SUPER CZAR

SUPERCARS MUST MOVE WITH THE TIDE OR BE SHIPPED OUT TO THE SPORTING SEA. WE GRILL THE NEWLY APPOINTED CEO, SEAN SEAMER

BY MARK FOGARTY

SUPERCARS is changing. The Mustang is coming, replacing the Falcon. Nissan will leave as Ford returns. Craig Lowndes won’t be racing regularly. And that’s just in 2019.

Give it another year and the Camaro could be on the grid alongside the Commodore. V8s will still reign early next decade, but possibly as mild hybrids. More two-door coupes are likely as relaxed rules make it easier for new makes to join.

Smaller blown engines will remain on the table even though Holden and Triple Eight canned the twin-turbo V6 that was supposed to be racing this year. By 2021, there’ll also be a new broadcast deal in a radically different rights market, along with new ownership as private equity group Archer Capital inevitably sells its majority stake. Races in Asia and T20-style day and night events are on the horizon as well.

The man charged with managing the coming upheavals is new Supercars chief executive officer Sean Seamer, whose first five months in the job were rocked by game-changing announcements. Ford’s revelation that it is back with the Mustang next year was followed by confirmation of Nissan’s withdrawal at the end of the season. And then the news hit that this is the last full-time campaign for Craig Lowndes, the sport’s biggest drawcard driver.

Also, as you read this, the Sydney SuperNight experiment at Sydney Motorsport Park will have been run and won, an event which will determine if night racing and shorter events can become regular formats in the future.

NZ-born Seamer, a forty-something former media industry high-flyer, inherited a re-stabilised Supercars from James Warburton, whose turnaround tactics polarised opinions. Where Warburton was a big-talking dealmaker, his successor is measured, deliberate and shuns hype.

After a decade of wildly different top executives, Seamer is the ‘Goldilocks’ leader. Not too brash, not too bland, just right. So far, he seems to be a strong character who is asserting himself behind the scenes, looking to build on the base of competitive racing.

NZ-BORN SEAN SEAMER IS THE ‘GOLDILOCKS’ SUPERCARS LEADER. NOT TOO BRASH, NOT TOO BLAND, JUST RIGHT

MOTOR: Nearly six months into the job, have you now put together your vision of what Supercars will be in the medium-to-long term?

Seamer: “The first thing I’d say is, it’s not about my vision. It’s about our collective vision of where we want to take the sport. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge up and down pit lane. We’re very happy with what we have. It’s performing extremely well. We do not want to make any drastic changes. We see what happens over the next few years as an evolution, not revolution of the product and what we do.”

Where is the main potential for growth?

“We have a very clear view of where the next fan is going to come from, which is important for the growth of the sport. What I think we’ve really done a good job of in the past is catering to the hardcore Supercars fans. Our ambition is to make the sport more approachable, more digestible, to a broader audience – people that may be interested in coming to Supercars, but who either haven’t come before or haven’t watched before. So people who’ve expressed interest, but may not be regular visitors, are the key growth area – that represents about three million Australians we’re looking to target. So that will see a shift – and there has already been a shift – in how we’re marketing, how we’re delivering media and some of the content initiatives we’re trying to push out. We fundamentally believe that being more approachable as a sport and being more digestible is how we will grow the fan base.”

Can you explain that?

“When I say digestible and approachable, that means not overly technical, explaining the fundamentals, so that you can enjoy it, but not be overwhelmed by the technical side; making sure that the formats are more compact, not demanding as much of people’s time, like the Sydney SuperNight; and also looking at shorter-form content particularly as it relates to digital because we know that there’s a crisis of attention in society today.”

Essentially, you’re talking about putting more bums on seats at events, getting more of the big audience sitting at home to actually attend.

“The work we’ve done on the fan growth strategy shows just how important it is to get people to the event to convert them into a fan. Because it’s such a visceral experience, data shows that if someone comes to an event, they’re eight times more likely to convert to a long-term fan than if they just watch us on broadcast. So that’s a critical interaction for us and we’re looking at how do we work on the events, how do we make them more family friendly, how do we make it an event, not just a motor race? We’ve been successful with Newcastle and some other areas that we go to – Adelaide is a great example – but we see ourselves as having the opportunity to become a travelling motor show with a diverse range of entertainment on and off track, and that’s something that we want to continue to grow.”

Can you do that without alienating your core audience, the hardcore, dedicated fans?

“There’ll still be plenty to do if you’re a dedicated fan. If you want to be core, you’ll still have those options. So for the hardcore motorsport enthusiasts, if they want to sit in the grandstand, watch all the support categories, do the pit lane walks, absolutely you’ll be able to do that. We’ll still provide all the technical information and all of the technical data, but we want to be a little bit more balanced in the way the sport and the entertainment are delivered to audiences.”

Since you’ve arrived, there’s been a big win with the return of Ford with the Mustang next year, but a big loss with Nissan leaving at the end of this season. Does the Mustang overshadow Nissan’s withdrawal?

