FORD XR8 SPRINT v HOLDEN SS-V REDLINE
ES, there’s no doubt about it. We are going to spin.
My brain accepts reality as I stare out through the Falcon XR8 Sprint’s windscreen at the grassy infield at Eastern Creek raceway. Now I’m looking back at Turn Two. That’s where we’ve just come from. And now it’s Turn Three visible through a cloud of tyre smoke.
In the driver’s seat, former touring car champion Russell Ingall is variously swearing, laughing, shaking his head, sawing at the steering wheel and snatching at the auto shifter.
Incongruously, somewhere in the background I can hear a warning chime going off. Ding, ding, ding, ding. Which of many automotive crimes currently being committed is it identifying, I wonder.
“Holy hell, dude, what have you done to me?” Ingall shouts over the whine of the supercharger and shredding Pirelli P Zero tyres as we blast forward again, this time in approximately the right direction. I should ask him the same question.
This isn’t my fault. If Ingall hadn’t spun Mark Skaife and his Holden Commodore into a concrete wall at the 2003 V8 Supercars title-decider at this same track... if the Holden Racing Team star hadn’t then stood by the track swearing and shaking his fist at Ingall the next time
he came by... if Ingall hadn’t then swerved his Ford Falcon at Skaife… then we wouldn’t be here.
Oh yes, and if Ford and Holden hadn’t decided to end Australian manufacturing and kill off the V8 Falcon and Commodore production cars that inspired the category that made Skaife and Ingall household names, then we wouldn’t be here paying homage to them and what’s since become known as ‘The Shriek at the Creek’.
But we are here. Ingall is torturing this poor Falcon, I’m sitting in the passenger seat, and Skaife is back in pitlane with the Commodore SS-V Redline in which he’s just set a time for his old foe to beat.
This is the final battle between two great rivals who have waged a war for supremacy over decades. And we’re talking about the Commodore and the Falcon, folks, much more so than Skaife and Ingall. They’ll be racing wheelchairs when they’re in the old drivers’ home. No, the sad truth is, when Ford’s assembly line shudders to a halt in October, that will be the end of Falcon.
Commodore has a stay of execution for barely 12 months longer. So, one last time, it’s a battle for bragging rights between the two greatest cars ever built in Australia.
Picking a winner is going to be hard if media reviews are anything to go by. They have been strong for both cars.
But no journos have driven them like this. And that’s precisely why Wheels has wheedled, coaxed, nagged and cajoled Skaife and Ingall to be here at 7am on a cold winter morning for this shoot-out.
This is the place where their feud boiled over 13 years ago, where hostility turned to hatred. Now, thrown together by Fox Sports to commentate on Supercars, their relationship is better, but they are still fierce rivals. So it’s time for them to fight it out once more on the track.
Skaife, naturally, would set the Holden’s time, Ingall the Ford’s. Both have six-speed autos. Tyre pressures and fuel loads are set.
Each driver has four laps, electronically timed. Our only concern is fresher Bridgestone Potenzas on the Commodore than the Falcon’s worn Pirellis.
Skaife is first to go in the SS-V. He hasn’t driven a V8 Commodore for four years, hasn’t even had a proper ‘speed’ at a race track for ages. But you wouldn’t know it.
He hammers the Brembos to bring them up to temp on the warm-up lap and asks me to turn off the air-con. Every tenth counts.
For me, this is three-dimensional Racecam. Skaife is a foot away. Inside that familiar red, blue and yellow helmet I see those piercing eyes and that sizeable hooter. He muscles the wheel, elbows out, all aggression and speed. The car slips and slides but he sweeps it up and flows forward. The beat of the LS3 V8 mingles with the squeal of the tyres and the disconcerting bbbbrrrraappp as we shortcut across the jagged kerbs.
Skaife is unquestionably committed.
Despite ending up in hospital here in 1995 after a pre-season crash and the sour memories of that 2003 fracas, Eastern Creek’s high-speed flow has him hooked like a junkie. “Other than Phillip Island and Bathurst, I think it’s my favourite track. It’s just superb how fast it is. It is a really cool racetrack.”
