Garth Tander may have led Jamie Whincup and Lee Holdsworth on the opening day of the Winton V8 Supercars meeting, but its was the Toll HRT man's former team-mate who stole the show as he returned to the cockpit for the first time since 'retiring' at the end of 2008.
Former champion Mark Skaife made an unexpected appearance on a day when the new Dunlop Sport Maxx Sprint tyre was expected to grab all the headlines, driving Greg Murphy's Sprint Gas Racing Commodore in practice as a nominated 'co-driver' for the session. The outing was reportedly an attempt to 'satisfy a troubling itch' that has dogged Skaife since deciding to give the game up five months ago, but naturally led to rumours that he could partner fellow veteran Murphy at the end-of-season endurance races.
“It's good to get back in,” the five-time Australian Touring Car titlewinner admitted, “I felt okay about it all, but [retirement] has been gnawing at me when I've been at a racetrack, but out of the car. You can't spend your whole life going round and round in circles and just give it up. I always said I couldn't go cold turkey, so to have a speed around was just fantastic. Comments I was making to the team had Greg nodding, because he's been complaining of similar things, and that's what we were hoping for.”
Skaife was a little more reserved when it came to answering questions about a possible involvement in either the L&H 500 at Phillip Island or the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
“Don't expect an announcement yet – [but] you never say never,” he said, “It's a bit of both. It's something that I can do and if I can help that's a good thing. Whether I choose to do the long distance races or not is another thing. We will work that last piece out when it comes up.”
Skaife aside, the biggest news from Winton concerned the introduction of Dunlop's new soft compound rubber, designed to add strategy and excitement to racing at selected events this season. The 'sprint' tyre, marked out with a pink stripe, stunned drivers with its speed and grip, as Tander, points leader Whincup and Holdsworth were all among those who set their fastest times on the softer rubber, the last two series champions both ducking under Jason Bright's previous practice record.
“The tyre is considerably quicker than the current tyre and offers a lot more grip,” Tander reported, while Whincup revealed that the change of rubber transformed his TeamVodafone Ford.
“As drivers, the more grip the merrier,” Whincup said, “It felt like I was in a different beast, a totally different car. These tyres seemed to align with the power of the car and the braking that we have. We need a tyre that suits all conditions, but it's fantastic to have this other option at certain events.”