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Wednesday, 08 February 2017 00:00

Feature: The new order of manufacturer power in Supercars

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The Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is back to having two manufacturers providing factory funding in 2017, five years into the Car of the Future era and in the first year of Gen2.

So what's the future of manufacturers in the series? In this in-depth examination that featured in V8X Supercar Magazine issue #95, following the phasing out of Walkinshaw Racing's Holden Racing Team, we delve into the past, present and future of global and Australian trends and speak to series, team and manufacturer representatives to make sense of the landscape.

At the Crown Casino in Melbourne in March 2010, a car-cover emblazoned with a question mark sat atop a V8 Supercar at an historic announcement for Australian motorsport. It symbolised the uncertain future facing what was then known as V8 Supercars.

The Ford versus Holden exclusive V8 battle would be no longer and V8 Supercars would 'open the shop front' to other manufacturers. With Ford and Holden ending their local manufacturing in the coming years, V8 Supercars would have to adapt to a changing landscape.

"We want to open the door to production four-door sedans which will be configured as V8 rear-wheel drive race cars under strict parity arrangements to compete equally against Falcons and Commodores," said architect of the blueprint, Mark Skaife.

"Any V8 engine can potentially be used where a manufacturer can modify one of its family V8 powerplants or utilise an existing category V8 Supercar engine. Who knows, this may open the door to teams fielding Nissans, Toyotas, Hyundais, Mazdas... whatever!"

Seven years on from that announcement and into the second-generation of that open-door policy (Gen2), which moves away from the V8 and four-door requirement, two factory-backed teams consisting of six cars in total will line-up for the start of the 2017 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship. They are the two Holden-backed Red Bull Racing Australia entries of Triple Eight Race Engineering, now with the Holden Racing Team name, and four Nissan Motorsport entries. And with the absence of the Volvo S60s, there are only three manufacturers represented on the grid: Holden, Ford and Nissan.

It leaves Supercars with fewer factory-backed teams than in the final season of the Ford and Holden duopoly in 2012. The door did indeed open to manufacturers, but what's happened since that 2010 announcement highlights the fickle nature of car manufacturers and their commitment to motorsport.

Ford pulled funding and factory status from Ford Performance Racing at the end of 2015. Even a brand that was one of two pillars of the V8 era with a long and storied history in the series and committed fanbase didn't want to justify the spend of supporting a team.

AMG Mercedes-Benz never supported Erebus Motorsport's E63s and the privately-developed Mercs only lasted three seasons to the end of 2015. Even an owner from one of the richest families in Australia in Betty Klimenko couldn't successfully run cars without a manufacturer's support, leaving the Mercs parked.

Volvo came in with bluster and enjoyed immediate success. Yet that enthusiasm and positive results turned into a sudden exit and legal wrangling over the ownership of the cars and engines for 2017. It highlighted how manufacturer politics can curtail a manufacturer's involvement, even with success.

So where does that leave Supercars moving forward into the Gen2 era? The global motorsport market is contracting. In the post-global financial crisis market, manufacturers are increasingly frugal with their budgets.

As a result, few motorsport categories have experienced genuine growth in recent years. Formula E, the open-wheeled electric series, is defying the trend, with manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, Jaguar, BMW and more using the innovative series to accelerate its electric-powered technology.

GT racing is also enjoying a growth spurt, with 21 manufacturers having a car homologated to compete in GT3 classes around the world. With a relatively open rulebook, GT3 cars are based on production road-car models in mass production.

Formula E and GT3 each lay claim to core reasons why manufacturers have traditionally gone racing, the former for its role in technical development and the latter for its direct link to what's on sale in showrooms.

Supercars, one could argue, has lost those aspects. There's very little technology in Supercars that manufacturers can use in their road cars. And Supercars, with their control chassis', are more removed from their road-going versions than GT3s.

Adding to the challenge for Supercars is the change in the Australian automotive industry, with the end of local manufacturing reshaping a market that represents just one per cent of the global landscape. With manufacturers looking to electric powerplants and driverless cars now a reality, traditional forms of motorsport are suffering.

Richard Emery works with this challenging new-look automotive landscape as CEO of Nissan Australia.

