Hard Work and Ultimatums

 
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This week two really positive things happened in Supercars. The first was the Ford and Nissan teams getting on with the job of homologating carbon-composite panels. The second was Roger Penske’s ultimatum to Ford, that his eponymous team would run Commodores if Ford won’t sponsor them.

We’ll start with the panels. During and for some time after the Adelaide 500, debate raged around the ZB Holden Commodore’s carbon-composite roof, bonnet and tailgate. On the Falcon and Altima, these panels were taken from the road car and made from steel. Holden homologation team Triple Eight Race Engineering faced difficulties sourcing parts from Opel, so they were forced to make the entire car themselves. Without the ability to manufacture steel panels from scratch, they used much lighter carbon composites.Managers at Tickford Racing, DJR Team Penske and Nissan Motorsport complained about it to anyone who would listen for most of the weekend and into the following week. Meanwhile, Triple Eight owner Roland Dane weighed in and suggested Ford teams hurry up and homologate a Mondeo to replace the Falcon for the good of the sport.

Fortunately, the Ford and Nissan teams stopped moaning and got on with the job. Early this week Tickford (the Ford homologation team) applied to Supercars for permission to run composite bonnets and roofs, and Nissan Motorsport applied to run composite roofs. Teams began producing the composite panels before they were approved for use. All four Altimas are using composite roofs at this weekend’s Melbourne 400, the Australian Grand Prix support race. With eight Falcons and, a short turnaround time and a risk they might be rejected, some drivers were going to miss out this weekend. Tickford and Penske shared the load. Tickford produced two roofs and Penske’s composite partner two bonnets. Supercars approved both submissions thursday morning before practice. Tickford’s Mark Winterbottom and Penske’s Fabian Coulthard were the lucky drivers who received the composite panels. Given how quickly they built the first two sets, you can expect the remaining Tickford and Penske cars to have composite panels for Tasmania. There’s a good chance customer teams 23Red and Matt Stone Racing will have them in Tasmania too.

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Do they work? I wrote this article last night, after two practice sessions and qualifying. So far the answer appears to be no. Holden teams dominated practice one. Jamie Whincup (RBHRT), Nick Percat (BJR), Lee Holdsworth (Team 18) and James Courtney (WAU) set the four fastest times. Coulthard, with composite panels, was fifth fastest. Winterbottom was last. In practice two, Scott McLaughlin (Penske) was fastest, ahead of Whincup, Coulthard and Percat.  Qualifying for race one saw McLaughlin take pole over Coulthard, Whincup and Mostert (Tickford). Whincup took pole for race two, ahead of McLaughlin, Coulthard and Waters (Tickford). These results don’t really suggest that the composite panels offer any advantage. McLaughlin was ahead of Coulthard in every session bar P1, and at no point was Winterbottom the fastest Tickford driver. Neither Falcon driver running composite panels could feel any difference. Whincup described the issue as “a storm in a teacup”.

“There have been little differences here and there that has been going on for the last 10 years between all the cars. The human element is a massive part of what we do, drivers, engineers, everything that we do. What we’re talking about with a carbon bonnet is stuff all,” Whincup said.

Has this whole parity debate been over nothing? It certainly looks like it. Last year Coulthard won the first three races at Albert Park and Mostert won the fourth. Certain drivers who happen to drive Fords were strong where they have been before, one of them happened to have a composite bonnet and the other three didn’t. Another Ford driver with a composite driver didn’t do very well.

Moving on, Roger Penske has stated this week that if Ford doesn’t provide any sponsorship, his team could switch to Holden next year if another manufacturer doesn’t come along. Team Penske has never enjoyed factory backing in any capacity since it joined the championship in 2015 by buying-out Dick Johnson Racing. Together with former factory Ford team Tickford, Penske pushed to replace the Falcon with the Mustang in 2017. 2017 became 2018, before the US-owned team gave up trying early this year. While Tickford remains open to Focus or Mondeo, for Penske, it was Mustang or nothing. Now it seems their 2019 car will be anything but a Falcon. Given the circumstances they find themselves in, this is the appropriate action to take. Staying loyal to Ford was never going to get them what they wanted. They would have been left waiting until what Ford wanted was for there to be no Falcons in Supercars. Ford either doesn’t want to be involved or is enjoying having its cars, albeit ones that are no longer available, competing at someone else’s expense.

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Penske is doing what Allan Moffat did successfully in the late 1970s. Moffat had lost Ford-backing and was competing as a privateer in both the ATCC and Australian Sports Sedan Championship. Rather than sticking with Ford, Moffat sought out the best ASSC car he could find, which happened to be the IMSA Chevrolet Monza. Moffat hit the ground running in 1976, winning the first two ASSC rounds. Not long after, Ford came along and offered to sponsor his ATCC team (which was still running Falcons), if he sold his Monza. He didn’t sell it, but placed it in storage and reverted to his Capri for sports sedan duties. When Ford withdrew its funding again, he went to a Mazda RX7 for the 1983 ATCC. It’s time for Penske and Tickford to take the same approach. It’s great that Penske’s at least talking about racing Commodores, but they have to be willing to follow through. Tickford has to do the same.

Will the carbon-composite panels make any difference? Probably not. Will we miss Ford? Probably, even though we perhaps shouldn’t. More importantly, this week we saw three teams actually get on with the job of improving their situation rather the squabbling we too often get.

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