTube channels offering just that... for upcoming Sandowns, at least. The Group A era remains under-represented, but compared to where we were a year ago it's an embarrassment of riches.

Then there's this race, which only seems to exist now as a one-hour highlights reel. That's not a reflection on our archivists, though: I get the impression it was only ever a one-hour highlights reel at the time as well. Without a deal with Channel Seven, the once-mighty Sandown enduro had just kind of fallen through the cracks between the ATCC and Bathurst, leaving it without a full broadcast, even a delayed one: I understand the footage below was only played on the ABC, a week after the event, late at night when absolutely no-one was awake to see it.

Continuing the theme from last year, the race this year was dubbed the "Drink Drive 500", with only a big red "X" signifying that drink-driving was something they were discouraging, not promoting. It was less clumsy than last year's ".05 500", but such noble causes weren't exactly lucrative, so without corporate backing you could take it as read that Sandown was once again chronically short of prize money.

That would rather explain the other standout feature of the 1991 race: the catastrophically short grid. I know I keep banging on about this, but it's kind of the theme for the year, and it really is remarkable. Only sixteen pit garages were filled when the weekend began – just eleven teams! – and only fifteen cars were able to take starter's orders on Sunday.

  • Perkins Engineering entered two Mobil VN Commodores: the #11 for Larry and his Bathurst co-driver Tomas Mezera; and the usual #05 for Peter Brock and his old partner in crime, Andrew Miedecke.
  • The Holden Racing Team entered Bathurst champs Win Percy and Allan Grice in the #16 (chassis HRT 026), but also debuted a second car, the #7 in the hands of Neil Crompton and Brad Jones. This car – either HRT 027, or Dencar 04, depending on how you wanted to count it – was the team's second VN, and was destined to earn the nickname "Elvis" for all the hits it would have. Unlike the Mobil cars, which were on "62-compound" Bridgestone tyres, the HRT cars ran on "29-compound" Dunlops.
  • Tony Longhurst Racing were represented by a single car, which ironically wasn't for Tony himself. Alan Jones was here in the #25 Benson & Hedges M3, ready to blood his Bathurst co-driver Peter Fitzgerald – a Group E Production racer who'd won that year's James Hardie 12-Hour sharing a Supra Turbo with Allan Grice and Nigel Arkell.
  • Glenn Seton Racing was likewise represented by just a single car, Glenn teaming up with former Moffat hireling Gregg Hansford, who at this point could be considered a safe pair of hands for the #30 Peter Jackson Sierra.
  • Also featured was the two-car Car-Trek Racing team, a Melbourne local outfit that would survive well into the V8 era, who were basically having a hit at the biggest race in their postcode. The team consisted of a pair of Walkinshaw Commodores, the #15 for Bob Jones & Ed Lamont, and the #31 of Peter Hudson & Ian Carrig.
  • Of the privateers: Kevin Waldock entered his usual Playscape Racing Sierra with co-driving from Brett Peters. He had a scramble on Sunday when he split a bore in the Sunday morning warm-up, forcing his team to change the engine ahead of the race. Fellow privateer Daryl Hendrick made an appearance in his #26 Gemspares Walky, with co-driving from John White. And poor Bryan Sala completed the privateer trio, sharing his #50 Tyrepower Sierra with Graham Lusty, but then ended up the event's sole DNS when he blew an engine on Saturday. The team were forced to withdraw as they had no spare.
  • Bob Holden Motors, the Toyota dealership owned by long-time racer and 1966 Bathurst winner Bob Holden, entered a pair of Toyota Strollers in the small-car class: the #76 FX-GT hatchback for Mike Conway & Calvin Gardner; and the #77 AE86 coupé for Dennis Rogers and Bob himself.
  • Their rivals in the class were both privateers: Geoff Full was sharing his #78 Speedtech eight-six with a very young Paul Morris ("The Dude" came much later); and Ron Searle was paired up with Don Griffiths in a newer AE92 Levin hatchback. These latter two were both Formula Ford drivers being given a chance by former Toyota works driver and professional open-wheel racer, John Smith.

Basically, without a good TV deal there wasn't much incentive for the sponsors to pay for a grinding race of attrition, so several big names elected not to bother. The conspicuous no-shows were Dick Johnson Racing, who had a very expensive car in the Ford Sierra RS500, and (presumably), a sponsor in Shell who were quietly informing them that the recession was hitting their bottom line and they wouldn't be able to provide as much support as originally promised. With a fruitless engine development programme that had eaten a good chunk of the budget early in the year, Dick had seemingly weighed the pros and cons of Sandown and decided, "Yeah, nah."

Ditto Gibson Motorsport, which was rather more egregious when "home" for them was only a few kilometres away in South Dandenong, not in far-off Queensland. But their absence was more understandable when you considered the fifteenth and last car on the entry list, the #4 GIO Skyline of customer team Bob Forbes Racing. You know how a parent will take the training wheels off their child's bicycle, but then still follow them around, ready to catch them if they lost balance? That's basically what Gibson were doing this weekend. Their BFFs at BFR were getting some valuable experience running the car at an endurance race, and although I don't know how many Gibson team personnel were on hand to assist, Mark Skaife was certainly there. For the race itself he would be in the commentary box, sure, but in the practice sessions he certainly would've been on hand to dispense advice as needed. With Bob Forbes Racing and their drivers Mark Gibbs & Rohan Onslow on the grid, Fred Gibson had basically outsourced the weekend to his customers.

It would prove a sound investment.


We Travel Near & We Travel Far
Peter Brock got a lot of headlines for how he always found another gear at Bathurst, but I think he deserves a bit more attention for his efforts at Sandown as well. His nine-times King of the Mountain title is matched by a record nine wins at Sandown, after all, including an incredible seven in a row from 1975 to 1981. Like Bathurst, something about Sandown got Peter excited and he just seemed to try harder, witness last year's cross-entry shenanigans that ended with him finishing both 2nd and 4th. In many ways Brocky was the real star of Sandown '91, even if this time he wouldn't gain a result...

As last year's winner, Glenn Seton arrived full of confidence and promptly stuck the Peter Jackson Sierra on pole, putting in a lap of 1:14.17. That was better than half-a-second faster than Gibbs in the GT-R, who'd only managed a 1:14.66, but there could've been any number of reasons for that. The days were gone when Sandown was just a pair of drag strips separated by a hairpin and the pit straight, but the straights were still very long and the drag on the GT-R was still considerable. Mitigating that was the revelation from Skaife that the GT-R now had its longed-for water-cooled brake package, which was able to knock 30-40 degrees off the brake temps. Bob Forbes had mentioned that the 30-litre water reservoir ran out about six or seven laps before the end of a stint, but Skaife had something to say about that, commenting:

Yes, we can change the jet size to determine how much water is sprayed on the brakes. So, at this particular place, we've decided to run a reasonably big jet to control the temperature of the brakes all the way through the run and not to worry about it too much toward the end.

Nevertheless, playing the GT-R's acceleration against the terminal velocity of the Sierra would be a major part of the strategy. Tyre life would be key for all parties, with Gibbs on Dunlops but Seton, from memory, on Yokohamas. And qualifying, as they say, is not the race: Seton was willing to reveal that his race plan was to have two stops, with a brake pad change at the second (he hadn't needed one last year, but this year they were going faster). Gregg Hansford would take the middle stint of maybe 60 laps, with Seton handling the start and the finish.

When the green flag waved, Gibbs of course got off the line like a rocket but Seton bogged down, losing out not only to the red GT-R but also the two Mobil Commodores of Brock and Perkins, who had naturally-aspirated V8 grunt and something to prove. Seton arrived in the first corner only 4th, and would have to dig his way back out again.

While Perkins did his best to hold off Seton, Peter in 2nd drove like he was on a mission to inch up on Gibbs, which was amusing in light of his pre-race comments:

Tactics? You've got to get into a groove around here. You've got to stroke the car along. And you've got to try not to miss gears, squeeze your foot on the brakes, those sorts of things. In other words, run to a plan and try not to let others upset you. It's very easy to get upset and to start chasing, or be a little lazy.

So now of course the red mist had descended and he was now doing no such thing: he was very definitely chasing Mark Gibbs! That said, it wasn't for nought as on lap 11 Brock slipped underneath Gibbs at the Causeway and assumed the lead. It had been an awfully long time since a Holden had led a race on merit, but if anyone was going to pull that particular rabbit out of the hat, it was always going to be Peter. Gibbs, for his part, used the slipstream to inch back up on 05, but Peter gave him a warning swerve before Turn 1, and young Mark backed out of it. Not the sort of behaviour you typically saw from Peter, but it seemed he wanted this one, and knew his only chance was to blunt the GT-R's advantage in traction by sitting in front and holding him up. Or perhaps he knew – none better – that his Bridgestones weren't going to last, so it was best to make a break early.

Typically, though, Larry Perkins was having the opposite kind of day. On lap 14 he returned to the pits to deal with the smoke pouring from his engine bay. The mechanics were in a tizzy trying to sort it out, but it seemed there was a fire at the back of the engine! This was promptly extinguished and Larry was dropped and sent back out, but he'd lost 66 seconds in the process – nearly a whole lap. Pitlane reporter John Smailes revealed the cause had been oil from a breather pipe leaking onto his exhaust pipe – nothing mechanically wrong, but not something that could be ignored either.


As if to prove the gods of Holden reserved all their love for Brocky, while that was going on the second factory HRT also hummed into the pits for some attention. Neil Crompton had bent a steering arm on the ripple strips and could no longer steer it properly, and it took the mechanics nearly two minutes to beat it back into shape. It was already looking like an iffy day for the Holdens.

Back out on track, the race went on without them. From the commentary box, Skaife revealed that his old mate Seton had just passed Gibbs' GIO Nissan in a bold move over the top of the hill. That moved Seton up to 2nd place, but also revealed the GT-R was struggling at a worryingly early stage of the race. Not to be rude, but some of that was the driver – the body language of the car revealed Gibbs still wasn't completely confident of his new ride, as he just wasn't driving it as hard as Richards or Skaife – but it soon emerged there were more basic problems as well. On lap 21, Brocky gave a quick in-car interview and revealed that he'd been able to assume the lead because the GT-R was running out of brakes. Not too much later, on lap 25, Win Percy passed Gibbs as well and seemingly confirmed that hypothesis – HRT's Bathurst-winning carbon-metallic brakes were a key part of their package. But the real issue (which wouldn't come to light until late in the race), was that the GIO car had lost second gear, and Gibbs was learning how best to do without it – a bit of a handicap when second was just the gear you wanted for the squared-off 90-degree turns that made up the majority of the lap. The torque of the GT-R meant third would do the job, but it would mean losing a couple of hundredths or tenths at every turn, and over the course of 500 kilometres those would add up...