The 2003 V8 Supercars championship season ended amid much controversy with the now famous clash between Skaife and Ingall.
It started on lap 42 when Skaife overtook Ingall, pushing him wide. Ingall responded by tapping Skaife’s Commodore which then spun off into a wall.
On Ingall’s next lap Skaife, now out of his Commodore, shook his fist at the Ford driver, who responded by swerving towards his angry Holden rival.
Both were fined heavily for their actions, and banned for three races. It would be 10 years before the two would talk again.
Back in pitlane, Skaife is energised, bounding from conversation to conversation and topic to topic. He is interested in every step of every process that is going on today. He’d launched from the limo when he’d arrived, shaking hands in that short-arm jab manner of his that always leaves you wondering if he’s saying hello or about to deliver a shirt-front.
Either is possible. He’s organised and organising as always. He’s in good form, in a good space.
Ingall is also upbeat. He’s the happy, knockabout bloke he’s always been at his best. Getting out of the shitboxes he raced at the tail-end of his career has done him the world of good. Nowadays, he drives in the enduros for good teams. This year he will share a Nissan Altima with Rick Kelly.
There’s a real chance of a Bathurst podium.
Skaife calls Ingall ‘Boof’ and rags him constantly; it’s almost manic how hard he works him. Ingall gives him plenty back, but you can see even he finds Skaife’s relentlessness tiring. Every now and then he just runs out of patience and rejoinders.
“Fuck off, Skaife!”
Skaife just giggles. “Come on, Boof, don’t be like that.”
As Ingall prepares to go for his run, Skaife is at the window, still working him over. “You can get in here without braking,” he says waving at Turn One.
Then Ingall forgets to release the park brake. He laughs at himself before Skaife has a chance to.
“Good luck, brother. Good luck. Good luck, mate.” Skaife is still going. Christ, I wish he’d shut up, and I’m not even driving.
Ingall gives it a bootfull as he exits pitlane to check that the traction control is off. The Falcon wheelspins violently sideways. “Yep, it’s off,” he laughs.
The spin comes only seconds later, literally the first time he applies power with any lateral force working on the car. The rear end skates around like he’s driving on ball bearings.
He never again gyrates (to use one of Skaife’s favourite terms) but does spend a lot of his two flying laps sideways on the track or running off it, including at the exit of the scrotum-tighteningly fast Turn One at more than 150km/h. And he doesn’t lift.
Russell is now 52 but he still has the same unbelievable commitment that marked his racing, be it in Australia or overseas.
“There’s oversteer on the way in, oversteer in the middle and oversteer on the way out!” Ingall yells through his helmet. By now the Falcon’s limits have long been exceeded, but he is determined to press on.
Clearly, his skills are much higher than the car’s. He catches slides time and again, clatters over kerbs, hammers the brakes, jiggles the gears. It won’t turn in and it won’t stay straight on exit. It’s like a pendulum swinging around its axis.
“That is the most oversteering car other than a Sprintcar I have ever driven… Holy Jesus!” he gasps as we retreat to pitlane.
“I spent more time on the grass than the road.” By now he’s laughing.
But there was no revelry back in 2003.
Then, these guys were the best of enemies.
Ingall was big news. ‘The Enforcer’, so named for his ruthless driving style, had been required to wait until 12.01am on New Year’s Day to officially confirm he had left the employ of Holden legend Larry Perkins, with whom he’d won the 1995 and 1997 Bathurst 1000s, to drive the new Ford BA Falcon for leading Blue Oval team Stone Brothers Racing, alongside emerging young Tasmanian Marcos Ambrose. The move would pay off with the 2005 V8 Supercars championship.
Skaife started 2003 as the category’s most powerful, influential and successful driver. He had won three consecutive championships, and the Bathurst 1000 in 2001 and 2002. He had just signed a new five-year deal with the category’s preeminent team and was the face of Holden in advertising.
