WITH Supercars returning to action in the top end next weekend, this edition of Saturday Sleuthing is looking at the car that claimed the first championship round win in Darwin.
The two race wins and overall wins scored by Russell Ingall aboard Perkins Engineering chassis PE 031 at Hidden Valley in 1998 helped mark the start of what proved to be a very successful era for Holden.
That’s because PE 031 was the very first VT Commodore to come out of Perkins’ workshops at Moorabbin, and the model – in both VT and facelifted VX forms – went on to dominate the V8 Supercars Championship for the next four years.
The VT Commodore gets its own chapter in Racing the Lion: An Illustrated History of Holden in Australian Motorsport, a 400-page hardcover book paying tribute to the marque’s rich competition history spanning over seven decades.
The VT made its racing debut in the previous round of the 1998 season at Calder Park, with the Holden Racing Team and Perkins Engineering both rolling their new machinery out simultaneously after working together throughout the build and homologation process.
“Under the umbrella of Holden Motorsport, HRT and myself have gotten together and discussed in a sensible manner the construction of these cars,” Larry Perkins told Motorsport News magazine at the time.
There’d been much discussion about the introduction of the VT and ensuring parity against the existing VS Commodores and EL Falcons.
The VT was 100mm wider in both wheelbase and track than the VS Commodore it replaced, while to ensure equality with the older generation Commodores and Falcons, the VT had to use the VS aero kit.
“One of the amazing facets of the racing industry is the paranoia surrounding the launch of the new VT Commodore and, if you listen to some of the Ford guys and even some of the CAMS people, somehow they thought a Formula 1 car was going to pop out of HRT’s and my own workshop,” Perkins quipped to MN.
Perkins himself raced the new VT at Calder as Ingall was locked in a tight championship battle with Craig Lowndes, however category officials forced both title combatants into their respective teams’ new-model Commodores for the final two rounds at Hidden Valley and Oran Park – much to Perkins’ disgust.
“My entry has been accepted by Darwin, and CAMS has written to me as late as last Friday and said, ‘you are a naughty boy and we are going to choose the driver’,” he told Auto Action.
“I screwed that letter up and put it in the rubbish bin where it belongs.”
In the end it was Ingall at the wheel of PE 031 for Hidden Valley, the Darwin venue making its debut on the Australian Touring Car Championship calendar.
Ingall entered the weekend 34 points shy of his title rival, but that margin expanded to 60 with Lowndes’ victory in the opening race while Ingall finished outside the top ten after a stop-go penalty for an incident with Tony Longhurst.
However, the pendulum rapidly swung Ingall’s way for the rest of the day: engine problems for Lowndes meant he missed the second heat entirely and started the last off the back of the grid.
Conversely, Ingall charged forward from 13th on the grid to win the second race, then converted his front-row start to a win in the finale to secure the round win.
“I was feeling quite depressed after the first race, but it’s turned around,” Ingall said, referring to the Race 1 penalty.
“Craig has had a bit of bad luck this weekend but it’s not as though we haven’t had our share throughout the year. So I reckon it’s just evening up the score now.”
However, the pendulum again swung away from Ingall at the Oran Park finale, Lowndes’ Bridgestone-shod VT sealing the title by dominating all three races while Ingall’s Dunlop-shot Commodore finished each outside the top five.
Perkins joined Ingall aboard PE 031 for the Sandown 500 – the last before the race was moved to the new Queensland Raceway for 1999-2002 – where the duo triumphed in dismally wet conditions, but the debut of a new car for Bathurst meant this chassis would never go to Mount Panorama with Perkins Engineering.
The car became Ingall’s for the 1999 season, carrying a sleek new silver livery promoting Castrol’s new SLX oil.
‘The Enforcer’ was once again a title contender, headlined by another pair of race wins at Hidden Valley – although he missed out on the overall win with a 14th-place finish in the final race after early panel damage caused overheating in the latter stages – plus a victory in the first V8 Supercars race at Queensland Raceway.
However, by the time the championship returned to Ipswich for September’s 500-kilometre enduro PE 031 was with new owners and in spectacular new colours.
The car became the Gatorade entry of popular Sydney privateers Peter Doulman and John Cotter, the pair campaigning it in the distinctive green and orange colours of sports drink Gatorade at 1999’s season-ending endurance races and throughout the 2000 season.
The end of the Gatorade deal meant the car made limited appearances in Doulman’s hands in 2001, before car owner Bob McDonald campaigned it in the 2002 Konica Series.
He and Doulman were set to share the car at that year’s Bathurst 1000 but McDonald (suffering a bout of the flu) was unable to set a fast enough qualifying time; instead, Doulman raced the car in the 30-lap Konica Series non-championship race, charging from the rear of the grid to 10th place.
A sizable shunt for McDonald at the opening Konica round of 2003 at Wakefield Park forced a massive rebuild, during which PE 031 was converted from VT to VX specification.
The roll cage was also upgraded – including the addition of a diagonal ‘Larry Bar’ windscreen brace – and resprayed blue before the rebuilt car rolled out for the Phillip Island and Winton rounds with Doulman at the wheel.
PE 031’s final appearance in Doulman’s hands came at Bathurst in 2004, however persistent electrical problems forced him to withdraw from the non-championship Konica Minolta Series sprint.
The car spent 2005 on the sidelines before returning to the rechristened Fujitsu Series the following year in the hands of Nigel Stones.
The former karter campaigned the car throughout the 2006 and 2007 seasons, its last in any form of V8 Supercars competition.
A few years later PE 031 was purchased by Bathurst-based V8 Touring Car driver Steve Ingwersen, who returned the car to VT Commodore specification amid a bare-shell rebuild.
After campaigning the car in a handful of Kumho Series rounds in 2011 and at Wakefield Park’s V8 Heritage event in 2012, the car was sold to its current custodian.
As of 2020, the car remains in the collection of Mark Kraulis, in track-ready condition. The South Australian regularly stretched PE 031’s legs at the annual Adelaide Motorsport Festival, with its most recent run coming at the latest edition of the event in 2018.
Earlier that year at the Adelaide 500 the car was reunited with its creator – Larry Perkins slipped behind the wheel for a demonstration session on the Saturday as part of a celebration of the event’s 20th year.