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BATHURST OR BUST,
EXPECTANT RACING BOSSES SAY

The motorsport bosses of Ford and Holden will watch on at Bathurst this weekend with the nervousness and assuredness of proud parents.

Prejudiced judges all the same, both firmly believe their army has the strike force to win on Mount Panorama.

"Ford is giving the Bob Jane T-Marts 1000 its very best shot this year," Ford Racing general manager Howard Marsden said.

"We not only have the strength in numbers, but when you look through our line-up we have arguably some of the best driver combinations as well."

Holden motorsport manager John Stevenson said Holden and Bathurst are inextricably linked, with an unrivalled success record.

"Holden intends to continue that tradition even further," he said, "with the talent pool for both our drivers and teams having never been deeper than for this year's event."

That's the thing about Bathurst. The slate is wiped clean, previous rounds and results are forgotten, and just about everyone is given a fighting chance of conquering this most sacred mountain.

It's motorsport Mecca; 6.213kms of public road that for four decades has inspired men and machines to extraordinary feats.

Those that haven't tasted Bathurst glory long for the feeling. Those that have are addicted.

"Bathurst remains the single most important race of the year," Marsden said. "It's important from a driver and team point of view...it's like winning the Grand Final in the AFL or NRL, you are known for 12 months as Bathurst champions."

Marsden's men look fiercely determined. They've won only once this year - David Besnard and Simon Wills' shot-in-the-arm Queensland 500 victory last month - but head to Bathurst striving for redemption.

"It goes without saying that I'm really looking forward to [this] weekend," 00 Motorsport's Craig Lowndes said.

Lowndes, with faithful sidekick Neil Crompton and buoyed by a strong Queensland 500 result, carries the hopes of many Ford fans. Major success has eluded the 1996 Bathurst champion since joining the Blue Oval ranks, and a win this weekend will be payback for patient Ford bosses and their hefty investment.

Stone Brothers Racing is also well placed to deliver Ford's first Bathurst victory since 1998.

Last year's pole-sitter, Marcos Ambrose's relentless pursuit of the Holden Racing Team cars this season has been courageous. With championship regular Paul Weel along for the ride, the Pirtek Falcon will again lead the chase.

For Besnard, this time teaming with former motorcycle champion and Bathurst pole-winner Wayne Gardner in the Caltex-liveried SBR sister car, Sunday's race is twice as long as his Queensland win - and twice the challenge.

"Bathurst is a place that just introduces so many variables and any one of them can end your day," he said, "[but] I think we will make a pretty solid combination."

OzEmail Racing's Brad Jones reckons negotiating the gruelling six-hour marathon - including at least four pit stops - is a matter of survival, at least until the final sprint to the flag.

"You can't have any hiccups and most importantly you must be within sight of the lead group after the final round of pit stops," he said, this year partnering Bathurst stalwart John Bowe.

"There's been plenty of guys who drive away at the start to not even make it to the finish, you must keep your head and really work as a team both in and out of the car."

Jones was at odds of 300/1 when he and co-driver John Cleland (Cleland is sharing the second OzEmail Falcon with Tim Leahey this weekend) claimed a career-turning second at Bathurst last year. But with the team's turn of pace this season, there's been considerably less value for tipsters.

Over at Holden, there's little doubt where the smart money is.

With a commanding championship lead, Holden Racing Team spearhead Mark Skaife is a deservedly emphatic favourite to defend his Bathurst crown.

Teaming with evergreen 55-year-old Jim Richards, the man who shared in Skaife's first two Bathurst victories, it's the most accomplished pairing in the field.

"We've done a lot of racing together and I'm tipping if we're fortunate to win once more the reception this time will be a little different to the one back in 1992," Skaife said, referring to their controversial and unpopular defeat of Dick Johnson and John Bowe.

Skaife can secure a record-equalling fifth championship this weekend. What better place to do it.

"You could never get sick of winning at Bathurst, but to win the race in its 40th anniversary year would be something special," he said.

"Bathurst really is a test of man and machine and is regarded as one of the world's great races. The quality of the field has improved dramatically in recent years and I think this year will be the most competitive ever."

If they don't win, the No. 2 HRT Commodore of Jason Bright and Tomas Mezera probably will. Unfailingly fast cars, skilled drivers and a crack pit crew mean they'll take some beating.

Kmart Racing's Greg Murphy and Todd Kelly have been rarely far from each other on the track this season, and together form arguably the most competitive driver pairing in the field.

After a heartbreaking loss at the Queensland 500, when a fuel line fault robbed the pair of victory with the line in sight, the team has meticulously been over the car to ensure it won't happen again.

Garry Rogers' Bathurst-winning team has found form at the right time of year and, according to Rogers, there's no better race pairing in the country than his odd couple, Garth Tander and Jason Bargwanna.

Just don't expect to see the No. 34 Commodore at the top of the time sheets early on. You have to sneak up on the Bathurst podium, according to Tander.

"It really starts on Thursday and you need a quiet, smooth and trouble-free lead up to Sunday - always being thereabouts but with something in reserve," he said.

"And then on race day it's even more about teamwork, with critical strategy; pit stops are frequent and important; again staying out of trouble on the track; and giving it everything in the last hour or so."

The Larry Perkins stable traditionally sets itself for this event, with an unrivalled reliability record.

Russell Ingall and Steven Richards will lead the team's assault; a dynamic partnership set to give the Mountain a mighty shake when practice starts on Thursday.

Then there's the man who threatens to steal the show. The undisputed King of the Mountain, nine-time winner Peter Brock, is back on his throne, strapping in for one final run at Bathurst, with co-driver Craig Baird.

At 57, aboard an underdeveloped Commodore, the challenge is surely too great.

But, this is Bathurst...

--V8 WIRE (Jason Whittaker)

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