How Supercars' Own Regulations Could Kill Them
Early this week, Kia made a public statement claiming that they are not committed to entering Supercars, and have not had serious discussions with any teams. This follows reports that DJR Team Penske are a still a long way from homologating Ford Mustangs. Nothing has been heard from Alfa Romeo either. While Supercars are holding on to Holden and Nissan, they have lost Ford and Volvo. Supercars are struggling for manufacturer support, and they need it to survive.
Supercars introduced the current Car of the Future regulations in 2013. Designed to attract new manufacturers, eligibility rules were broadened to any sedan that would fit on the new control chassis. Manufacturers could use their own engine, or the LS-based generic V8 Supercar engine. In early 2012, Nissan announced their entry with Kelly Racing, running an Altima with a 5.0 version of the VK56 V8. AMG customer GT3 team Erebus Motorsport followed, buying Stone Brothers Racing and running E63s with permission but not sponsorship from Mercedes Benz. Volvo made it five manufacturers in 2014 with Garry Rogers Motorsport. Volvo reportedly paid more for their two car program than Nissan paid for four cars. The S60 was about as small a car that would fit with on the chassis, and the Yamaha B8444S engine had easily the smallest external dimensions. Scott McLaughlin finished second in the Volvo’s first race at Adelaide.
From there things went downhill. Ford pulled out of the championship at the end of 2014. They paid for the homologation of the FG-X Falcon for 2015, but elected not to continue as a sponsor. In 2015, after losing factory status, Prodrive had their best season yet, winning the driver's championship with Mark Winterbottom. Mercedes was next to leave after 2015. Development of the AMG V8 was too expensive for Erebus to continue with, so they switched to Walkinshaw Commodores for 2016. In mid-2016, Volvo, too, announced they would end their involvement. Unlike Ford, they would not allow GRM to continue to run Volvos as a privateer team, forcing GRM to revert to Commodores for 2017.
Late last year, things looked like turning around. Kia expressed interest, and Alfa Romeo were rumored to be looking. Bringing the number of factory teams back up to four, would put the sport in a much healthier position. Prodrive and DJR Team Penske were also working towards running Mustangs, with or without Ford sponsorship. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be working out that way now. Kia isn't particularly interested, and we've heard nothing from Alfa Romeo. Progress on a privateer Mustang is glacial. Supercars is looking more and more like a privateer championship.
That could be a problem. Because the current rules require replica carbon composite body panels, teams need, at minimum, IP permission from the manufacturer to reproduce those body panels. As Erebus demonstrated with the E63, that is possible, but as GRM found out, it doesn't always happen. The other difficult part is the engine. Any team looking to run a different manufacturer as a privateer would have a hard time competing with Holden and Nissan if they want to run a matching engine. It was the engine that put a stop to Erebus' Mercedes program.
Supercars were so heavily focused on attracting new manufacturers, that they forgot to plan for the event where they didn't come. No other major touring car championship has done this. DTM, Super GT and NASCAR wouldn't survive in their current forms as privateer-only championships either, but their rules were developed with much greater collaboration from the ones they already had. Supercars wrote their rules speculating on what new manufacturers might want, and assumed five of them would turn up to support five factory teams and privateers buying panels. Now there are only two. Holden is in the first year of a three year contract for Triple 8 to run the Holden Racing Team. NIssan in their first of two years with Kelly Racing as Nissan Motorsport. Nissan are in it for the long haul. They have said multiple times that they will use the current two year contract to evaluate what they might do next. It's two years of Kelly Racing V8 Altimas, followed by something else or more of the same. Holden on the other hand have given no indication for the future beyond the next three years. If one goes, the other will probably follow. Why bother being the only factory team?
A solution often suggested by armchair experts is using production cars. Going back to production-based racing would sidestep any IP issues, but it would introduce its own series of problems. It would be difficult to source appropriate cars, turn them into racing cars and then achieve technical parity. The cars would be cheaper, but not nearly as cheap as you'd expect. They also wouldn't be fast enough to allow the championship to remain Australia’s premier motorsport. Many of the drivers, being professionals, won't want to race production cars currently favoured by amateurs, and would leave to compete in the Australian GT Championship.Despite what proponents say, audiences won't be interested in it either. We already have a production car championship in Australia, and despite being free to watch online, few people bother to watch it.
You can go with a more loosely production derived formula. The World Touring Car Championship is production based, but makes use of Super 2000 and Diesel 2000 rules, with 1.6 litre turbo four cylinders. The Next Generation Touring Car regulations used in the BTCC are similar, with production body shells, 2.0 litre turbo engines, and control suspension, brakes and gearboxes. Neither of these would appeal to the traditional Australian touring car audience.
They could adopt a similar formula for larger cars running V8 and twin turbo V6 engines, but there aren't many options. Notably, Holden would have nothing to race if they went down this path. Medium-large production touring cars are largely dead globally. Aside from luxury brands, most are front wheel drive, not an appropriate layout for a big, heavy racing car. If Holden wants to run Commodores, Nissan the Altima or GT-R, and Prodrive and Penske the Mustang, they'll have to go silhouette.
DTM and Super GT both use the same silhouette formula. Supercars could run these rules and, teams would have cars from at least seven manufacturers to choose from. However, DTM cars would be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest teams.
Perhaps the solution lies with MARC Cars Australia. MARC is a Queensland-based company that builds and races V8 Ford Focuses and Mazda 3s. Both run Ford Coyote engines. Like a Supercar, both use the same control chassis. Unlike a Supercar, the body panels are taken straight off the road car. They're not replica panels. Ford and Mazda are not involved, they don't have to be. MARC aren't replicating Ford or Mazda’s IP, they're simply buy Focus and 3 panels and attaching them to their chassis. There's even more good news. The cars cost half as much to build as a Supercar. They produce some 200 fewer horsepower, but that could be resolved by using a different engine.
Supercars should seriously consider adopting the MARC formula, or something similar. The Gen 2 regulations that come in next year and are due to be replaced in 2023. Supercars hasn't committed to anything for Gen 3, aside from making it easier to fit coupe body shells. Hybrids have also been suggested. Given the lack of manufacturer interest, Gen 3 should also involve off the shelf production body panels so the sport can survive without factory teams. Under the current rules, if Nissan and Holden pulled out and took their IP with them like Volvo did, teams would be left with nothing to race. That's not likely to happen, but it could, and Supercars should plan for it in mind.
The cars don't have to be small. They could use a variation on the existing control chassis. It could work. The Nissan Altima Supercar’s panels are the same size and shape as the road car’s, aside from some wheel arch flaring. If they had to, they could change the chassis rules to allow wheelbase changes. As long as the chassis is wide enough that no likely competitors have to be narrowed (which is considerably harder to flaring the arches to widen them), there shouldn't be too many issues. A 2850mm wheelbase and 1900mm width would accommodate most mid-sized sedans.
Supercars may soon have to concede their car regulations have a major flaw. Trying to attract new manufacturers is a worthy pursuit, but there needs to be contingencies for a privateer-only scenario. To avoid a grid full of Commodores and Altimas, or something even worse, Supercars needs to adopt MARC-style cars for Gen 3.