Spiced with an unprecedented number of bombshells in the Supercars season
We have said it before – the AFL is the premium sporting product in Australia, with daylight between it and its key sporting competitors. A big part of the AFL’s success is the front page or lead TV sports stories on controversial ‘stuff’ other than the game and results. In any given year across Australia, you can back in at least 50 contentious breaking news stories.
Controversy in sport sells newspapers and lifts TV ratings, as the fan base passion factor explodes into opinion and counter opinion. Indeed, highly charged sporting thunderclaps that come from nowhere will often exceed interest in scoreboard results.
It’s not often that big motor sport ‘side stories’ break, with Supercars often suffering from a ‘bland’ or ‘beige’ label. Very few hot potatoes emerge in the season to stimulate debate and fire up the fans.
That was not the case in 2019, but before my top ‘WOW’ stories of 2019, one must recognise the biggest story over the entire year to date: How Mustang, in its very first year, smoked the opposition in a display of ‘par excellence’ engineering and design planning.
With no prior race experience on the tracks of Australia and NZ, the all new racing Mustangs have won 21 of the 28 major races conducted, with all six Mustangs in the field inside the top nine positions. The equally amazing statistic is that Shell V Power race team driver, Scott McLaughlin, has dominated with 18 of those 21 Mustang wins, clinching the Championship title at Sandown with an unassailable points lead prior to the final race.
With Mustang’s domination came an early season avalanche of whinging and moaning like never before seen that Mustang had an unfair advantage.
So no sooner had the season started with Mustang’s immediate superiority than the Series technical gurus caved in to the moaning and imposed changes designed to reduce Mustang’s performance or improve Commodore’s. This was despite the new car being engineered completely in accordance with the rules and with final sign-off/full approval from the authorities prior to season start.
From the time the bellyaching of opposition teams commenced – virtually after the first race to now – Supercars introduced eight changes, trying to achieve a perfect world with parity.
Is it an indictment on any elite sport that, during the season between meetings, the authorities would fiddle with the rules to this absurd degree? It suggests one or both of two things: Supercars leadership were too weak to push back on the complaining teams until the season ended, or how unprofessional it is when they need eight attempts at trying to find a parity solution. A Speedcafe poll indicated 86 percent of the fans felt this quest for parity caused too much damage to the category.
So the parity controversy was one of my Top 10 ‘WOW’ stories of the year. Now the nine others:
The juggle drums were beating that with the dismal results of the rebranded Walkinshaw racing outfit there was disquiet in their driver ranks. Rumours circulated from early August that James Courtney and Scott Pye would be gone at year end, and that Mostert and Hazelwood would be their replacements. Fast forward six weeks and James Courtney announced he would be leaving at season’s end, but not before delivering a huge backhander. Quoting from a Speedcafe article, “he suggested that local co-owner, Ryan Walkinshaw, lacks the passion of the likes of Triple Eight boss, Roland Dane”. Whack!
Seven times Championship winner and very much the quiet big achiever of the sport, Jamie Whincup got himself into hot water after slamming Supercars race control over a mistake they made that unfairly penalised him at the Pukekohe race. In a TV interview he said, “You’ve got people making decisions who are just cruising back, just having a few glasses of red each night and rocking up to the track and the brains not with it”. Despite Jamie later apologising, one can only ponder why these words flowed from someone who has always chosen his words carefully.
When WAU announced at the start of this season they had signed Mega Fuels as naming rights sponsor, the pit lane collective rolled their eyes with a ‘you gotta be kidding’ exclamation. So when Mega Fuel hit the receivership fan on 4 September there was a lot of ‘told you so’ commentary. Then, two days later, the WAU team curiously stated the glaring obvious, announcing their termination of the Mega Fuels sponsorship… then a week later another curious announcement from the team saying they did more due diligence before signing Mega than any previous sponsor!
