BATHURST 1996: Lowndes, Murphy & HRT's Great Race game Changer
To say that one single car made a driver’s career or its creation can be pinpointed as the key pillar upon which a team’s ascension to the throne as ‘V8 Kings’ was built is most certainly a big call. But when Craig Lowndes and Greg Murphy both agree that the Holden Racing Team’s ‘Supercar’ VR Commodore built in 1996 fits the bill for both of those assertions, it’s bloody difficult to argue.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the duo claiming the endurance double at Sandown and Bathurst. It’s also the 20th anniversary of a breakthrough blue ribbon season for HRT where it also claimed the Australian Touring Car Championship for the first time, with Lowndes, as well as the end-of-year Mobil Series in New Zealand with Murphy.
At the core of it all was HRT’s Chassis 033, commonly known as ‘Gabrielle’; a car that gave the previously troubled Melbourne-based team its mojo.
It created headlines, pushed the envelopes of technology of the time and won its fair share of races – not bad for a VR Commodore body shell that began its life on the Holden production line at Port Elizabeth in South Australia.
It may not be a Torana XU-1, Falcon Phase III, or even a Group C Commodore or Ford – the types of cars that live firmly in the hearts and minds of Bathurst tragics as absolute pieces of classic muscle car history – but there’s no doubt this Bathurst conqueror is a piece of modern Australian motorsport, and indeed, modern muscle car, history.
“That car is definitely the car that made me and it made the Holden Racing Team,” Lowndes tells AMC. “I’m really blessed to have been a part of that era. It carved a path for the team and me.
“If I could have any of my old cars in my garage, that car is definitely one of them.” His partner in crime from ’96 fully concurs. “I think that car really made HRT,” says Kiwi Murphy, who made his last Bathurst 1000 start as recently as 2014.
“Effectively before that they (HRT) were on the ropes at the end of 1995. After Bathurst I remember there being a fair bit of angst and concern over the whole continuation of the operation and money from Holden. It was a terrible result with both cars not finishing either enduro; it wasn’t good.
“1996 was key. The fact Craig was so strong and won the championship and then we went and did the Sandown and Bathurst double, you could almost feel the relief with it all and it cemented HRT into being the powerhouse that we all knew it was for so long.”
Nicknamed ‘Gabrielle’ by HRT new car build chief of the time Tony Frederiksen, the ‘033’ chassis only ever made one trip to Bathurst in its racing career. But it can lay claim to a 100 per cent Bathurst winning record, the sort of stuff other race cars can only dream about.
It provided a couple of young guns with the opportunity of a lifetime and they grasped it with both hands. Pairing two young bucks together today is nothing out of the ordinary, but 20 years ago many pundits believed the factory Holden outfit was crazy for doing so. The gamble not only paid off, it changed the face of local touring car racing forever as other teams soon adopted a youth policy as the owner/driver era wound down.
HRT’s stellar 1996 season also laid the foundation for the team’s domination of the rebranded V8 Supercar series, winning six titles in seven years and six Bathurst 1000s between 1996 and 2011.
Gabrielle’s life story
TheT competition timeline of the HRT 033 chassis actually began on April 4, 1996 when it made its first trek onto the track at Calder Park in Melbourne for a shakedown test. Despite running a mish-mash of painted and non-painted panels, there was no way to throw the media off the scent of something new and special brewing with the new ‘Supercar’ (as it was dubbed, many months before AVESCO first touted the ‘V8 Supercar’ tag for the category it would race in) instantly splashed across the pages of Australia’s specialist motorsport magazines. Further testing at Calder was conducted, but Craig Lowndes’ major accident at Phillip Island in mid-April in a sister car fast-tracked HRT 033’s race debut to the next round, held on the last weekend of that month at Calder.
Straight away the car was on the pace, claiming pole position and a race win before diff failure blunted things in the second race. But ‘Gabrielle’ claimed a new lap record, so there was no doubt it was a fast machine.
Gabby’s next outing – at Lakeside – showed exactly what she was capable of. While hometown Ford hero Dick Johnson took pole, Lowndes stormed to three race wins and 033’s first overall round victory and repeated the dose next time out at Barbagallo in Perth.
The penultimate round of the championship at Mallala proved to be a history-making one as Lowndes took her to a result that clinched the title.
He’d claimed the first two races and was running second to John Bowe in the final sprint when Alan Jones lost control of the Pack Leader Falcon as he tried to make a move on the Holden on the run to the Northern Hairpin with a matter of laps to go.
He clipped Lowndes, sending ‘the kid’ through the infield and careering into leader Bowe. It parked the Ford in the sand and heavily smashed the rear of Lowndes’ Commodore, though he was able to continue to finish fifth and earn enough points to seal the championship.
The clash didn’t look too bad, however the car effectively needed a new rear end. The fuel cell was destroyed, the fuel pump system was badly damaged and the floor in the boot was rippled, meaning the champion’s car wouldn’t be on hand at Oran Park when its pilot was officially crowned ATCC victor and instead was off getting repaired as its pilot stepped back into the repaired Phillip Island crash chassis (HRT 031).
