Rain and thunderstorms greeted the V8 Supercars at Phillip Island this weekend for the second round of the Championship. Regarded as one of the most picturesque circuits in the world, Fridays practice session looked anything but, after strong winds from the southern ocean and heavy downpours battered the Grand Prix circuit.
Kiwi and K-Mart Racing driver Greg Murphy posted the fastest time of the session in his Holden Commodore with a 1.49:09, some 15 seconds off the expected pace. He later indicated that he was pleased with the set up of his vehicle, considering both team cars had undergone major rebuilds following the Adelaide race.
Marcos Ambrose in the Pirtek Ford was a further 2 seconds behind and one of six Fords in the top ten, which has been a rare sight in previous years. Stone Brothers Racing, who also run the sister car driven by Russell Ingall didn't fare so well after he posted 25th place. Brazilian Max Wilson in the second of the Shell Helix Racing Fords grabbed 3rd after only 9 laps and was pleased with his effort, and so was owner Dick Johnson who looked very nervous throughout the session.
Ford Performance Racing's Glenn Seton and Craig Lowndes finished 4th and 7th respectively and attributed their performance to testing at the island last week where they clocked 900 kilometres. Brothers Rick and Todd Kelly clocked 5th and 6th fastest for their K-Mart Racing and Holden Racing teams. Jason Bargwanna, also one of Ford's new converts, put the Orrcon Racing Ford into 8th followed by Paul Dumbrell in the Castrol Perkins Commodore with Greg Ritter in the 00 Motorsport Ford rounding out the top ten.
Notice absentee and series leader Mark Skaife could only manage 14th in his Holden Racing Team Commodore but this changed on Saturday morning when he produced the fastest laps in both sessions, clocking 1.34:20. Admittedly, the sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky over the Southern Gippslands of Victoria.
The first session was stopped for approximately 10 minutes after Paul Morris in his new Sirromet Life Style Wine Commodore came to grief at turn 2 and buried himself in the dirt. As they re-commenced, Skaife's team mate Todd Kelly grabbed 2nd while Russell Ingall in the Caltex Havoline Ford took 3rd. Ingall was not as fortunate in the second session when he braked late going into Doohan Corner and left the track, sliding for approximately 200 metres before hitting the embankment and causing considerable damage to his car, forcing the crew to work all night to get it back out for the race on Sunday.
The second session again saw Skaife dominate, with Garth Tander in the Garry Rogers Motorsport Valvoline Commodore grabbing 2nd from John Bowe in the second of the OzEmail Fords, with Todd Kelly dropping to 4th and Marcos Ambrose rounding out 5th spot.
Qualifying that afternoon again saw Skaife lead the charge with Craig Lowndes, and Paul Weel in the Team Brock Commodore the biggest improvers, moving into the top ten for Sunday's 'shoot out'. As expected, this was dominated by Skaife, and he and Kelly put the two HRT cars on the front row of the grid ahead of the Ford of Ambrose with Bright, Murphy, Lowndes, Bowe, Steven Richards, Weel and Tander.
This year sees a 300 kilometre race instead of the usual two 150 kilometre sprints. Phillip Island is tough on teams and tough on tyres, and is considered one of the fastest and most dangerous circuits encountered throughout the championship. Jason Bargwanna can attest to that after his spectacular accident at the start of last years race. Fellow Ford drivers John Bowe and Glenn Seton also know only too well what can happen when you don't give the track the respect it deserves. Sixty seven laps and two compulsory stops for tyres and fuel will be a nightmare for teams managers particularly if the meteorologists are right.
As the drivers moved onto the grid for the start of the race, spectators around the track were reaching for umbrellas after several drops of rain. At the same time pit crews were reaching for 'wets' and their laptops to monitor the weather. No doubt many wondering which race strategy they were going to adopt.
Once the lights changed to green the drivers were focussed on one thing and that was to get to the first corner in one piece. As they screamed off the line Skaife lead with Jason Bright making the most of his run down the outside from the second row of the grid to grab 2nd spot after passing Kelly and Ambrose. The rest of the field maintained their positions with Russell Ingall moving up eight spots after having started from the rear of the grid. The first casualty was David Besnard in the third Ford Performance Racing Ford, who appeared to be suffering from a clutch problem and entered the pits.
With only three laps down, Skaife managed to stretch his lead to almost 3 seconds and again Ingall charged ahead, taking Jason Richards in the Team Dynamik Commodore and Greg Ritter in the 00 Ford Motorsport in a spectacular inside move at Honda Corner.
Cameron McConville in the Lansvale Racing Team Commodore also took some chances and moved up three spots while Lowndes slotted into 5th. Ingall kept moving through the field and by lap 9 Weel was first in for his compulsory tyre stop after cutting the right rear. Wilson and Morris continued their woes after both spun at Honda Corner, and Wilson soon pitted for fuel with Bright, McConville, Ambrose and Murphy. Paul Radisich in the Team Betta Electrical Ford, Forbes, Rick Kelly, Ingall and Steven Johnson in the Shell Helix Racing Ford decided to come in, with leader Skaife getting in and rejoining in 7th. This left Todd Kelly in the lead with Lowndes, Tander, Steven Richards in the Castrol Perkins Commodore and the OzEmail pair of Bowe and Brad Jones.
At the half way point, Skaife and Murphy tangled at Lukey Heights, one of the dangerous parts of the circuit, however, this didn't bother the series leader. With Todd Kelly pitting, Lowndes lead the field for two laps before he too decided to come in for tyres with Ambrose. Mark Noske in the ICS Team Ford ran wide at Siberia into the kitty litter and collected the tyre wall which had claimed a number of Formula Ford and MG drivers during the earlier preliminary races leaving Morris in the lead, although he was yet to pit.
Ingall continued to prove he was still 'The Enforcer' and managed to move into 6th behind Bright, Lowndes, Skaife and Steven Richards, and ahead of Tander, Murphy, Bowe and Jones. With 20 laps to go, teams were looking to the skies which were starting to open up. Lowndes was the first to take on 'wets', with the Bright, Steven Richards, Ambrose and Skaife deciding to remain on 'slicks'. After exiting the pits, Skaife was given the bad news, he had been pinged for speeding in pit lane despite the defence by team manager Jeff Grech who alleged that one of the two radar cameras were faulty. Murphy copped the wrath of the officials in Adelaide weeks before and teams were warned that the pit lane speed would be monitored with vigilance. This infringement cost the champion any opportunity of a podium finish and as he had to return for a 'stop/go' penalty, losing valuable time.
Ambrose was forced to do another lap and this too was costly when he lost it at Lukey Heights and ended in the dirt, although to the amazement of the spectators he managed to drive out. Wilson, also on 'slicks', had a big lose but returned to the track. Dumbrell beached himself which forced the safety car onto the course. The writing was on the wall. The rain was not going way.
After a hand full of laps the officials deemed the track too dangerous and brought out the red flag. Ford fans were again cheering as Lowndes won his first race for the 'Blue Oval'. He also celebrated his 50th race win, his last being at the Queensland 500 in 2000 in a Holden. As Lowndes returned to the pits, wife Natalie, boss David Flint and the team were celebrating. In only their second race since establishing this new three car team they have put runs on the board, with Lowndes' victory and Seton finishing in the top ten. Despite winning, Lowndes moves into 10th place in the Championship, with Bright taking the lead ahead of Skaife.