But then HRT owner Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR group was dragged down by its Arrows F1 debts and the team faced closure. Because manufacturers could not
directly own race teams in the category, Skaife found himself owner/driver of the top team. It was the wrong decision for both him and HRT. He never won another championship and nor has HRT. By the end of 2008 Walkinshaw had regained ownership and Skaife had retired from full-time racing.
Skaife couldn’t have seen that coming when he arrived at Eastern Creek for the series final in 2003. He had put in some brilliant drives during the year to still be in the fight with Ambrose for the title. The tension was high, exacerbated by the feisty Ingall, with whom Skaife seemed to have an endless verbal duel.
“All that stuff you do is actually a sign of respect,” Ingall says on reflection. “If I thought he was a flog I would never bring his name up in a press release. It’s all about racing hard, and gamesmanship off the track as well as on.”
It all came to a head on lap 42 of the Sunday race. Storms were gathered and lightning flashed, but it could not match the fireworks erupting on track.
Ambrose had disappeared up the road headed for the championship. Skaife, on fresher tyres, caught Ingall, then arrowed into the Falcon and pushed it wide enough for him to inch ahead. But Ingall, The Enforcer remember, wasn’t happy about that and moved inboard. They made contact and the Commodore pivoted across the Ford’s nose and smacked the wall.
Skaife clambered out of the smashed Commodore, beetroot-red from stress and exertion. He waited for Ingall to come around again. He shook his fist and yelled, Ingall swerved, and the rest was headlines.
“I didn’t mean to trowel him into the fence,” Ingall reflects. “But I thought, ‘If you give me a bump I am going to give you a fucking decent one back’. But it went a bit further than what it was supposed to.”
And the swerve? He grimaces.
“Oh, there has been so much written about that, that I was trying to run him over and all this sort of thing, and I think that is what caused the most controversy of the whole lot. But to be honest what it came down to was I saw him waving his fist and it was just me driving over and giving him the bird. Not too many people know that. I just wanted to go over there and make sure he saw me doing it.”
Skaife says he never saw the extended finger, but he certainly saw red.
“Lucky I didn’t. I would have jumped on the bonnet. I wanted to smash him so hard.
I tried to get in the truck. The whole thing.
When I walked into the SBR garage I was just off my brain, absolutely fucking off my brain.”
Ingall: “I was gone... I didn’t leave, but I made myself scarce.”
And then they both laugh. Incredible.
For what it’s worth, both were slammed when they went up before the beak. Ingall was penalised 70 championship points, Skaife 30; Ingall was fined $15,000 for swerving, Skaife $10,000 for staying on track to remonstrate; both were banned for three rounds, suspended for 12 months “to be of good behaviour”. A bit late for that. It was already world news.
It took them 10 years to talk and start to settle their differences. Even then, it happened by accident, when they bumped into each other (again!) at an airport.
Ingall: “We had a glass of wine together in a Virgin lounge. That’s absolutely true.”
Skaife: “We hardly ever spoke before that. I even said to mates of mine, ‘I am never going to talk to that fucking low-life ever again.’”
Ingall: “You can print that!”
And they both laugh again.
Now they see each other regularly because of their commentary duties and as a result have got to know each other better, and even like each other. They’re talking about a get-together with their wives Toni and Julia.
“It’s a weird world isn’t it?” ponders Skaife. “We both spend a lot of time together and the rapport is really good.
We actually really enjoy it. It’s cool.”
Watching them dissect the Falcon’s questionable on-the-limit handling is to be reminded racers might retire but they never stop doing their job. By now they have each driven the two cars; Ingall has also sampled the XR6 Sprint, which he
27 Touring Car race wins 1 Touring Car championships 2 Bathurst 1000 victories
Started in karts aged 12. Won Formula Ford title in 1990 and had a good crack at Europe and Japan before running out of money. Winning Bathurst in 1995 with Larry Perkins set him up to come home and they won again in 1997. Acrimoniously split with Perkins in 2002 to race for Stone Brothers, and won the title in 2005 after being runner-up four times. A great racer but a poor qualifier in V8s, only claiming one pole. A record 579 starts – so far.