Chaz Mostert can thank his lucky stars the big news at this year’s Bathurst was the safety car issue with DJR Team Penske. If not for this, the Mostert crash into his team mate, Cam Waters, would certainly have been the primary media story. On lap 123 of 161, with both cars a big chance for victory or at least podiums, Mostert took Waters out of the race and relegated his own car to 15th. Tim Edwards showed his disgust on TV by walking away from the commentator seeking an interview. This is the third time Mostert’s car has smashed and caused havoc with his teammate. Doing a tally of the Mostert crashes could easily lead one to ask if there may be a concerning pattern.
In February, before the start of the season, Russell Ingall was fired from the commentary of Supercars Foxtel, a position he held for four years. He did not see it coming, which was a little surprising given that it was clear Craig Lowndes was going to be slotted into the Fox commentary. Weird, as car drivers are normally brilliant savvy ‘readers of the tea leaves’. Instead of copping it on the chin, Ingall, on his quickly-prepared rebound podcast show, displayed an embarrassing level of bitterness towards Supercars. Hardly any podcast episode since goes by without more digs. Why would he be so short-sighted as to burn his bridges with the industry that for two decades provided him with an excellent livelihood.
How crazy was David Reynolds, deciding to create a ‘sledge by media’ with his poor attempt at gamesmanship with the Supercars role model and reigning champion, Scott McLaughlin? Reynolds, in mid-August, made comments that Scott had, since his success, become ‘boring’, ‘precious’ and ‘corporatised’. Was Reynolds trying some coattail-hanging branding enhancement, or was it another case of not remembering to put brain into gear before engaging mouth? In contrast, Scott won even more friends and support with his all-class response: “Look, some people grow up; some people don’t. I think you will pick which one has grown up.”
In my first article before the season start in February I posed the question, “Does a future bestseller await the sport, with some great accidental entertainment flowing from the personality cocktail of Boost sponsor Adderton’s ego and perfection drive, mixed with the quirky, no-nonsense, it’s-my-way-or-the-highway style of Rogers?” Well, a review of Adderton’s Instagram posts over the first 12 races would explain the accuracy of this prediction, with it all coming to an end a year short of the plan. What wasn’t predicted, however, was the faceoff created with Supercars over uprights. Garry Rogers’ exit from Supercars from 2020 is a sad loss and perhaps even more sad given the circumstances.
The coverage associated with the DJRTP Bathurst safety car issue has been a huge topic following Bathurst, where DJR Team Penske were hit with a $250,000 fine and the loss of 300 Championship points for deliberately asking Fabian Coulthard to slow behind the safety car. Whilst the team admitted fault, it appeared a tortuous process by Supercars where the initial charge around ‘team orders’ was the CAMS breach of rules. This was later switched to an ‘Obligation of Fairness’ rule from the International Sporting Code. Charged with one breach one day then charged with a different breach the next seems clumsy, to put it mildly. The most unfortunate aspect of this drama has been the rub-off on Scott McLaughlin’s emphatic drive and Bathurst win, fuelled particularly by some jealous competitors. Has Supercars been very remiss in not taking a strong stand on defending Scott’s brilliant win? This outstanding young champion gets used by Supercars for everything to grow crowds and TV ratings, yet the leadership team have been invisible, not coming out to fully support his Bathurst win and quell the noise.
Unlike all the other nine controversial news stories of the season noted above, this last item has not rated any media coverage – but it should. Supercars allowing Wild Card entries in races! They might create some publicity opportunities, but on the track it’s a negative for racing. Supercars strategists should do a count of the wild card entries this year, and their number of ‘offs’ or interruptions to the race, not to mention the uncompetitive times recorded. Supercars must urgently introduce strict criteria for wild card entries, including their exclusion from the race, if practice and qualifying lap times don’t achieve a pre-nominated gap to the lead car. I have a concern it won’t be too long before a lead driver/team has their Championship chances impacted by an inexperienced wild card driver or other safety issues that could come into play. This need is particularly significant for the ultra-demanding Bathurst race where it is foolhardy to allow any such ‘exhibition’ drives.
Whilst all this contestation is devoured by the fans, it would be interesting to know what a Harvard Business School evaluation would reveal in terms of it being helpful or harmful to the Supercars brand.