Insight Richard CraillRichard Craill August 20, 2021 (Comments off) (109)

SKAIFE: ‘I put my hand up to pre-qualify’

Australian Touring Car legend Mark Skaife has spoken of his fond memories of competing at Mallala Motorsport Park, which celebrates its 60th anniversary as a motorsport venue next weekend (August 28-29).

The five-time Supercars / Australian Touring Car Champion, six-time Bathurst 1000 winner and Australian Motorsport hall-of-famer was the most successful driver to ever tackle Mallala’s tricky 2.6km layout during its era as home of the South Australian round of the championship.

Skaife raced at the venue on 10 occasions between 1989 and 1998, winning on three occasions – one of only two drivers to win more than once at the circuit.

He is also the only driver to win both the Touring Car and Australian Drivers’ Championship / Gold Star rounds on the same weekend, a feat he achieved in 1991.

“I have really great memories and fond memories of a little racetrack that used to take, from a driver perspective, real accuracy to do it really well,” Skaife said.

“The first time I ran there was in the HR31 Skyline in 1989. We (Gibson Motorsport’s factory Nissan team) tested there and at that point none of us had raced there prior to that point.

“It was a quirky little track and a difficult place to do a really good lap at.”

After finishing fifth in 1989, Skaife was charged with the Australian racing debut of the iconic Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R at Mallala the following year.

After battling braking issues in qualifying, the car was competitive on its debut and though it ultimately failed to finish, showcased the incredible performance of the four-wheel-drive car that would ultimately be a ‘category killer’ in Skaife and teammate Jim Richards’ hands.

“When I hit it with 4WD, it went ‘ppfffeew’ and I thought wow, this things going to be pretty handy in terms of being to come off the slow corners compared to the Sierra!” he remembered.

“The Sierra’s had a truck-sized turbo on them so they went from nothing to the ridiculous power of the day really quickly. They were also a lot lighter car to the GTR, but coming out of the slow corners I remember getting Longhurst and Brock, etc, and able to get past them relatively easy because the drive traction was so superior.”

After finishing fifth in 1989, Skaife was charged with the Australian racing debut of the iconic Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R at Mallala the following year.

After battling braking issues in qualifying, the car was competitive on its debut and though it ultimately failed to finish, showcased the incredible performance of the four-wheel-drive car that would ultimately be a ‘category killer’ in Skaife and teammate Jim Richards’ hands.

“When I hit it with 4WD, it went ‘ppfffeew’ and I thought wow, this things going to be pretty handy in terms of being to come off the slow corners compared to the Sierra!” he remembered.

“The Sierra’s had a truck-sized turbo on them so they went from nothing to the ridiculous power of the day really quickly. They were also a lot lighter car to the GTR, but coming out of the slow corners I remember getting Longhurst and Brock, etc, and able to get past them relatively easy because the drive traction was so superior.”

Skaife won at Mallala for the first time in 1991 as he and Richards’ battled in an all-Nissan fight for the Championship that year, the latter ultimately winning.

Skaife’s first title came in 1992, a second-straight victory at Mallala key to setting up his run home towards the title.

1993 would see a change of regulations to the all-V8 Holden-versus-Ford formula, which saw the GT-R effectively banned from competition.

After a tough start to the season, it would take until Mallala’s seventh round of the championship for Skaife – now driving a Gibson Motorsport Holden Commodore – to find the podium pushing eventual champion Glenn Seton all the way to finish in second position.

It would be the General’s best result of the season to that point.

“TWR were the Holden homologation team and instead of putting a full front floor under the undertray in the air dam at the front of the car, as the ford teams like DJR and Glenn Seton did, they decided to put a 150mm perimeter floor in which had hardly any downforce,” Skaife remembered.  

“So, at anywhere that was fast we were in serious trouble! Mallala wasn’t as fast and wasn’t so aero dependent and not a big aero track.

“That battle with Glenn.. one of the things I love with Seto is that he’s very, very fair. Through the course of our careers, we had so many cracking battles but that was a really good one – I remember it really clearly.

“There wasn’t very much in it. He was the bloke to beat of the day.”

“TWR were the Holden homologation team and instead of putting a full front floor under the undertray in the air dam at the front of the car, as the ford teams like DJR and Glenn Seton did, they decided to put a 150mm perimeter floor in which had hardly any downforce,” Skaife remembered.  

“So, at anywhere that was fast we were in serious trouble! Mallala wasn’t as fast and wasn’t so aero dependent and not a big aero track.

“That battle with Glenn.. one of the things I love with Seto is that he’s very, very fair. Through the course of our careers, we had so many cracking battles but that was a really good one – I remember it really clearly.

“There wasn’t very much in it. He was the bloke to beat of the day.”

Skaife would return to the top in 1994, claiming his third Mallala win from four years when he powered Holden to their first title in more than a decade.

“(Mallala) was a key round,” he said.

“Peter Brock had won the title for Holden in 1980 and it took 14 years for Holden to win a title again. The Mallala round was pivotal; the car was very good there I think overall we were able to win six rounds that year and Mallala was an important factor.”

The Touring Car circus moved from Mallala to the Adelaide 500 in 1999, however it wouldn’t be the last time they visited the South Australian circuit north of the city.

An eclectic field – including Skaife and fellow legends Larry Perkins and Craig Lowndes – found themselves at Mallala on the Tuesday prior to the 2002 Adelaide 500 for a unique ‘prequalifying’ session.

A limited number of grid spots and an off-season of the licences that bound the sport meant teams would have to fight for a limited number of grid positions available at the Adelaide Street circuit.

More than 5,000 people turned out mid-week to see what was ostensibly a qualifying session – but one with huge ramifications should any of the big names miss out on the season-opener.

Massive crowds flocked to Mallala to see their Touring Car stars do battle, like this scene featuring Misters Crompton, Perkins and Mezera from 1994.
PHOTO: John Lemm

“Weirdly, I remember it very clearly,” Skaife said.

“I put my hand up saying that I want to pre-qualify! The regulations were such that we had way too many cars, we were oversubscribed, and we had to get in the top eight cars to make the Adelaide grid, I think.

“Rick Kelly was coming in under the Holden Young Lions banner and we, as the factory Holden Racing Team, ensured his start. We said, ‘you take my start, you’ve got a guaranteed ticket to ride’. I said, ‘we’ll go do more testing and that’ll give us a leg-up leading into the start of season and the Adelaide 500.’

“It was a cracking day! Some good drivers in that group and right at the end, on the last lap, I did a lap that was fastest. Craig Lowndes was driving for Ford in those days, for Gibson Motorsport, and he finished second, so we were both guaranteed a start, but it was pretty stressful and a really active session just to get on the grid!”

Though unlikely that the Supercars will ever return to Mallala, Skaife says his decade of competition at the venue left him with only fond memories of the circuit, the promoter and the passionate South Australian fans.

“I think sincere gratitude to Clem Smith and the team that used to run and look after Mallala,” he said.

“We were over there a lot, we did a huge amount of testing, we loved going there. We were able to get our brain around what was needed to make the cars work well at that place. It was a difficult driving assignment to do a good lap at the place and it was a high level of commitment required to get the best from yourself and the car.

“So I have really outstanding memories of participating at Mallala and for those people from Adelaide who used to come out in their droves – I remember when all of the pit straight and all of the area through Turn one and the back of the pit area, across the line, was just chockers with people.

“You could see the whole track from pretty much the whole circuit and we had some really, really good races at that venue, so I love it.

“I’ve got great memories.”

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