Of course, Peter was soon having trouble of his own. He came in for a pit stop at the end of lap 34, which was too early to be planned: relief driver Andrew Miedecke wasn't ready, and while most of the mechanics did the routine jobs of refuelling and replacing the wheels, a couple stuck their heads under to look at rear underside of 05. Something was wrong with the car, and Peter had done his usual trick of putting someone else behind the wheel before it could fail. That said, Peter did front up to the cameras and to let us know a brake clevis pin had fallen out, leaving him with brakes on the rear wheels only. The car was stationary for more than 20 minutes, effectively dialling 05 out of the race.

It's a piece of threaded rod that connects the front and rear master cylinders – we run separate master cylinders on these cars – with the brake pushrod. So when I put my foot on the brakes at the end of the main straight, it actually snapped – you can see the area there that was broken – snapped that bar, and gave me a little bit of rear brake as I went into the corner. So I didn't run off the road, but it was very dicey there for a minute. I've never seen one break in my life. None of us have, we're all sitting here stunned, amazement, going, “How could that break?”


Peter's brake failure finally put polesitter Seton back at the front, but he wasn't having an easy time of it either. By lap 45 he was being held up by Kevin Waldock, who was ignoring the blue flags and failing to wave him through. Waldock had been back to the pits a couple of times and was now multiple laps down, so he really had no business racing the leaders, but red mist is red mist I suppose.

Seto drove his hardest, and so led the race from lap 34 to 61, when he made the first of his scheduled pit stops. He seemingly had endurance on his side, as by the time he headed for pit lane, his main rivals Percy and Gibbs had already been in ahead of him. Gibbs had pulled in for fuel, tyres and a top-up to the brake reservoir, while Percy had handed over the #16 to Grice in a brisk 18-second stop from the HRT mechanics. Seton's stop was slower than that, mostly because – in defiance of their pre-race plans – they had to change the brake pads at the first stop, a sure sign the pace was hotter than expected. Hansford got in for his stint and the car was released after sitting still for 49.42 seconds. Overall the pit cycle put Gibbs back in the lead, but with a question mark over his brakes – could they hold out against the Sierra's fresh pads?

Well, Gibbs got a breather when the Pace Car came out on lap 56, deployed to control the field while the crashed Car-Trek Walky of Hudson & Carrig was cleaned up. Despite the mechanical issues for everyone else, that was actually the first DNF of the race, but one Pace Car leads to another, as they say. At the restart, turbo lag caught Kevin Waldock napping and he lost the rear of his Playscape Sierra at Peters Corner, thankfully without serious damage. Allan Grice made the most of it and out-braked Gibbs at the hairpin to assume the lead, sending the Holden fans in the grandstands into raptures, and he was soon followed by Peter Brock (now driving Larry Perkins' #11 car thanks to his usual cross-entry shenanigans). That sparked another Holden-on-Holden battle between these long-standing rivals (that Peter was actually a lap down and only 5th changed nothing), and their intense panel-beating battle was finally settled when Brock muscled Grice aside, letting Miedecke (in the 05, which was many laps down) slip through as well. As if things couldn't get worse for HRT, Grice soon radioed the pits to tell them that, like Gibbs, he'd lost second gear!

With Grice missing a cog and Seton out of sequence after his pit stop, it was only a matter of time until the GIO car was back in the lead. By lap 100, sure enough, there it was... by a whopping 24 seconds! The question of Grice's factory car was settled on lap 101 when he pulled over just past the pit exit with a box full of neutrals, and Peter immediately joined him with smoke billowing from the rival Mobil Commodore, a catastrophic engine failure having ended the #11's day as well. Ironically, the 05 car that Peter had started the day in and which had broken a clevis pin was still running, although purely to give seat time to the co-drivers Miedecke and Mezera. So the Holdens that had been running 2nd and 4th were now both DNFs.

That triggered another Pace Car intervention, and Mark Gibbs and the Bob Forbes team grabbed it with both hands. By now Gibbs had been in the car for nearly two-and-a-half hours, driving a marathon double-stint to try and make a gap, but it had all been worth it for this moment: the team could refuel, fit new Dunlops, change the brake pads and top up all the fluids at minimal penalty while the field was slowed up under yellow. Rohan Onslow would be put in the driver's seat and sent back out with a fat, fresh and fuelled-up GT-R under him. As such the stop was a long one, stagnant for 1 minute and 49 seconds, a period of tension but not panic. The stop dropped them back to P2, but that wasn't crippling when Hansford ahead of them had yet to stop. 

Even better, by the time the race went back to green, Hansford had developed a misfire as well. The Sierra's only ace was sheer top-end speed, so without that it wasn't long before Onslow caught up and soon he and Hansford were running nose-to-tail like a freight train. And it was the Seton team that blinked, ordering Hansford back to the pits for his final scheduled stop. This time it was fuel, tyres and a driver change only, no pads: Seton took his car back knowing he'd have to drive the stint of his life to win this one. The 37 seconds spent on the apron gave him the gap to make up, and then he was released and rejoined like a thunderclap. By lap 120 he was into 2nd place with only Onslow ahead of him in the GT-R... but paddock buzz now said the GT-R would have to make another stop to reach the finish, and the Sierra would not. This wasn't yet over.

We hadn't really seen much of the yellow BMW today, the sole entry in the Goldilocks class, but that was hardly surprising for an underpowered car at the Home of Horsepower. Nevertheless, Frank Gardner seemingly found a way to get his sponsors on the telly: late in the race, the M3 Evo came into the pits for an unscheduled stop, its driver Alan Jones alighting to tell the microphones the car had lost its rear anti-roll bar on the very first lap, leaving it understeering like a pig. That, he guessed, had been costing them up to a second a lap, so just being as high up the order as they were was a hell of an achievement under the circumstances. In the end, the team demonstrated the value of survival in an endurance race: they had two stops with electrical dramas that required fitting at least one new battery, and a late-race pit stop to check the battery cost them another 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Even so, they lost not a single placing because of it: they came in 2nd, and they rejoined still in 2nd!

And then, out of nowhere, the #7 Commodore of Brad Jones virtually exploded in mid-song, the exhaust pipes going from zero to pumping thick white smoke into the air in a heartbeat. Brad and Neil had done a splendid job of driving Elvis into an impressive 3rd place – the first serious placing for HRT's junior car – only to cop another Holden engine failure in a race littered with them. Ironically, the only VN now running was Peter's 05 that had stopped first with a broken clevis pin, but that wouldn't last either. Repeating tragedy as farce, Peter pulled over in 05 with yet more oil smoke pouring from it: another ruined engine. Peter had been at the wheel for three of the team's two car failures this day! In fact, by the end of the day, Holden were on one for seven in finishes.

With 20 laps to go and a 34-second lead over Seton, Bob Forbes got on the radio and instructed Onslow to drop the revs by a thousand and drive an economy run to the flag: if they pitted all was lost anyway, so they might as well risk it by staying out and hope Seton couldn't quite catch up in the remaining laps. But as it turned out, their worst fears never came to pass. With 146 of 161 laps completed, that mysterious little misfire in the pretty blue Sierra came back with a vengeance, and reached deep into the engine's heart and stopped it stone dead. The number 30 was seen heading slowly up the back straight, its lack of pace visible, its lack of engine audible. Poor Glenn couldn't even make it back to pit lane, pulling over just past the Causeway, his hopes crushed almost within sight of the flag.


Not that the Bob Forbes team minded! Onslow finished the last few laps and so ended his day in 1st place, a massive six laps ahead of P2 (incredibly, the BMW of Alan Jones and Peter Fitzgerald). In their second race with a new car, Bob Forbes Racing had taken Australia's bronze medal, albeit against fairly thin opposition. Best of all, Mark Gibbs had finally taken a major scalp: he'd had been in the game a while but so far his biggest achievements had been in Group E Production car racing, taking the title in 1986 and the Winton 300 enduro in 1987 and '89. Sandown was a different deal altogether, and mechanical issues aside, they'd shown that the GT-R could indeed last the distance in an endurance race.

So with that done, the touring car regulars packed up their gear and turned their attention to the only race that mattered – Bathurst.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

The Customer Is Always Right: Bob Forbes Racing & the GIO GT-R

All of your customers are partners in your mission. – Shep Hyken

So obviously, with the Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R being the car of the moment, you wanted one, right? Well, there was good news and bad news on that front. The good news was, you could have one! Honestly, they were available for purchase, no reasonable offer refused. The bad news was, whether you planned to take it to Bathurst or just wanted one for the daily commute, you were going to need some very deep pockets...


No Tokyo Thrift: the Australian GT-R
The R32 Skyline had been on sale in Japan since 1989, but thus far it had been a JDM-only prospect. Nissan had only ever intended it for the home islands, with export potential as far from their minds as... well, as east is from west. That it ended up on our shores as a first-hand buy was thanks to Nissan Australia boss Ivan Deveson, who wanted it on local roads as a branding exercise to take advantage of the success of the racing team. Because import fees and taxes would drive the price up, there was no point sending the lesser variants, so for Australian buyers it would be the GT-R or nothing. And because it was imported under the Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicle Scheme, just 100 cars would be available.

We always wanted to connect our mainstream product with motorsport, otherwise why bother? And after we finished building [the R31] Skyline at Clayton – which itself was a bad decision because it was a good money-maker for us, and a good car too – we then had to think of another way of making the motorsport connection work.

We didn't have a local car that would demonstrate that what we raced on Sunday would sell on Monday. So a guy called Ted Arcadipane, who is essential to this story and was in our business planning group, put together a paper with me on importing the R32 GT-R.