"Australia is so competitive with so many brands competing for what is a relatively small market on a global scale," he says.

"It's difficult for investment with small volumes, specific requirements such as right-hand drive and high expectations of fuel economy and efficiency. That makes it hard to justify model offerings and big investments.

"It's rapidly changing quicker than people expect. The market is getting used to the fact that we aren't a car-manufacturing country anymore."

The Falcon versus Commodore V8 era played such an important part in the growth of Australian touring cars that it's now hard for Supercars to shake the perception that the death of car manufacturing spells the end of the series. The series has been forced to change, dropping the 'V8' tag for the impending non-V8 engines.

"When you go somewhere and mention V8 Supercars, people know what you're talking about," says team boss Brad Jones.

"It'd be a sad day when we don't have any V8s in our field."

After all, the popularity of the series can be attributed to the success of the V8 era. The series is now grappling with not just a rebrand but also a whole new formula.

"There's a whole heap of unknowns going forward on how the engines will work, so that's something we've all got to be careful of," adds fellow team boss Rod Nash.

"We know by way of noise it could cause a huge rift amongst the punters. We're always testing the waters by having our finger on the pulse, but we need to make sure that we don't move away from what we know."

Nash knows only too well how fleeting manufacturer involvement can be. The successful businessman started out as a privateer driver before running his entry at a variety of Holden and Ford teams. His entry eventually found a home at Ford Performance Racing, the Ford factory-backed team that he and Rusty French purchased in 2013 before Ford Australia pulled its funding.

"If you look over the years, Holden's been in and out, Ford's been in and out and the story goes on... at times, it's like a revolving door," says Nash.

"These days we're all a lot more strategic with our marketing dollars and spend accordingly in the right place. Manufacturers are working out where to best spend their money and we're one pillar of the marketing outlet to promote their brand.

"There's a big change going on, but we're still active and we still have a level of support from Ford. It's not where it was, when we were factory team and heavily funded by them – that's gone by the wayside – but it's just like any business, you adjust to accommodate."

The justification for manufacturers to go racing is harder, particularly in a market as small as Australia and in a series so associated with Ford and Holden. The likes of Toyota enjoyed growth in the Australian market without V8s, using the AFL, NRL and other mainstream success stories to leverage their brand without the risk and costs of a domestic touring-car program.

"The deals with the manufacturers will be fundamentally different to what they've been in the past," says Supercars CEO James Warburton.

"Our platform and what we offer is no different to a standard media buy; why are people involved in The Voice or The Bachelor or any other mainstream media?

"When you look at what we are now delivering as a platform, we'll see more manufacturers step back in the fullness of time."

So if Supercars is no different to reality television for manufacturers, the ultimate decider in whether they go racing, as Warburton suggests, is the strength of the series' numbers. And, in a time of great change, not allowing the perception that the series will crumble without V8-powered Falcons and Commodores is, therefore, vital in selling the idea to new manufacturers.

Holden's decision to stay in the series but realign its commitment represents the changing mindset guiding manufacturers.

As it gears up for its change from local manufacturer to importer, it's taken a long hard look at its image. This has involved 'realigning' the brand to appeal to a broader range of buyers, 'de-bogan' its image and appeal to a 'modern Australia'.

Did Supercars perpetuate this 'bogan' image? The decision to switch the Holden Racing Team name, owned by Holden and essentially leased to Walkinshaw Racing since 1990, to the Red Bull-backed Triple Eight can be seen as part of this marketing realignment.

Sure, Walkinshaw Racing has struggled to match it with Triple Eight since the latter switched to Holdens in 2010. The Holden Racing Team at Walkinshaw Racing has not won a championship since 2002, while Triple Eight has won six. But the chance to team up with a brand with a dynamic reputation such as Red Bull seems in keeping with this attempt to revive the Holden brand.

"The mindset of the sponsor that's doing business with you is very different to the person who comes to the events," says Jones following Holden's announcement.

"The sponsors want to get to the people who want to watch it, so it's all linked, but Holden and Ford don't have market share in Australia that they once did because times are changing at a different level, so the series is going through an inevitable change. But it'll be a sad day if they didn't have that connection because there are a lot of people who do feel very tribal about their brands."

