Does Manufacturer Loyalty In Supercars Still Make Sense?

 

Read the comments on any Facebook post about Supercars and you'll see a strong degree of manufacturer loyalty. Most people seem to be Ford, Holden or Nissan supporters more so than any particular team. Not everyone follows a manufacturer. There are people who prefer to support a driver or team, but manufacturer supporters are the majority. It's certainly not endemic to Supercars, but does it make any sense in Supercars? Manufacturers are banned from owning Supercars teams, remember. By siding with a manufacturer rather than a team are we not putting the cart before the horse?

It's been the way in Australian touring car racing since the late 1960s. The Battle lines were drawn in 1968 when the Holden Dealer Team entered a team of Monaro GTS 327s in the Bathurst 500 to take on the Ford Falcon GTs that had arrived a year earlier. Four years of one-upmanship followed, culminating in the 1972 Supercar Scare. The rivalry survived the 1970s and 80s, despite Ford's limited involvement and uncompetitive Group A Commodores.

In the 1990s and 2000s, most teams received some level of funding from either Ford or Holden. Both were pouring in more money than they ever had, fielded factory teams, and had dedicated motorsport departments. Around 2008, they both began drastically winding back their involvement. Manufacturer's technical involvement today is limited to the development of new engines and handing out intellectual property permission for the bodywork. Eight of the 10 teams are privateers. Motorsport is now handled by marketing, the motorsport departments dissolved. Only one team receives technical assistance for their current specification car. No prizes for guessing which one that is.

The early 2000s was when manufacturer involvement was at it's peak 

The early 2000s was when manufacturer involvement was at it's peak 

Holden’s involvement in Supercars consists primarily of sponsorship of Triple 8, two of whose cars compete as the Holden Racing Team. GM Motorsport has also been assisting Triple 8 with the development of the new twin turbo V6 engine. Once that engine is competitive, Triple 8 will probably undertake any further development themselves. For Nissan, it's very much the same. They provide Kelly Racing with naming sponsorship support and are heavily involved in developing the 5.0L VK56DE V8. The only difference is that Nismo is more involved in the ongoing engine program than Holden. Holden and Nissan do this to purely for marketing. They want to make fans of Triple 8 and Kelly Racing, respectively, feel emotionally connected to that brand so they'll buy their cars. This, according to Nissan, does actually work. Supercars, they admit, hasn't sold a single Altima, but it does sell Navaras. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday still applies, just not in a literal sense.

Ford is getting this for free, and that's not right. Why should Holden and Nissan put in all the money and effort and get little extra benefit compared with Ford, who doesn't lift a finger? Ford paid Prodrive to develop the FG-X, presumably to get the FG out of the championship, but that's where their involvement ended. They had also previously outsourced the development of the 2009 FG to Triple 8 and Prodrive. You shouldn't buy a Ford just because two teams run Falcons. But if you are buying a Ford, Bayford in Melbourne and Metro Ford in Brisbane sponsor Prodrive and DJR Team Penske respectively. Or you might buy a Tickford.

Given that the car manufacturer is little more than a sponsor, it's an unusual way of choosing your primary allegiance. It makes more sense to use manufacturers as a means for choosing a second favourite team.

Provenance is arguably a much better way picking a team. It's how we choose teams in other sports. By far and away the most popular team in Albury Wodonga on the border of New South Wales and Victoria is Brad Jones Racing. I don't live there, but I'm close enough that that's where my TV comes from. BJR is the focus of all Supercars coverage in the local news broadcast. The people of Albury-Wodonga don't support them because they race Holdens, they support them because they're their team. Some might say they're Holden fans, but that's because they're BJR fans and BJR race Holdens. One possible reason this doesn't happen more often is the concentration of teams in south east Melbourne and the Gold Coast.

Lately, there has been some fracturing, or exposure of existing fracturing, of manufacturer supporter bases, particularly within the Holden camp. Holden's decision to shift factory sponsorship and the Holden Racing Team name from Walkinshaw to Triple 8 divided fans. Many long -time HRT supporters expressed their disgust with the decision and vowed to remain Walkinshaw supporters. Others said they could never support Triple 8, implying that they never did even though they were a Holden team. There's also a good chance that not all Erebus supporters became Holden supporters in 2016. Same for GRM supporters this year.

Personally, I haven't supported a manufacturer for about three years now. I'm a Prodrive supporter. I don't support them because I drive a Ford. Ford doesn't even sponsor them, and neither do they sponsor DJR Team Penske. I don't support Prodrive because they're sponsored by Supercheap or the Bottle O either. I'll admit that I started following them because they were one of a shrinking number of Ford teams, but that's not why I've stuck with them. I simply reached a point where I decided I liked Prodrive and not Penske. Maybe because I'm a Victorian, not an American. Maybe it's my age. If in a couple of years time they're racing Kias I'll still be a Prodrive supporter. At least Kia might actually pay them.

Further movement and concentration of manufacturer sponsorship could lead to more people following teams rather than manufacturers. Fans supporting all teams running the same car are unlikely to go away anytime soon, but as time goes on and team-manufacturer alliances change and drivers move around freely, they could find themselves in the minority.