Mark Skaife was instrumental in creating the legend of the original R32 Godzilla. Who better, then, to compare it with the current R35 beast-master?
A DENSE, black cloud front seemed to be marching towards the motor racing circuit with Wagnerian menace.
It had its rival on the ground: an awesome automotive force, a twin-turbocharged, all-wheel drive powerhouse that has already sat the most revered of European rivals flat on their rear ends.
In all this, the new Nissan GT-R R35 road car was replaying the scene from 17 years earlier, when its forebear – the legendary Skyline GT-R R32, christened by Wheels as ‘Godzilla’ – charged head-on into a black wall of downpour on lap 144 of the Tooheys 1000 at Mount Panorama.
The R32, for all its supposed all-wheel-drive superiority, was simply hosed off the track along with Ford Sierras, Commodores and BMW M3s. But in the wash-up, a countback of the previous lap gave the race to the controversial Japanese supercar.
It was a final cigarette before execution.
The victorious Gibson Motorsport team-mates Mark Skaife and Jim Richards had spent the first half of 1992 locked in battle for the Australian Touring Car Championship in their Winfield-liveried GT-Rs. It was the wily, supernaturally talented Kiwi against the 25-year-old wunderkind who had largely driven the R32’s development.
With their shared Bathurst victory in chassis 5, the final R32 built by Gibson, Skaife crowned a record-breaking 1992 season. He had also become Australia’s youngest Touring Car champion and took the Australian Driver’s Championship in his SPA-Formula Brabham single-seater. The latter two titles were sealed on the very same day at Oran Park.
And here we were today. Storm clouds. Oran Park. And a pair of thundering, clawing, blood-red Nissan GT-Rs, book-ending 17 years.
Mark Skaife OAM, Australia’s most successful touring car driver, retired from full-time racing last October. But as he stepped into a more understated Holden race suit and pulled on the familiar yellow and red helmet for his Wheels GT-R assignment, he admitted he might dabble in the enduro rounds. “I won’t be able to go cold-turkey, because I love driving too much,” he shrugged. “Even things like today; I just love getting into the car and speeding around.”
He’s been a Holden man through-and-through since 1993, of course, when V8 Supercars killed Godzilla. And the last time he’d driven chassis 5 was when he’d last handed the car over to Richards at Mount Panorama, under gathering clouds.
These days, he said, “I can drive any car that starts with ‘H’, ends with ‘N’ – and isn’t a Hillman.” But 12 years of comparative product testing with HSV and Holden have kept him well up to date with rival products.
He hadn’t seen a GT-R R35 in the metal before. “I think it’s a super spunky-looking car,” he nodded, knowing a thing or two about tough road cars (his daily driver is an HSV GTS). “I love the wheel offset, I love the aggression, but it’s got that tough look about it. Tough-looking car. And value for money, absolutely.”
We gave Skaife a quick rundown on the GT-R’s transmission and suspension R-modes and ESP switches. With ‘R’ on and ESP off, Skaife burbled the chiselled red supercar down Oran Park’s pit lane. Its pert tail disappeared beyond the fast kink of the full-length GP circuit. When the nose bobbed up again over the bridge, it was already travelling at a clip.
Skaife was feeling out the traction, experimenting with the boost, car and driver squirming around as they became acquainted through the cresting-left Suttons and over the Dogleg. The red wedge disappeared again into the hard-leaning hollow before BP corner. And when it came past me on the straight – whooshing like an F-18 fighter, right-side mirror reaching for the wall – this performance party was already on.
Skaife trail-braked scary-late into the kink, the GT-R getting quite squirrelly as he firmly and rapidly massaged corrections into the wheel. Watching from the pit wall, I figured Skaife had probably caught it four times, in the second-or-so it would take most people to realise they were losing it.
I’d driven the R35 on the road in Germany, and had been gobsmacked by the way it masked its 1740kg kerb weight. But plenty of hard-edged road cars show up soft on the racetrack; surely, not Godzilla?
