Mark Skaife misses racing cars. Having hung up his helmet at the end of 2011, the five-time Australian touring car champion has found that life off the track doesn’t quite provide the same buzz.
“I haven’t been in a race car for almost four years,” explains Skaife. “It’s been a big void for me, something fishing or golfing doesn’t fill so to come and have a drive again is nice.”
Skaife only committed to the BMW program quite late, wanting to sample the M6 GT3 first to make sure he found it enjoyable and, perhaps surprisingly for someone with his driving CV, that his abilities were up to scratch.
According to his teammates, he needn’t have worried. “Skaifey’s a freak of nature,” says Longhurst. “He got in the car and was right on the pace and back to how he was a decade ago.” “Mark was seriously fast straight up,” adds Ingall. “Richo set a benchmark time and he was just about straight on it.”
Having spent the majority of his career in V8 Supercars, a modern-day GT3 car required some adjustment on Skaife’s behalf. “I’ve never driven a race car that had paddle-shift, so for me it was like getting on the Xbox. Things like ABS and traction control with paddle-shift, they’re all modern car aspects that I’ve never really delved into.
“The gearbox never missed a shift all day, it was absolutely perfect, the ABS is just extraordinary, didn’t really use too much of the traction control because I had it on a low setting but the whole feel and balance of the car was just superb. I was four seconds faster than I’d ever been in a Supercar around there!”
As someone who was known as a fanatical tester, the amount of adjustability in a GT3 car has Skaife excited: “100 per cent, that’s the bit that really turned me on; it’s way outside of just shocks and springs and swaybars. The actual driving bit is relatively easy, it’s understanding what each car likes, and that’s one of the fun things.”
And Skaife’s thoughts on partnering up with long-time rival Ingall? “I’m looking forward to it. Once upon a time it would just be unheard of for us to join up, but as we’ve been working together at Fox, we’ve grown to be quite good mates and we think very similarly about the sport.
“I’ve always had the utmost respect for how he goes about racing and his driving, so that was never in question, it was more about trying to beat each other for all those years and it’s actually nice to finally join forces. And it’s nice to do that with Tony, because when you’ve won Bathurst together there’s almost a lifelong camaraderie that comes from that.”
Having committed to the project, Skaife is now back in race mode to ensure he can give some of the world’s best GT3 drivers a run for their money: “I’m looking forward to seeing how the young BMW superstars go; they are very familiar with fast European-style circuits like Spa and they’re in the car a lot, so for us, there will definitely be some serious competitive tension once we get up there, because I don’t want to wobble around there and not do a solid job.
“The onus is on me not to run into one of them or do something dumb and that mostly comes from doing a good job and being fit. I’ve already got my trainer that I used for about 20 years engaged again and we’ll be doing some serious work because again, I don’t want to go there and feel underdone.”
BMW has two test days planned at Bathurst which will give all three drivers a chance to get their heads around the challenge of driving a GT3 car at Mount Panorama, which is a very different challenge to a Supercar as Skaife explains: “The [GT3] cars are easier to drive. I’m not saying they’re easy but in challenging corners you’re not as challenged because the grip level is good.
“In a Supercar you don’t go through Reid Park flat, you can’t go through McPhillamy Park flat and through the course of time there have been times when other than a qualifying lap you couldn’t get through The Chase flat; this [M6 GT3] will get round The Chase flat one-handed, it won’t even be a corner.”
With multiple classes on the grid, just like the Group A era in which Skaife started his Bathurst career, there’s also plenty of traffic to deal with. “I think there’s two aspects to how you deal with the traffic,” says Skaife.
“Firstly, there’s experience, so, touch wood, you don’t make silly decisions based on that. But the level of patience is then important because there are zones at Bathurst where you simply can’t get by and you have to accept your penalty.
“It’s a little bit like playing golf; when you’ve played a bad shot, you have to take your medicine, chip back out and play on and that’ll be the same at Bathurst. Down the hill for instance, if you’ve just crossed someone that’s cost you two seconds, just take your medicine.”
But he’s under no illusion as to the difficulty of the challenge: “I said to the guys after Bathurst this year ‘guys, it’s halfway!’. Twelve hours is just an extraordinary length race.”