Born in London, moved to Adelaide at age three and grew up there. Mother died young of breast cancer; father ran a service station. A tough life did much to define his personality.
Resilient, self-reliant and ruthless, yet also emotional, Ingall was the archetypal hungry pro racer, always on the lookout for a deal. Still a prized enduro driver. Lost his right index finger at the first joint in a karting accident. Actual age a source of constant speculation.
90 Touring Car race wins 5 Touring Car championships 6 Bathurst 1000 victories
Began in karts, raced Ford Laser, then came under the patronage of Nissan team boss Fred Gibson. Moved to Melbourne in 1987. Won both the ATCC and Bathurst driving ‘Godzilla’ before switching to a Holden. Won another title before the Gibson team struck financial trouble. Wooed by HRT to replace Peter Brock; in 11 years won three consecutive titles (2000-02) and three more Bathursts. Final Bathurst win in 2010 with Triple Eight Racing.
Highly intelligent, hugely competitive, massively ambitious, incredible self-belief.
Personality generates critics and admirers alike, but had a habit of collecting powerful backers – Gibson, John Crennan, V8 czar Tony Cochrane. At his peak Skaife was the best driver in Australia. Endured dark days towards the end of his career and in the early days of retirement. Seems happier now.
Stays close to Supercars as a Fox Sports commentator.
Russell Ingall XR8 Sprint
Mark Skaife SS-V Redline
finds slightly better balanced than the V8, but actually laps slightly slower.
Ingall (gesturing at the XR8): “It can’t just be tyres can it.”
Skaife: “No, it can’t be. A lot of it is rear roll-centres.”
Ingall: “I can’t feel any roll in the rear.”
Skaife: “That’s what I mean. Rear roll stiffness compared to the front is just way out of whack, and then because it’s got no engine progression… bam!”
Ingall: “The power delivery is very lightswitch.
The low-down torque is incredible.
It runs out of power up high, but the lowdown torque is too much. I don’t think it helps the oversteer. I had to keep running a gear up all the time just to calm it down.”
Conversation turns to the Commodore.
Ingall: “The chassis difference is insane.
The Commodore is so much better. You can feel it is the lowest-powered car. But the chassis is just so good. It’s up for it.”
Skaife: “The whole car is a very nice car. Seriously, it’s just a travesty that these things won’t be available in this country.
It’s a joke. It’s a four-door performance car. What a cool car.”
The blokes at Ford Australia who sweated blood to get the Sprint over the line won’t be pleased by how brutally Ingall and Skaife have dismissed their last pride and joy. Their final tune of the Miami V8 delivers more than 400kW on overboost, and the R-spec suspension has been retuned to suit the staggered 19-inch Pirelli P Zeros, which are patently better tyres than the old Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber they replace.
It matters not. The times tell the story.
Ingall’s best in the Falcon is more than four seconds slower than Skaife’s lap in the Commodore. The Holden is clearly the better car.
It is also the best Commodore yet, the best exploitation of the Zeta architecture, riding on the best tune of the FE3 suspension, all supporting that verbose and extrovert 304kW LS3 engine. It all gels so well, and little things like flappy paddles add the cherry on top.
But these cars are done. Like Skaife and Ingall, they will become legends. Gone but not forgotten.
For both drivers there is sadness in acknowledging the death of Falcon and Commodore, and the closure of the Ford and Holden manufacturing plants.
Ingall: “The day it happens, the day that padlock gets put on the front gate, I reckon it will be a massive shock. I don’t think people even realise the shock it’s going to be. Not only that two major companies are shutting down, but just the history.
On the road, on the race track. It’s going to be a sad day.”
Skaife: “What we don’t understand is it’s the social fabric of Australia; it’s Collingwood versus Carlton, it’s Liberal versus Labor, it’s Ford versus Holden. We have grown up, we have been red or blue.
“I totally agree with what Russell is saying. The biggest thing we have lost in this is something that we don’t get back.
The day we turn the tap off, the tap doesn’t get turned back on.”