FOR this week’s edition of Saturday Sleuthing we’re taking a look at a car from Mark Skaife’s career that signified the end of an era in Australian motorsport.
Now a Supercars Hall of Famer, Skaife was the reigning Australian Touring Car Champion at the dawn of the 1995 season, one which was going to be the last for his Gibson Motorsport team in Winfield colours.
A ban on tobacco advertising in Australian sport was coming into force at the end of the year, bringing the curtain down on an era where the colours of cigarette brands like Marlboro, Craven Mild, Benson & Hedges, Peter Jackson and Winfield were carried by some of the most iconic cars in our nation’s touring car racing history.
Many of those tobacco-branded cars are pictured in our upcoming release, 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.
With this financial blow poised to strike at the end of the year, a further one struck the team at its start.
Skaife sustained injuries in a practice crash for the Winfield Triple Challenge at Eastern Creek in January, writing off one of the first Holden Commodores built by the team in 1993, which had recently been upgraded to the then-new VR model panelwork.
The injuries forced Skaife to miss the opening round of the ATCC at Sandown, and when he returned to action three weeks later at Symmons Plains he was behind the wheel of the car that is the focus of this story.
GMS 004 was the first Commodore to be built brand new as a VR by the team for the start of the 1995 season, and with Skaife sidelined it was teammate Jim Richards who piloted the car in its debut race meeting in very wet conditions at Sandown.
In fact, Richards gave the car a victory in its first competitive outing: he won the Peter Jackson Dash on raceday morning!
Skaife took over the car for the rest of the ATCC, taking his first race win in GMS 004 at the Bathurst round less than two months after his crash.
Better was to come in his return to Eastern Creek where he slayed any lingering demons from his horror crash four months prior.
From fifth on the grid, he took third place behind Glenn Seton and Peter Brock in Race 1 and then took advantage of Seton breaking a gear lever while leading Race 2 with just laps remaining to sweep through and claim the race and overall round win.
It proved the last win for Skaife at GMS and the last for the team for the next four years, the squad entering a slump as it struggled to replace the funding lost by the tobacco ban.
This chassis nearly delivered Winfield a remarkable farewell present at the Bathurst 1000.
Not only did Richards blitz into the lead in the early stages of the race, the #1 Commodore also showed phenomenal fuel economy in making its first pit stop on Lap 38 – five whole laps later than any of its pursuing rivals.
However, the fairytale fell apart in Skaife’s first stint when the car’s tailshaft broke while leading on lap 65, putting the car out of the race.
Fred Gibson’s squad slimmed down to just one car for Skaife for 1996; in its role as the spare car, GMS 004 made only a handful of race appearances that year.
With still no major backer heading into 1997 and their newest car sold to Garry Rogers Motorsport, Skaife campaigned GMS 004 at a handful of rounds before leaving to join the Holden Racing Team ahead of the enduros.
The move marked the end of another era for both driver and team; Skaife had been with GMS since 1987, and under the mentorship of both Gibson and Richards, he had grown into a race and championship-winning driver in both touring cars and Formula Holden open-wheelers.
However, as one door closes another one opens, and Gibson Motorsport’s next era began straight away.
A deal was done with Garry Dumbrell for Gibson’s squad to prepare and run GMS 004 as Darren Hossack’s Wynn’s-backed entry for the Oran Park ATCC finale and the Sandown and Bathurst endurance races.
Hossack stayed aboard this chassis into 1998 when GMS expanded from a one-car to a three-car operation, adding a second Wynn’s car for Darren Pate plus a Holden Young Lions-branded entry for Steven Ellery.
The all-youth lineup struggled to make headway – not helped by running Yokohama tyres when Bridgestone or Dunlop were the preferred rubber in the final season before the introduction of a control tyre – and Hossack was benched in favour of the more experienced Tomas Mezera for the final rounds.
Hossack returned for the enduros to partner Pate in GMS 004, the two ‘Darrens’ finishing seventh at Bathurst in the car’s final race on Australian soil.
In 1999, GMS 004 was sold to England with new owner Ric Wood, who fitted a 6.7-litre Chevrolet V8 and raced it in Formula Saloons – a category similar to Australia’s Sports Sedans.
Wood raced the car for several seasons, initially retaining the Wynn’s colours before adopting a stunning, metallic purple and silver ‘spider web’ livery.
Then, in 2005, the car was stripped down once again to be resprayed when it was stolen from Wood’s workshop!
No trace of GMS 004 has emerged in the years since, marking a sad end for a car that holds a unique place in Supercars Championship history.