Given how hard Fred Gibson and his team struggled with the previous Skylines, by the time we got to the R32, I guess we were pre-empting what ultimately happened – that it was going to be the gun vehicle. We didn't predict that it was going to destroy Group A, but we certainly had a strong feeling that it was going to be the gun car in Australia for motorsport.

That's also why we decided to import 100 production cars. We put a business case together with what I knew at the time were the local changes required to get the car ADR'ed. That went to local management, who approved it, and then we went back to Japan and said, "Please can we do this?" – Paul Beranger, head of Nissan Motorsport Australia, in Motor magazine's Nissan R32 Skyline GT-R: the "Godzilla" Legend

Australia's first batch of twenty-eight GT-Rs were built at Nissan's Murayama plant in May of 1991, with another twenty-two following down the same line in June, and the final fifty in August. Thirty-seven of them were in Jet Silver, with the same number Red Pearl Metallic and the remaining twenty-six in Black Pearl Metallic – to simplify production only three colours were offered, rather than the nine available in Japan. They were lifted off the ships in Melbourne and then allocated a combined $250,000 budget and fifty hours per car for the all-important process of modifying to meet Australian Design Rules, without which they would be illegal to drive on Australian roads.

"That was our biggest challenge" said Paul Beranger. "Japan agreed for us to do it, but they threw it back on us, saying, 'Okay, we will support you, but you do the work' – which was very substantial. The GT-R was only built for Japan's domestic market, so we needed to make all sorts of changes – radios, headlights and taillights, mufflers for drive-by noise, seatbelts..."

He wasn't exaggerating: child seat restraints had to be fitted, a fuel filler restrictor was needed, and they had to add new side intrusion bars to meet Australian legislation. The side indicators and high-mounted rear brake light (both safety non-negotiables) were sourced from the locally-available Nissan 300ZX, with the new headlights and taillights done by Hella Australia. The Japanese-market "S" (for Skyline) bonnet badge made way for a Nissan logo, and the GT-R received a new "bee-sting" antenna mounted at the back of the roof, "because the Japanese car had a glass-mounted antenna, which was rubbish." This also meant local cars got a Blaupunkt sound system to replace the rather lacklustre OEM unit.


The mechanicals mostly remained intact, with one notable exception: "We had to add a transmission cooler, because the Japanese engineers did theoretical projections to show that the transmission would overheat in outback Australia if you drove it at 180km/h for two hours!" At that speed the GT-R would run out of fuel after about one hour, but as Beranger pointed out: "We didn't want any delays to the programme, so when a Japanese engineer tells you it needs a transmission cooler, you just go along with it and install one." Clayton had also wanted it on Yokohama tyres, because Gibson Motorsport team sponsored by Yokohama, but Japan refused, pointing out that the GT-R had been developed around Bridgestone Potenza RE71s. So Bridgestones it had to be, regardless of the local association with Peter Brock! One benefit for the Aussie cars, however, was that the 112km/h speed limiter that was mandatory in Japan could be junked, leaving the local GT-R to roam wild and free.

One GT-R idea that HSV later adopted with a vengeance was providing an owner's compendium. A sort of expanded owner's manual, it came with lists of specialist GT-R dealers, a press kit, the sales brochure, three photographs, a Nissan-branded pen and a booklet by Jim Richards and Mark Skaife explaining how to drive your new sports car. It also had a useful list of service stations that sold the necessary 95 RON fuel, which could be a bit hard to find in an era when unleaded petrol was only five years old. [Anecdote from the Rocking Chair: Just to give you an idea, at my first job the four petrol grades available were normal unleaded (91), premium unleaded (95), the franchise's version of 98, and something called "Lead Replacement Petrol", a fuel designed especially for cars that predated the lead ban. And that was in the early-2000s; 95 only would've been harder to find in 1991. The days of 98 everywhere were a while away yet.]


Given the car's iconic status today you might imagine all one hundred GT-Rs were snapped up before they even left the docks, but you would be wrong. In a story entitled "Farewell to Godzilla", published more than a year after the second batch of GT-Rs had gone on sale, Wheels reported that just sixty-three of them had been sold as brand-new cars – sixty-three! A few probably became dealer demonstrators and some may have gone to New Zealand, but the harsh fact was that the rest languished at the dealerships for several years until sold at steep discounts. The reason came down to the bottom line: when it was new, the price tag for an Australianised GT-R was a staggering $110,000. That works out as nearly $213,000 in 2020 money and, lest we forget, it came in the midst of a major recession.

The Japanese were just as surprised about the $110,000 price tag as many of us in Australia were, but that was just a greedy sales team believing they could make a killing. And they fell over with that one.

The GT-R was so much more expensive than a [$70k] 300ZX that it was very difficult for people to accept that a Nissan, however technically advanced, could cost $110,000 … and that ultimately caused the car to bog down in the dealerships. It really struggled. – Paul Beranger

Remember that according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations last year, the Japanese price for a GT-R was the equivalent of only $41,000, so even when you considered the era's savage tariffs and ADR compliance work, that was some serious price-gouging. The obvious point of comparison was the VN Commodore SS Group A, which competed with it both on the track and in the marketplace, and was also hindered by a bloated price tag. Indeed, Wheels featured a direct comparison in its July 1991 edition, with the cars driven by their ATCC pilots, Jim Richards and Win Percy. Richo gave a rather diplomatic summary of the differences between them.

In its own right, the Holden is terrific as a GT car. The Skyline is, I suppose, a sports car. They're both performance cars, but they do it in two totally different ways. You'd have to say the GT-R is really exciting to drive; the Holden is fun.

The Holden, of course, was not terrific as a GT car, as we've covered before. On paper it did have more power than the GT-R, which might've clinched it had it actually been true, but as we know Nissan had fudged the numbers. So in reality, the GT-R actually made some 260 kW to the Holden's 215, and Wheels' quarter-mile times revealed that reality did not match the marketing blurb: the Holden needed 15.4 seconds to cover the standing 400m, the Nissan just 13.9. But was that second-and-a-half really worth so much more money?

At $218,910, the Ferrari 348 neatly doubled the ask while failing to match the GT-R on acceleration, let alone dynamics or build quality. But how could bragging about one's new Nissan compare with saying you'd just bought a rosso Ferrari? Even the standard Porsche 911 cost 50 per cent more than the Japanese car. – Dr John Wright, Nissan R32 GT-R: Racing First, Road Second, Shannons Club

Had the GT-R been more realistically priced – said Beranger, "I think from memory we were talking $80k-$85k, something like that, and it would've made money, absolutely" – then things might have been different. As it was, the GT-R only appealed to those who valued the driving experience over image, and so attracted only a couple of high-profile owners. It will surprise no-one to learn Mark Skaife had one, in Red Pearl Metallic.

I had one as a company car. Freddie got me a car after I won the [1992] championship and then I ended up buying one. It was just the absolute gun car of the day. They had a really tough road presence about them. I had mine for many years before selling it. Of course, I should have kept it.

The other was, probably not coincidentally, also our wealthiest citizen...

Yes, media mogul Kerry Packer became a GT-R fanboy after another Wheels test (he did own the magazine, after all...), in which race legend Kevin Bartlett evaluated the GT-R against the Honda NSX, Ferrari Mondial and BMW M5 at Eastern Creek. Kev had informed his old mate Kerry of the test, who came down with his son Jamie and spent an hour pounding around Sydney's glittering new autodrome in equally-glittering new performance cars. What happened next was sublimely in character, as detailed by a recent edition of Motor:

After sampling the cars he got ready to depart in his ex-US Army 'Huey' chopper. He pointed to the Nissan.

"Get me one of those cars," he called out.

"Nah, fuck it. Get me two. One for James."


The GIO GT-R
Of course, if you were in the market for a racecar, $110,000 would've been an absolute bargain...

Paul Beranger had already noted that "oil company sponsored teams" had blanched at the cost of a Group A Skyline, but come July, Fred Gibson finally had a taker – Bob Forbes Racing. The former Torana driver had been running a smallish team of Holdens for several years now, turning them out in an attractive cherry-red livery courtesy of the Government Insurance Office, or GIO. The insurance giant was gearing up for a public listing on the ASX (which would happen in August 1992), so they had deep pockets and a pressing need for exposure. Egged on by marketing boss Peter Hilan and deputy MD John Crawford, Bob Forbes bit the bullet and bought himself a GT-R.

We all knew the GT-R was coming out and I was prepared to fund and buy it. GIO agreed to increase the sponsorship over a two-year period to help me amortise the costs.

Ron Missen was doing our cars back then at his place at Ingleburn. I spoke to him about the GT-R and he felt it wasn't something he would like to take on at that time due to the new technology.

So the car was prepared and housed at Gibson Motorsport. I had my guy Paul Taylor working there at Fred's on my behalf assisting Freddie's guys. Paul looked after the preparation of the car and the logistics of transporting it and all the equipment to race meetings. – Bob Forbes, Austalian Muscle Car #96

"That car was as good as our cars," agreed Fred Gibson. "The only differences between them were the drivers and the tyres. Bob had a deal with Dunlop for freebie tyres and we ran on Yokohamas." Indeed, the ongoing tyre war meant there was fierce rivalry between the Japanese tyre giants, and for a while Dunlop refused to supply the Forbes team with their latest compounds, for fear their new relationship with Gibson would give Yokohama a free look at their tech!

The team took delivery of the car on Thursday, 25 July – just in time for the third and final round of that year's AMSCAR series at Amaroo Park. The car got a fifty-lap shakedown ahead of the weekend, with Mark Skaife setting the car up to ensure it would be as good as one of Gibson's own cars (and giving him a taste of Dunlop's rubber into the bargain...). Mark Gibbs said the Nissan people claimed the car had no lag, but that showed how long they'd been lost in the world of 1980s turbos – maybe compared to the old HR31 it had no lag, but coming as he was straight from the Holden V8, Gibbs could definitely feel it.

Not that it slowed them down overmuch. The final AMSCAR round was scheduled for Sunday, 28 July, and was another standalone event consisting of a pair of 10-lap heats. Tony Longhurst grabbed pole, of course, with Gibbs ending up behind him in 3rd spot, still coming to grips with his new car... but that didn't prove to be a disadvantage when the lights went green. 

"I could not believe it," said Gibbs. "It just shot off the line. I was past Tony before he had even moved." Skaife had instructed him to stand on the throttle for maximum revs and then just dump the clutch, and holy cow, it had worked. "I don't like working the engine like that, but that's what they told me, and that's what I did."

