SUPERCARS 2019 SEASON OPENS WITH PLENTY OF CHANGES

How many will be home runs?

Like each one of Australia’s top 10 elite sports whose performances receive constant scrutiny from their fan base and the media, Supercars, like the rest, always provides an abundance of change over the off-season break.

Some changes pre-season will appear logical and strategic and some, of course, will create big question marks and appear like marriages of convenience. But it’s not until midway through the season that we can validate our hunches on whether such changes have been for better or worse.

In motor sport the performance predictability of the driver is generally an easy call: most often the star drivers of the prior season carry over their starring role, the middle field drivers continue to toil midfield, and the tailenders continue in that zone. Has anything significant occurred off-season that may change the 2018 results where the top four drivers took 85% of the 30 chequered flags? Don’t believe so, but hope so!

It can be a big struggle breaking into the top 10 driver results. A lot has to do with the technical capability and budget of the team they drive for – but experience shows either a rookie or an established driver in a lesser-reputation team can always exhibit raw talent and a gifted flair if it’s there. Scott McLaughlin, for example, in his first year at GRM was 10th in a team whose prior results were only average, and Craig Lowndes won the Championship in 1996,his first year, immediately after HRT’s shocker 1995.

Whilst the cars and drivers are the reason why the fans attend or view the sport, there are many other behind-the-scenes components. Below we note the changes or lack thereof that have attracted attention over the pre-season, together with my opinion and rating of these changes.

Cars

Undoubtedly the No.1 change and the genuinely big story off-season (which will continue to be the case all season) is the introduction of the Ford Mustang. The entire sport will hold its breath when the six Mustangs fire up in Adelaide. If they are on the money from the outset it will be a huge boost for the sport, or even if not, the interest throughout 2019 will still be high, tracking how they can improve and finish the year. The excitement and hype of Mustang joining the sport makes the entry of Nissan Altima and Volvo pale in comparison. Mustang’s 2019 impact rating: ‘‘10’’ = brilliant.

The two fewer cars on the grid this year (24 versus 26 last year) is not a good look for the series by any assessment standard. Rating ‘‘5’’ = concerning.

Driver ins and outs

Those drivers exiting the sport as full-time drivers this year with a respective rating on the potential to rock and shake the sport are:
Craig Lowndes, ‘10’ = profound
Garth Tander ‘7 ’= medium
Michael Caruso ‘5 ’= medium rare
Blanchard ‘2’ = underdone.

These ratings place considerable emphasis on my opinion re: the brand power of these drivers and their entertainment asset value in putting bums on seats at race events.
Drivers new to the sport this year are hard to evaluate as first year rookies, however the social media platforms and other barometers of talent assessment are certainly not lighting up with excitement for Macaulay Jones at 24 years of age or Garry Jacobson at 27, however we all hope they will spring some surprises for the sport.

Driver/team shuffles

Mark Winterbottom moves from Tickford to the Schwerkolt team. Winterbottom is a proven talent who won the Championship only four seasons ago. It’s difficult to fathom why Mark would jump from a team with above-average credentials to a team with below-average credentials (last four years’ placings: 14, 24, 16, 21) and a small one-car outfit. Either Mark feels somethings is adrift at

Tickford or Charlie has sold him one of his off-season dreams. Rating in terms of Marks career and impact for the sport ‘4’ = high risk.
Lee Holdsworth moves to Tickford. While this team has a lot more to offer than his old team, the big question is, does Lee have any more in him than his past four terrible years indicate. At 36 years of age, his career is on the line. He needs to let his driving do the talking rather than his excessive pre-season hype. Rating in terms of will this be a big deal for the sport ‘4’ = a winner or a fizzer?

Richie Stanaway. His appointment at GRM really registers on my radar. There is some X factor/mean machine about this driver, and despite last year’s results and the stories about his ‘attitude’ at Tickford, I always say the harder they are to manage the more talent they normally possess, with the key being a boss/coach who knows how get the best out of ‘different’ athletes. Rating ‘9’ = for the sport as we need more talented ‘take no prisoners’ drivers in the ranks. With the brilliance and experience of engineer, Richard Hollway, in his corner, maybe its standby time for an all-new Richie in 2019.

Of the 24 cars/drivers contesting the Championship this year there are seven driver and/or team changes – or a 30% shuffle-up – on the grid, which would have to be rated as not ideal for the series with fan confusion. This number does not include the two fewer cars on the grid.

Sponsors

Boost Mobiles from Walkinshaw to GRM. Great move for Garry Rogers to pick up Boost after Wilson’s withdrawal. Rating ‘9’ = Peter Adderton will ensure the marketing meter is turned on full blast. However, does a future bestseller await the sport, with some great accidental entertainment this year flowing from a ‘personality cocktail’ of sponsor of Adderton’s ego and perfection-drive, mixed with the quirky, no-nonsense, ‘it’s my way or the highway’ style of team owner Garry Rogers.