Skaife did five or six thundering, hard-working laps. I forgot to count, amid the train-sized cylinder of dust and air and chemical stench of brakes blasting past me on the straight, the brake lights Morse-coding deep into the kink, the rear end twisting and torquing as Skaife mastered its momentum. But then the GT-R was cruising, cooling its turbos, before the stinking, tinking R35 was stopped before us in the pits.
If I’d been expecting some awe-struck rice-boy’s reactions, or a hard-headed Holden V8 fan’s ruthless critique, I’d have been surprised. Skaife delivered a verbal data-download on everything the R35 had been doing. And how one might go about improving it.
“From a geometry and stability standpoint, it’s quite nervous on the way to the corner,” he explained. “When you first turn it, it’s nervous, and that restricts your entry. Then, when you get it to what I call segment two to three, bringing it back to the apex, it’s actually got mild understeer. That [right] front tyre there has copped plenty.”
Skaife went on to describe the yawing and corner uneasiness we’d been able to see clearly from the outside. He had been busy.
“At places like Suttons [a left-hander with a dip on turn-in, and a crest after the apex], the car’s quite nervous,” he went on. “You brake it, turn it, oversteer – and when you’ve got it caught, it gets back on the front wheel and just starts to understeer. And then finally when the understeer goes away, when you get back onto the throttle, it’s got enough sniff to drive itself out pretty straight.
“A lot of the characteristics are similar to the R32, when it first happened,” he smiled. “The amount of drive grip they’ve got is just extraordinary. When you can get into the throttle, it’s just unbelievable.”
Skaife added that the early throttle response was too tardy in letting him shift the action rearwards. I wondered aloud whether he’d been spoiled by 17 years of V8s, too long away from turbos. “No, you could definitely change the mapping to give you a bit more for your money there.”
The front tyres, whose shoulders weren’t new when we started, underlined Skaife’s point about the GT-R’s two phases of understeer.
“It’s actually front grip-limited, at some point,” he mused. “The nervousness really comes from an unstable rear, and the instability gives it that initial oversteer – but the natural balance of the car is mild entry understeer.”
He’d been impressed by the brake feel, but the car’s weight had contributed to bad fade after just three or four laps. He asked the kerb weight, and we told him: 1740kg.
“Yeah, it feels like it’s got quite a lot of momentum there. You have to do quite a lot of work to straighten the car up.”
How does all of this tally with his more usual mounts – similarly big, V8 rear-drivers? “Well, as a consequence [of the understeer], some of the fun’s taken out of it as a purist’s car,” he said. “But the amount of exit grip and how much throttle you can get on the car, once you’ve got it neutral and you can get it off the corner, anyone who didn’t enjoy that is just kidding themselves.”
Skaife recognised that the R35 is a GT-R. In his Nissan days, he had an R32 company car.
“Oh, you can feel that DNA,” he smiled. Skaife should feel it; he is himself woven somewhere deep in the GT-R code. “But … I hope they don’t get upset with me for saying this: they’ve lost a little bit of the crudeness and the rawness that the original [R32] car had. It had a much nicer steering wheel – a racy wheel – a more sculpted seat, so it was more like a race car.
“But, from the architecture and the engineering of the car, the way it translates to the driver, there’s a lot of that DNA… They’ve done that, but they’ve tamed it off too much. I’d be very interested to see what a Spec-V would be like.”
Which brought us back to his lap time. Did he care to hazard a guess? “Honestly, I wouldn’t have a clue, because after driving touring cars around here … I would have thought it’d do a, ahh … it’d be an 18 or a 20?”
In fact, on used tyres and without having sat in the car before, he had clocked a best of 1:18.08. He nodded. “If you put your head down and had some new tyres, this would be good for a 16.5 to 16.8, I reckon.”
As it stands, it’s only eight seconds off the pace of a current V8 Supercar. And, more pointedly, it means the R35 would still have its red baboon-butt soundly spanked by its 17-years-older, race-bred sister.