By the first corner Gibbs was a second clear of Longhurst, and managed to hold the lead throughout the first lap. Tony took it back in a superb out-braking manoeuvre on lap 2, only to lose it under acceleration a moment later. Over the next eight laps the pair fought door-to-door, swapping the lead three more times before Tony finally took the chequered flag by just 0.2 seconds from Gibbs.


Heat 2 was a similar story, with another launch from the second row that put Gibbs into the lead by the first corner. This time he managed to hold the lead until lap 3, when Longhurst put the position in dispute with more side-by-side racing. The B&H BMW wasn't able to seize the lead permanently until lap 7, but he held it to the flag and won by 0.36 seconds from Gibbs.

This clean sweep of the weekend secured Tony Longhurst's fifth AMSCAR title in six years, and made him for all time the most successful driver in the series, but there was no disputing that the GIO car had made him work for it. It was a very auspicious debut for a brand-new car, and what Gibbs might be able to do once he got used to his new steed would be a matter of speculation only briefly...

Monday, 26 July 2021

Sealing the Deal: Lakeside & Oran Park

And so the Australian Touring Car Championship wound to its inevitable conclusion. With the question of whether Godzilla could be beaten now answered - yes, barely, if the conditions were absolutely perfect - there were just two more left to answer: which Nissan driver would be the '91 champion? And, were there any remaining weaknesses in the Nissan's game? We found answers to both in the final rounds at Lakeside and Oran Park.

Lakeside Interruption
The return to Lakeside was a round everyone had been looking forward to. It wasn't just a chance to head to Queensland and escape the mid-winter cold, it was a chance to return to everyone's second-favourite Aussie racetrack and, perhaps, have a second bite at the cherry. It wasn't often you got to re-attempt a circuit in a single year, so for those disappointed by their first trip to Lakeside, this was a chance to return with dialled-in setups and have a bit of a mulligan.


Of course, that was only ever going to benefit one team. Lakeside was Tony Longhurst Racing's home track, the place they did all their testing, so even with the Nissans so dominant it had been something of an embarrassment that they'd managed only 3rd back in April. Since then however Tony had run Godzilla into the ground at Amaroo, and he knew that if they kept the pressure on, the GT-Rs could be beaten. The key was to drive the M3 Evo the way the Germans drove them – don't touch the brakes until point-blank range, throw it into the turns like a drift car, rev the engine without mercy on the exit... and, eventually, the Nissans would wear out their tyres and fall by the wayside.

With seventeen names on it, the entry list was healthier than Mallala, but still down on the numbers we'd seen in April. Ten of the Wanneroo eleven had made the trip, with the sole exception being HRT's Win Percy, who'd buggered off to the English Midlands to race a Jaguar instead. He'd accepted an offer to drive one of Tom Walkinshaw's new Jaguar XJR15s in a one-make support category for this year's British Grand Prix, the first Grand Prix to be held on the definitive Silverstone layout. The XJR15 itself was a roadgoing version of TWR's Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR9 sports car, aimed at playboys with too much money – despite a price tag of £500,000, all fifty were pre-sold before construction began. Percy would later remember, "The XJR-15 was a beautiful, powerful car, but evil to drive", and after testing it, Top Gear's Tiff Needell agreed. This, it seems, was Percy's way of declaring his candidacy for 1992, reminding a British racing scene that hadn't heard from him in 18 months what he could really do. (As a side note, Jim Richards had raced an XJR15 at the Monaco round, which seems to go unnoticed because he didn't have to miss an ATCC round to do it.)

To meet the team's obligations to Holden, the HRT seat at Lakeside was filled by Percy's Bathurst co-driver, Allan Grice. The rest of the grid was made up by the usual brace of Toyota Strollers (our old mate Bob Holden in the FX-GT, and Peter Verheyan making another appearance in the Vernon car), plus the keenest of the Commodore players – privateers Kevin Heffernan and Warren Jonsson in their outdated VLs; Terry Finnigan in the Foodtown VN; and Mark Gibbs, making his final appearance in the GIO Insurance Commodore.


Grice put the factory Commodore on the grid only 10th with a time of 54.40 seconds, one place behind the similar VN of Larry Perkins, and – the part that really must've stung – a whopping eight places behind the 05 of Peter Brock. Yep, that's right: thanks to some ultra-sticky tyres from Bridgestone, some engine tweaks from Perkins, and his own deep well of experience at Lakeside, a circuit that rewarded intimate knowledge of its contours, Peter dug deep and pulled out a time of 53.19 seconds – fast enough to bump one of the Nissans off the front row and claim P2!

If he'd pulled out that time back in April he'd have started from pole, but nothing stands still in this game and the Mobil team weren't the only ones making progress. Gibson Motorsport had spent their practice sessions experimenting with different combinations of harder and softer Yokohama compounds, as well as harder and softer suspension settings, finding the cars were quicker with hard settings despite Lakeside's notorious bumps. This, together with the fact that Mark Skaife had been given the newer and faster car once again, meant the youngster set a scorching time of 52.78 seconds – not only 0.65 of a second faster than Richards' pole time in April, but a full second quicker than his own lap record from the race! It was clear his second pole position was a standout moment in his career, as described by the man himself in his book:

It took a bit of mental effort for the Lakeside pole. Jim said he was going through the left-hand kink flat, and I was lifting a bit so I had to talk myself into it. That was a wild corner. It wasn't just the shape of it; it also had a really big bump and it would pitch the car outside to the right and there were a lot of big crashes on the day. You'd be north of 230km/h in the kink in qualifying.

To get through there flat, we had the driver's side wheels on the inside of the white line along the edge of the track. The whole rest of the car was effectively on the grass flat out, then you'd bounce to the other side, holding your breath the whole time, and try to stop it for the next corner, the Carousel [sic]. That stretch of track was just great; that's exactly what racing is about. You couldn't do a whole race like that, of course, but you still had to use the grass at quite a few spots to get a lap time. – Mark Skaife, Mark Skaife: The Autobiography

There was some controversy, however, when Skaife spun off the track later in the session and blistered his qualifying tyres. The rules, remember, required each driver to mark out a set of tyres on Saturday and then qualify and start the race on them: with Skaife's nominated set (the same compound they'd run in April) now damaged, Gibson asked for permission to junk the blistered tyres and fit a new set of the same compound instead – and the officials stirred up plenty of grumbles by granting it. It was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of situation: allowing Skaife to start on a fresh set of tyres was arguably within the spirit of the rules, and sidestepped a potential safety hazard as well, but it also opened a loophole in the rules – what was to stop a canny driver deliberately ruining their tyres in the future so they could ask for the same dispensation? No doubt the Sierra teams were especially bitter, as their excess horsepower made managing the blistering a central concern every time they went out onto the track, but apparently they hadn't thought to try this angle.


Race day dawned warm but not swelteringly hot, with temps around the 20-degree mark. Which was still too hot for what Mark Skaife got busy doing in the pre-race warm-up. With his sticker-new set of soft Yokohamas fitted he had to bed them in, but in the process did an awful lot of laps on them, leaving a question mark over their durability for the race. That would come back to bite him in the only session that mattered...

Off the start the two Nissans of course took off like rockets and left the rest in their wake, their patented 7,800rpm clutch dumps proving effective as ever. Jim got past Brock for 2nd before the first corner, and although Brock managed to tag along with the Nissans through the first lap, but we all knew that couldn't last. By lap 4 Skaife and Richards were 2.36 seconds clear of Brock and gone.

The dice to watch was between the two red cars and the two yellow cars – the Johnson Sierras and Longhurst BMWs boxed each other's ears ferociously. Dick Johnson had been forced to make use of the pit exit tarmac to get around the slow-starting BMW of Alan Jones, mowing some grass to get back to the track but getting the pass done. The organisers did nothing, and no doubt Skaifey raised an eyebrow when he saw the replay later. Either way, the Longhurst cars ratchetted forwards to take 4th and 5th places, then set off after Brocky, whose Bridgestones, predictably, didn't last much more than ten minutes. Tony stormed underneath Brock into the Karrussell and moved up to 3rd place. Left floundering, poor Dick then had an altercation with Allan Grice's HRT Commodore entering the Karrussell: Grice clipped the left-rear of Johnson's car just as it entered the turn and tipped the Shell car into a spin, after which he had steam coming from under the bonnet. When his scheduled pit stop came around, Dick pulled straight through his bay and parked it in the garage instead – Channel Seven commentator Mark Oastler soon revealed the off-track excursion had pushed the fan through the radiator and cooked the engine. Another $30,000 down the drain...

That left Bowe dealing with Glenn Seton, a preview of Ford's hopes for the upcoming era, but he ultimately failed to finish as well, losing the rear on the entry to Hungry Corner and going for a spin. He kept it going for now, but another spin later in the day (at – where else? – the Karrussell!) broke the steering and ended his day for good. A double DNF for the Johnson team at their home race made it a pretty miserable weekend all-round.

By lap 12, the GT-Rs were 7 seconds clear of Longhurst's BMW M3, but with nothing now holding them up, the BMW drivers started pushing and chipping away at the leaders. Skaife had the first 25 laps all to himself, but by mid-race the Nissans were slowing, their lap times down to the high-53s or low-54s, the gap shrinking to 3.81 seconds. That forced Skaife and Richards to drive their GT-Rs harder than planned, which finally pushed them over the cliff: next time around Skaife could only manage a 54.42, whereas Longhurst was mechanically punching out 53.5s. Nissan's soft-Yokohama/hard-suspension combo had proven quick but destructive, and with his tyres blistering Skaife virtually moved over and let his teammate Richards through for the lead. Right behind him of course was Tony Longhurst, and for a few corners it looked like Skaife was ready to fight him, with the yellow BMW right alongside as they went up and over the hill at the end of the circuit... but no, Skaife ran up the white flag and headed for the pits instead, where the team swiftly changed all four wheels. He rejoined down in 6th place.


Richards now led the race, but it was short-lived, as his tyres too were dying. Longhurst went around the outside of him into Hungry Corner and, with spectacular courage, was able to brake late enough to take the place! Conceding, Richards also headed for pit lane for new tyres, taking service and rejoining 11th.

