WHAT NOW FOR SUPERCARS?

FUTURE OF SUPERCARS

WORDS CAMERON KIRBY

WE SPEAK TO THE MEN TASKED WITH REVITALISING AUSTRALIA’S TOP-FLIGHT RACING CATEGORY FOR 2022. THE COUNTDOWN CLOCK IS TICKING...

INSIDE LINE

Movers, shakers and opinion makers…

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE SUPERCARS?

CREATING A WHOLE new set of technical regulations isn’t the work of a minute. Supercars has created a Gen3 working commission to develop the new rules involving stakeholders from within the business and pit lane. But not everyone is included in the inner sanctum. These are the three very different sets of voices that Wheels spoke to, each laying their vision for the future on the table.

HEAVY HITTERS

These are the men that have a direct influence over the future of the category. John Casey is Supercars’ chief strategy officer, and the man in charge of penning the Gen3 rulebook. Triple Eight Engineering head honcho Roland Dane is arguably the most influential team boss in pit lane and directly involved in any discussion of significance. Located in the US, Mark Rushbrook is Ford’s head of global motorsport, and personally controls the manufacturer’s involvement in the category.

TEAM PLAYERS

While they aren’t directly involved in the Gen3 working group, Todd Kelly and Barry Ryan are two of the team bosses that will have to adapt to the new rules. Kelly is a technical guru, and his experience as a driver, team owner and engine builder makes him about as informed as they come. Ryan is one of the most outspoken team bosses in pit lane and comes armed with radical ideas that challenge the status quo. They both know what it takes to run a successful race team.

OUTSIDERS

Tempering the voices of those that spend their time at the coal face is Tony Cochrane, the iron-fisted ex-Supercars czar, and Barry Rogers, director of Garry Rogers Motorsport which left the grid at the end of last year, and brother to the eponymous Garry. A step removed from the sport, they offer independent balance to the rose-tinted enthusiasm of pit lane regulars. Who better to deliver a dose of reality than former insiders with no vested interest and nothing to lose?

THE BASIS

WHAT WILL THE CARS LOOK LIKE?

IF YOU TOOK the panels of a Ford Mustang road car and tried to affix them to Scott McLaughlin’s race car, they wouldn’t fit. That is a hard, unfortunate fact – one created by the current chassis which was introduced in 2013 to suit four-door Commodores and Falcons.

Now, with those production cars extinct, the category needs a new skeleton to sit beneath the racers’ composite panels. There are multiple ‘ready made’ formulas the category could adopt but instead Supercars has opted for a slight tweak to its current ruleset.

John Casey is the man in charge of the Gen3 rules, and he is focused on ensuring the racers look similar to a road-faring version. “I’d characterise the Gen3 cars as much more of a return to showroom dimensions,” he says. “Obviously if we are representing a car or a brand on the grid, we need to make sure that we do that in a faithful way, returning to road car dimensions.

“That will give [manufacturers] comfort. We won’t be moving from the DNA of what a Supercar is – they look awesome, they look fierce, they sound amazing. But at the end of the day they are accessible cars in the mindset of the fans. They are not exotica, they are not a GT3. They are cars people can relate to.”

That’s debatable. Are fans more attracted to a Mustang with no mechanical relation to its road-going counterpart than they are to production-based GT3 machinery? Positive fan reactions to the exotic unobtanium that tackles the Bathurst 12 Hour each year indicates ‘relatable’ perhaps isn’t the crowd puller it once was.

“We won’t be moving from the DNA of what a Supercar is – they look awesome, they look fierce, they sound amazing”

Still, the new control chassis will allow for greater variety. Different bodystyles, including two-door coupes, a five-door liftback, and traditional sedans, will all be accommodated, as will different wheelbases. This last point is significant. Previously manufacturers had to build Frankenstein interpretations of road cars to fit the existing control chassis. Mid- or rear-engine layouts are categorically off limits, and power will be delivered to the rear wheels exclusively. 

It’s understood Roland Dane’s Triple Eight Engineering team is leading development of the new flexible chassis, under the guidance of Supercars head of motorsport Adrian Burgess. As one of the most senior figures in the pit lane, Dane’s support of Gen3 is vital.

“We need to get back to the cars looking like the road cars, but be difficult to drive, loud, and spectacular to watch,” Dane says.

