Rivalry like it's 1999: Skaife and Lowndes go to war in Sydney

  • Repco Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 24/10/2021
  • By James Pavey, Pics by AN1 Images

From next weekend, Sydney Motorsport Park will host four consecutive events to help round out the 2021 season.

The Eastern Creek venue has, however, hosted a season-opening event twice before.

The first time, in 1996, saw Craig Lowndes claim a stunning pair of race wins en route to a shock round victory on debut.

Three years later, Sydney played host to the first battle in a thrilling 1999 war between Holden Racing Team teammates Lowndes and Mark Skaife.

The Sydney track opened in November 1990 but didn’t host a round of what was then known as the Australian Touring Car Championship until 1992.

The 1999 season began on the last weekend of March, and the year firmly belonged to Lowndes and Skaife.

The HRT teammates combined to claim 21 of the 1999 season’s 33 race wins, and eight of the season’s 13 round wins.

Lowndes would be champion again, but Skaife won a season-high 12 races. It remains the highest season wins tally for a driver who didn’t win the title.

The teammates won the first 10 races of the season across the Eastern Creek, Adelaide, Perth and Phillip Island events.

The run began in Sydney, and smarting after losing the 1998 title to the returning Lowndes - who competed in Europe in 1997 - Skaife got off to a flyer.

Lowndes had Skaife's measure in 1998

Skaife, the 1992 and 1994 series champion with Gibson Motorsport, beat Jason Bright by 0.6s in the opening 13-lap heat. Lowndes was three seconds behind, just ahead of a young Garth Tander.

Skaife won the start of Race 2 and dropped Lowndes, who fell behind the fast-starting Tander and Bright.

Desperate not to let Skaife get away, Lowndes muscled past Bright at the end of the first lap before clearing Tander on lap 6.

The reigning champion could do little to catch Skaife, however, who sailed to victory by over three seconds.

Come the day’s final 13-lap heat, and Skaife was eyeing a Sydney sweep. It had been done four times before in Sydney; by John Bowe (1992), Glenn Seton (1993 and 1997) and Peter Brock (1994).

Skaife beat Lowndes off the line, but the drama happened behind them.

A huge crash at the beginning of the race over the crest between Turns 3 and 4 wiped out several cars.

The race was red-flagged; seven cars were unable to take the restart, leaving plenty of teams with hefty repair bills before the inaugural Sensational Adelaide 500.

Tander had been turned by Garry Rogers Motorsport teammate Jason Bargwanna amid the chaos, with Tony Longhurst punted into a spin by Dugal McDougall at Turn 2.

Over the crest, McDougall was turned in front of the field and was collected by an unsighted David Parsons.

Skaife arrived in 1999 a new force

With the track cleared, the race was shortened to a nine-lap dash.

This time, Lowndes beat Skaife into Turn 1, and led a HRT one-two to the flag for his first win since the previous season’s Oran Park finale.

Skaife won the round, with the podium completed by young gun Tander. It was Tander’s first career podium.

There had been so much change heading into 1999; Ford’s new AU Falcon made its championship debut, while the Eastern Creek round was the first event held using control tyres, given Bridgestone had been awarded the inaugural contract.

Through it all, the HRT Commodores remained the class of the field - although this time, it was Skaife who had the jump on Lowndes.

Skaife won the first two Eastern Creek races in 1999

“I guess it just goes to show the guys have prepared two magnificent cars, and we’re both even,” Lowndes said on the podium.

“I put a lap record in then, and the guys just told me Mark pipped me!

“It’s very even; it comes down to starts.”

For Skaife, it was a case of finally, having won his first round since the Eastern Creek event in May 1995.

“It’s really good to start the year like this,” Skaife said.

Skaife and Lowndes celebrate

“The first time we’ve had a win since here in ’95!

“Thanks to our guys, the guys have worked their bums off.”

Lowndes won the Adelaide event and swept the Perth round, before Skaife claimed Phillip Island honours.

Skaife won six rounds in 1999 to Lowndes' two, but a DNF in Adelaide - where Lowndes won - proved a key hiccup in Skaife's title bid.

Regardless, the 12-win season set the tone for a hat-trick of Skaife titles between 2000 and 2002, with Lowndes defecting to Ford for 2001.

Skaife and Lowndes reunited in 2010

It saw Lowndes wedged in a divorce with HRT and Tom Walkinshaw, having signed a 10-year management deal in 1996.

Lowndes and Skaife reunited in 2010 for the enduros, and duly claimed an historic Bathurst victory for Triple Eight.

Skaife’s final race start was in Bathurst in 2011, with Lowndes missing out on victory to Tander by 0.3s.

The 2021 Repco Supercars Championship will continue at next weekend’s Bunnings Trade Sydney SuperNight. Tickets for all four upcoming Sydney events are on sale now.

All sessions will be broadcast live on Fox Sports and streamed via Kayo. The Seven Network will broadcast live from 3:30pm AEDT on Saturday and 12:30pm AEDT on Sunday.

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