The recent move to the pay-TV model has added to the winds of changes, raising fears the reduction in free-to-air live events will take the series out of the mainstream.

"From a manufacturer base, we take note of the TV audience but it's not critical; we make our numbers with how we activate our involvement," says Emery.

For Nissan Australia, having four Nissan Altimas racing in Supercars isn't necessarily about selling Altimas but rather pushing the wider Nissan brand.

"It's not about selling Altimas in isolation; it's about using motorsport to help Nissan's brand," says Emery.

"It's about presenting ourselves with our motorsport heritage and excitement in our products. The knock-on effect is to the consumers and they react very well to our motorsport programs compared to other platforms."

Nissan entered Supercars at the first opportunity in the first year of the Car of the Future regulations in 2013, building on a five-decade involvement in Australian motorsport. Yet the brand can't necessarily quantify the impact of its return.

"It's difficult to say we sold this amount of cars because we went motor racing," says Emery.

"What we can say is there are consumers who chose a Nissan and we think our involvement in motorsport has made an influence on their purchase decision. In our research we've found customers have increased their rating of a Nissan as exciting to drive, which we believe is connected to our motorsport involvement. And we want to increase those levels so there's an emotional attachment between our drivers and the brand."

In contrast, Toyota has invested in the Toyota 86 series, following a global trend of manufacturers setting up their own one-make categories to suit their needs.

So did Supercars leave it too late to 'open the shop front'? While it can be argued that the Commodore versus Falcon V8 era helped revitalise Australian touring cars following the much-maligned Group A era, did it hold on for too long with Ford and Holden exclusivity?

After all, the writing was on the wall for some time that car buyers were moving away from Falcon and Commodore V8s. Small cars and SUVs were in vogue, while imported brands increased their market share.

"Maybe it was a couple of years too late," admits Jones on opening up the series to other brands.

Nissan is one of the few still trying to tap into this tribal support, more in keeping with the attitude of car manufacturers of yesteryear which saw motorsport as a vital part of its marketing.

"When you sponsor a logo on a football team, there's going to be a big bunch of people who don't like you on a given weekend because your team is playing against them," says Emery.

"Also, it's not connected to your brand; your brand is stuck on someone else's shirt. With motorsport, people are out there cheering for Nissan, rather than a football team. That's why we changed to a Nissan-branded car (the #23 entry), so people have a Nissan car to cheer on.

"The impact on merchandise sales shows there's more connection than with another brand. For example, we've promoted Nissan Navara on the #23 as we know the demographic that would buy that car are watching
Supercars, so it's an extension of our marketing for it."

Emery says Nissan Australia's motorsport spend is "relatively small, smaller than people would think". Yet even so, despite a reported budget of $2 million for a manufacturer to support a factory-backed team, Supercars isn't being inundated with different brands.

Car of the Future was meant to usher in a new era of manufacturer battles, but teams are instead focussing on cutting costs and making do without factory backing.

Jones has been on both sides of the fence, having run the factory-backed Audi team in Super Touring and now as a privately-run Holden entrant in Supercars.

His team has constructed its own Commodores since the beginning of the Car of the Future era. Together with Prodrive Racing Australia, it represents the template for how non-customer independent teams will operate in an era of diminishing manufacturer support. Both are competitive, though there is still some liasing that needs to be done with the manufacturers.

"We're approved to liaise with them and if we want to make a shirt and put Ford on it, or do something with the branding, we must seek their approval," says Nash.

"As long as we aren't trying to go too far the other way, putting this huge Ford branding on a shirt and then nothing else, they're more than happy to be part of it as long as we're using the logo in the correct form, they're just playing policeman in how it's being used."

Moving forward into Gen2, any new manufacturer would need to give its blessing for a team to apply its body shell and engine to a Supercar. But while it has drawn criticisms, Car of the Future is still regarded as the best platform for the sustainability of Supercars.

The cost of turning a road-going car into a Supercar without the control chassis – harking back to the improved production, Group C and Group A days – is seemingly unfeasible in terms of costs, safety and parity.

"With the advancement in parity and safety, you can't keep putting bars inside cars like we used to," says Nash.