Irwin Tools. Good to see them back in, as they know the business and should make it work for them and add value to the sport. Rating: ‘7’ = positive and excellent livery presentation.
Mega replaces Boost as co-naming rights sponsor of WAU. It’s difficult to understand this one, given speculation on the past Mega deal with Tickford, and also hard to understand the Mega Fuels/Mobil alignment, however this may unfold as sponsor activations kick in. WAU, with its big-name international ownership, seems in a rut commercially and needs to bring some heavyweight company brand names to the sport. Compare the quantity and quality of WAU’s business partners with the other internationally-owned team, DJR Team Penske.

Mega-Mobil co-share sponsorship a rating ‘7’. It’s hardly a commentator’s dream getting their tongues around ‘Walkinshaw Andretti United Mobil 1 Mega Racing’, or WAUM1MR, but then we also have DJRTP Shell V Power Racing!

Rabble Club with Kellys and Truck Assist with Tekno Racing are the other full livery primary sponsors; however with no intel as to how these deals work it’s difficult to provide a meaningful rating.
Penrite have doubled their exposure with the Erebus team and now have both cars identical in appearance, with the end result being a very exciting and professional look for this team. Great for the sport and great for the team: Rating: ‘10’.

The Series (Supercars)

The only major change here appears to be the replacement of David Stuart as Chief Technical Officer by two new senior executives in Adrian Burgess and Campbell Little. At a time when cost containment is so critical, one is left pondering why two people are needed to do the job previously done by one. Little’s constant job-bouncing around seven different teams worries me; likewise Burgess and his association with four teams over about 10 years. It is not what I would be looking for in such a vital role.

Additionally, I have an alarm system that always flashes when technical guys like Adrian Burgess have a penchant for the TV cameras. Let’s hope these guys can lift the bar and take the sport to another level but my rating is ‘5’. Why could the series not recruit an external, all-new senior technical talent and introduce a fresh set of eyes and brain power for the sport, and at the same time break up the some of the old mates’ clubs. At the other end of the scale, some carry over grudges that are inevitable with constant job-hoppers.

The change on the Supercars commission representation that took place late last season will produce strong benefits this season. The replacement of Barry Rogers by DJRTP boss, Ryan Story, is an inspired move. Ryan’s 10 years’ experience in running a race team, coupled with his various specialist Master’s degrees, is a very significant step for the sport. Rating: ‘10’. What is needed now is to also get this high-IQ, well-qualified strategic thinking talent on the Supercars board at the earliest opportunity.

Media

Despite the fan outcry surrounding Russell Ingall being fired, there can be no doubt there was some very strategic thinking behind Fox dumping the 55-year-old from their ranks in favour of a much younger Craig Lowndes, who will also bring more racer currency to the commentary team. I give this move a rating ‘9’ for the sport with one proviso: that Craig’s comments are short and sharp and his giggling even shorter.

Channel 10 aired their first RPM last Sunday and announced at the same time Matt White would be supported by Kate Peck, Garth Tander and Michael Caruso. The first show was a super-lightweight effort and reflected the media inexperience of Tander and Caruso. It all looked rushed together with some poor attempts at humour by Peck that seemed to disrupt the flow. Rating ‘5’ as long as RPM go with a panel of four. They should consider replacing one of the two drivers with a hardnosed specialist motor sport journalist.
Other ‘interesting’ snippets

Triple Eight must be awarded a ‘10’ rating for their 2019 Enduro driver line-up. These appointments could play a very big part in the Championship outcome.

In 2012 – only five seasons ago – only six, or 21%, of the main game drivers were 27 years of age or under. This year there are 11 drivers under 27, or 46% of the field. The oldest driver seven years ago was Russell Ingall, then 48, and this year the oldest will be James Courtney at 38. It’s fair to think the days of a driver in Supercars competing full-time at 40 are over.

On one hand it is fantastic the sport has a younger driver profile, provided the show is not weakened by inexperience, crashes and less competitive times. Why today do we have a considerably higher content of under 27-year-old drivers? There’s a good chance it is a money thing, where many teams cannot afford the salaries of experienced drivers, and sign young drivers who can bring sponsorship. A younger driver profile for the sport will always be a rating ‘10’, but if it’s at the expense of racing quality and competitiveness then it’s a rating ‘3’.

One thing seemed to be missing in all the off-season news and changes, and that was any report of fresh new business talent being recruited into the sport at CEO/Team Principal level or in the Engineering and Marketing ranks of either the series or the teams. This needs to be a priority for the sport – to replace the personnel regurgitation process so entrenched in this small competitive industry.

John Crennan
Motorsport Contributor

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