It’s a bold question, but is one of the fastest and seemingly most popular forms of motorsport on the brink of collapse? Is the battle between Ford and Holden not what it used to be? Has the sport simply lost touch with the reasons that make it so great? With the recent sale of a sixty per cent share of V8 Supercars to private equity firm Archer Capital, and the recent reveal of the new chassis to be introduced in 2013, is the sports future in danger? Have it’s operators steered it to failure? and are it’s shareholders selling out at the top?
To assess the current strength of the V8 Supercar championship our attention must shift to when the sport’s popularity emerged, to a time when the grid was populated by more than two marques and the cars resembled those in local dealership showrooms. The Australian Touring Car Championship began in 1960 and while it was extremely popular, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the sport would discover the key to its increased following. The enthralling battle between Peter Brock of Holden and Allan Moffatt of Ford was played out every year on the roads of Bathurst’s Mount Panorama. As highlighted in the recent ABC documentary, ‘Wide Open Road’, during a time when the Australian government heavily subsidised the local car industry and made the sale of the overseas product far less attractive, Australian’s affiliation with the car became an allegiance to either Ford or Holden and is in this backdrop that the support for Australian touring car racing exploded. However, throughout the 1970s, 80s and most of the 90s, the rivalry between Ford and Holden, while always ever-present, was played out amongst other rival manufacturers.
Between the 1980s and late 1990s both European and Japanese car manufacturers contested the Australian Touing Car Championship and the Bathurst 1000. Far from being a blight on the history of the sport, most of these manufacturers have added to the colourful history of touring cars in Australia. Manufacturers like Nissan, Jaguar, Chevrolet, BMW, and Mazda competed with varied machinery during the Group A era and brought about some of the fiercest rivalries within the sport.
In 1997 the marketing rights holder for the Australian touring car championship, the Touring Car Entrants Group of Australia (TEGA), partnered with marketing firm IMG and launched the ‘V8 Supercar Championship’. This championship would operate under a special class of touring cars which was limited to Australian produced Fords and Holdens running 5.0 Litre V8 naturally aspirated engines. With strong television support through Network Ten and a growing number of races the series grew off the rivalry between Ford and Holden. In 2003 ‘project blueprint’ was introduced as a way to bring parity between both manufacturers, and while close racing and varied winners have followed, the credibility surrounding the cars and their resemblance to their road-going counterparts has increasingly been blurred. Important to note is that very little promotion of this regulation has been given to the fans since it was introduced. While the sport has enjoyed growing popularity since it’s makeover in 1997, recent years have seen the car industry endure sharp declines in profit and a strong shift in buyer preference away from the larger car market.
Such is the wavering popularity in the V8 Supercar Championship that The Sydney Morning Herald published an article by Peter McKay prior to this years Bathurst 1000 entitled ‘Mountains uphill battle’. In it, McKay describes how the spectator experience, through greater emphasis on security and professionalism, has taken the character out of the action both on and off the circuit. While this ‘professionalism’ in the sport may mean there are more people watching at home, this is not entirely the case, for while there was an increase in viewer audiences for this years race (1.212 million people nationally), the highest audience was in 2002 (1.49 million people nationally). In early 2011 McKay reported in a Sydney Morning Herald article entitled ‘V8 review poses sale question’ that “crowds are down at most circuits” and that television ratings “have been on a worrying slide”. What becomes apparent from the TV figures of the Bathurst 1000 is that interest in the race has diminished, despite the continued assertions from V8SA Executive Chairman Tony Cochrane that ‘every year the sport gets bigger, the business gets bigger… the teams are getting bigger all the time’, none of them appear to be getting better. If the size of the sport is measured by the amount of events it has then you need only look at these, particularly those held overseas, to appreciate the facade they give to the popularity of V8 Supercars.
In the middle east, the event in Bahrain was cancelled in 2011 while the event in Abu Dhabi in 2012 will be moved to coincide with the Formula 1 race. Both races failed to draw crowds of any significance. The street event in Hamilton New Zealand has been a financial disaster with the event reportedly costing the local council 37 million dollars as opposed to the forcast 21 million dollars. This year’s event will be the last in Hamilton and Cochran has been quoted as saying that ‘it is more than likely our [V8 Supercars] last appearance in NZ’. In an article by Geoffrey Harris for Carsales.com.au entitled ‘Dark clouds on V8 Supercar radar’, the future of the Sydney 500 around the Olympic Park precinct in Homebush is also under threat. Despite support for the event from the NSW government, annual losses estimated at 2.5 million dollars, are not in the interests of new par-owners Archer Capital and the event could be cancelled for 2012. Even the event at Bathurst is not immune to costs complaints with the local council campaigning against the high cost of the event, believed to be approximately $700,000 annually. With numerous events in financial difficultly and the popularity of the sport in question, V8 Supercars announced the creation of the ‘Car of the Future’ to be introduced in 2013 to reduce costs, improve driver safety, and encourage new manufacturers to the sport. While these aims may be achiweved, it is this writer’s belief that the ‘Car of the Future’ is designed to compensate for the poor mis-management of Australian Touring Car racing since 1997 and will bring an end to the V8 Supercar era of Australian touring car racing.