From there they went on a charge, Skaife claiming a new lap record 53.16, but then on lap 45 he slowed again reporting a throttle problem to the pits – it would later turn out he had a misfire thanks to a fouled plug. He was still doing reasonable lap times, but as a courtesy he waved Richards through rather than hold him up, a move which effectively decided the championship. "Best of the rest" was Glenn Seton’s Peter Jackson Sierra, but even he proved unable to hold off the Nissan twins, who came through to be 3rd and 4th by the time the clock ran out.

The rest was all BMW, as Longhurst charged away to take an 11-second win over teammate Alan Jones. Asked about the difference between April and July, Frank Gardner told the cameras soberly, "About four hundred test laps," before adding, "We were very lucky though." A wise outlook, assuming we're using Seneca's definition of luck: "When preparation meets opportunity." They'd certainly done the preparation – four hundred test laps with tyres costing two grand a set couldn't have been cheap – but having done it, they were in place when the opportunity came. Victory was the reward.


"Just over the moon," said a beaming Tony Longhurst on the rostrum. "Very big day for me in more ways than one!" He wasn't joking: at 5:30 on race morning, his wife Karen had given birth to a baby girl! It wasn't often a win in a national-level championship was only the second-best thing to happen to you that day, but man, he must've slept that night!


So surely that set up a championship-decider at Oran Park on 11 August, yeah? No, actually, it did not. The championship table now read Richards 137, Skaife 122, and that meant Gentleman Jim had wrapped it all up at Lakeside. The ATCC in this era operated under a drop-score system, so even if you competed in all nine rounds, only your best eight results counted towards your end-of-season total. For Skaife, the result on the chopping block was the 4th place he'd just picked up at Lakeside, which would trim 12 points from his total. So even if he won the final round while Richards DNF'd, that would only effect an 8-point swing, which wasn't enough to close the gap. Skaife had effectively given up the title when he'd waved Richards through after copping that fouled plug, a sporting gesture worthy of Peter Collins or Stirling Moss – one that enshrined Gentleman Jim Richards as a four-time Australian Touring Car Champion. In return, Jim put the rumours of a move to Holden to bed by re-signing with Gibson Motorsport for another two years, conditional upon Fred being able to secure sponsorship.

That such a win and DNF is exactly what ended up happening didn't just rub salt into the wound, but the lemon and tequila as well...

Oran Park Finale
How times change. A year ago we'd come into the Oran Park round with four drivers in the title hunt and beheld as the GT-R took its first local race win. This year the fortunes had inverted, as the title was already sewn up but the GT-R showed its first real sign of mechanical trouble.


Once again we had a fairly modest nineteen-car grid on the outskirts of Sydney, packed out by privateers like Steve Reed in the Lansvale Smash Repairs Commodore. There was the usual assortment of Corollas in the small class, and also the Bob Forbes team's Mark Gibbs, who'd swapped the GIO Commodore for a customer GT-R (more on them to come). But this weekend no-one had an answer to the sheer speed of Mark Skaife, who headed every practice session before taking his third pole in a row with a time of 1:10.60 – and that despite problems with ze car.

Gibson's third GT-R was being badly affected with a "pig-routing" exit to one of Oran Park's off-camber turns, the shock absorber rebound getting the blame. Fred made a note to return here to experiment with suspension settings before Bathurst, but for now there was nothing that could be done. Jim was a little slower with 3rd place on the grid, a 1:10.81 the best he could manage after similar handling problems to Skaife – at one stage the car scraped a wall after it jumped sideways. The upshot was that Peter Brock had once again qualified on the front row, having set an astonishing time of 1:10.78 – his Bridgestones might have only been good for qualifying, but he didn't half make the most of it!

Despite another explosive start from Skaife, they all lunged into the first turn together, forming an orderly queue through the Dunlop bridge loop. Briefly, at least: by the end of the first lap Skaife was nearly three seconds clear of John Bowe in the Shell Sierra, aided by the fact Bowe was in a huge battle between Bowe, Richards and Brock for silver. By lap 15, Skaife was a comfortable 8.46 seconds in the clear – job done.

However, while Skaife was once again running away with the race, it was beginning to dawn on us there might be something wrong with Richards' car today – he was as quick as ever coming out of the turns, but seemed short on top-end speed, which was especially noticeable steaming down Oran Park's long front straight. Both Brock and Bowe had an edge down the straight and seemed able to nose up on him there, with Bowe especially able to capitalise because his lightweight Sierra could go much deeper on the brakes at Winfield Corner. With a fresh Perkins-tuned V8 under the bonnet and the VN's slippery aero, Brocky was likewise pulling out some storming speed down the straight – but since it weighed almost as much as the GT-R, the Commodore's gains tended to be wiped out again as they transitioned to the brake pedal. Nevertheless, the duel between the old Bathurst teammates was hard-fought, clean and supremely enjoyable, even if it did point to something being wrong with the GT-R today.


Sadly, Bowe's return to form in running 2nd proved distressingly brief. The Shell Sierra was busy developing a misfire that was only getting worse as time went on, and soon both Brock and Richards were past it leaving it falling into the clutches of Glenn Seton. When the car finally gave up the ghost it was almost a mercy, and a resigned Bowe stepped out from behind the wheel and started removing his fireproof gloves. It had not been a classic season for Bowey.

Shortly thereafter Jim finally passed Brock for 2nd place, but not long after that the case of the Weirdly Slow Nissan was abruptly solved, as the cameras cut to show Richards parked on the entry to the South Circuit with smoke wafting from under the bonnet, the engine having expired, leaving oil everywhere. For the first time all year, a GT-R had failed to finish a championship round, bringing a remarkable streak to an inglorious end. Richards alighted and started removing his gloves, no doubt relieved that he'd already clinched the championship, while in the pits Fred Gibson was stone-faced but clearly not pleased. There was a silver lining, however: Jim later explained that the engine had done 2,000 km of hard racing without a rebuild, and the failure may have been caused by a cam follower or valve breaking. That's right: Nissan's entire Australian Touring Car Championship up to this point had been nothing but a very public test session for Bathurst, and that car had just done two Bathurst distances without a rebuild. And, by the by, taken five 2nd's, two 3rd's and a win in a process! Nissan was surely on the brink of making history at the Mountain this year.

So what of the rest? Win Percy's elopement to the U.K. had apparently left him out of practice, as he had an "off" early in the race that damaging his left-front tyre in the kitty litter outside Winfield Corner. That required a quick visit to the pits for a replacement, which dropped him behind Dick Johnson – a move that had severe consequences for poor Dick. In a rush to make up the lost time, Percy crunched the back of the remaining Shell Sierra and tossed its rear hatch clear into the sky, baulking Mark Gibbs in the pretty (and expensive) new GIO Nissan in the process! All three of them carried on, but Percy had to finish with bent panels that spoiled his aero, while Johnson had to maintain his composure despite the roaring draft from the back of his car was now being completely open to the elements!

Brocky meanwhile was struggling for pace, his Bridgestones once again having been more glory than substance. In his yellow BMW Alan Jones managed to get past, but Tony Longhurst wasn't so lucky: although he might have been dreaming of a third win here on the twists and turns of Oran Park, a deflating left-front tyre late in the race forced a pit stop, dropping Tony behind Alan for the chequered flag – but only just behind, as they zipped across the line together for a formation 2-3 finish.

But nobody had an answer for Mark Skaife this day, who'd put in another flawless performance to take the victory by 23 seconds. It was the final flourish of an astonishing season for Gibson Motorsport, as the Australian Motor Racing Yearbook noted in their review of 1991:

In touring car racing at least, four-wheel-drive has been so successful that it has almost rendered traditional rear-wheel-drive obsolete.

There really isn't a single track in Australia which doesn't suit the GT-R. It may be a little awkward through high-speed corners and it may be too technical for most minds to fathom, but with a strong level of staffing and budget that allowed all the necessary homework to be done, the four-wheel-drive Nissans were virtually unstoppable in 1991.

GT-Rs in the hands of Jim Richards (who won his fourth ATCC) and Mark Skaife destroyed their opposition. Check the statistics: from seven wins out of a possible nine, the GT-Rs finished 1-2 in six of them. Not once did a GT-R driver not stand on the podium during the 1991 Shell Australian Touring Car Championship. Of the 425 laps which made up the nine rounds, 337 of them were led by Nissans. Richards was leader for 229 laps.

They'd also scored an incredible 269 points out of a theoretical maximum of 280, which remained a niggling point for Skaifey ever after. "I actually finished the season with more points than Jim," he sighed in his recent autobiography, "but the crazy system at the time said you had to drop your worst score, which was a fourth place for me but Jim had a DNF at Oran Park – so he won the title while I won the round."


There was some consolation in winning his first CAMS Gold Star on the side, however. Weirdly, all seven rounds of this year's Formula Holden series had been held at the new Eastern Creek Raceway, but that'd suited Skaife just fine – he won six of them in his Spa 003, and finished the only other race 2nd, once again coming agonisingly close to perfection.

In 1990 I had started the Australian Drivers' Championship, which Fred thought would help my overall driving and testing ability. ... Fred always had the feeling that driving open-wheel cars improved your skill set – and he was absolutely right. When you drive purpose-built race cars, you can tune more things to your liking and you get to a stage where you demand more of the car. As I developed greater technical skills, we were able to be more critical of the touring car, which helped its development. It made me feel like the touring car was a taxi; guys like Ross Holder and Andrew Bartley hated it when I'd get back in the touring car and complain about all its faults. ...

I won a couple of rounds in my first season, but I dominated 1991, winning all but the first round, which Mark Larkham won. I felt like I was driving really well, and Fred was right about what I was learning. I was spending so much time in cars – whether it was the open-wheeler or the GT-R for tyre testing or whatever – that I was really making up for missing those early years with Fred. – Mark Skaife, Mark Skaife: The Autobiography

Third in the ATCC was claimed by Tony Longhurst, with BMW's comeback underlined by teammate Alan Jones finishing fourth (thanks to consecutive 2nds in the final two rounds). Brock finished sixth in the championship, while Perkins ended up eleventh. Percy finished the series in eighth place, his best result that 4th at Mallala, which was sadly the best finish for any Commodore in 1991. It was a rough year to be a Holden fan.

