En­ter The Red Zone

Holden hero Mark Skaife opens up about the end of lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing – and retells the sto­ries from the glory days of HRT and VE Com­modore

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by MARK FOG­A­RTY pics NATHAN JA­COBS

One of Holden’s most in­flu­en­tial driv­ers and fig­ure­heads, Mark Skaife, opens up about rac­ing and road cars

COM­MODORE has been Holden’s hero on the track since 1980. Sus­tained suc­cess on the track was in­ex­orably linked with Com­modore’s for­tunes in the mar­ket­place, im­bu­ing each se­ries with a sporty im­age.

Rac­ing has been imbed­ded in the DNA of ev­ery Com­modore – es­pe­cially the V8 mod­els – and as­so­ci­a­tions with race­bred per­for­mance were sus­tained by di­rect links with the Holden Dealer Team and the Holden Rac­ing Team.

That halo ef­fect has re­mained dur­ing Com­modore’s sales de­cline in re­cent years, with V8 per­for­mance ver­sions ac­count­ing for up to 50 per cent of sales of main­stream mod­els while de­mand for HSV vari­ants has re­mained strong.

Road and race Com­modores have shared very lit­tle in com­mon for more than a decade as the Su­per­cars tech­ni­cal rules have moved from rac­ers built around pro­duc­tion body shells to con­trol chas­sis and com­mon key me­chan­i­cal com­po­nents be­neath faith­ful repli­cas of road car body shapes.

Su­per­cars look like pro­duc­tion mod­els on steroids, but the re­la­tion­ship is only skin-deep. Un­der­neath the looka­like body pan­els – many of which are plas­tic fac­sim­i­les – they’re pure-bred rac­ing ma­chines.

But the vis­ual con­nec­tion is still strong and the Com­modore name­plate is by far the most suc­cess­ful in Aus­tralian tour­ing car his­tory. Com­modores have been driven to a record 15 ATCC/Su­per­car crowns and a yard­stick 24 Bathurst 1000 vic­to­ries.

They have also scored an all-time high 474 cham­pi­onship race wins (prior to Septem­ber’s Sandown 500), with 207 of them shared in the past decade by VE- and VF-look ma­chines. The VE was only sur­passed in Au­gust when Jamie Whin­cup scored the VF’s 104th win at Syd­ney Mo­tor­sport Park.

Just 11 days be­fore lo­cal pro­duc­tion ceases on Oc­to­ber 20, Com­modores will con­test the Bathurst 1000 for the 38th time. It won’t be the name­plate’s last ap­pear­ance on The Moun­tain be­cause new-look Com­modores, mim­ick­ing the ap­pear­ance of the fully im­ported ZB, will be rac­ing at se­lected rounds from next year. Most VFs will likely sol­dier on in Su­per­cars for an­other sea­son, but by 2019, there will be no more Aussie Com­modores – or Fal­cons – com­pet­ing.

The Com­modore track leg­end has been per­pet­u­ated and un­der­pinned by a quar­tet of hero Holden driv­ers: the late Peter Brock in the 1980s and early 90s; Craig Lown­des in the mid-to-late 90s; Mark Skaife in the early-to-mid 2000s; and Whin­cup since 2008.

Since Brock, none has ar­guably been more deeply in­volved in the evo­lu­tion of Com­modore rac­ers and their most cel­e­brated road-go­ing cousins than Skaife. After mak­ing his name in the all-con­quer­ing R32 Nis­san Sky­line GT-R at the start of the 1990s, he switched to Holden in 1994 and raced Com­modores with Gib­son Mo­tor­sport, Holden Rac­ing Team and Triple Eight Race En­gi­neer­ing un­til his re­tire­ment from V8s after the 2011 en­duros.

Skaife won five ATCC/V8 ti­tles – four of them in Com­modores – and six Bathurst 1000s – again, four of them for the Lion. He is also third on the all-time list of cham­pi­onship race win­ners with 90 suc­cesses.

The peak of his im­mer­sion in de­vel­op­ing race and road Com­modores was 1998-2008, a decade that be­gan with him join­ing HRT full-time along­side Lown­des and be­com­ing in­volved with HSV, both of which were owned by the late Tom Walkin­shaw’s TWR rac­ing and au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer­ing em­pire.

