The Australian touring cars (5 litre V8s) have completed their first full-scale run outside Australia, being the feature class at the Mobil series in New Zealand with rounds at the Pukekohe race track and the Wellington street circuit. The Aussies sent a package of 12 top-level cars, all their top drivers with the exception of new champion Craig Lowndes and former champion Mark Skaie, plus two NZ drivers, Paul Radisich and Greg Murphy.
The series won by 24-year-old Murphy, who had shared victory with his friend Lowndes at the Bathurst and Sandown endurance races in the Holden Racing Team's Commodore.
In his first experience of sprint racing the V8s, Murphy won all three races at Pukekohe and then at Wellington scored a sixth, third and first. John Bowe won overall at Wellington with two wins and a fourth in the final race after his tyres went off.
The Wellington waterfront circuit is picturesque but very tight and very difficult to pass on. Bowe won pole -- by just two-thousandths of a second from Radisich -- and was set up for the day. He won the first two races easily in his Dick Johnson Ford Falcon, with Larry Perkins second in race one in his Holden Commodore holding everyone else up and Neil Crompton doing the same in race two with his Wayne Gardner Commodore. Radisich sufferd a slipping clutch at the start of race and lost two positions off the line, finishing fourth.
The HRT Commodore on Bridgestone tyres was the best combination, as it has been all season, and once Murphy realised that he could take a tighter line round the very narrow hairpin than anyone else he was ready to start passing people. Murphy had crashed in an early testing session and lost setup time while the car was repaired, which explains his ssixth-place in qualifying (although it was all very close, with the top 11 qualifying within 0.8s of one another).
So Murphy won the final race, with Radisich second in an Alan Jones Falcon -- the big crowd (30,000-plus) certainly enjoyed seeing the two Kiwis beat all the Aussie big names (Peter Brock, Dick Johnson, Alan Jones, Glenn Seton, Wayne Gardner ...)
Murphy is generally expected to get the second HRT drive next year while Lowndes is racing in Europe, although what Murphy really wants to do is Indy Lights in the US -- he's a single-seater driver at heart.
Radisich proved what a fine driver he is, in spite of his miserable year with the slow Mondeo in the UK. The Falcon has twice the horsepower of the BTCC cars and drives at the opposite end; Radisich had not driven the V8s for two years and had no testing prior to the series, but qualified third at Pukekohe and second at Wellington. He said he really enjoyed the cars -- "absolutely fun to drive" -- and appeared relaxed and cheerful, although he seemed to spending a lot of the NZ nights finalising negotiations with Ford UK. He has just signed for another year there with the new Reynard-built Mondeo, with Will Hoy in the second car.
The Aussie V8s were a huge success in NZ, drawing much bigger crowds than earlier series, and will be back again next year.
Four wheels good, two wheels better
Bernard Carpinter, Publications and Media Services, Victoria University of Wellington. Telephone 472-1000 ext 8612. E-mail Bernard.Carpinter@vuw.ac.nz