Too Good For Its Own Good? - 1990 Gibson Motorsport Nissan Skyline GTR Group A
Australia's most unpopular touring car
This year’s Bathurst 1000 is the 25th anniversary of the extremely controversial 1992 race. It was the year Gibson Motorsport’s Mark Skaife and Jim Richards won in an AWD Nissan GTR with the help of a coincidentally well-timed red flag. The GTR was already unpopular in the Australian Touring Car Championship.
The Group A GTR was based on the Nismo evolution version of the BNR32 Skyline GTR. Changes over the regular GTR consisted of replacing the ceramic turbo compressor wheels with steel items, intercooler cooling ducts in the front bumper, a front lip spoiler, and a rear ducktail spoiler under the rear wing. The ABS, rear windscreen wiper, air conditioning and intercooler mesh was removed. The FIA mandated 500 GTR Nismo road cars were built, along with 60 competition cars.
Gibson’s GTR was the most advanced car ever to contest the ATCC. While the early development was conducted by Nismo in Japan, Gibson prepared their own cars. Getting the R32 on the track took longer and was more expensive than Gibson Motorsport expensive. Coming from the relatively simple single turbo RWD HR31, the twin turbo AWD R32 was a much more complex car. At one point during the build in 1990, Gibson owed Nismo $1 million for parts. This wasn’t sustainable. Team owner Fred Gibson knew that they had to develop and their own parts.
The GTR was introduced late in the 1990 ATCC season as a replacement for the HR31 Skyline GTS-R. It was the first time an all wheel drive car had contested the ATCC. Round six at Mallala was its first race. Lead driver Jim Richards was a championship contender, so the team elected to leave him in the old and proven GTS-R for the remainder of the season. The first GTR was instead given to Mark Skaife.
The decision was vindicated when Skaife suffered a hub failure in qualifying. He still qualified in third, before taking the lead only to have another hub failure. This didn’t stop Gibson Motorsport from giving the GTR to Richards for Wanneroo, where he finished fourth. At the final round at Oran Park, Richards took pole position and won the race and championship. It was the first sign of what was to come.
1990 was Gibson’s first Bathurst with the R32. Skaife and Richards shared the team’s only entry. They only qualified 11th, but that didn’t hold Richards back at the start of the race. He effortlessly rounded up the cars in front to take the lead on lap 9. They remained in the lead until midday, when a diff output shaft and a spark plug electrode faced, putting them in the garage. The car was repaired, but they could only recover to 18th.
Nissan marketing manager Allan Handberg was unfazed, saying “if we don’t win next year I’ll be much more disappointed. Today would have been a bonus, bloody marvelous. Based on today, I’d say next year we have a second to none chance of winning”.
During the off-season a second car was completed, putting both Skaife and Richards in GTRs. This was an all-consuming exercise for Gibson Motorsport. From November 1990 to February 1991, the team only had one day off, Christmas day. As well as just building the cars, this included a significant amount of local development work. When it debuted at Mallala in 1990, it was a half Japanese, half Australian car. By the start of the 1991 season, more Australian parts were being used. It utilised a modified three mode ATTESA ET-S AWD system. The RWD-only launch mode prevented bogging down at the standing starts used by the ATCC. The dual dry break fuel system and Hollinger gearbox were also unique to the Gibson GTR. Eventually, only the body shell, engine block, and front and rear cross members were built by Nismo. Everything else was fabricated in-house by Gibson Motorsport.
The local development paid off in 1991. Skaife won three rounds and Richards won four and the championship. Tony Longhurst won the remaining two rounds in his BMW M3.
Gibson’s only customer GTR, Chassis #4, was completed in 1991 for insurance company GIO. The car was kept and maintained at Gibson’s Dandenong facility alongside the works cars. GIO was keen to take advantage of everything Gibson Motorsport had to offer. Mark Gibbs and Rohan Onslow were tasked with driving it. The GIO car won on debut at the 1991 Sandown 500.
At Bathurst, Skaife set a new top speed record of 293km/h in practice, and then claimed pole position. Skaife and Richards went on to win the race in a record time of 6 hours, 19 minutes 14.8 seconds. That record stood until 2010, when it was beaten by Skaife and Craig Lowndes in a Triple 8 Commodore. Gibbs and Onslow finished third to secure the Australian Endurance Championship. The GIO car was also named Dulux Best Presented Car, a testament to Gibson Motorsport’s attention to detail, even on a customer car.