In a recent article posted on the V8 Supercars website entitled ‘The New Generation of V8 Supercars’, Aaron Noonan provides an overview of the purpose and make-up of the ‘Car of the Future’, not to be confused with the ‘Car of Tomorrow’, introduced by NASCAR for the 2007 Sprint Cup Series. V8 Supercars however, is allegedly nothing like NASCAR so we will have to assume that the introduction of a entirely new chassis, marketed in a very similar fashion, is merely just a coincidence. While being very informative, the content and wording of the article reveal just how superficial the new series will be in 2013 and highlights the underlying problems facing the V8 Supercar Chamionship.
In outlining the process by which a new manufacturer can enter the sport, Noonan writes that the potential manufacturer can either make their own engine which would be used “under a parity system to ensure it’s on par with the current units in the class” or “use a ‘category engine’ if they wish to go with already established technology”. These options raise two questions: The first being; Why would any car manufacturer waste time and money constructing there own engine if it meant that it was going to be subject to a parity system with the current technology? and secondly, does that not just mean that in order for a new manufacturer to compete, it can simply just buy an engine and a chassis, neither of which they do not design or build, and just put a body shell that resembles their road car? Because the later is surely the easiest, cheapest and more likely method of being successful in the championship, does it not just make a mockery of whether manufacturers that decide to enter the championship, are actually entering the championship at all? It’s this subtext of whether a new manufacturer will enter the sport in 2013 which is increasingly prevalent in Noonan’s article, highlighting the perceived lack of interest that rival car companies would actually have in entering the V8 Supercar Championship. But why is there a lack of interest from rival car companies wanting to be a part of the most popular form of motor racing in Australia and is anyone to blame for this?
Since the first official press conference surrounding the ‘Car of the Future’, both Mark Skaife and Tony Cochrane have never shied away from wanting additional manufacturers to enter the series. However 18 months after the first official press conference doubts still remain over the involvement of another manufacturer. While the car of the future looks to reduce the costs of being involved in the sport, Toyota has already made its position clear and unfortunately for V8 Supercars, their lack of interest has nothing to do with the cost of competing in the sport. In the lead up to the 2005 series, Toyota had considered entering the sport only to pull out due to the inability to capitalise on any marketing generated from a series so heavily based around the rivalry between two existing manufacturers.
More recently in 2009, Toyota Australia Senior Executive Director, David Buttner, commented that the idea of Toyota “entering into some form of partnership or marketing… to promote a product other than that which we can sell to our customers… then I would have to seriously question the relevance of such an investment’. In an article from AutoAction by Dylan Campbell, dated 25 May 2010, Toyota motorsport manager Wayne Gabriel stated that “It’s [V8 Supercars] not on our radar; our attitude towards it hasn’t really changed since before the [Car of the Future] recommendations”. Put simply, from it’s original inception the V8 Supercar championship banked so heavily on the rivalry of Ford and Holden that it alienates all other car manufacturers and particularly those not producing a V8 engine. As a result, the sports ability to evolve, while only being addressed in 2009, has been an inevitability from its inception. But does V8 Supercars need a new manufacturer? Isn’t Ford and Holden both racing with the ‘Car of the Future’ rules enough?
If you are to believe that Australian Motorsport fans will embrace supporting touring cars that are identical to each other except for their body shells, then the other problem for V8 Supercars, and the need to attract another manufacturer is the increasingly limited involvement of Ford. In a telling article by Peter McKay entitled ‘Ford considers V8 Supercars pull-out’ in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 14 May 2007, McKay summarises the very dilemma generated by the management of V8 Supercars Australia. McKay writes about what he terms, “the two-make philosophy” and how “…A potential weakness is exposed when one or both of the manufacturers are not doing well in the new-car showrooms.” These comments came in 2007 and now, more so than ever, in the face of a growing need for smaller, fuel efficient cars, V8 Supercars Australia stubbornly continues to promote a car that is out of favour with the Australian consumer. In the last ten years, sales in large family sedans are down 53% while Ford has conceded that they will never outsell the Commodore with the Holden brand selling at twice the rate of the blue oval competitor. Put simply, with Ford struggling to attain market share, if V8 Supercars can’t find new manufacturers it may only be left with one to compete.
In an article entitled ‘No transition season for new car in 2012′, on the subject of the Car of the Future’ Mark Skaife is quoted as stating that “In discussions with manufacturers, it is crucial that the car’s appearance and DNA will closely mirror that of the road-going equivalent of the respective manufacturer…” In other words, the car on the track is now clearly no longer the car on the road. What is clear is that for all it’s success, V8 Supercars has reduced itself to a form of touring car racing where identical racing chassis’, provided by an outside manufacturer, compete in different manufacturer body work, the effect of which renders the battle between manufacturers artificial and places the battle between drivers as the sole interest. Do the drivers have what it takes to ensure the sports future? Is the battle between Slade and Holdsworth going to create the same interest as the battle between Ford and Holden? Are Australian motorsport fans this easily fooled?
Well… it worked in the U.S.