Monday Motor Sport Report

V8 SUPERCARS: Bold new world of non-V8s and turbos

IT TOOK way too long to happen, but credit to V8 Supercars for finally reacting to the changing real-world motoring landscape with a raft of changes opening the way for additional engine and body configurations to compete alongside current V8 engines and four-door sedans and due to take effect from 2017, as we reported last week.

Not unexpectedly, there has been a mixed reaction to the most contentious of the changes, opening the series to engines other than 5.0-litre V8s – the staple of V8 Supercars since its inception two decades ago – along with the acceptance of coupe body shapes draped over the obligatory off-the-shelf standard-issue chassis.

Many old-time fans are resisting change, but there are also others who support V8 Supercars Australia’s chief executive James Warburton’s blunt assessment that it is a survival imperative to make the sport more relevant to spectators and manufacturers as the Australian car industry transitions from locally built cars.

Warburton says research shows that opening the category to other brands and engines would have substantial appeal, particularly to younger fans.

V8 Supercars is also hoping the likes of Lexus SC and BMW M4/M3 might be on the grid in the future, helped by an acceleration away from the traditional blue-collar spectator demographic.

While the prospect of greater variety – of brands and engines – is intriguing, this potential diversity tosses up one major headache for the category: the performance equivalence process. 

It hasn’t been easy and swift to settle on parity for recent newbies Nissan, Mercedes and Volvo, and they all have 5.0-litre V8s.  Bringing turbo fours and sixes (and maybe even hybrids) into the mix will require some delicate fiddling to ensure all the brands and engine configurations produce similar lap times.

V8 Supercars management sought feedback from car-makers before firming-up the new direction for the category.

It did nothing to dissuade Ford from going ahead with its withdrawal.

Importantly, the new direction means new manufacturers may source race-developed engines used in other series, rather than enter into costly development programs (as Nissan, Erebus and Volvo have had to do).

Lexus Australia boss Sean Hanley got very excited about the possibilities of being involved post-2016, although no business case has yet been looked at from within the company.

Handley’s enthusiasm has been partly generated by Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s imperative that the company should go racing.

To that end, Lexus Japan has already indicated it is poised to jump into the FIA GT global series with the RC-F GT3, most likely in 2016.

This exotic sports car series for GT3 cars is a better fit for the Lexus buyer demographic, and Handley would be aware that the Lexus GT3 car could also be raced locally in the Bathurst 12 Hour and the Australian GT Championship.

Selling just 7000 units a year locally doesn’t seem enough to give Lexus a decent war chest with which to go ‘V8’ racing, a commitment probably needing about $10 million in the first year, but Volvo jumped aboard despite selling fewer than 5000 annually.

Lexus would almost certainly need a significant budget from external sponsors.

V8 SUPERCARS: Wet end-of-year break-up party

FANS who attended the season-ending Sydney 500 at Homebush at the weekend left the precinct very damp – and a little unfulfilled – after two of the three races were abandoned due to heavy rain and track flooding.

Officials rightly suspended race two on Saturday and race three on Sunday when Sydney was belted by thunderstorms that left visibility and grip in short supply.

The atrocious weather couldn’t upset Jamie Whincup’s coronation because his record sixth title was sealed before the weekend, but it did shake up the fight for the minors.

A delighted Shane van Gisbergen splashed a path from fourth in the championship to second, the Kiwi jumping Mark Winterbotton, who finished third in the standings, and Craig Lowndes (fourth).

The season finale marked some emotional exits from the series, too, including multiple title-winning team boss Ross Stone, who is stepping back, at least for the foreseeable future.

Highly regarded Nick Percat, a Bathurst 1000 winner, has been left without a drive following end-of-season shuffles that sprung Lee Holdsworth from Erebus AMG to drive a Holden run out of Walkinshaw Racing (for Charlie Schwerkolt Racing). 

Percat this year drove a Walkinshaw Holden for entrant James Rosenberg, who has now handed back his licence. Rosenberg has been singing the praises of his young charge, who has had a brilliant first season in the main game.

Also out of a regular drive is former champ and Bathurst winner Russell Ingall, who has shown about as much inclination to leave the spotlight as Johnny Farnham. If Ingall doesn’t get a reprieve, his services surely will be eagerly sought by teams seeking a quality enduro driver.

