From Bad to Walkinshaw
There's something wrong at Walkinshaw Racing. The once-dominant team hasn't won a championship since 2007, and haven't built a competitive car since 2009. Today team manager Adrian Burgess left the team. It would appear that it was the team's decision, not his. When a four time championship winning team manager is let go without winning a championship at your team, it's not a good sign.
The decline in performance was sharp. Initially it was only Will Davison, who went from second in 2009 to 22nd in 2010. The Holden Racing Team had won the teams championship in 2009, but placed seventh in 2010. The third and fourth cars were driven by Fabian Coulthard and Andrew Thompson. For 2011 Davison left for Prodrive while reigning champion James Courtney joined on a rumoured $1 million a year from an unstable Dick Johnson Racing. They also downsized from four cars to three, dropping Thompson. Garth Tander and Nick Percat won Bathurst in an otherwise forgettable season. It would be their last win for the next 20 months.
2011 saw Coulthard replaced by Russell Ingall, who brought Supercheap Auto sponsorship. Ingall was then pushed aside in 2014 in favour of Tim Slade. Slade was hoping for a rebound after a disappointing year with Erebus. At the end of 2015 and two years of poor results, fearing that Supercheap would leave, Slade went to BJR. Unable to find a sponsor or driver, Walkinshaw sold their third Racing Entitlement Contract.
2014 was the year Adrian Burgess was poached from Triple 8 in the hope he could replicate the same success in Clayton. It was expected to return Walkinshaw, in particular HRT, to the top of the pecking order. Burgess was looking for a new challenge, but faced something harder than he anticipated.
The disappointing permanent-circuit performance carried on right through 2014, 15 and 16. In early 2016, speculation about Walkinshaw losing their Holden sponsorship started.
In August last year, Holden had to make a decision a decision over their future in Supercars. They knew they wanted to run a twin turbo V6 Commodore, but they needed a team. They had two existing factory teams. Walkinshaw Racing were the main team running as HRT, Triple 8 , who had minor non-naming-rights sponsorship. Walkinshaw hadn't won a race on a permanent circuit since 2013. Triple 8 had won six of the last eight championships and were almost certain to win a seventh. It was an easy decision, and was widely predicted by the motorsport media. The Holden Racing Team branding and sponsorship was moved to Triple 8, ending the second longest running sponsorship deal in the Australian Touring Car Championship. People were still shocked. So, unbelievably, was Walkinshaw.
Walkinshaw made it clear that they would not let it slow them down, pointing to the fact that Prodrive enjoyed their best season immediately after Ford pulled out. The difference is that Prodrive had a large group of sponsors, two of the best drivers, and they didn't sack Tim Edwards.
Their first move was to drop Tander for Scott Pye to save money and bring in a young driver to break up the oldest pairing in the championship. They needed to do something bold. This certainly was bold, but based on Tander's performance from Sandown onwards, it might have been a mistake.
Next came an announcement of Mobil as a naming rights sponsor, joined by Walkinshaw-owned HSV. To their credit, inclusion of HSV is a clever move. It uses up any free space for advertising, and it helps retain the support of Holden fans. The red and black livery looks more like a factory Holden than the factory Red Bull Holden Racing Team cars do. That might change next year when the current Red Bull contract that pre-dates the Holden deal ends and the new one begins.
On track, things have gotten worse this year. When Tander was Obviously Scott Pye being new to the team doesn't help, it will take a while for him to settle in, but James Courtney has struggled as well.
Pye and Courtney are not bad drivers. Courtney is arguably far better than his one championship suggests, and a victim of being at the right reams at wrong times. He was at Stone Brothers Racing just after their dominant period from 2003-5, at Dick Johnson Racing where he won the championship, then Walkinshaw just as they stopped being competitive.
At Phillip Island and Barbagallo, Courtney ran the car Tander had used for most of last year. It was the car that suffered a massive crash at Bathurst in 2014, and was then repaired as a spare. Courtney, like Tander complained that something was wrong with it, and that was reflected in the results. Ryan Walkinshaw argued that there nothing wrong with it. He claimed they've performed every test they can on it and it's fine. He suggested the car's not in the right setup window, and they just need to find it. If the drivers are reporting that the car's no good, and the results achieved with that car are significantly worse than the other cars, then there's something wrong with the car. It has emerged that the team was desperately trying to protect the car's resale value by saying there was nothing wrong. When you're putting resale value ahead of performance, you've got your priorities wrong.