The 1991 championship wasn't particularly good. We had a failure at Symmons Plains with a cam follower. We failed at Wanneroo with a fan belt. It wasn't particularly wonderful that year. – Win Percy, Holden Racing Team: 20th Anniversary

Yet even Percy finished up one place ahead of five-time ATCC champion Dick Johnson, who'd endured a miserable series in his Sierra, his best finish a 4th back in the opening round at Sandown. It was a remarkable downturn that the once-mighty RS500 had gone winless this year, but against the incredible speed of the GT-R they just couldn't keep any rubber on their tyres. Behind the scenes, outrage was growing, and it wouldn't take very much longer for it to find an outlet.


 

Saturday, 10 July 2021

23 June: A Year of Godzilla

The next race with full YouTube footage important race was Round 7 of the championship at Mallala, north of Adelaide in South Australia. It was a weekend where the headline was politics, and if you're the tinfoil-headgear type, a race where the outcome was determined before the race even started.


Sniping Across No-Man's Land

Mallala saw a return to tiny grids, with just twelve cars able to make the trip across to the Adelaide Plain. The only reason we talk about Wanneroo and not Mallala when discussing sparse grids was because Mallala featured John Vernon in Peter Verheyen's Toyota Corolla GT AE86... although the word "featured" is doing a lot of work there; he was getting seat time, nothing more. "Quality rather than quantity" was Channel Seven commentator Mike Raymond's take on the situation, an attempt at positive spin that could've turned an electron into a positron, but later in the broadcast even he had to admit the grids this year badly needed filling up.

Source

On the other hand, Mallala had been resurfaced since last year, which was a nice upgrade all-round. A lot of the bumps had been smoothed and a couple of corners had been tidied up, and in the commentary box Neil Crompton pointed out that where last year there'd been a certain amount of off-roading and corner-cutting, this year there were proper kerbs in place to define it all a bit better. Overall it was a nice quality-of-life improvement, and the drivers enjoyed their track time a whole lot more.

Pairing nicely with the new tarmac were some new tyres. All three of the tyre giants supplying the series were now firmly into the "experimental compounds ahead of Bathurst" phase, with Bridgestone having given Brock new rubber to qualify on and Dunlop doing the same for Dick Johnson, as noted, since the Amaroo round. Now Yokohama joined the party as well, with Longhurst revealing he too had some softer tyres for this weekend. And if Longhurst had them, you could bet the Nissan team had them as well, which brings us neatly to the question of politics.

Early June saw a CAMS motor racing commission airing various options to slow down the GT-R for 1992 and bring it back to some sort of parity with the rest of the field. Among the ideas floated were forcing the cars to run in rear-wheel drive only; putting air restrictors in front of the turbos like contemporary WRC cars; or reducing tyre width so the GT-R was limited to the same amount of driven rubber on the road as a rear-drive car in the same tier – which would've meant 5½-inch pizza-cutters on all four corners!

According to reports at the time, Gibson did actually test some of these options. At the time, the World Rally Championship was also run on the Group A rulebook, but with 40mm air restrictors in place to limit the amount of air getting into the turbo and so limit engine power. So far they'd proven very successful (the infamous Celica cheat was still a couple of years away), and at Wanneroo such air restrictors had allegedly been in place for the qualifying, but not the race, contributing to that Johnson/Percy front row. They also tested the car in RWD-only mode with the front drive shafts removed, which they found added two whole seconds to their lap times at Winton.

Unsurprisingly though, Gibson Motorsport and Nissan Australia threatened CAMS with legal action if they tried to make any of this stuff mandatory, Fred Gibson pointing out the cars were built to meet the rules and that his team shouldn't be penalised for doing a good job. CAMS asked Gibson to come up with a counter-proposal of their own if they were so smart, but if the team did so they dragged their feet about it. Why would they – why should they – slow down their own car? After a multi-million dollar investment in the GT-R (to say nothing of the investment of head office in Japan), one could argue the team and company deserved to win a couple of championships, but that was a rather myopic view of things. The reality was that nobody, not even Gibson, could ignore the harsh economic reality of 1991 forever, and getting the economics right would mean at least paying lip service to the question of entertainment. Sorting this out would ultimately mean considering the question of the ATCC as a sport versus the ATCC as a TV show, and coming down on one side or the other. This wasn't over.

Nor, for that matter, was the question of drivers. It was common knowledge by this point that Win Percy, both lead driver and boss hog of the Holden Racing Team, would be quitting Australia and returning to the U.K. at the end of the year. He'd only taken the HRT job in the first place because it was supposed to be a one-year gig – it was no part of his plans to drop out of the European scene for too long and be forgotten – and this second year was a product of enthusiasm following that unexpected Bathurst win more than clear-sighted career planning. But 1991 was proving hard going, with the VN Commodore not really turning out to be any faster than the old VL, so Percy was starting to pack his bags and keep one eye on the exit. That meant there would shortly be a full-time, fully-paid race seat opening up with the factory team of one of Australia's premier car-makers. And the name everyone seemed to be connecting with that seat next year was Jim Richards.

The rumour wasn't without foundation. Although blessed with a million-dollar budget that was the envy of teams at the time (hell, adjusted for inflation, a lot of teams today), Gibson Motorsport was not exactly flush with cash. What was enough to build the fastest Sierras on earth was barely adequate to run a pair of Nissan GT-Rs, and there was no guarantee the current dominance would be able to continue next year. Nissan Australia was sinking fast and the cost of the race programme was a tempting shoot for the bean-counters always looking for something to prune. If the budget from Nissan was cut, Gibson would have to revert to just a single car for 1992, and that single driver would probably have to take a pay cut. Mark Skaife, a young and cheap driver who did the bulk of the testing, fulfilled multiple roles in the workshop and ran a road car business on the side to pay for his Formula Holden activities, was a near-perfect fit for such a role. For a driver starting to get into the "retirement planning" phase of his career, however, a salary probably meant more than a fast car. For Jim Richards, the HRT gig was surely a temptation.

The problem for Gibson was, how do you go sponsor-shopping when you've just lost your star driver? A bit hard to promise them the world and convince them to put up the big bucks when it's all going to be riding on a driver not much better than a rookie, with only a single win to his name. The way you squared that circle, I think, was to make that rookie the 1991 Australian Touring Car Champion. Sure Richo, you go to Holden if you want to, mate, but leave the #1 decal at the door on the way out. That'll be on Skaifey's ride for 1992, thankyou very much.

So it was that when the Gibson team unloaded their cars for the weekend, the faster of them – almost certainly GMS GT-R 3, which had been Richo's ride all year – suddenly had Skaife's name under the wing mirror. Richards had been palmed off with the older and slower GMS GT-R 2. Officially, this was for testing and setup purposes ahead of Bathurst, but that only makes a marginal kind of sense – any kind of experimental part was going to be on Mark's car first, because he was the superior test driver (as Jim readily admitted) and was not the team's championship contender. Maybe they wanted Mark to race their prime car on the new Yokohamas to gauge their effectiveness, but I really don't see a reason they needed to do that at a race weekend and not, you know, a tyre test. A few like to see this move as Fred putting Richards in his place, but Fred doesn't strike me as that kind of petty – hard-nosed and ruthless in the mold of Frank Williams, maybe, but not petty. No, I'm putting my money down on it being Fred's way of throwing the championship to Skaife, ensuring his team would keep the reigning Australian Touring Car Champion for the difficult negotiation season ahead. After all, with 92 points to Richards' 110, with a maximum of 60 still on offer, Skaife was still eminently capable of taking this championship.

Either way, these shenanigans basically decided the race.

You Know How It Goes, Sing Along...
It was gusty and overcast on race day, with a touch of rain only fifteen minutes before the start. For once though, the cars starting near the back weren't praying for rain – the 4WD Nissans would only have gained even more of a traction advantage in the wet, so there were a few sighs of relief when the track dried out before the starting gun and we were set for only a standard massacre after all.

Would it be redundant at this point to say when the flag dropped, Skaife took off like a slingshot and was never headed again? Well, when the flag dropped Skaife took off like a slingshot and was never headed again. He simply drove off into the distance leaving Seton, Percy and Bowe to crowd three-wide into that first turn – setting up that classic photo I've used as the page image above. By the fifth lap, the GT-Rs were lapping one second quicker than any other car in the field, and by lap 20 the gap from Richards to the pursuing Glenn Seton was the full length of the back straight. By mid-race, Skaife had a yawning 8.7-second gap over Richards, who in turn had another 15.6 seconds in hand over Seton. Once again, the race was over; now we just needed to complete the 50 minutes.

Seton was best of the rest in 3rd, heading up a train of two Commodores (Percy ahead of Brock), then the two Shell Sierras (Bowe ahead of Johnson). The duel between Percy and Seton was intense but not flashy, as Seton would open up a gap any time they hit the straight and he put 410 kW to the ground – only to lose it again when they hit the next braking zone, the Holden Racing Team having held on to their Bathurst-winning carbon metallic brake pads.

Alan Jones had an interesting weekend: he tried to qualify with a light fuel load and ran dry on his hotlap, failing to set a time and thus forcing him to start dead last. Then late in the race he lost a valve spring and his engine started missing at the top end. One wonders why a known diva like Jonesy was putting up with this...

But that was about the only source of entertainment in the piece, as the first half of the race was all very follow-the-leader – were it not for the crowd you could've mistaken the round for a track day, with a handful of drivers just going around and around. It was only in the second half, once tyres started to kill off the pace, Tony Longhurst started to come into his own. Tony admitted to the commentary team after that his biggest problem this weekend was getting sufficient heat into the tyres, which must have broken the hearts of the Holden and Ford teams when they heard it. In an age when the Sierras and Commodores were switching to ever-harder rubber trying to stop them melting too soon, the BMWs were having to fit softer rubber than expected to try and switch theirs on!

Either way, the first victim in his sights was Dick Johnson. Anywhere the road straightened Dick powered away, but as soon as they jumped to the brake pedal Tony was all over him again, worrying him left and right, the little yellow car sniffing for a way through. We never actually got to see the move, sadly – another Channel Seven ad break, no doubt – but by the time they dialled up Skaife for a mid-race talk, he was past both Johnson and Bowe and hunting down Brock for 5th.