The champion’s new car returned to the track at Calder for a post-repair shakedown test on August 5 with all four HRT drivers – Lowndes, Murphy, Peter Brock and Tomas Mezera – spending time behind the wheel of 033.
This appears to be the only time Brock – who did 17 laps on the day according to official HRT test day log sheets, more than any other driver – slipped behind the wheel of Lowndes’ ‘Supercar’.
Now sporting the #1, the black and white VR Commodore returned to race action at the Sandown 500, though with 125 millimetres cut from the front spoiler undertray after a parity adjustment by the Performance Review Committee (PRC) of the time, largely prompted by the HRT’s domination of the touring car championship. But it had no effect on the champion as Lowndes took pole and he and Murphy dominated the day. They led 122 of 161 laps and it was left to the former to hunt down and pass Glenn Seton with a handful of laps remaining to take a win that drove the Holden faithful in the grandstand into delirium.
There was no doubt Lowndes was the hottest commodity in Australian motorsport in 1996. A breath of fresh air, he was popular with the fans and the media lapped up the story of this 22-yearold whizz-kid.
So when he and Murphy took victory at Bathurst (see separate section) in chassis ‘033’ it made huge headlines and ‘The Kid’ was being touted as our next Formula 1 star as he headed off to Europe for a Formula 3000 campaign. He left behind the car that had given him such an amazing season, though its work wasn’t done for 1996. While the HRT took its older Commodores to the Mobil Series at Pukekohe and Wellington in New Zealand, HRT 033 was kept busy on and off the track.
First there was an appearance on the Holden stand at the Sydney Motor Show followed by an aerodynamic test at Phillip Island with HRT endurance pilot Tomas Mezera driving and a focus on testing front spoilers for the proposed new VS Commodore model makeover.
Former touring car and superkart pilot Chris Lambden was next to slide into HRT 033 and, in the process, became the first non-HRT driver to score the rare opportunity to sample the latest and greatest in V8 race cars at Calder for the purposes
of a story for Motorsport News magazine.
The car then became Greg Murphy’s #15 HRT car for 1997 but was also sampled pre-season during Calder testing by newly signed Young Lions Mark Noske and Jason Bargwanna.
It had been updated to VS specification – with the deeper scalloped front spoiler that proved the main distinguishing feature from the VR – and was again competitive, the Kiwi claiming pole and a race win at Calder in the opening V8 Supercars round of the season. But at Phillip Island’s round two it all turned to crap as a blown tyre sent him head-on into an earth-filled, wall of tyres.
The ’96 Bathurst winner himself was left bruised and sore, but the actual car came off even worse. Initially deemed a write-off, it was salvaged by Dencar and eventually returned to the track as Todd Kelly’s Young Lions car at Sandown in June 1999.
The factory HRT squad took it back in the wake of Lowndes’ huge rollover at Calder; endurance pilot Cameron McConville filled in for the injured Lowndes at Symmons Plains in ‘033’ before the defending champion returned after knee surgery to drive it at Winton. This page: HRT 033 was a faithful servant, pressed back into action when disaster befell HRT’s newer chassis. It took its fair share of hits too. Far right: In the early ‘noughties’ HRT 033 was stripped and stored at Clayton.
In fact, the car actually also returned to the scene of its ’97 accident, Phillip Island, in midAugust ’99 for Lowndes to shake it down ahead of his return to racing at Winton. Kelly and HYL teammate Mark Noske ran it in the Queensland 500 before a newer model VT Commodore was available for Bathurst, leaving HRT 033 to make one final appearance in October ’99 on the Gold Coast with Lowndes at the wheel.
The reasoning was to protect Craig’s new VT for Bathurst in November and the decision process was justified when the decorated VS crunched the wall in a multi-car crash with Garth Tander and Steve Ellery.
Stripped, this celebrated chassis was left cold and alone in storage in the old power station of the HRT’s base in Clayton, Melbourne through to the mid-2000s, still sporting the damage it had received in Queensland.
It was eventually purchased by Queenslandbased collector Steve Andrew, who had the damaged front and rear end replaced and rust in the sills sorted out, all the while ensuring the repair marks from the ’97 Phillip Island accident remained for posterity.
The expat Kiwi secured a range of material and components for use in the restoration of the car, but didn’t progress the project and made the decision in mid-2016 to part with his pride and joy (see separate section).
While HRT won the 1990 Great Race, it was the 1996 season, capped by victory in the Bathurst 1000, that marked the start of a golden era for the factory team.
1996 Calder Park debut
Back in 1996 HRT was very much a team and not a brand to be switched from one squad to another. It was led by a fresh-faced lad that captured the public’s attention. By year’s end HRT was a powerhouse on the local sporting landscape. 1996 Sydney Motor Show
1997 Phillip Island pre-season test 1996 MNews test 1997 Calder Park
1997 Phillip Island