Skaife dom­i­nated V8 Su­per­cars from 2000-02, which is now re­mem­bered as HRT’s golden age, and in­creas­ingly con­sulted to Holden and HSV on prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. In the wake of TWR’s col­lapse in early 2003, he bought HRT from Holden and, by all re­ports, on very favourable terms.

It was dur­ing his reign that the fac­tory team em­barked with Holden on the de­vel­op­ment of the Su­per­cars ver­sion of the VE, the big­gest Com­modore rac­ing project ever. Con­cur­rently, as a Holden am­bas­sador

The Com­modore track leg­end has been per­pet­u­ated by a quar­tet of hero driv­ers: Peter Brock, Mark Skaife, Craig Lown­des and Jamie Whin­cup

and board mem­ber of HSV, he helped hone the driv­ing dy­nam­ics of the all-new, all-Aus­tralian VE pro­duc­tion mod­els and HSV’s E-Se­ries range.

All would be out­stand­ing suc­cesses, but by the time the VE hit the track in ’07, Skaife’s in­flu­ence was in de­cline. Walkin­shaw wres­tled back com­plete con­trol of HRT the fol­low­ing year, push­ing him into re­tire­ment from full-time rac­ing.

His roles at HSV and Holden also wound down as he moved into se­nior ad­vi­sory po­si­tions with Su­per­cars and es­tab­lished him­self as an au­thor­i­ta­tive TV com­men­ta­tor.

Skaife in­di­rectly de­ter­mined the VF’s suc­cess­ful rac­ing suc­ces­sion as the ar­chi­tect of the ‘Car Of The Fu­ture’ rules, which ended the two-decade Com­modore/ Fal­con du­op­oly by open­ing Su­per­cars to other brands. It was also a rad­i­cal change to the V8 rac­ers’ re­la­tion­ship to their road-go­ing name­sakes, dis­pens­ing with the last ves­tiges of man­u­fac­turer ho­molo­ga­tion.

Skaife, 50, is best known these days as the an­a­lyst/pun­dit on Su­per­cars broad­casts. He has var­ied busi­ness and phil­an­thropic in­ter­ests out­side rac­ing, but the sport re­mains at his heart, as ev­i­denced by the posters com­mem­o­rat­ing so many of his suc­cesses that adorn the walls of his of­fice in Mel­bourne’s up­mar­ket sub­urb of South Yarra.

It is in this shrine to ‘Skaifey’ that we dis­cussed his key roles in the de­vel­op­ment of one of the great­est com­pe­ti­tion Holden Com­modores of all time and also the most trans­for­ma­tional HSVs in the com­pany’s his­tory. With the VE racer, the track im­age of the most im­por­tant Com­modore in his­tory – and also the most ex­pen­sive to de­velop – was crit­i­cal. Holden ex­ec­u­tives were in­cred­u­lous when they learned that the cabin had to be short­ened to meet the di­men­sional re­stric­tions of the new rules.

The so­lu­tion was to cut 96mm from the roof and side press­ings, and shorten the rear doors, which in­volved new scaled-down stamp­ings made with the sole pur­pose of be­ing used on the race cars.

“My dis­cus­sion with [then Holden man­ag­ing direc­tor] Peter Ha­nen­berger and [mar­ket­ing boss] Ross McKen­zie re­gard­ing tak­ing 96mm out of their ‘Bil­lion Dol­lar Baby’ was one of the hard­est con­ver­sa­tions I’ve ever had,” Skaife tells MO­TOR. “To make the car fit the reg­u­la­tions we had to. We’d worked out that the best spot to knock the 96mm out of it was in the rear doors. So we had to shorten the rear doors.

“I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber, we’re sit­ting in this sort of lounge in the vir­tual re­al­ity cen­tre, the race­car’s up on the vir­tual re­al­ity screen – and here it is now with the 96mm out of it. You should have seen their faces. ‘You guys have got to be kid­ding! What sort of drugs are you on? You think you’re go­ing to chop 96mm out of the car we’ve just spent a for­tune on?’

