A Supercars Silly Season Update
The Supercars silly season is just about over for another year. Only two seats remain available at Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport. Almost every team with an out of contract driver had at least one change. Charlie Schwerkolt Racing was the only one that didn't, retaining Lee Holdsworth. A total of nine drivers have gained, lost or changed seats this year, with a tenth possible at LDM. Two RECs have also changed owners and swapped places.
The silly season started when Scott Pye was dropped by DJR Team Penske to make way for Scott McLaughlin. McLaughlin had been a target for DJR Team Penske for some time, but Volvo's decision to pull out of Supercars, leaving Garry Rogers Motorsport in limbo without cars for next year. DJR Team Penske have no manufacturer backing, but are expected to be the next powerhouse team regardless.
This was follwed by a shock decision by Walkinshaw to retain James Courtney and drop Garth Tander, replacing him with Pye. Pye has arguably stepped backwards, despite Walkinshaw finishing higher in the championship than DJR Team Penske this year. However he has gained the long term stability he hasn't been able to find so far. It's also worth noting that DJR Team Penske is yet to win a race. With uncertainty around what cars GRM will be running next year, McLaughlin has come out of the silly season better off than before.
Tander secured a drive at GRM replacing McLaughlin. Before Walkinshaw had made their decision, the second GRM drive was expected to go to James Golding or Scott Pye. Tander is most likely a placeholder at GRM, as Golding will likely be promoted to the championship series next year. Tander will be competing with James Moffat for a 2018 drive.
Nick Percat moving to Brad Jones Racing was extremely predictable. Speculation about Jason Bright’s future has been going on ever since Russell Ingall retired and made him the oldest driver. Percat was widely tipped as his replacement. A Bathurst winner who has struggled to find a stable and competitive drive Percat is the sort of driver that BJR has a history of hiring and extracting speed from. The small team from Albury on the southern border of New South Wales saw potential in Fabian Coulthard, and gave him his first race win. Last year they did the same for Tim Slade, who had been best of the non-Triple 8/Prodrive drivers in 2012 with Stone Brothers Racing, but struggled with underperforming cars at Erebus and Walkinshaw.
After the announcement that he was leaving BJR, Bright joked that he would have to be careful to not pull into the wrong pit next year, implying that he wasn't retiring. Initially he aimed to get into a Triple 8 car and there were rumours that he would take his REC to Lucas Dumbrell Motorsports, run his own team, or leave his REC at BJR and drive for LDM. In the end he moved his REC to Prodrive Racing Australia, where he will drive the car himself. The #56 Ford Falcon will be sponsored by MEGA Limited. At 43, Bright is no longer a likely championship contender but he brings a wealth of experience to a team with two young drivers in Chaz Mostert and Cameron Waters. The move saw Prodrive co-owner Rusty French’s application to purchase the Super Black REC rejected by the Supercars board, as it would have put him in control of five RECs. A team or individual can only control four RECs, including ownership, leasing or running a satellite team (Rod Nash Racing and Britek in French's case). The Super Black REC was instead sold to Tim Blanchard, who will use it to continue in BJR’s third car.
The only newcomer to the championship so far has been Simona De Silvestro who will replace Dale Wood at Nissan Motorsports. De Silvestro’s appointment at the Kelly’s team follows a wildcard entry at Bathurst in a Nissan. De Silvestro is unlikely to win a race next year but she has potential and her three year contract will give her the time she needs. 2012 Dunlop Series champion Michael Caruso’s contract was renewed along with Nissan's funding, and both the Kelly brothers will continue to drive full time. Wood will go to Erebus. He brings sponsorship from GB Galvanising that Erebus needs and Erebus might be the team that can get results from him. Shae Davies, who was brought into Erebus mid-season, does not have a full time drive next year.
Charlie Schwerkolt Racing renewed Lee Holdsworth’s contract. Neither party having better options at the time. Jack LeBrocq and Garry Jacobson would have been considered, but an experienced driver like Holdsworth is a better choice for a single car team. Holdsworth's only other option would have been Brad Jones Racing or Walkinshaw, but neither would have even considered Holdsworth as anything more than a bargaining chip to get their preferred drivers.
The two drivers at LDM remain unconfirmed. Andre Heimgartner will remain there,subject to funding. The tiny Triple 8 customer team will probably look for a pay driver to fill the second seat. That driver could be Chris Pither, who has been displaced by the departure of Super Black Racing, or reigning Dunlop Series champion Garry Jacobson. Jack LeBrocq would be on LDM’s wish list but Prodrive will be seeking to retain him in the Dunlop Series and as Waters’ co-driver. If LeBrocq stays at Prodrive he will replace Bright in 2018 or 19. Recent rumours suggest, however, that LeBrocq will drive an MW Motorsports Nissan in the Dunlop Series next year. That would make him De Silvestro's co-driver and put him in line to eventually replace Todd Kelly.
Who are biggest winners from this year's silly season? McLaughlin and Percat stand out. Both have found competitive teams that are much better long term prospects than the ones they're departing. Many people even claim that McLaughlin will be most likely Ford driver to win a championship. Look past the Penske hype to the actual results and a championship is doubtful. But he might deliver Penske's first race win in Supercars. Bright has also managed to secure a better car than last year and potentially given himself a better future beyond full time racing. Tim Blanchard has also found himself in a much more secure position, moving from pay driver to owner-driver. Being an owner-driver of a satellite team is an even less respectable position than pay-driver, but at least he has a future in the sport beyond driving. His Formula 4 driving cousin Simon Fallon is expected to eventually take over driving the Blanchard REC.
In Walkinshaw, Scott Pye has found the stability he deserves and a team that will value his services more than DJR Team Penske has. Scott Pye could also be one of the losers in this year's silly season. The DJR Team Penske cars have been improving, while Walkinshaw appears to be stagnating. We won't know if these trends continue until next year.
Shae Davies is the biggest loser, relegated back to the Dunlop Series next year. Chris Pither also doesn't currently have a drive, but he can't improve on the Prodrive Falcon he's lost. James Courtney may have missed an opportunity to join a more competitive team at Nissan. His and Caruso’s results will be the judge of that. The same can be said of Dale Wood, who has been kicked out of a factory team into Erebus, one of the smallest teams in the championship.
De Silvestro is easily the most controversial appointment. Many people believe she's there as the token female, and to an extent that's true. She would not have got the drive if she were a man. But here past performance in other categories shows that she does deserve a chance. Russell Ingall, Tim Edwards, Dick Johnson and James Courtney all believe that she is more than talented enough to compete in Supercars.
The silly season is just about over for another year. There were fewer movements than last year, but still a few big surprise driver and REC moves. A number of drivers have improved their position going into 2017, and the ones that are worse off were the drivers expected to lose out before the silly season began. It will make for an interesting 2017. Will Scott McLaughlin live up to expectations? How will Simona De Silvestro go? Should Jason Bright have retired? Can Walkinshaw turn things around with Pye? We won't really know until a few rounds in.