Even Ford Performance’s Mark Rushbrook supports a change.

“There are some improvements that we think can be made in the proportions of the car, and be more true to the road car,” he explains.

Erebus team boss Barry Ryan would prefer a more radical strategy: “I think it should just be a Supercar,” he says. “Not a brand but a car that isn’t aligned to any manufacturer.”

Supercars says it wants to cut the cost of building and running a car by 50 percent, but according to Barry Rogers, that’s not enough.

“If you could cut costs by two thirds of what they were a couple years ago, you are probably getting somewhere nearer where it should be,” he tells Wheels.

THE DRIVE

WHICH ENGINES WILL THEY USE?

THERE IS NEAR universal agreement that Supercars will continue to be powered by a naturally aspirated V8 in the future. The debate hinges on from where those engines will be sourced.

Currently, engine costs are “out of control”, with a two-car team spending upwards of $500,000 a season before factoring in development. Todd Kelly was still wiping grease off his hands from an engine rebuild when talking to Wheels.

“The engines in the cars are so technical and expensive to design and build and run and maintain. And it doesn’t have any impact on the end product,” Kelly says. “You could have 15 less horsepower, have just as good racing, and save half a million dollars a year on your engine budget.”

Dane also suggests that a slight reduction in power from the current circa 485kW figure will save teams hundreds of thousands of dollars without removing any of the category’s spectacle. The core logic is that de-stressing the engine by just a small amount will reduce maintenance costs significantly.

“What we want is a naturally aspirated V8 engine that produces a very similar power-to-weight ratio to today,” he says. “There’s no question we can make a car lighter than we do today, and therefore we can have a power-to-weight ratio that‘s similar to today, but with a bit less horsepower than we have now.”

Currently Holden and Ford 5.0-litre pushrod V8 designs power the field, but for 2022 these could be phased out. Instead, Supercars looks set to shift to a cheaper, ‘crate’ engine format, which some estimate could cost as little as $40K per car.

“We will just be taking advantage of the most contemporary engine options, design and availability,” Casey confirms.

Unlike the chassis, Supercars hasn’t reached the final stages of planning for Gen3 engine rules. This means there are a number of unknown factors, like where engines will be sourced, how many different engines will be available, who will be responsible for the development process, and what kind of power they will produce. Simply tweaking the current regs is also on the table.

One plan is for Supercars to develop a universal engine that is used by all teams, which Wheels understands could be based on Ford’s Coyote 5.0-litre V8. However, that is something unlikely to get support from Ford’s head office in Detroit.

“We think that brand identity is very important for us, and our competitors, and we think it would be confusing for the sport, for the fans, if there was a Ford or Ford-based engine in another brand’s body. We would not be in support of doing that,” Rushbrook explains.

Generalist fans won’t notice, or perhaps care, but dedicated motorsport fanatics are likely to turn their nose up at the hypothetical situation of a Ford-based V8 used in a GM body.

Ford has requested the category future-proof for electrification in the near future. While Rushbrook doesn’t expect hybrids to be used in 2022, he doesn’t want to shut the door completely.

Until then, Supercars will remain exclusively V8-powered.

THE GRID

WILL THEY NEED MANUFACTURERS?

OF ALL THE challenges facing Supercars, this is the most complex. It boils down to a simple truth: Supercars doesn’t want to rely on manufacturer involvement but it needs manufacturers to be involved to make the category interesting and relevant.

Navigating that middle ground is a murky process.

Supercars has been bullish in its intention to reduce the reliance on manufacturers, but it does have a plan to entice new brands to the sport without the need to invest millions of dollars.

“I think we need to be asking [OEMs] for approval to run their car on the track but not asking them for money to do so,” says Casey. “It will literally just be the approval to represent their product on track.”

At face value, this makes sense. At a time when the world economy is contracting and car brands are laying off thousands of staff, dropping big bucks on a racing program is unlikely to be a priority. Wheels spoke to several manufacturers rumoured to be considering joining Supercars and they all said they had zero intention of doing so.

Part of this plan is limiting the amount of technical freedom in the body homologation process, something exploited to great success by Ford. Supercars has stated it intends to oversee all future body homologations (perhaps in conjunction with a manufacturer), and absorb the associated cost internally.

