by Matthew Agius

Team Betta Electrical driver Craig Lowndes has notched up yet another race win in the 2005 V8 Supercar Championship, by taking victory in the opening twenty-three lapper at Phillip Island for the season-ending BigPond Grand Finale.

Lowndes started well from pole, but a blistering Garth Tander made the best jump from fourth on the grid - overtaking both Lowndes and Marcos Ambrose to lead the field into the first turn. Holden Racing Team's Mark Skaife qualified eleventh at his home test track - but he weekend soon became worse when he slipped off the track at Turn One and rejoined the track at the rear of the field.

Related Articles

Tander, the winner of the recent Ferodo Triple Challenge, eventually began to pull away from Lowndes, but it wasn't long before he pitted for his compulsory tyre stop along with Championship leader Russell Ingall. Both men took rear rubber changes, and rejoined the field without any issues.

Just one lap later, and inherited race leader Lowndes and championship rival Ambrose also peeled in to complete their tyre changes. The only blemish in Ambrose's charge was an untidy entry into pitlane - one that resulted in him entering alongside Lowndes as he overshot the control line. A tidy four-second stop from Stone Brothers Racing ejected Ambrose from the pits ahead of Lowndes.

Meanwhile series leader Russell Ingall was circulating outside the top five. Needing to finish well this weekend to secure the title, Ingall was gifted two more positions - and a foray into the top five - when Holden rivals Todd Kelly and Steven Richards clashed at Turn Two - both spearing off the track. Richards was eventually handed a pit lane penalty for failing to provide HRT driver Kelly with racing room.

Ambrose was falling into the clutches of Lowndes - a delaminating tyre causing the Pirtek Racer a tough set of final laps. Lowndes snuck through Ambrose at MG on lap fifteen, and Garth Tander also passed the defending champion five laps later.

For race winner Lowndes, he continues his form at Phillip Island after winning the previous 300km event held at the Victorian circuit in 2003.

"Our car wasn't quite as quick on colder tyres, but once we'd settled down our car was reasonably quick," said Lowndes.

"Marcos (Ambrose) was having some sort of trouble with tyre degradation and I think he actually had a tyre delaminate, so we were able to get by him and then pull a gap on both he and Garth Tander and go onto win the race quite comfortably.

"Tomorrow's races are going to be a longer, we don't know what the weather's going to hold for us yet, so we'll make some changes from today's results."

Garth Tander continued his purple patch of racing form this weekend by finishing second. Establishing himself and the HSV Dealer Team as the top Holden outfit as the season draws to a close, Tander booked himself a front row start for tomorrow's opening race - a perfect opportunity for another great start.

"I thought the start was fair! I didn't get any wheelspin, and I noticed that the two in front did get wheelspin. It was a really good launch and away we went," said Tander of his start.

"We have been getting good starts since Indy - we changed the car a little bit to get better starts, so we are really happy with that. After the pit stop we had massive, massive understeer and just could not push on the out-lap at all. I had the world's slowest out lap, so that is basically how these guys got in front.

"Marcos had a problem at the end and I caught him and he let me pass him, which is quite nice, as he needs as many points as possible. We were happy to finish second and look forward to tomorrow."

Ambrose suffered with tyre degradation issues near the end of his race, however he holds some good car speed, which bodes well for Sunday's races.

"We are all saying it is up to Russell to loose it, not for us to win it, but the priority is for Ford to win this weekend and the manufacturers' championship," said Ambrose.

"We had our chance to win the race today, especially after a great pit stop from the Pirtek crew, but it got away from us. Thankfully we managed to finish in the top three and be in a position to make use of some positive changes overnight.

"We delaminated a tyre and I could not hold up Craig (Lowndes) or Garth (Tander) any longer towards the end of the race. I was not worrying about championship points, I just want to try and win the round and go out on a high.

"One lap Craig (Lowndes) tried to pass me at MG and I thought to myself 'he has to try harder than that' - the next lap he did! I was about five seconds from coming into the pits because I could feel the tyre getting worse. For me the priority is to ensure that Ford finish 1-2-3 in the championship."

Both Rick Kelly and Russell Ingall added to their teammate's podium results by finishing fourth and fifth respectively. Kelly has kept the door open for another HSV Dealer Team double-podium, whilst Ingall took a solid points haul and maintains a strong position to win the title.

"I guess we got off the hook a little bit with other people making mistakes. We have a bit to improve - our car wasn't quite as good as we would have liked. I had a bit more understeer than expected. In all, I think we got off lightly," said Kelly.

"That was not a bad result for us, I think the track will continue to come to us more tomorrow," said Ingall.

"We have a little bit of push and if we can tune that out we will have a rocket ship for the final two races. I was having a decent go, but Richo (Steve Richards) was not doing me any favours and I actually caught a bit of dirt on the straight a couple of times.

"The Caltex crew pulled me in to avoid anything happening between us. I think they know me pretty well and knew a circuit breaker in my head was about to pop. When Todd (Kelly) went down the inside of Richo at turn two I was going to follow him through, but then they got together and I drove past to pick up a couple of spots.

"We just need to keep the momentum going tomorrow before we start making any room for the trophy."

Super Cheap Auto Racing finished well at their home test track with lead driver Greg Murphy and retiring young-gun Paul Weel finishing in sixth and tenth places. As the championship draws to a close after a challenging year for the team, SCAR is looking to finish well at the Grand Finale.

Team Kiwi Racing finished solidly with Paul Radisich grabbing seventh in the current single-car team's championship leaders, and Steve Ellery delivered Team Betta Electrical two cars in the Top Ten.