"The Car of the Future set the platform for the series to move forward. But one good thing we have is that the cars are based off cars that you could walk into the showroom floor of the manufacturer and purchase it.

"Our rules keep that together and the teams work very hard at supporting that, so we make sure that we sustain the look and feel of the car, like something you can go and buy. That gives strength to what we do."

But as expressed already, manufacturer involvement in Supercars is no longer about the direct link between race and road cars but rather brand awareness.

"I've been in to a number of different manufacturers and not one of them has said whether we would run an independent rear end etc... would the marketing department or CEO know that? It's a branding exercise," argues Jones.

There has been more variety in terms of race winners in the Car of the Future era, though there's growing concern that the pool of constructors is diminishing with Triple Eight charged with building the next Commodore and an increasing amount of teams relying on customer cars.

"It definitely helps to drive down costs and the fact is that more people are capable of manufacturing than before," insists Jones, whose team has won more races with Car of the Future than the Holden Racing Team.

"The driver is as close to the middle of the car as we can get him for safety, the competition is close and we've had many different winners, so it's great that you turn up to a circuit and you don't know who's going to win."

Future-proofing the series is now the name of the game. According to Warburton, Holden and Nissan would not have committed to a V8-only formula, which would have left the series with no factory-backed teams.

"That's where Gen2 is a good offer to any manufacturer, because the body will inherently still look very similar to what you can buy on the road with an engine in keeping with what's in the road car," says Nash.

"I see it as a positive because if manufacturers want to pursue it at least we've got the garage door open to be able to accommodate them. If they don't, well, then I still believe that teams will be well structured to still make their own decisions on which way we should continue to go forward and make the right decisions."

But as Gen2 edges closer to GT3, does Supercars run into the problem of making it harder for makes to justify a separate package than its GT offering?

This is particular a concern given the strength of the GT racing model, in which manufacturers sell and service the cars to customers who take them racing.

It's a low-cost revenue stream for manufacturers with a direct link to the road cars. In that sense, it's a throwback to what touring cars used to be but has now lost as manufacturers' performance cars evolved into GT-spec and the industry moved away from high-powered sedans that formed the basis for Australian touring cars.

Erebus Motorsport's Barry Ryan believes Supercars' only hope of attracting manufacturer interest is moving to GT3, saying: "If manufacturers are what we want and need, then eventually we are going to have to go GT3."

Nissan has Skyline GT-Rs ready and waiting to be raced in GT events around the world. And over the course of the next year the manufacturer will weigh up its future direction in Supercars, at a time it's still optimising its current Altima package.

"They aren't cheap processes to switch to a new plat- form, so we will continue with what we have and look quite quickly at what comes next after that," says Emery.

"From a global perspective, head office will wonder why we don't just grab what they have off the shelf and adapt that to the rules. Ultimately, there is that diehard V8 Supercar fan and you have to transition carefully. NISMO may say we should go to the global platform as soon as we can, but that may be a step too far. It's a delicate balance that will keep a number of stakeholders up in the air for a further period.

"We need to make sure Gen2 has enough life to reap the rewards. We've spent a lot of money on our current package and just about got it right, so do we really want to throw that in the bin and start again? There needs to be enough time to see if it's worthwhile. But if Supercars heads closer to the global platform, then I'd say Nissan would still be in Supercars in the years to come."

Supercars teams have increased their involvement in GTs in recent times, either running their own entries with manufacturers (Walkinshaw Racing with Porsche and Tekno Autosports with McLaren) or by providing technical assistance (Triple Eight with Maranello Motorsport). Nissan has a foot in both camps.

"I think there's a role for both, as they are very different categories in terms of how they go to the market and the structure of the series," says Emery.

But while GT racing is on the rise, it still has a way to go to reach Supercars. A parallel can be drawn between the Australian GT Championship and the pre-V8 Supercars era of the Australian Touring Car Championship. While the marquee event (the Bathurst 12 Hour) has cemented its place on the motorsport calendar, the rest of the championship doesn't have wider mainstream attention and it piggybacks off Supercars events.

"If GT3 were the equal class to Supercars in Australia, then I would have had a very different discussion with Japan," says Emery.

