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The rebranded V8 Supercars category had been built on the rivalry between Holden and Ford. But into the 2000s, it was a one-sided fight that threatened to derail the category.
Led by Mark Skaife and the Holden Racing Team, the Commodore led on the race track with a string of championship and Bathurst wins, while the VT and VX Commodores also dominated in the marketplace. Ford was left trailing with what many consider to be the worst Falcon produced, the AU.
The AU was rushed into production to compete with Holden’s VT Commodore, with a release of September 1998. But the radical design of the front grille, which varied greatly from the standard range to the XR series that formed the basis for the V8 Supercar, coupled with interior design flaws and reliability issues, set Ford back. Ford Australia reported a pre-tax loss of $33.6 million in 2001 and sales of Falcon sedans slumped to a 35-year low.
Design plans for a new model, including the involvement of head office designers and a new philosophy within Ford Australia, began ahead of schedule in 1999.
A clean slate was required to undo the damage caused by the AU Falcon, which was failing in the marketplace and on the race track. Ford Australia ended the AU’s manufacturing cycle in four years, the shortest in the manufacturer’s history, and the BA series was unveiled in July 2002.
Every panel was new except for the carry-over door skins. The design was more in line with Ford’s global designs; a cleaner and more sophisticated appearance. The XR range would also feature a more dynamic look with a lower ride height and wide-open air intake.
The BA Falcon is said to have cost Ford Australia half a billion dollars to design and develop, though it was considered a worthy investment with its success in the market- place undoing the stain of the AU.
Wheels magazine named the BA the ‘Car of the Year’ for 2002, describing it as “the most eloquent ever expression of Australia’s unique automotive identity” with “a more sophisticated and worldly outlook”. Ford Australia reported a $14.85 million gain in 2002 followed by a profit of $204.23 million in 2003.
The V8 Supercar version of the BA would conform to new technical regulations to even the playing field and end the squabbles over parity between the Falcon and Commodore. Chassis pick-up points, wheelbase, track and driving position and double front-wishbonesuspensions were shared across both models under the ‘Project Blueprint’ regulations.
Ford Australia’s in-house developed BA V8 Supercar made its public debut at Mount Panorama in October 2002. Ford hero Dick Johnson took then Ford boss Geoff Polites for a lap on the morning of the Bathurst 1000, giving Blue Oval fans hope on a day when Skaife and Holden dominated yet again.
Ford teams were well positioned to take advantage of the new technical regulations in 2003. Stone Brothers Racing had emerged as the most competitive Ford team with the AU, with Marcos Ambrose leading the way. Elsewhere, the British-owned Ford Performance Racing carried the factory- team status with its owners Prodrive also taking over road-car division Tickford to form Ford Performance Vehicles. Later in the year, Triple Eight Race Engineering purchased Briggs Motorsport to add to the British influence in V8 Supercars.
The BA made a winning debut, with Ambrose taking victory in the first race of the season in Adelaide. While Skaife took out the round in Holden’s new VY Commodore, the BA won the next seven rounds, six of them for Stone Brothers Racing. Holden teams bounced back with endurance wins at Sandown and Bathurst, but Ambrose had the momentum in the championship. He sealed his first title with a round sweep at the Eastern Creek season finale, ending a six-year championship drought for Ford.
Ambrose won the title again in 2004 in addition to victory in the Sandown 500, with teammate Russell Ingall finishing second in the championship standings. It was Ingall’s turn to win the title in 2005; three consecutive drivers’ and teams’ championships for Stone Brothers Racing.
Triple Eight was coming of age, too, with the arrival of Craig Lowndes leading to breakthrough wins in 2005, including at the Sandown 500. Lowndes had left Ford Performance Racing after two uncompetitive seasons, though the factory team would turn things around in 2006. The team won the Sandown 500 in 2006, a third straight Sandown win for the BA.
Bathurst had proved a bugbear for Ford, though, with seven consecutive wins for Holden from 1999 to 2005. It was Triple Eight with Lowndes and Jamie Whincup who would break that stranglehold with a much-deserved Mount Panorama success for the BA in 2006. However, the champi- onship run came to an end that season.
Stone Brothers Racing lost its way when Ambrose left for NASCAR, while Lowndes lost out to Holden’s Rick Kelly following a controversial tangle at Phillip Island. The BA set the groundwork for the BF and FG Falcons, with which Triple Eight would emerge as the dominant team.
However, it was Ford Australia’s inability to keep Triple Eight tied to the Blue Oval that would hand the momentum back to Holden. Ford wouldn’t have been in that position without the BA, though. Had it failed to end Holden’s domination and undo the damage of the AU, the Ford versus Holden rivalry could well have come to an early end.
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