Adding insult to injury, Garry Rogers Motorsport run Walkinshaw engines in their Commodore and have Tander and James Moffat in 7th and 10th respectively. Erebus run Walkinshaw cars, and David Reynolds sits 11th. Courtney and Pye, meanwhile, are 15th and 18th. Reynolds is probably the best driver with Walkinshaw equipment, but Walkinshaw themselves should be able to extract the most performance from their own cars. And if GRM are outperforming Walkinshaw with the same engines, there must be a deficiency in Walkinshaw's chassis.
A lack of effective leadership and management might be holding them back. Triple 8 has Roland Dane. Penske Dr Ryan Story along with Tim Cindric and Roger Penske, although those two aren't that involved. Prodrive has Tim Edwards, Rod Nash, and Rusty French. Burgess is clearly very talented. He was at DJR when Courtney won the championship, and he was team manager at Triple 8 for three of Jamie Whincup’s championships. If Burgess could get a championship out of DJR when it was imploding then Walkinshaw should have been easy. This is a case of the manager being blamed for a broader team issue.
Walkinshaw’s decline began around the time Ryan Walkinshaw took over after his father's passing in 2009. Walkinshaw’s best years were under Tom Walkinshaw and to a lesser degree Mark Skaife. Maybe Ryan should step aside and let someone else the team while he focuses on the rest of the business. Burgess would have been a good choice. He knows how Triple 8 operates. He knows how to win a championship, and he would know why Walkinshaw aren't winning.
Finding a new manufacturer is crucial if Walkinshaw wants to be successful again. Under Holden’s new arrangement with Triple 8, where they get exclusive rights to produce Holden engines and body panels, it might be difficult for anyone besides Triple 8 to win a championship in a Holden. Just like in F1, where realistically only Mercedes can win a championship with Mercedes engines. Gaining factory team status from a new manufacturer would allow Walkinshaw to develop their own engines, so they wouldn't always be a round or two behind Triple 8. However, their ownership of HSV might put any new manufacturers off from signing with them. And any new manufacturer would more than likely approach DJR Team Penske, Prodrive or Garry Rogers Motorsport first.
That's why they need to restructure and start showing prospective manufacturers and other sponsors what they can do. They have to demonstrate that they are still capable of winning before anyone will take them on. Either that or they need to somehow prove that it's a lack of manufacturer support that's holding them back. Given that they were uncompetitive as the Holden Racing Team, that would be difficult. A complete restructure to turn their performance around it is then.
If they don't, they could lose Courtney. He may have a three year contract, but there would be a get-out clause that allows him to leave if the team isn't performing. If he hasn't he would be regretting not signing with Nissan. The Altima appears to be the better car and the team is on the way up. Courtney and Burgess also have a great deal of respect for each other. With Burgess gone, Courtney will be looking for a way out to wherever he goes.
If Courtney goes, they're starting again with two new drivers. The best drivers are accounted for by Triple 8, Penske and Prodrive. They've burned their bridges with literally every other established driver. Well all of them except for Caruso. They take them on, give them a rubbish car and then lose them when the sponsorship dries up or when the driver's patience runs out. Courtney, Pye, Tander, Reynolds, Davison, Lee Holdsworth, Tim Slade, Percat, Coulthard, Jason Bright, Craig Lowndes and both Kelly brothers have all driven for Walkinshaw. That's half the field. Only Rick Kelly, Tander and Lowndes have won championships there. Lowndes's last was 18 years ago. They would have to take on a rookie and rebuild without the feedback of an experienced driver.
If they had kept Tander and replaced Courtney with Pye, they'd be in a better position right now. Tander is a better driver for car development than Courtney and would have stuck with the team until he retired. It's too late for that. They've made their decision and they'll just have to make do with what they've got. A talented but inexperienced driver and a driver who must be running out of patience.
It's also worth noting that both James Rosenberg and Charlie's Schwerkolt ran their RECs as Walkinshaw satelite teams. Both only lasted one year. That doesn't reflect well on the way Walkinshaw operates.
Can Walkinshaw survive? Maybe. If nothing else, Ryan is a good businessman who's managed to diversify the Walkinshaw Group. He should be able to entice a new manufacturer, but only if the team is performing well. In the short term they need to improve their results so they're at least the fourth best team. Making the top three would be too much to ask. On past form that seems unlikely to happen.
Without significant changes, and without Burgess, Walkinshaw's best years are well and truly behind them. It's not too late to get back to the front, but does the team have the willpower to actually do what needs to be done?