"That's not the case in terms of marketing opportunities and everything else attached to Supercars. It's on a different level in Australia.

"They are years away from being equal. Therefore, there's quite a bit of life in Supercars for years to come."

So assuming Supercars retains its current touring-car control-chassis platform, can it sustain itself without manufacturer backing?

"We've got a big job to improve in weaning off being the factory team and being our own entity, but that's what we are these days and life goes on," says Nash.

"It's adjusting the sails and working with people in their markets with what they're trying to achieve. It doesn't matter whether it's Bottle-O trying to sell a bottle of wine or Castrol trying to selling a tub of oil; it's all how you leverage it."

This could increasingly involve teams seeking financial support from dealer networks. Holden and Ford dealers stepped up their support of teams when the manufacturers came and went in the 1970s, while Ford and Volvo dealers were said to be unhappy at head office's decision to withdraw its support from Supercars.

"Dealer networks are about selling cars," says Nash, with multi-franchised Ford dealer Bayford increasing its support of Prodrive in the wake of Ford's withdrawal.

"We've always had good relations with the Ford network and we'll just continue to have those relationships with those businesses.

"They might be franchisees selling on the behalf of Ford, individual businesses in their own right, so they find ways of looking after their customers in different ways and if we can work with them, then that just varies our business as well."

Prodrive is also varying its business with the relaunch of Tickford, which will offer performance packages for a variety of Ford models, initially the Ranger and Mustang.

Tekno Autosports has a similar operation with Tekno Performance, tapping into the aftermarket sector to adapt to the new-look import-only automotive sector. Teams are diversifying like never before to counter a more cautious economy in a changing Australian automotive landscape.

"The sponsorship market is as tough as it's ever been – and it doesn't matter who you speak to, whether they're at an AFL football team or if you talk to someone in television, ratings in all sport on television, ratings are dropping, so it's a tough sell," says Jones.

But the concern amongst fans is the lack of diversity. With Commodore numbers dominating the grid and Triple Eight only strengthened by its new deal with Holden, Supercars more than ever needs genuine opposition from the likes of Nissan Motorsport, Prodrive Racing Australia, DJR Team Penske or other manufacturers.

"There needs to be variety and diversity, so what this sport needs is other teams to emerge otherwise it was going to get monotonous," says Emery.

"You need more than manufacturers, but in saying that you don't need 10. As we've found, though, it's not easy for a manufacturer to just come in and succeed.

"We wanted to make sure we do the right thing for ourselves and the series. If the series grows and we are attached to it, then there's a gain for us as well."

Ultimately, Supercars faces a question that all motorsport categories are grappling with; is it more important to be relevant to the automotive industry or better to focus on providing competitive entertainment?

"We must keep it competitive and exciting," argues Nash. "The body shapes are one thing, but the engine is going to be a whole other story about whether we ready to go away from V8s just yet. The next few years will show us what that means."

The next few years will also show once and for all whether manufacturers are at all interested in Supercars.

calendar-banner

Event Date
Adelaide 500 1-4 March
2018 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix 22-25 March
Tyrepower Tasmania SuperSprint 6-8 April
WD-40 Phillip Island 500 20-22 April
Perth SuperSprint 4-6 May
Winton SuperSprint 18-20 May
CrownBet Darwin Triple Crown 15-17 June
Watpac Townsville 400 6-8 July
Coates Hire Ipswich SuperSprint 20-22 July
Red Rooster Sydney SuperSprint 4 August
The Bend SuperSprint 24-26 August
Sandown 500 14-16 September
Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 4-7 October
Vodafone Gold Coast 600 19-21 October
ITM Auckland SuperSprint 2-4 November
Coates Hire Newcastle 500 23-25 November

 

points-banner

Pos

 Driver

 Points

 1

 Jamie Whincup

3042

 2

 Scott McLaughlin

3021

 3

 Fabian Coulthard

2812

 4

 Shane van Gisbergen

2769

 5

 Chaz Mostert

2748

 6

Mark Winterbottom 

2208

 7

 David Reynolds

2196

 8

 Cameron Waters

2173

 9

 Garth Tander

2169

 10

 Craig Lowndes

2160

 Full points table