“Get­ting that through was harder than buy­ing the team. It was one of the most se­ri­ous GM dis­cus­sions I’ve ever had. But we got it through and Holden did a big batch of short­ened rear doors. It all worked out beau­ti­fully for us. There was a lot of work and a huge amount of ef­fort from all par­ties to get that through the sys­tem, make it com­ply with the reg­u­la­tions and then de­velop it into a great race­car.”

Much of the VE racer’s aero kit – front air dam and split­ter, sculpted sills, and rear wing and dif­fuser – was de­vel­oped on the high-speed bowl at the Lang Lang prov­ing ground. Skaife would of­ten do dou­ble duty, as­sist­ing HSV en­gi­neers to sort the sus­pen­sion of the VE-based E-Se­ries on the ride and han­dling course on the same day.

“I was work­ing very hard with the HSV en­gi­neers on the new Club­sport and GTS, etc,” he says. “And over in rac­ing-land, the pres­sure was on to get the de­sign mod­i­fi­ca­tions made, get the car on track and de­velop the aero pack­age. We ac­tu­ally built an aero test car, which be­came my first VE race­car. We were down at Lang Lang a lot, do­ing a lot of aero testing on the banked track and also a lot of HSV stuff.

“So some days I’d be down there with a cou­ple of HSV cars to drive around the ride and han­dling track, and then we’d stay there for the rest of the day and do race­car stuff. So it was a re­ally busy pe­riod and, to be hon­est, very in­te­grated be­tween Holden, HRT and HSV. There was a very strong, pow­er­ful bond be­tween the three or­gan­i­sa­tions in that pe­riod.

“HSV and HRT were joined at the hip. The race team was a big part of the mar­ket­ing and DNA of HSV. And that wasn’t pony­tailed agency talk. That was real. I still think the ‘win on Sun­day, sell on Mon­day’ propo­si­tion ap­plied to HSV.”

HSV and HRT were brought into the VE pro­gram from the early stages to more fully in­te­grate the rac­ing and per­for­mance-car arms, for which Skaife re­veals the en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign teams at Fish­er­mans Bend had given un­prece­dented con­sid­er­a­tion.

“[Then HSV boss] John Cren­nan and I were in­vited in in the very early days to look at what VE’s plan was,” he says. “The crit­i­cal di­men­sions were up on the wall and [de­sign chief] Mike Sim­coe took us through that plan. I re­mem­ber not­ing that the front wheels were

“HSV and HRT were joined at the hip. The race team was a big part of the mar­ket­ing and DNA of HSV. And that wasn’t agency talk”

“The qual­ity of the Com­modore makes you re­alise it’s such a trav­esty that there’ll no longer be an Aus­tralian car of that type”

right at the cor­ners. That was great for the race­car and helped im­prove the pre­ci­sion of the HSVs. Sim­ply, with a big V8 car, the fur­ther for­ward you put the front wheels and, ef­fec­tively, the front axle cen­tre line, the bet­ter it will be. It was very BMW-like and when you look at the VE, for a big car, it cer­tainly has the front wheels far for­ward.

“Also – and not many peo­ple know this – the great thing from Holden’s de­sign stand­point was that there were four vari­a­tions of the VE ar­chi­tec­ture – one for the base model, one for SS, one for Calais and an HSV ver­sion. So from day one they put HSV in that mix, which was fan­tas­tic. That’s why the cars came out so beau­ti­fully – the in­te­gra­tion was great.

“It was the sim­plest things, like be­ing able to change the in­stru­ment font, that was there right from the start. The abil­ity for us to change door trims and all the other points of dif­fer­ence. Dif­fer­ent steer­ing wheel from day one. All that stuff was al­lowed for. The be­spoke tail-lights and the gill be­hind the front wheel open­ings. They were re­ally nice treat­ments that made the E-Se­ries re­ally stand out from the nor­mal VEs.”

Ac­cord­ing to Skaife, Holden’s clever base de­sign – and Tom Walkin­shaw’s ap­proval of by far the big­gest bud­get for a new model range, run­ning to more than $20 mil­lion – meant the E-Se­ries in 2006 was a turn­ing point for HSV. The new level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion made them gen­uine value-for-money chal­lengers on per­for­mance to the BMW M5 and Mercedes E55 AMG, against which the E-Se­ries was bench­marked.

