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Two decades on from a thrilling Sandown 500

The 2003 V8 Supercars season marked a changing of the guard as Ford ended Holden’s long-time domination through Marcos Ambrose and Stone Brothers Racing, plus the Sandown 500 returned after a four-year hiatus (just like this year).

But Sandown fell in favour of Holden in a thriller 20 years ago.

Once dominant, the Holden Racing Team under new owner Mark Skaife was under attack from Stone Brothers Racing as Ford saddled up for the traditional warfare led by Geoff Polites and the Ford BA Falcon.

Queensland Raceway had played host to the regular 500km pre-Bathurst endurance race since 1999, taking the mantle from Sandown, but a return was on the cards for 2003 and what an event it was.

In a press conference at the event, Roland Dane announced Triple Eight Race Engineering had purchased Briggs Motorsport to enter the V8 Supercars Championship in 2004. And we know how that ended up!

Back in 2003, the grid sat at 35 and Ambrose set a scorching time to sit on pole with a 1m 11.855s in the Pirtek/Caltex split-liveried BA Falcon he shared with Russell Ingall.

A crash during the last support race prior to the big event a historic Holden Torana GTR XU-1 crashed approaching Turn 1 necessitating repairs to the armco delaying the start as commentators predicted then that the race was to be shortened.

Ambrose led the way into Turn 1 after a shocking start by Todd Kelly sharing with Skaife, which dropped the HRT driver back to fifth behind a fast starting Paul Radisich in the Betta Electrical Falcon, Rick Kelly’s Kmart Racing Commodore and the Jason Richards Team Dynamik Holden.

Even on lap 2, although the sun was out rain was being predicted to arrive within five minutes as the two Dick Johnson Racing Falcons were caught in a pile up early on at Turn 9.

Ambrose continued to lead and trad times the elder Kelly during the opening stint until a major rain storm arrived on lap 41 leading to an influx of pit stops forcing many teams to double stack losing plenty of time.

Steady rain continued to fall as Ambrose held a 15s advantage to Kelly, while his HRT teammate Jim Richards had climbed to ninth after starting from the back as the second pit stops took place with Ingall and Skaife taking over.

This proved a crucial moment as Skaife got through Turn 1 drama free, but Ingall failed to. Approaching the opening corner, Ingall locked his rears and spun after not pumping the brakes enough to become stuck in the sand trap as the duo dropped a lap.

Rain wasn’t set to go away as on lap 104 it returned as Murphy and Skaife went at it for the lead of the race, with both entering the pit lane at the same time two laps later. It proved another crucial stop and for Murphy it was a disaster. First, the Kmart Commodore collided with the GRM entry as it entered its pit bay, then the rear wing bolts were pulled out after the end plate became wrapped in the air hose.

Skaife continued to lead as hail hit the circuit leading to a safety car as it piled up so high around the track it appeared like snow. Richards and Simon Wills moved to second in the ‘underdog’ Team Dynamik entry, but was one to watch.

Richards was closing significantly on Skaife and it wasn’t just because of the weather, rather the HRT Commodore was enduring an electrical problem leading to low voltage. Skaife was frantically turning various items off such as the headlights, windscreen wiper and rain light to preserve energy.

Pushing hard, Richards made his move on the penultimate lap when he had a crack at Turn 9, but it wasn’t to be as the New Zealander ran wide into the sand trap leading to Skaife holding on for a memorable victory.

Unable to recover from the sand trap, Richards was left behind and won many fans along the way.

Due to Sandown’s proximity in suburbia a time certain finish of 4:45pm ensured a 141 lap race and Skaife held on by the skin of his teeth, with Richards unrewarded after an amazing charge.

Steve Ellery and Luke Youlden took second ahead of Murphy and Kelly in the Kmart Racing entry.