Consistency and control bring Mark Skaife his first Bathurst victory for nine years, and his first in a Holden, writes BOB PEARCE.
Mark Skaife showed why he leads the Australian V8 supercar championship for the second year in a row by giving Holden its 21st victory in the 1000km classic at Bathurst yesterday.
Skaife, partnered by veteran Tony Longhurst, won by 2.2s from the Ford of Brad Jones and John Cleland.
Kiwi Greg Murphy and his Australian partner Todd Kelly were third.
The 34-year-old Skaife won at Bathurst in 1991 and 1992 partnering Kiwi Jim Richards in a Nissan.
But since joining Holden he has not had much luck on the Mt Panorama circuit.
However, in a race of many leaders and a wide range of weather conditions including the threat of snow, Skaife was yesterday consistently close to the pace and over the closing stages clearly in control.
His victory means he needs only a modest placing at Pukekohe next month to clinch the championship.
"It's been a long time between drinks but this is far better than the previous ones," said Skaife. "Last time I was sitting in the pits when we won and it was very controversial.
"It was one of the best races I've ever been involved in. When it's wet and dry, every time you get into a corner you're a pioneer.
"I thought at one stage I'd let 'Murf' go and watch him slide into the sand, but he's a Kiwi and I couldn't."
Perhaps the key moment came on the 128th lap when, after a series of pace car periods, Kelly was leading from Kiwi Steve Richards and the wily Larry Perkins.
Perkins harried the two younger men into mistakes that put them in the sand at the end of Conrod Straight and as the pace car came out yet again Perkins made his own mistake by clouting a tyre barrier at the entry to the pits.
Skaife emerged from the chaos in the leading group and when he got in front he was able to keep Jones at bay.
Behind them Murphy made up three positions to snatch third place with a charging drive.
It was the second year in a row that the former Hawkes Bay driver had finished third at Bathurst.
Richards recovered to finish ninth and Ashley Stichbury, who snared a late drive with Paul Morris, was 13th.
Jason Richards and Angus Fogg in the Team Kiwi Holden completed an amazing recovery to finish 16th after seeming to have written off their chances with a late practice crash.
This was the same position they achieved on their debut last year.
They got back in the race after an all-night effort by panelbeating apprentices, who rebuilt the back of their car after Fogg had slid backwards into a barrier at high speed.
Fogg drove the race with a very stiff neck.
The most notable New Zealand casualty was Paul Radisich, who with Steve Johnson as partner was rated Ford's best chance.
First Radisich struggled with tyre problems and then, when Johnson started to get near the lead, the car expired with a engine failure.
"It was like driving on ice when we started and I really struggled," said Radisich.
"There was also a smell of cooling fluid, which nobody could explain."
Aucklander Simon Wills had a mixed day, partnering veteran John Bowe in a Ford. Bowe led early in the race but Wills had the misfortune to incur a 10-second pit lane penalty and then to tangle with Anthony Tratt.
The car dropped off the lead lap and slipped back through the field.
Craig Baird had even less luck. The Ford he shared with Mark Noske completed only 27 of the 161 laps.
The top qualifier for the race, Marcos Ambrose, was quickly out of contention after surprising everybody by winning the Top 15 Shootout on Saturday.
Craig Lowndes, who caused immense controversy this season by leaving Holden for Ford, at one stage threatened to reward his new masters with a Bathurst victory.
But after streaking to the front past Murphy and Skaife in the middle stages of the race, he was caught out by a sudden hailstorm on the top of Mt Panorama and slid into the barriers.
The crowd was up on last year to 144,800 for the four days. However, that was still well short of the 1999 record attendance of 154,579.