“Be­cause Holden had done a re­ally good job with the fun­da­men­tal ar­chi­tec­ture, their car was go­ing to be good,” says Skaife, cast­ing his mind back. “I re­mem­ber say­ing to the HSV en­gi­neers of the day ‘We can’t sit on our hands here. They’re go­ing to bring out an SS that’s re­ally go­ing to a sen­sa­tional car.’ And it was, forc­ing HSV to raise the bar with the Club­sport. VE forced HSV to step up an­other level and that kept every­body sharp. We needed to build on what was al­ready a good car and achieve the right level of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.

“And all of a sud­den, we went into this mar­ket where we were say­ing ‘If you’re not a brand snob, you’d def­i­nitely buy an HSV E-Se­ries’. Value-for-money, dayto-day, they were BMW- and Mercedes-es­que. The M5 and E55 be­came the new tar­gets. They were the cars we mea­sured against.”

In­ter­est­ingly, Skaife cred­its a MO­TOR-ar­ranged test at the famed Nur­bur­gring Nord­schleife in 2000 for his re­al­i­sa­tion that HSVs could be more than hot­ted-up Hold­ens. A VT II GTS 300 – boast­ing the Call­away C4B ver­sion of the 5.7-litre Gen III Chev V8 pro­duc­ing 300kW/510Nm – was dis­patched to Ger­many to duke it out with a BMW M5 and Mercedes E55 AMG on their home­ground at ‘The Green Hell’.

Skaife in­vited his for­mer ‘Godzilla’ co-driver team­mate, Swedish tour­ing car star An­ders Olof­s­son, to han­dle the driv­ing du­ties as an im­par­tial tester. The re­sult con­vinced Skaife that HSV could build a gen­uine Euro-basher.

“For me, the real step up was when we did a test at the full Nur­bur­gring for MO­TOR with the first of the Call­away-en­gined GTSs,” he re­lates. “We took a 300kW GTS and com­pared it with an E55 AMG and an M5 BMW. I called An­ders Olof­s­son and said ‘An­ders, you’ve won at the Nur­bur­gring, I don’t know the track from a bar of soap, and I don’t want it to look like it’s a Mark Skaife-con­trived re­sult. Can you come and be the in­de­pen­dent test driver of these cars?’

“So we spent a cou­ple of days at the Nur­bur­gring testing those cars and, for me, in my ab­so­lute heart of hearts, it was the first time you could say this is ac­tu­ally a Euro-beater, this is a proper thor­ough­bred per­for­mance sedan. It was ac­tu­ally faster in the dry and the wet over a lap than the M5 and E55, which was pretty cool. An­ders asked me ‘Has this got trac­tion con­trol?’ I said no, but the rear sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try was so good that on all the cor­ner ex­its, he was blown away by how much throt­tle you could use.

“I reckon that was the game changer. The 300kW GTS en­abled us to as­pire to some­thing much bet­ter. The level of de­tail and in­te­gra­tion set the stage for the E-Se­ries.”

With Aussie Com­modores hav­ing been such a big part of so much of his life, Skaife is un­sur­pris­ingly sad to see the end of the lo­cally made Lion along with the rest of the car man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try.

“Oh, it’s gut-wrench­ing,” he laments. “I worked with Holden dur­ing its great­est and most suc­cess­ful pe­riod. What I still have trou­ble di­gest­ing is that we’ll no longer be build­ing these cars lo­cally. Clearly, there’s a heart­felt con­cern for so many of those em­ploy­ees around that part of the busi­ness, but also just the sim­ple qual­ity of those cars.

“Ev­ery time I go to Avis, it’s in my pro­file to get a Com­modore. I got into an SS re­cently and it had done 25,000km, and I ac­tu­ally said to the guy when I handed it back ‘What a good car’. If you take all the emo­tion out of it, the qual­ity of the Com­modore makes you re­alise it’s such a trav­esty that there’ll no longer be an Aus­tralian car of that type. It re­ally is a bit­ter pill to swal­low.”

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