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Three critical developments in the 1990s set Australian touring cars down the path to what we now know as Supercars. There was the implementation of the V8-only regulations from 1993, the rebranding from the Australian Touring Car Championship (ATCC) to V8 Supercars in 1997 and, finally, the reworking of the schedule in 1999.
Not only did the Bathurst 1000 become part of the ATCC/Supercars championship for the first time but there was the debut of the Adelaide 500, which would establish a template that the category could use for marquee street-circuit events across Australia and New Zealand.
The historic season started at Eastern Creek with the paddock chat dominated by talk of tyres. Bridgestone had been awarded the contract to provide the control tyre in a move away from the tyre war of recent V8 seasons.
It was a logical move for a category that had put such a heavy emphasis on achieving parity between the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, with variance in tyre performance often masking the form of the teams, drivers and cars.
The Holden Racing Team entered the season as the team to beat following Craig Lowndes’ triumphant return from racing in Europe to winning his second title in 1998. Holden entries had filled the top-four places that year with the debut of the VT in the final rounds against the EL Falcon.
Ford teams upgraded to the AU for 1999 and with the new-look Falcon was a radical departure from recent efforts from the Blue Oval. And the arrival of the new car coincided with significant changes amongst its teams: Glenn Seton Racing receiving backing from Ford to become the unofficial factory team, John Bowe’s departure from Dick Johnson Racing for the new-look Caterpillar Racing and Paul Radisich replacing Bowe in the #18. But it would be a troubled season for the new Falcon. Teething problems with body- work and setup left the Ford teams playing second fiddle.
By the end of the season the AU had won just one round in the hands of Stone Brothers Racing’s Jason Bright at Hidden Valley Raceway in Darwin.
There were glimpses of what could have been from the AU, which had one-lap speed but struggled in the races, most notably when Bright scored pole position for the first Adelaide 500 and when Mark Larkham put his own Falcon entry on pole for the season-ending Bathurst 1000.
Holden had an advantage having raced the VT in the final rounds of 1998, carrying that experience and momentum into the following season with a strong cast behind Lowndes: Perkins Engineering’s Russell Ingall following his hot run of form the previous two seasons, the rejuvenated Gibson Motorsport with Steven Richards and Greg Murphy, the rising threat of Garry Rogers Motorsport’s Garth Tander and Jason Bargwanna, and Mark Skaife alongside Lowndes at the Holden Racing Team.
It was Skaife who won his first round for the factory Holden team at Eastern Creek in a dominant display from the championship favourites. He and Lowndes finished in first and second in two of three races and swept the round.
The second round marked the debut of the Adelaide 500, a new round on a slightly shortened version of the city-based street circuit that hosted the Australian Grand Prix from 1985 to 1995.
Big crowds proved that Supercars could be the headline act, having supported the event with non-championship races during the grand prix days, and they witnessed a classic race.
Lowndes, after winning the first race, was sent to the back of the grid for the second following a tangle with a back- marker but fought back and took the round win.
Lowndes continued winning at Barbagallo Raceway, keeping a remarkable undefeated run at the circuit across three years, then Skaife fought back with the round win at Phillip Island to give the Holden Racing Team 11 straight race wins across the opening four rounds.
Bright broke through for Ford at Hidden Valley Raceway, the second round held at the circuit outside of Darwin, after track conditions and tangles for the leading Holden entrants opened the door for a first round win for the AU.
The Holden Racing Team recovered with a round win for Skaife at Sandown, while Tander won at the first round held at the new Queensland Raceway circuit to signal the rise of a new Holden threat.
Then it was onto Calder Park, where the championship appeared to come unstuck for Lowndes. At the start of the second race of the weekend he was sent into a series of frightening rollovers, coming to a stop of his roof on an embankment. Other drivers raced to his aid and Lowndes avoided major injury, though a knee injury forced him to miss the following round at Symmons Plains.
Skaife closed up with round wins at Calder Park and Symmons Plains, then Lowndes returned for Winton, where Garry Rogers Motorsport’s Jason Bargwanna took the round win.
Skaife gained further ground with victory at the final sprint round at Oran Park, before the unknown of the endurance events thrown into the championship battle. The Holden Racing Team inevitably kept its championship contenders in their own cars, while the likes of Perkins Engineering, Gibson Motorsport and others paired up their main drivers.
The inaugural Queensland 500, which had replaced the Sandown 500, was the second round of the season at Queensland Raceway and victory went to Perkins Engineering’s Ingall and Larry Perkins. Lowndes scored valuable points in third and Skaife counted the cost of a tangle with Bright down in 22nd.
With the points system heavily weighted to the endurance races, five drivers could still win the title at Bathurst: Lowndes, Seton, Skaife, Ingall and Tander.
Debate would rage over whether Bathurst should be included in the championship, with critics claiming that a Mount Panorama season finale would lead to the title winner being overshadowed, or vice versa.
It looked as though the Dick Johnson Racing entry of Radisich and Steve Ellery would take a surprise win for the AU until a tangle with a backmarker led to mechanical dramas that left Radisich on the side of the road entering the final stint of the race.
It would have been a fairytale win for the team in Dick Johnson’s final full-time season, with the owner/driver and son Steve Johnson finishing best of the Fords in fourth.
The win went to the Gibson Motorsport entry of Murphy and Richards, a historic result with Richards becoming the first driver to win Bathurst in a Holden and Ford, in consecutive years, no less.
Lowndes wrapped up the title with second place, fittingly joined on the podium by Skaife, who took third. A dominant season for Holden had ended with a podium sweep for the VT, completing a top-three finish in the championship.
Murphy, Richards and Lowndes shared the podium and the spotlight as Bathurst and championship winners, though the arguments over whether the champion- ship should end at Bathurst, let alone be included in it, would continue on.
But the 1999 season was deemed a success. The Adelaide 500 would lead to similar events on the Gold Coast, Canberra, Townsville, Sydney, Hamilton and Newcastle, with varying success depending on the location.
Also, the endurance events remain in the championship to this day. And though the Holden Racing Team dominated, control tyres had levelled the playing field.
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