Brocky put up some resistance, but not much. Tony simply out-braked him into the Northern Hairpin, running smoothly up the inside and see ya later. Next on the agenda was Win Percy, and it only took a couple of laps as like Peter, Winston didn't fight much: they all knew how the M3 worked by now. Up the inside at the Northern Hairpin again, and Tony was through. Next up, Seton.

Young Glenn had been suffering fading brakes for a few laps now, as evidenced by a late-race lock-up that the cameras barely caught. Nevertheless it was Seton who was Tony's most impressive overtake that day: got a nose up through the right-hander at the end of the Penfolds straight and got alongside, then held it through the following left-hander knowing it would be immediately followed by another right-hander onto the start/finish straight. Seton didn't give ground lightly and the scrap slowed them enough for Percy to close back up again, the three of them engaged in a brief three-way skirmish. But in the end, Tony kept the place. In the latter half of the race, he'd risen from 8th to 3rd purely on merit, with a series of solid passes on hard-nut racers – but there was no way he was going to catch the GT-Rs today. 3rd would have to do.

The following duel between Percy and Seton was almost as good: the Sierra's brakes might've been shot, but there was nothing wrong with the Commodore's. Daringly, Win committed to the outside move into the Northern Hairpin, knowing it would give him the inside through the sweeping left-turning Repco Corner that followed. It was a brave gamble to commit to standing hard on the throttle for that section, knowing his Holden V8 would have to match the turbocharged muscle of the Cozza, but Winston was a wise old head and knew if he could edge Seton onto the marbles the Ford driver would be the one to run out of grip. Sure enough, Winny hung Seton out to dry and, power deficit or not, decisively took the place. He'd been ruthless though, forcing Seton over the kerbs at the apex of the Hairpin to compromise his launch onto the straight, and he also gave Seto a little nose shave at the highest-G part of Repco Corner. Racers gotta race, and in the end they saved the event from being almost terminally dull. As Mark Oastler admitted, this was what Group A was supposed to be about – multiple cars of very different types and makes all battling it out. It was just a shame we hadn't seen more of it this year, and that it was happening so far down the order...

Mallala?

Inevitably, Skaife crossed the finish line and greeted the chequered flag, winning by 16.8 seconds over Richards, who was only 2 seconds ahead of Longhurst by the finish. They'd eked 41 laps out of the alotted 50 minutes, with fastest-lap honours going to Skaife thanks to a 1:09.48. Pole, fastest lap and the win after leading every lap – job done, I'd say. Was it all his own work, though, or a gift from his team boss? You be the judge. He had the faster car and the softer tyres, that much we know for sure...

Neil Crompton in fact stuck his head through the noose and asked Richards whether Skaife had a better car today, but the New Zealander maintained a truly impressive poker face: "No, he just drove better on the day," he said. "I couldn't do anything about it, and I slowly drifted back into Tony's clutches." "I think it's a good birthday present for the car," said a happy but tired-sounding Skaife. Even for these ultra-fit specimens, an hour running flat out could be quite a strain.


His comment raised a good point, however: having debuted at this race in 1990, the Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R was now a year old. As the car blew out its first candle, it wasn't a bad idea to consider that in 1990 it had emerged from its first qualy session in 3rd place with a time of 1:10.89; a year later, it was pole with a 1:08.98. Who says there’s no such thing as progress? But it was clear, with that kind of development rate, the sport would have to do something radical to rebalance the scales, and soon.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Back to Business: Lakeside, Winton & Amaroo

Normal service resumed when the scene returned to the Australian Touring Car Championship proper. Rounds 4 and 5 at Lakeside and Winton respectively fell to Jim Richards and his Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R – but famously, not Round 6 at Amaroo Park.


One thing I haven't really done this year is discuss chassis numbers, detail exactly which cars each driver was sitting in for each race they entered. I apologise. To remedy that, ahead of this entry I set myself the challenge of getting chassis numbers for every single car in these middle three ATCC races and... to be honest, I failed. There are still a handful of privateer Commodores and especially Corollas in the tiddler class that never seem to get identified, falling through the gap where, "Really Obscure Car" fails to overlap with, "Punters who Care Enough to Find Out". There's only so much I can do given a subscription to V8 Sleuth costs omigod $440 a year, a price that tells me it's aimed at the socially-secure older gentlemen who own and race the actual cars rather than bloggers who needed a cheap hobby back in the GFC. As a Millennial, most of my money is of course tied up in massive stockpiles of avocado toast, so as tantalising as a day in the Sleuth's vaults would be it looks like I'll be locked out for a while yet.

That said, chassis numbers for most of the big-name drivers are fairly well established at this point, so here's the list so far:

  • Cars #1 and #2, the GT-Rs of Richards and Skaife, chassis GMS GT-R 3 and GMS GT-R 2, respectively. GT-R 1 was written off after that crash in Adelaide, so GT-R 3 was built to replace it while GT-R 2 did the spadework of that epic off-season test programme. So I'm guessing that GMS GT-R 2 would've been Skaife's car and GT-R 3 was Richo's, because why wouldn't you give your newer, better car to your championship contender?
  • Car #3, the Dulux-sponsored VN Commodore of the Lansvale Smash Repairs team, was probably chassis LRT1.
  • Car #05, Peter Brock's Mobil Commodore, was of course Perkins Engineering chassis PE 012.
  • Car #6, Tim Grant's Sizzler Skyline. Haven't nailed a proper chassis number for it yet, but the commentary from Bathurst 1990 led us to believe it had been Mark Skaife's '89 car.
  • Car #8, Colin Bond's trusty Caltex Sierra, chassis CXT1. Debuted back at the Oran Park enduro in 1988, raced by Bondy more or less ever since.
  • Car #11, the other Mobil Commodore of Larry Perkins, built by the man himself as chassis PE 013.
  • Car #13, Bob Holden's long-suffering Toyota Corolla. Would actually end up with more Bathurst starts than any car in history, but no actual chassis number that I know of.
  • Car #14, Warren Jonsson's VL Walkinshaw. Was actually chassis TWR 022, the purple Herbie Clips car driven by Tom himself over in Europe in 1988. It had been sent back to Australia for that planned '89 ATCC that never happened, and since been Perkins-ised and used by the Holden Racing Team before being sold off to the privateers. Today, that was Jonsson.
  • Car #16, Win Percy's VN Commodore, chassis HRT 026. Built new for 1991.
  • Car #17, Dick Johnson's Shell Sierra. Chassis DJR5, originally built for the 1989 endurance season and used by Dick to take his final ATCC wins (at Symmons Plains and Phillip Island 1990). It was also the car Radisich & Allam had driven to 2nd place at Bathurst 1990.
  • Car #18, John Bowe's other Shell Sierra. Chassis DJR6, the final Dick Johnson Sierra, built for the 1990 enduros. This was the car that failed at Bathurst that year, and then exploded so close to the finish at the Eastern Creek 500.
  • Car #20, Alan Jones' BMW M3 Sport Evo. Forum-searching reveals this car was originally built by someone called Matter for the works Schnitzer BMW team for the 1990 DTM season. I haven't been able to find anything definite, but it feels like "Matter" was the equivalent of Dencar for Commodore teams, an outsource for caged bodyshells utilised by several teams. As such, both Longhurst Racing machines have rather confusing chassis numbers, with Jones' recorded as M3 1-166 3/90. Unfortunately the information doesn't get more specific than that: I'd love to know who drove it in which races of the 1990 DTM, but further Googling had so far revealed nothing. As with Japan, the information is probably out there but not recorded in English, and the sheer number of cars built by Schnitzer would make it a tough slog. Which sucks for me, because I want to know and mein Deutsche ist Scheisse.
  • Car #21, Mark Gibbs' GIO Commodore. Chassis RF04, also known as Dencar 01. Built new for 1991, and due to have a very short career.
  • Car #25, Tony Longhurst's Benson & Hedges M3 Evo. Chassis M3 1-161 3/90 (see above). We do apparently know this was the car that won the 1990 Wellington 500, but that's based on the TV commentator mentioning it when (spoiler alert) Tony crashed it during the '91 event. Again, I'd love to know who drove it in the DTM, but nothing concrete seems to be out there.
  • Car #27, Terry Finnigan's Foodtown Commodore. Listed on V8 Sleuth by a VIN rather than a chassis number, AVN914652, suggesting it started as a road car rather than as a Holden Motorsport shell. Would still be around into the upcoming 5.0-litre era, but more than that unknown.
  • Car #28, Kevin Waldock's Playscape Sierra. Chassis MM6, the customer Sierra built by Andrew Miedecke for Waldock back in 1989.
  • Car #30, Glenn Seton's Peter Jackson Sierra. Chassis numbers are a bit cloudy here, as both GSR1 and GSR2 were built for the start of the 1989 season; one of them was crashed and badly damaged at Lakeside, but then later in the year the team were back to two cars. So, was the crashed car rebuilt, or was it scrapped and a new one built? I don't know, and the recent Seton book is likewise beyond my pocket for now. So we'll toss the coin and guess it's GSR2.
  • Car #33, Bob Pearson's Pro-Duct Commodore. As mentioned in the last entry, chassis PE 011.
  • Car #43, Brian Bolwell's Sierra. Chassis TLR5, the last Tony Longhurst Sierra built for Bathurst 1990, the one with a yellow cage that set a new lap record in practice.
  • Car #44, Mike Twigden's Sierra. As Bolwell's teammate, also an ex-Longhurst car, either TLR3 or 4 (the usual confusion applies here, as these Wolf-built cars from Germany are almost indistinguishable).
  • Car #48, Peter Verheyen's Toyota Corolla. Nothing known, though a rummage through my photo collection made me realise I had a good shot of it coming over Bitupave Hill at Amaroo (still with Eastern Creek co-driver John Vernon's name on the window), so I made it my page image above. The little guys deserve more exposure.
  • Car #52, Peter Doulman's BMW M3 vanilla. Probably the second of the three JPS cars built in 1987, as the first one (which started as a 325i with the build interrupted halfway through) probably wouldn't have been worth much to customers. Would've had much in common with...
  • Car #53, John Cotter's BMW M3. The third and last of the JPS team's hardware from 1987, which is easier to identify because of its unique radio antenna layout. Both non-Evo M3s were now being run by M3 Motorsports, an outfit established by Cotter and Doulman to run their ex-JPS BMWs. As such, they were prepared at Doulman Automotive in Auburn, Sydney, and together they'd won their class at Bathurst in 1989.