“The Mustang coming back is huge for the sport. It’s a cultural icon, not just in Australia, but internationally, and helps us massively with delivering to that broader audience because of the iconic nature of that car. So that’s absolutely brilliant and it helps us with relevance as a brand. With Nissan, if it had introduced a new vehicle (GT-R), that would have helped us, again, with cultural relevance and broadening the audience. But Nissan have a product road map which it needs to work towards and for the brand it was a very hard decision, I know, but it doesn’t really have the product road map to be able to go racing with.”

If Nissan Motorsport had wanted to stay with the GT-R, would Supercars have bent over backwards to accommodate it?

“First of all, we have the forced-induction turbo knowledge from the work that Supercars and Triple Eight did on the (cancelled) twin-turbo V6, which is what the GT-R runs, obviously. We know that it will operate within our engine power window, so there’s no problem there. The car is two doors, four seats, same as the Mustang. I’m aware there are variants that don’t have back seats, but it’s produced with four seats in sufficient numbers to make it eligible and then from an aero point of view, we’ve invested heavily in the CFD to make sure that we can work within the drag and downforce windows across the vehicle. So we’re really confident that we could’ve made it work. It would’ve needed to be two-wheel drive, though.”

So you’re happy to manipulate the technical rules to facilitate particular cars?

“That work has been done. All of the work that we had done to broaden manufacturer engagement allowed the ZB in – and the potential for the ZB to run a twin-turbo V6. We didn’t change anything from that to allow for the Ford Mustang or a Nissan GT-R. I know that people have also played around with all sorts of different cars over our platform and done body positioning, and made it work.”

Do you see two-door coupes like the Mustang and Camaro being the future of Supercars?

“There’s a sense that there’s a little bit of back to the future with the Mustang. Obviously, if you go back in the history books, Mustangs and Camaros were running in Australian touring car racing in the late 1960s and early ’70s, so there is an element of us going back to our roots in some respects. What does the future hold? Look, we’re about maximum flexibility for working with brands and manufacturers so that what we race out there has maximum relevance for fans.”

For Next Generation, formerly known as Gen3, you’re looking at the option of some sort of hybridisation. Do you think that will happen and has the reaction from fanworld encouraged you or made you wary?

“My view on hybrids is we don’t have all the information yet to make an informed decision. Once we have that information, we’ll make an informed decision. The transaxle that we’re moving to next year allows for some level of drivetrain hybridisation. So within the car, the fundamentals will be there from next year. We will then assess from there for 2020 and onwards. What I’m saying is, we won’t necessarily wait until 2021 – we might do something earlier if we think it makes sense.”

So you won’t wait until 2022, as planned, to introduce the Next Generation technical and eligibility rules?

“The first thing I’ll say about Next Generation is that we see it as evolution, not revolution. So we don’t see a date where a whole lot of changes will happen to the platform. We will introduce an evolution of the platform where it makes sense and when it makes sense. If there are quick wins that we think will improve the racing and entertainment, then we’ll absolutely go ahead and do that. We won’t wait for a date. Other things will take a lot longer to introduce. So what we’re doing with all components of the potential future of the platform, including hybrid or electric integration, we’re engaging experts in different fields around composites, around forced induction, around electrification, and having them feed that information back into us so that informed decisions can be made on when and where we might like to do things. So there’s no commitment to anything at this stage. We’re doing the best we can to accumulate as much knowledge about the here and now, and then given how the market’s moving so quickly, we’re going to have to update that work at least on an annual basis, and reassess and re-evaluate.”

Will V8s remain the foundation in the foreseeable future?

“Yes, certainly for ’18/’19. That’s what we have. What happens in ’20/’21/’22, we’ll have to wait and see. We know from our homologation timelines that we need to start thinking about 2020 at the end of this year. That’s when the wheels need to start moving – November/December of this year for the start of season 2020. So let’s see where we’re at at the end of this year. It’s still too early to tell.”

Aren’t traditional V8 engines the foundation of Supercars?

“Well, the foundation of the sport is the door-to-door racing and having those cars within tenths of a second.

Yes, the engine, the visceral experience, is important. Can that be achieved with other engines? Absolutely. ’18/19, V8s, yes. ’20? We’ll have to wait and see. Like I say, it’s still too early to call on 2020 yet. We’ll know more at the end of the year.”

THE FOUNDATION OF THE SPORT IS THE DOOR-TODOOR RACING AND HAVING THOSE CARS WITHIN TENTHS OF A SECOND

Of course, V8s don’t exclude some sort of hybridisation like a Kinetic Energy Recovery System.

“Or forced induction. The rules already allow a smaller capacity turbocharged V8 engine.”

If the SuperNight format works, will you look at other potential venues for night races and also compressing the schedule at some non-marquee events?

“Absolutely. And that goes back to what I said about making the sport more digestible and approachable for fans. We need to be innovative with the formats, and we will continue to test and look at that because there’s a limited amount of time, money and attention span nowadays, and being easy to watch, easy to go to is critical for growth.”

Are you close to adding one or two Asian events – particularly, getting on the support program at the F1 Singapore GP?

“Where we are at is that we’re not talking about it until something’s done. And right now I don’t have an update.”

A lot of work was done on that before you arrived, so presumably you’ve picked it up and run with it.

“Conversations are on-going, but we’re not going to talk about it any more until we have something to talk about. We’d rather talk about something that we’ve done than what we’re going to do.”

Is it still looking promising?

Like I said, conversations are on-going.