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It’s been yet another turbulent few months in Supercars. The category hit a high in April with confirmation the Ford Mustang would race in the championship from 2019. At the other end of the spectrum in May came the expected but still disappointing news that Nissan would withdraw from the category after a six-year run at the end of 2018.
The Nissan decision is sad, especially for the Kelly family, which along with commercial chief Nick Ryan and other team stalwarts put in a massive effort to represent the Japanese brand in Australia’s only truly professional motorsport category.
It also means, barring an unexpected announcement, Supercars is headed backed to its traditional red versus blue state. Mind you, imported five-door Commodore versus imported two-door Mustang is a far different proposition to locally built Commodore sedan versus locally built Falcon sedan. But there’s no doubting the arrival of the Mustang is being welcomed in pitlane and the grandstands.
It heralds the return of Ford to Supercars in an official capacity for the first time since 2015 and debuts the two-door body shape in a series that has long been reserved for sedans. And it means Supercars, which has seen Nissan, Volvo and AMG Mercedes-Benz (through privateer Betty Klimenko) arrive and depart since 2013, will receive a much-needed energy boost that only new metal can provide.
While the Holden Commodore ZB served that role this year, it rolled on to the grid to take on the ageing Falcon FG X and Altima. The road-going version of the former has been retired from production since October 2016 and the latter hasn’t been sold in Australia since mid-2017.
Even Holden’s commitment has been watered down compared to what it once was, farming out development to Triple Eight Race Engineering, the parent of its only factory team, Red Bull Holden Racing Team.
Nor is Ford returning to racing using its traditional model. There will be no one factory team, no endless budgets thrown at success.
It is using renewed Supercars involvement as part of its launch of the Ford Performance high-performance and racing brand. Other aspects of Ford Performance’s local arrival include the launch of the locally-developed Ranger Raptor high-performance pick-up and the latest Fiesta ST.
Ironically, while the Mustang is being linked with Ford Performance in Australia, the mainstream coupe and cabrio street cars sold here aren’t part of the hot tuner’s stable. It develops higher horsepower versions we don’t see. But Mustang is the local sports hero, sole V8 in the line-up and global Blue Oval racing model. It got the nod to go Supercar racing after some early consideration about using the Mondeo was dismissed.
“At the end of the day we knew we had some products coming through aligned with the Ford Performance stable that essentially could have us back in racing,” Ford Australia president Graeme Whickman told us when the Mustang announcement was made.
“So it was a matter of waiting for the right time both from a product and an investment point of view.”
Along pitlane there’s plenty of belief that pressure from Roger Penske has also forced Ford Australia’s hand. ‘The Captain’ took over a majority share of local legend Dick Johnson’s team in 2015 and has been exercising his extensive Blue Oval contacts ever since to get Ford back involved with the Mustang.
As recently as this year the American was outspoken in the press about his willingness to move to another brand if Ford didn’t soon come on board. But Whickman plays that down as a factor.
“Our dialogue [with Ford teams] has been long-standing and [media reports] were not particularly impactful because you do these things for reasons and those reasons need to be there,” Whickman said.
“And the reasons [to return] were it’s the right strategy, we have the right vehicles now, we want to connect with customers in that space. So we do it for those reasons, not because someone reports something in the press.”
While the mechanics of the decision to return are subject to speculation, the mechanics of developing the Mustang for Supercars racing are reasonably clear.
It will be based on a tripartite technical liaison that includes Ford Performance, DJR Team Penske and Tickford Racing. Ford Australia glues it all together by co-ordinating the overall project and an investment commitment of somewhere near $2 million.
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