At the very bottom of the list we have cars #74 and #76, 1.6-litre Corollas entered by Bob Holden Motors so Bob could blood his Bathurst co-drivers (Frank Binding and Mike Conway, since you're wondering). I wouldn't be surprised if they were ex-factory cars from Toyota Team Australia, but I don't know that for a fact. And as for Kevin Heffernan's PACE Racing VL Commodore, I couldn't find anything at all – not a chassis number, not a racing number, not even a good period photo so I'd know whether it was a VL SS or a Walky. Kev, mate, if you're reading this, get in touch.

Round 4 – Lakeside, 28 April
Now that we've scared off of the lightweights, let's get into some actual racing.

At Lakeside (unusually, the first of two rounds to be held at Lakeside this year), Gentleman Jim was very nearly as dominant as any mortal driver could be. Thanks to a brilliant 53.43-second qualifying lap he had the luxury of starting from pole, giving him an open track to make the most of the GT-R's awesome starting capability. From there he inevitably won the race, eking 54 laps out of the allotted 50 minutes and leading every single one of them. The only scratch on this perfect performance was that fastest-lap honours went to his teammate Mark Skaife, who posted a 53.78 at some point during proceedings. Skaife had qualified only 3rd but sprang off the line to make it an immediate Nissan 1-2, which was naturally how they finished.

From there was a yawning 9-second gap to Tony Longhurst in the M3 Sport Evo, while the other local boy and crowd favourite, Dick Johnson, had made a brilliant start of his own to rise from 12th to 6th by the end of the first lap. Having virtually rebuilt the car overnight, with new suspension and a new engine, such a turn of speed was heartening for the de facto Queensland national team, but it all came to nought in the end. To make the distance Johnson had to pit for new tyres, and rejoined almost clouting the Nissans as they roared past the pit exit – meaning he'd gone a whole lap down in only half a race. He finished only 9th, while John Bowe, after a spirited early battle with Longhurst, could only manage 10th.

Of the lesser runners? Glenn Seton took a hit from Win Percy in the Karussell on lap 1 and slid off into the dust, rejoining having lost some places; the right half of his rear bumper hung loose for the rest of the race. For his part, Percy was eventually pressured into a mistake by Longhurst, the Dorset farmer's son locking a brake on the entry to Hungry Corner (so named because it was waiting to swallow you if you got too hungry with the brake pedal). Percy had to abandon the corner to pull up the HRT Commodore, letting Tony skittle through – though only just. He too was pushing like crazy.

In the end though, there was no covering up that this was another overwhelming victory for the R32 Skyline: Richards and Skaife lapped the whole field up to 5th. That doesn't mean Skaife was acting as Richo's tail-gunner, however: "Mark's a hard guy to have behind you, I can tell you!" was the old master's wry comment on the podium, and, a proven winner these days, Skaife half-jokingly agreed: "We tortured each other for the whole distance."

Round 5 – Winton, 5 May
Winton likewise went Richo's way, again after starting from pole. What was his secret? "It's simple," he explained. "You just go as fast as you can without slipping off the track." Skaife would've done well to listen to him, as he ran out of road and landed in the dirt several times in an attempt to go faster. He ended up only 5th on the grid, a fact that would be key to his race the next day.

At the start, finding himself boxed in behind Win Percy, Skaife elected to expand his definition of the track to include the grass between the tarmac and the pit wall, taking the 4WD Nissan four-wheel-driving in an attempt to leapfrog the Commodore. When the flag waved, Skaife turned hard right and roared around the HRT Commodore as it bogged down with wheelspin, out-dragging the Holden V8 even with his Yokohamas biting on slippery grass rather than nice grippy tarmac! He made the pass and rejoined 3rd behind Glenn Seton, but in scrambling back onto the track he supposedly gave Win Percy a tap. So whether it was for that, or just for leaving the circuit and gaining an advantage, he was eventually given a stop-and-go penalty – one not handed down until after he'd fought a hard but clean battle to get past Glenn Seton for 2nd. With a third of the race gone, Skaifey's work was utterly undone and he was forced to start all over again.

Fred Gibson wasn't happy of course, firing off the usual team boss lines about how the infraction wasn't that bad ("It was only two wheels off the track..."; no, Freddo, it was four), the stewards were being overly-cautious (they weren't), and anyway, wasn't it a bit late to enact a penalty? On that one he kind of had a point – while it was true that race control had waited twelve minutes to announce their decision, which makes one wonder what the hell they could've been arguing about, there wasn't exactly a statute of limitations for this stuff... and the argument was predicated on the wrongdoing being immediately obvious, which rather undermined his other points!

Regardless, Skaife got his elbows out and worked his way back up through the field, and when the chequered flag came out after 47 laps he was back where he belonged – in 2nd place, behind his team leader. This time he had to share fastest-lap honours with Richards, however, who’d clocked an identical 1:01.86 laptime.

With the season half over, the stats were incredible: out of five rounds, Gibson Motorsport had taken a perfect five victories, all of them slam-dunk 1-2s. I'll say that again: in five attempts, their cars had finished 1st and 2nd five times. On four occasions they’d also started from pole and taken the fastest lap (with only the Dick Johnson team’s efforts at Wanneroo preventing a complete whitewash on that front as well). With 95 and 80 points respectively, it was clear either Richards or Skaife would be crowned champion within the next couple of races; best-of-the-rest Tony Longhurst was struggling with just 46.

It would be wrong to say this was getting monotonous, however; this had started monotonous, and now it was just getting silly. The GT-R was simply too great a leap forward for anyone to entertain hopes of beating it, and it was beginning to look like it would take nothing less than a miracle for another car to win.

The miracle occurred.

Round 6 – Amaroo, 2 June
From the beginning, the sixth round of the championship at Sydney's Amaroo Park was against the run of play. For the first time all year, no GT-R was starting from the front row: the Dick Johnson cars had both qualified on experimental new Dunlop tyres (and indeed, the head of development from Dunlop in Japan had flown in to watch), resulting in a front-row lockout for the Shell Sierras. Dick himself had earned himself P2 with a time of 51.02 seconds, while Bowe had creased the tarmac on the way to pole with a time of 50.58.

The ongoing tyre war had also thrown the Perkins team a bone, as Bridgestone coughed up a new compound for Larry and their golden boy Peter Brock. Brock's 5th place on the grid with a lap of 50.38 told the whole story – it was an identical time to the one set by Alan Jones in the M3, a heroic effort given the Commodore's obesity and primitive suspension. Unfortunately, like Bridgestones since time immemorial, they would prove great over a single lap but fade quickly, a toxic combination in the current ATCC.


So where were the GT-Rs? Skaife had managed to pull out a 51.06 to qualify 3rd for the race, a disappointment that traced to fitting a set of super-hard Yokohamas in an attempt to balance the car – the 4WD Nissan's tendency to understeer into corners and oversteer out again was going to make for a long day at Amaroo. By contrast, Richards had punched a hole in his engine block when a conrod bolt failed, leaving him without a qualifying time and forcing him to start from last place on the grid. The imperturbable one remained unperturbed, however, no doubt remembering that he’d also started dead last for this race in 1987, and still gone on to win: "It will be fun," he said. The catch was, in '87 he'd been driving a BMW...

At the start, both DJR Sierras got away to good starts running side-by-side – which is how they stayed, appropriately, until Dunlop corner. Happily, the wall of Shell cars prevented Skaife from getting an early break, with John Bowe acting as tail-gunner and keeping Skaife behind him for a good four laps while Johnson pulled out a handy 2-second lead. It was a doomed effort, of course, and everyone knew it – Skaife inevitably used his superior traction to nip past Bowe coming out of Stop corner – but the DJR boys had at least kept Skaife from making a gap off the line and then driving to the flag at his leisure. Now, it would be a tyre war to the finish. Game on.

Richards, on the other hand, had passed eight cars on the opening lap to rise from 22nd to 14th place in just 1.94km, quite an effort on such a narrow track, even if it was mainly against Corollas and privateer Commodores! By lap 6 Richards was up to 8th place and carving through the field fast, while Johnson's advantage over Skaife had been shaved back to just one second. Two laps later Skaife was right on his bumper, and on lap 10, going over the top of Bitupave Hill, Skaife was finally able to out-drag Johnson and assume the lead. Those trick new Dunlops simply hadn't lasted.

Crucially, however, following Skaife through on that move was Tony Longhurst in his BMW M3 Sport Evo, rear wing set resolutely to Nürburgring and setting blistering lap after blistering lap. Longhurst gnawed on Skaife like a dog on a bone for the next eighteen laps, forcing him to keep the pace up as the Nissan’s tyres got sicker and sicker, its handling more and more wayward. Eventually, on lap 28, Skaife's shortage of grip saw him run gently wide through Dunlop Corner and, his BMW still running like it was on rails, Longhurst didn't hesitate for a second: Tony was through and gone, the B&H team leading their second AMSCAR race in a row and, significantly, their first ATCC race for the year.

Richards meanwhile criss-crossed Brock out of the Hairpin to move up another place, then moved on to Seton, and then Bowe whose tyres had also expired. Taking the hint, Johnson pitted for fresh rubber, thus removing himself from the equation altogether. His tyres likewise completely shot, Skaife had a huge powerslide late in the race, and that was enough for Richards to pounce, promoting the man who'd started dead last to 2nd place. With five minutes remaining Richo set off to catch the leading BMW, and got within 1.6 seconds... but then the chequered flag flew, and Longhurst greeted it first, becoming the first car other than a GT-R to win a round of the 1991 ATCC.

It was a shock result, and one that proved what the Gibson team had been saying all along – the GT-R was not invincible and, an aspect of the programme that doesn't get much mention, a lot of their success was down to just doing a very good job. In particular, Richards' mastery in keeping some meat on his tyres for the whole race was thrown into sharp relief by Skaife's inability to do the same, and the canny old Kiwi was still the one they feared when he had a good car under him. As Tony later confessed: "The last ten laps went on forever and when I realised it was Jim and not Mark in my mirrors, I shit myself!"