Nissan Australia was keen to take full advantage of the win on Sunday, sell on Monday theory. In 1991, Australia became the only country outside Japan able to buy R32 Skyline GTR from Nissan dealers. Initially limited to 50 cars, Handberg negotiated that number up to 100.
The GTR’s dominance of the 1991 season led to weight and power restrictions intended to improve parity between the GTR and Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth. Power was reduced from 600 to 450hp. The restrictions held the GTR back, but it was still the car to beat. Skaife won at Amaroo Park, Winton, Mallala and Oran Park. Richards didn’t get a race win, but did achieve five seconds and a third. There was a Nissan on the podium every race. It was the most consistent performer by a comfortable margin. Ford Sierra drivers John Bowe and Glenn Seton had three and one race wins each and Longhurst had one. At 25, Skaife became the youngest driver to win the ATCC.
Fred Gibson had initially intended not to bring the handicapped Skylines to Bathurst in 1992, arguing that they would be unsafe and uncompetitive. He had a point. The power restrictions placed on the Nissans gave the more powerful Sierras an advantage at a power-biased circuit like Bathurst. In the end, Gibson Motorsport did arrive at Bathurst, hungry for one last win. Crowd hostility that had been towards the GTR all year was intensified. Fans had run out of patience for the turbo AWD Nissan. Bathurst 1992 saw the return of the V8 Falcon, driven by Glenn Seton, but the GTR and Sierra put it and the Commodores out of contention.
Skaife qualified the Skyline third, behind Di ck Johnson and Larry Perkins. Early rain neutered the DJR Sierra, allowing Gibson Motorsport to build up a healthy lead. Regular rainfall kept the GTR in front, but four safety cars kept eroding their lead over Johnson and Bowe. A final downpour late in the race proved too much for even the Nissan. On slick tyres, Richards aquaplaned into the wall, before limping on on three wheels and hitting three other crashed cars on Conrod Straight. Johnson, running wet tyres overtook Richards and crossed the finish line to red flags, thinking he’d won. He was unaware that the result had been backdated by a lap. Richards and Skaife had won, despite not having a running car.
On the podium, Johnson did his best to wind up and already angry crowd. “I don’t understand why they red flagged it but, but that’s the officials’ decision and I’ll just have to go by, won’t I. Obviously you can be beaten by a crashed car” he remarked, as he and Bowe took the second place step. Already saddened byHulmes passing, Richards mood was only made worse by the crowd’s reaction to him and Skaife. What he said became the most famous podium speech in Australian touring car history
“I’m just really stunned for words, I can’t believe the reception. I thought Australian race fans had a lot more to go than this, this is bloody disgraceful. I’ll keep racing but I tell you what, this is going to remain with me for a long time, you’re a pack of arseholes.”
So controversial was the finish that it overshadowed the death Denny Hulme. The 1967 Formula 1 champion suffered a heart attack on lap 33 in his M3.
The 1992 Bathurst 1000 was the R32’s last race in Australia. CAMS had been planning for some time to follow the FIA’s lead and replace Group A with something else. A new Group 3A 5.0L V8 category was introduced to entice Ford to return. To get Ford over the line, the V8s were given a performance advantage over the 2.0L and 2.5L Super Tourers. This infuriated Fred Gibson. Nissan wasn’t interested in fielding a Primera for class honours only, so Gibson Motorsport had to start over again as a privateer Holden team.
The GTR’s dominating performance is widely blamed for Group A’s demise in Australia. In reality, it would have only been a minor consideration. Group A cars were hideously expensive to build. The GTRs reportedly cost $700,000 to build in 1991, more than a Supercar in 2017. Costs had been rising to worrying levels since early 1991 and the ATCC wasn’t getting enough media coverage. Even Nissan, who was dominating the championship was finding it harder to justify continuing.
Richards doesn’t regret what he said. “I don’t regret calling them arseholes”, he told journalist Alex Inwood in 2012. “Not one bit. I mean what I said and I’m not sorry about it. Not in the least. It was a spur in the moment thing. But things got fairly crazy. The reason I called them a pack of arseholes is because they were booing so loudly I couldn’t even hear what I was saying. So when my time came to talk I told them what I told them. If I had thought of something else I probably would have said it, but I didn’t.”
Arguably the world’s fastest Group A Skylines, the Gibson Motorsport R32s were an excellent example of Australia’s touring car development prowess in the Group A period. Dic k Johnson Racing had the world’s fastest Sierras, Gibson Motorsport’s GTRs had them comprehensively beaten.