What Casey’s plan fails to consider, however, is how protective manufacturers are of their reputation. Giving their car’s likeness to a third party with no control over the results is hardly an attractive proposition, which is partly the reason Mercedes-Benz Australia distanced itself when Erebus used a backdoor partnership to run E63s. Casey is aware of the issue: “Some manufacturers will choose to not be represented on the race track, and that is totally their call,” he says.

“If the series wants to do the body, then it is not our body, and we wouldn’t be in the sport,” says Ford’s Mark Rushbrook

The bigger challenge, however, is that Ford is vehemently opposed to the idea of Supercars controlling body homologation.

“In our experience it cannot be done separately, and nor would we want it to be done separately,” says Rushbrook. “If the series wants to do the body, then it is not our body, and we wouldn’t be in the sport.”

Further complicating matters is Rushbrook’s assertion that Supercars needs to attract other manufacturers for it to compete against, otherwise Ford could walk away.

“Competing against other manufacturers is very important for us; that’s part of our story,” Rushbrook says. “We want to show what we are capable of against other manufacturers, and if they are not there, then that part of the story falls away.”

One team that could bring a new brand to the category is Walkinshaw Andretti Unit. Team co-owner Ryan Walkinshaw has recently stated he had “at least” two manufactures ready to sign up for 2021 before COVID-19, and he remains confident of bringing a rival for Ford to the sport.

Exactly what that deal might look like is unclear, but what is obvious is that Supercars needs to find a model that works for both the sport and manufacturers. Getting this right will determine the sport’s financial future, how the grid will look, and how fans respond to the cars. We don’t envy them.

THE FANS

HOW WILL THEY CONVINCE YOU TO WATCH/BUY TICKETS?

THERE IS NO race series without fans, and according to ex-Supercars CEO Tony Cochrane, who steered the sport into its most profitable and popular era, the category needs to act quickly to save the fans it has left and ensure its survival.

“Keeping the current fanbase is mission critical,” he tells Wheels.

Cochrane and three other investors purchased promotion rights for the ATCC in 1996 for $52,000. By 2011 the business was valued at $330 million, with Cochrane retiring as executive chairman in 2012. He believes the cars on the track need to maintain the spirit of the Holden vs Ford rivalry, even without manufacturer funding.

“I don’t believe going forward you can maintain that level of enthusiasm unless there is still some blue versus red rivalry somehow blended into the mix,” he explains. “Does that mean you can add other manufacturers? Of course it does. But the reality is you have to have a series of blue and red guys.”

According to Cochrane, Supercars must aim for entertainment over technical perfection when finalising its Gen3 rules.

“The guy standing in the grandstand isn’t so impacted about the latest, greatest, ‘you beaut’ braking system. He is actually more interested in the cars losing their brakes, because he is going to see a better spectacle,” Cochrane explains.

For Supercars, there are two core areas of improvement for fan engagement. The first is the on-track action.

“We are looking to improve the show by reducing the contribution to the car’s performance that is currently delivered by aerodynamics,”

Casey explains. “At the end of the day we are about providing awesome motorsport entertainment for our fans. If we think we can improve the racing, that ticks a lot of boxes.”

The second area for improved fan engagement is the television deal. For the last five years Australians have had to pay to watch the category live. However, a new deal is being negotiated which is likely to result in a greater free-to-air television presence, lowering the barrier of entry for television eyeballs. It is understood a pay element could remain. But increasing the number of eyes on the telly and bums in the grandstand is just a small portion of Supercars’ evergrowing to-do list.

There’s no question 2022 marks the most important rule change for the sport since the beginning of the V8 era. If Supercars is to meet its own self-imposed deadline, it has roughly eighteen months to oversee the introduction of a complex set of rules. A new control chassis must be signed-off and be capable of allowing vastly different body shapes to compete without differing too much from their road faring donors. The engine formula which has existed for multiple decades needs to be overhauled, and manufacturers need convincing they should hand over their intellectual property, while the category vows it doesn’t rely on OEMs anymore.

The survival of the sport depends on each challenge being overcome, and the 2022 deadline being hit. Miss it, and it could be too late. If the rules don’t have the intended impact, a slow, painful demise could follow. There will not be any second chances.