Back in 1992, the Winfield GT-R R32 – on slicks, of course – clocked a fastest race lap of 1:10.26 in Skaifey’s hands. He’d qualified it a quarter of a second quicker, but was pipped to pole by a brilliant John Bowe in the Shell Sierra.
Chassis 5 is now owned by restaurateur and racer Terry Ashwood, who bought the Gibson collection lock, stock and baseball caps in 2001.
Skaife slowly paced the car, hanging his head, looking upwards to admire the immaculate red, yellow and white paintwork. Its body glistened like the hull of an America’s Cup yacht.
He remembers – even down to gear ratios and brake master-cylinders – his time with the GT-Rs. The first time they met was in 1990, with four road cars and several boxes of Nismo race bits.
The GT-R had yet to be subjected to two, continuous years of Gibson Motorsport’s engineering wizardry. The Skyline’s story would be one of Aussie ingenuity exported to Japan for factory Group A homologation.
Skaife first drove one of the Nismo kit-cars on a lonely, drenched test day at Winton.
“I couldn’t believe, number one, the turn-in in the wet,” he recalled. “But the exit drive, it was unbelievable. You could get the car basically halfway around the corner and just put your foot flat.
“We knew what lap-time other cars would do, based on our [Skyline HR31] times. The HR31 was a very competitive car – Jim won the championship in 1990 with that car – so we knew this thing was going pretty well.”
If the helmet still looks at home in the R32’s cockpit, it’s because Skaife’s colour scheme dates back to his Winfield days. While he strapped in, owner Ashwood hooked up the external battery and fired the gorgeously finished, 2.6-litre in-line six into life.
The under-bonnet view looks more street-machine than Formula One: hand-wrapped heat shielding tape, braided steel hose, polished aluminium and anodised fittings. Steel-tube “bridges” straddle the cast-aluminium cam covers to support the Inconel exhaust manifold against turbo temperatures of 1000 degrees C.
Skaife reckoned the R32’s power steering to be 40 percent heavier than the R35 road car’s. The new one wasn’t pushing against slick tyres and 5.9 degrees of knock-kneed negative camber. But even the steering wheel itself was special; after all, Skaife helped create it.
“There’s a bit of crudeness,” he smiled from the cockpit. “There’s a lot of stuff that was really modern for the era, and now not. Like the gear lever, and where it is. We never bent the lever and put it where we wanted it … It’s a lot more road-car-y, and that’s essentially what they were.”
Skaife did three or four laps in the R32, dabbing brakes as he left the pit-lane, then giving the car an 80 percent thrashing for a similar portion of each lap. He was deferring to the car’s age and value, but owner Ashwood had also asked him to shake it down for that weekend’s Phillip Island Classic.
The barking note from the side-exit pipe was a reminder that touring cars don’t need a V8 to sound great.
“I felt very comfortable straight away,” Skaife grinned when he came back to the pits, remembering the familiar click-click-clicking of the American-made Electramotive engine management. “A lot of nice memories come back, from just the feel of it and the sounds and the things that were part of what made the car very special.
“You know, so many of the intrinsic, engineering things that we did with that car, as soon as you get in and drive it, poof – they just come back. I mean, the way that car turns at the corner, is unbelievable. In fact, it would be the best car on turn-in that I would have driven in 10 years or more. It’s unbelievable.”
Skaife admits to a special emotional attachment to this car. “When you’re a professional race driver you try not to get too attached to the cars – because you pretty easily don’t have one!” he reflected. “But definitely, cars that you’ve had great results with, and cars that have meant a lot to you…” He nominates this, and HRT chassis 45 (2002’s VY), as the two stand-outs of his career.
And this car, R32 chassis 5, was the ultimate product of 10 years of pioneering experience in preparing turbocharged Nissans; experience that had made Gibson Motorsport one of the most respected Nissan racing developers in the world. And Gibson fed its findings straight back to the factory, adding to the very fabric from which the latest R35 has been cut.
This is the car, and that was the race, that made the GT-R great.
Blood Brothers, featuring photos by Easton Chang, was first published in May 2009