Fresh from breaking his all-time victories tie with Peter Brock last time out at Eastern Creek, a fired-up Mark Skaife continued his good form by topping the practice times on the opening day of the Skycity Triple Crown meeting in Darwin.

The Holden Racing Team veteran was a comfortable couple of tenths clear of his nearest rival as Holden and Ford shared top ten honours at Hidden Valley Raceway. Rick Kelly provided the nearest thing to a challenge to Skaife as red flags again littered the session, the current points leader - and reigning champion - ensuring a Holden 1-2.

"It was a good time, but by no means perfect," Skaife reported, suggesting that there was more to come from the #2 HRT Commodore, "The VE lacked a bit of straight line speed, but cornered well. We need to change a few things tomorrow and increase grip, as others will make gains and it's essential to maintain the edge we had in practice."

Ford filled the next two spots as the two manufacturers lined up in formation, FPR's Mark Winterbottom narrowly out-pacing Caltex/Stone Brothers' Russell Ingall, before the HRT/Toll HSV tandem was repeated by Todd Kelly and Garth Tander in fifth and sixth.

The six drivers from Skaife to Tander were the only ones to set lap times within 1min 09secs, as Hidden Valley's early lack of grip - due to a combination of morning rain and the fact that this was the first V8 Supercar session of the weekend - made it a challenge to find the optimum car set-up.

"We didn't get as many laps in as we would have liked, as we had a few dramas in the session with brakes and a starter motor going on the car," Ingall revealed, "Once we got those sorted, we had to shortcut a few other things. It leaves us guessing a little bit tomorrow - do we play it safe and see if we are quick enough tomorrow or take the risk, make some changes and possibly go slower? At the moment, the Caltex Racing Falcon is pretty good - I don't think it's good enough to be fastest but it's quick enough to be in the top five."

Practice was also interrupted by a number of red flag stoppages, the most spectacular of which coming after Ingall's SBR team-mate James Courtney rolled his Falcon during the first half hour. Courtney escaped injury in the accident, but was unable to continue, dropping to 21st on the timesheets, and left his team with a major repair job if he is to make qualifying tomorrow.

"It wasn't a big impact," Courtney explained, "It was a long spin and I washed most of the speed off spinning on the track before I got to the dirt. But there is not much run-off there at turn eight, and I just dug into the tyres and bounced over. It was a pretty pathetic effort for a roll-over really. It's disappointing to miss out on the rest of the session but the damage doesn't look too bad. I could have driven it back if it landed on its wheels. We'll get some new panels on it, kick the roof out and get back out there tomorrow."

Fellow Ford driver Craig Lowndes assisted Courtney out of his Falcon. Ironically, the TeamVodafone driver had spent Wednesday with a group of local indigenous children where he talked about the camaraderie between the V8 Supercar drivers - and his famous Calder Park roll. Lowndes, who is the defending round champion, went on to record the ninth fastest time of the day.

"The first set of tyres today weren't as good as we had hoped and, despite making a number of changes, we kept coming back to our base set-up, which prompted us to go to our second set of practice tyres earlier than planned," he said, "Our final set of tyres gave us the grip level we were looking for and the car balance wasn't too far away. We continued to make more changes to the car and I was quite happy with it towards the end."

Lowndes' team-mate, Jamie Whincup, was among those to struggle on day one, recording the 17th fastest time of the day, and was joined in the doldrums by both Tasman pilots, as Jason Richards and Greg Murphy mustered just 15th and 20th between them,

"In all honesty, we've probably got caught out with red flags during the session, which didn't allow us to take best advantage of our tyres," team manager Graham Jenkins said, "The cars are constantly evolving, but so are the goal posts - it's so competitive out there. We need to evaluate what's gone on today and work through the data and try optimise our performances for tomorrow."

The only real drama for the team came in the last moments of the session, when Murphy locked the brakes on the #51 Airnorth Commodore, sending it into the tyre walls. At first looks, the damage appears to be only superficial, with the left side doors needing replacing and the rear quarter panel some work.

Steven Richards, Will Davison and Steven Johnson rounded out the top ten on day one.


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