Unwanted Champion - 1993 Gibson Motorsport VP Holden Commodore

 

During the Group A period, almost everyone in the Australian Touring Car Championship drove a Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth at some point. Even Holden icon Peter Brock. Gibson Motorsport wasn't among them

Between 1990 and 92 Fred Gibson’s namesake team enjoyed three straight Australian Touring Car Championships and two Bathurst 1000s with the Nissan Skyline GTS-R HR31 and all-conquering GTR R32.

Group A was given its death sentence by the FIA four years before it was abandoned in Australia and two years before the GTR had turned a wheel in anger. No Australian team was hit harder than Gibson Motorsport. They were forced to abandon their pace-setting $600k AWD Nissans. It was a massive blow for Gibson Motorsport. Their competitive edge was taken away from them, in a move that was widely believed to be directed at them. The viewing public seemed happy for Dick Johnson to dominate in a four cylinder European Ford, but kiwi Jim Richards and Moffat-esque youngster Mark Skaife in a Japanese Nissan was apparently too much for the pack of arseholes to bear.

Fearing that the FIA’s new regulations would exclude Australian made cars, the Confederation of Australian Motorsport went ahead and developed their own. The rules of Group 3A were written to implicitly restrict the top class to the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore. 5.0L V8 sedans built in Australia. 2.0L Super Tourers, as used in the British Touring Car Championship, and naturally aspirated 2WD Group A cars were allowed, but the rules announced in November 1991 made the V8s significantly faster. Mid-way through 1992, the Confederation of Australian Motorsport considered reducing the power output of the V8s to 400hp, allowing all entries to compete for outright honours. Under this arrangement Nissan was happy to continue with Gibson Motorsport campaigning Primeras. However, title sponsor, Shell, wanted 500hp V8s for marketing reasons, while Ford and Holden didn't want their cars beaten by smaller ones. Ford, Holden and Shell got their way. Gibson Motorsport and Nissan had enjoyed a great relationship, but under the circumstances that meant nothing. Nissan promptly pulled out, leaving Gibson Motorsport without cars for 1993.

Naturally, they wanted to compete outright, so they needed a Ford or Holden. Team owner Fred Gibson had historical ties to Ford, having won Bathurst in 1967 driving a Falcon GT, and still had connections at Ford. In addition, the entire of sponsor Rothmans touring car fleet at the time were Fords. The team was expected to choose Ford. Gibson held talks with both manufacturers. Following a disappointing offer from Ford Gibson settled on Holden in late 1992.

The team elected to build its own cars. There wasn’t a single part that could be carried over from the Skyline. Gibson had to replace everything for 1993 and spent a great deal of money doing so to ensure his team had the most competitive cars it could. Components were sourced from Walkinshaw, Perkins Engineering, Harrop Engineering and Holden Motorsport. An approach that could theoretically deliver the best possible cars for the lowest price. Holden teams had the choice of Holden or Chevrolet engines, and like most of the top teams, Gibson Motorsport chose the latter. The wholesale regulation change coupled with delays in finalising the technical rules meant that the team was rushed to complete the two cars in time for the start of the 1993 championship.They weren't alone. Even teams who knew well in advance what they would be running were forced to build V8 engines to two different specifications.

The 1993 contenders were mostly Falcons and Commodores. A handful of Group A E30 BMW M3s and Toyota Corollas and Sprinters made up the 2.0 litre class. It was largely a Ford walkover. Tom Walkinshaw’s poor choice of aero kit was blamed for the lacklustre Commodore performance. Gibson Motorsport were quick to establish themselves as the top Holden team, with Skaife finishing second behind Dick Johnson Racing’s John Bowe. Skaife and Richards continued to lead the Holden charge for the remainder of the season. Ford drivers Bowe, Glenn Seton and Allan Jones won the first seven rounds, but with the help of a revised aero package, Richards won rounds eight and nine at Barbagallo and Oran Park. Richards finished the championship in fourth, the highest placed Holden driver. Skaife was next in sixth.   

At Bathurst, Skaife and Richards put in a brilliant effort. They battled all day for the lead with the Holden-engined Commodore of Larry Perkins and Gregg Hansford. Skaife and Richards ultimately lost in what was at the time the closest ever Bathurst 1000 finish.

Skaife carried that form into 1994, and had a major change of fortune compared with 1993. He won the first three races on his way to eight straight podium finishes, ending on a win at Mallala, Adelaide. A retirement at Oran Park did little to hold him back. Skaife won the championship by 57 points over Seton. In doing so he demonstrated that he could win a championship without the mechanical advantage of the AWD Skyline GTR.    

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The VP Commodore was replaced by the VR in 1995. Gibson Motorsport would never again have the same success as they had enjoyed in the Nissans and VP. Skaife claimed the team’s last ever race win at Eastern Creek. From 1996, a ban on tobacco sponsorship severely limited the team’s financial resources in an already tight sponsor market. As orb rt ther brands wouldn’t associate themselves with tobacco-sponsored teams, Gibson Motorsport and Glenn Seton Racing entered 1996 without even minor sponsors. For Gibson, that meant scaling back to one car and releasing Richards from his contract. Skaife stayed for two more years and left for the Holden Racing Team in 1998..

The end of Group A could have easily been the end for Gibson Motorsport. Going from Nissan to a Holden that rival teams were already familiar with should have pushed them down the order. They gave it everything they had and won another championship, demonstrating they could genuinely win on merit.