Australian V8 Supercar driver Mark Larkham has revealed that he will be competing in his last championship race at Eastern Creek this weekend, before retiring and being replaced by young hotshot Mark Winterbottom in 2004.

Winterbottom, the reigning Konica V8 Supercar champion, has just completed the second of a five-year deal with Stone Brothers Racing, but has been released from his contract so that he can join Orrcon Racing for at least the next two seasons. The deal has been brokered over the last couple of months and has been facilitated with the help of Ford and with the blessing of Larkham Motor Sports' major sponsors, Orrcon Steel and DecoRug.

Larkham, who retires from full-time driving duties after ten years in the V8 Supercar ranks, will still play an active role in testing and at Sandown and Bathurst as an endurance driver, but will now have the chance to concentrate 100 per cent on his business interests. Winterbottom will team up with regular Larkham Motor Sport Racing driver Jason Bargwanna in one of the team's two Orrcon Racing BA Falcons in 2004-05.

"Personally, I am disappointed to have missed the opportunity to get my backside in a BA Falcon for a season," Larkham admitted, "I really enjoyed being competitive in it at the Sandown 500, but LMS is not about my driving career.

"However, it's not completely over yet. At this stage, I anticipate a degree of involvement in testing as we continue to develop the BA, and at this stage I will continue as a co-driver in the endurance events. As the demands of both team ownership and competitive race driving become tougher, to optimise both roles within my resources will result in compromise, and that's not where LMS is headed.it is clear to me this is the correct thing to do.

"This now allows me to focus 100 per cent on the business - something I am passionate about. Given the opportunities now before us, I am absolutely committed to seeing LMS show it's full potential over coming years."

Winterbottom was the winner of the Ford Kartstars competition three years ago and then progressed to the Formula Ford Championship in 2002 where he was runner-up. He was signed by SBR mid-way through last year and a deal was brokered to run in this year's Konica V8 Championship in which he won four of the six rounds and wrapped-up the title with one round remaining.

"I have stated for some time that if an opportunity presents itself to progress our driver line-up, I would step aside - the time is now right," Larkham explained, "I believe Mark Winterbottom is a genuinely talented race driver whose achievements to date have been based on his ability - and I like that. I have been in dialogue with Ross and Jimmy Stone for some time now regarding Mark, and it is clear they have given him a very solid grounding."

The 22-year old gets his opportunity to graduate to the senior V8 series after racking up the Konica title in his first season out of single-seaters and showing well alongside Mark Noske in the second SBR Ford at both Sandown and Bathurst.

"This is a fantastic opportunity and I have to thank both Stone Brothers Racing and Mark Larkham for making it happen," he said, "There is no doubt that Orrcon Racing has made some solid progress this season and that the team has secured the budget to take the next step in 2004.

"The great thing is that the team is also based on the Gold Coast and that I can be on call and don't have to move anywhere. I look forward to working with Jason Bargwanna and Mark [Larkham] on a daily basis and learning a lot from both of them."

SBR co-owner Ross Stone admitted that it was not going to be viable for his team to run a third car for Winterbottom in 2004 and that the deal with Larkham Motor Sport was a great alternative.

"Mark Winterbottom is a terrific young talent and it was important to ensure he had a full-time ride in the V8 Supercar Championship Series in 2004," he confirmed, "We looked into the idea of running a third car ourselves, but the money people want to buy or lease a franchise just made the whole idea unviable. I think this deal with Mark Larkham is a 'win-win' for everyone involved.

"The Orrcon team has made some real ground this season and that young Mark will learn a lot from both 'Larko' and Jason Bargwanna. I expect him to be out there racing as hard as he can and giving us a run for our money."

Ford Australia's motorsport operations manager, Stephen Kruk, was delighted to see two Ford teams like SBR and LMS working together on the project to give Winterbottom a full-time ride.

"First of all, I'd like to thank Mark Larkham for his support and success since joining V8 Supercars full-time in 1995 - he has been a great ambassador for Ford," Kruk said, "The benefits of Ford teams working together can't be underestimated. We see Mark Winterbottom as a huge talent and will be someone that Ford fans can watch as a future champion. The LMS and SBR 'win-win' deal will allow Mark Winterbottom to compete in the main V8 Supercar Series in 2004, providing invaluable experience to further his career.

"LMS has recently announced an extension to its Orrcon Steel and Tubing sponsorship deal. Now with the driving combination of Mark Winterbottom and Jason Bargwanna for 2004, the team is set for exciting times in the future."

This year's championship will be decided at the VIP Petfoods Main Event at Eastern Creek Raceway with SBR's Marcos Ambrose and Holden's Greg Murphy and Mark Skaife still in the title chase.

 

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