BATHURST 1996: Lown­des, Mur­phy & HRT's Great Race game Changer

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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 Mal­lala

1996 Barba­gallo

1996 Lake­side

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

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