Supercars is desperately seeking manufacturers to enter its series under the Gen2 regulations. The irony is that 20 years ago, multiple manufacturers raced at Mount Panorama in the Super Touring Bathurst 1000s, having been shut out of V8 Supercars. We take a look back at the rise and fall of Super Touring in Australia in V8X Supercar Magazine issue #101.
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Supercars has ushered in the Gen2 regulations, the next step in the sport’s evolution. It’s meant to build on the foundations laid by the Car of the Future and set the sport up as the automotive industry in Australia goes through one of the most radical changes in its history. There’s only one problem, an elephant of sorts in the room. It’s the fact Supercars 2017-style looks much like it did last year and the year before.
The problem has been a lack of appetite from manufacturers to engage in the new rules and a similar reluctance from teams to take on the cost of developing a new car for the new regulations. After all, for the thick end of a generation, the top end of motorsport in Australia has been dominated by V8 racing. Brand it however you like, the fundamental formula has been a large chunk of iron wrapped up in a shell that shares more than a passing resemblance to the car you or I have parked in the driveway.
A lot of criticism has been levelled at Supercars in recent years because it’s no longer ‘relevant’ or that the cars are simply silhouettes of the family sedan they’re meant to represent. There’s truth in that but, if you’re honest about it, hasn’t that always been the case? Ever since Ford, Holden and Chrysler invested in homologation specials and fuelled the ‘Supercar Scare’ of the early 1970s, the sport has been moving ever so slowly away from what was originally a production-car style of racing.
We went through an era where the cars were largely sports sedans and then into Group A, which saw costs grow to the point where it became unaffordable even for the manufacturers to stomach, all the while the cars edging further and further away from that which sits on the showroom at your local dealership. We were simply convinced otherwise by marketing types trying to pry us from our hard-earned dollar.
Group A broke from that brand-based, almost football-like rivalry. The Holden versus Ford battle gave way to more universal regulations throughout the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s, but that wasn’t without its problems. Having been dominated by Ford Sierras, it was the mighty Nissan GT-R which took over as the class of the field, but that came with a hefty price tag that ultimately sunk the regulations.
And so, in 1992, Group A died. In its place two factions looked to establish prominence. One was a niche, local product which attempted to hark back a generation and the other imported from Europe, boasting some of the biggest names in the automotive world.
Super Touring benefitted from the fact that a host of the world’s automotive brands were on board with the concept, building and selling cars to customer outfits. It was that very point which attracted Brad Jones, who went on to win Super Touring titles in Australia with Audi.
“Because V8 racing was pretty much a lock out between Holden and Ford, there wasn’t that much opportunity for any other manufacturer to compete at a really high level, so Super Touring became somewhat of a phenomenon around the world,” Jones recalls.
“At the time that my brother and I looked at it, I was racing for HRT in the enduros and just trying to find the money to break in was difficult – impossible for us. And then with Super Touring you could get a deal going with a manufacturer and end up with really good equipment straight from the factory and be competitive straight away. So, for us, it was really I’d say a no-brainer. We found a manufacturer and we ended up with the right equipment from the factory.”
On paper, Super Touring was a great idea. There were fixed costs and a diversity which made for some iconic race cars. Think of the Volvo 850 Estate, or the BMW 3 Series, two of the most unlikely bedfellows racing door to door on track. And the parity system made them all, more or less, equal.
Contrast that with the V8 Supercars model, which allowed teams to build their own cars and fettle their own engines, all within stringent regulations of course. The initial dollar investment to be competitive was far higher, while the regulations locked out manufacturers beyond Ford and Holden. It was unashamedly Australian; designed here, made here and raced here.
It was a formula more reminiscent of the 1970s and the marketing reflected that. It linked in names like Peter Brock and Dick Johnson with familiar brands like the Holden Commodore – the successor to the iconic Torana – and the Ford Falcon.
There was less diversity and greater field spread; a gulf between ‘factory’ teams which enjoyed the backing of the brand they raced and the privateers who tried to compete on that same uneven playing field. In time that changed. The privateers were slowly pushed out as the sport became more professional only for the whole thing to come full circle with now next to no factory investment.
In the early 1990s we were still pumping out the Commodore and Falcon at factories in Broadmeadows, Geelong and Elizabeth. The automotive industry was strong and it was willing to invest its marketing dollars in motorsport. But as the world changed so did the industry’s attitude.
Purse strings were pulled tighter and, while V8 Supercars opened its regulations to allow new manufacturers, only Nissan was especially interested. Volvo has come and gone and Betty Klimenko’s private Mercedes-AMG project has been mothballed. Ford pulled its investment and Holden has ended a long relationship with the Walkinshaw family in favour of Triple Eight.
In the face of the shrinking local automotive sector, the likes of James Warburton and the Supercars board have been charged with growing the sport. They’ve rebranded and moved the goal posts in an attempt to attract manufacturer investment, but with so little money in the industry it’s proved difficult. The trouble they face is that Australia is a tiny market. Supercars is a unique product. There is little incentive for manufacturers to throw their dollars behind a programme here which has no economy of scale.
That was the strength of Super Touring, a universal product which was raced in multiple markets. Its weakness, of course, was that in Australia the cars were alien. Few of us drove or aspired to drive a Mondeo or Primera, making any connection to fans more difficult.
There was also no hiding away from the fact that there were two touring-car championships fighting for a market of just 20-million people. One, it seems, was always doomed to fail.
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