Also departing as a full-timer is likeable Swedish import Robert Dahlgren, who found out how tough and different is the challenge of V8 Supercars. He also hopes to return for the 2015 enduros.

V8 SUPERCARS: How the prodigal fared

MARCOS Ambrose’s priority for the three races of the Sydney 500, the meeting that marked his return to V8 Supercars, was simply to finish.

Entered in a third DJR Falcon (backed by Xbox), Ambrose was unashamedly using the hit-out as a means of easing himself back into the category after nine years in the US.

But the Sydney 500 threw far more at the celebrated ‘wildcard’ entry than anticipated. Hot and humid conditions early on followed by violent thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday delivered Ambrose a tough ‘welcome home’ present.

Despite the unfriendly weather, he looked more comfortable in the car as the weekend unfolded.

The final leg presented greasy track conditions at the start, a dry middle sector with cars back on Dunlop slicks, and then a ferocious storm that ended the day’s racing. Ambrose started from P23, moved decisively into the Top 20 and was 16th when the race was red-flagged and then declared.

“Today it all started to click in the Xbox Falcon, despite the weather conditions,” Ambrose reported.

“It has been a tough weekend, no doubt about it, but we kept the car straight and finished all the laps available in all the races, which is what I wanted to do.

“The weather was a factor, too, but it did allow me to experience a lot of different things and I do feel a bit more rounded after not driving these cars for nine years.

“I’ve got a long way to go and I just hope the team is patient with me and we can build this thing into a winning combination.”

FORMULA ONE:  McLaren continues to keep us waiting

McLAREN is still to announce who will be team-mate to the returning Fernando Alonso in season 2015.

Having earlier suggested the announcement would come in December, McLaren then confirmed at the start of the month that no decision has been made and that the people making the choice were still divided on who should get the job.

The British team will choose between local hero Jenson Button, whose contract expired at the end of the season, and Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen.

Magnussen, 22, started his F1 career with a flourish, scoring a podium in his first grand prix in Melbourne, but his form has been patchy since.

Button, a former world champion, has been a loyal McLaren servant and has enormous experience – 266 starts and 15 race victories – to help the team switch to new Honda powerplants.

“Selecting the optimal driver line-up for a Formula One team is clearly an important process and it is therefore one that requires precise and prolonged analysis,” McLaren said.

McLaren has not won a race since 2012.

V8 SUPERCARS:  Fox Sports revs up for massive cover

FOXTEL makes no bones about its intentions with the deal it has secured to show (with junior partner the Ten Network) V8 Supercars for the next six years.

Conceding many V8 Supercars fans don’t currently subscribe to Foxtel, the pay TV operator has a growth strategy to get into as many Australian homes as possible.

Aware of the negative reaction by many fanatics to the unpalatable concept of paying to watch their favourite sport after getting it for nothing, Foxtel last month announced a drastic cut in its pricing structure, with the basic package starting at $25 per month (down from $49), with the Sports pack (five channels) at a further $25. 

So it will cost race fans $50 a month, with several other categories of motor sport (including MotoGP and NASCAR) also a part of the regular programming.

As has been widely reported already, Ten will show just six marquee events live to air, with the others going to air later in the day in the form of a one-hour highlights package.

Chasing the subscription dollars, the task for Fox Sports will be to broaden the appeal of V8s beyond the rusted-on obsessives who will already be reaching for their credit cards. A technically complicated sport needs to be presented in a highly entertaining, understandable fashion.

This year, outgoing telecaster Seven struggled manfully to put some intrigue and punch into often snoozy qualifying sessions. How Fox and Ten will inject life  and drama into humdrum practice sessions will be interesting to watch.

Foxtel will show all practice, qualifying and racing live to air, and support races as well. There is also an undertaking not to interrupt the races with commercials.

Fox also says it will wrap the sport in exciting new technologies – more cameras, data displays, split screens and with a stronger emphasis on the drivers and their personalities.

Craig Lowndes predicts viewers will see a lot more behind the scenes revelations than ever before: “You’ll get to see V8 Supercars warts and all.”

Will Davison admitted he is a little concerned about the prying nature of the new Fox coverage. “There’s no hiding. Maybe we’ll have to watch what we say.”

Perhaps Rick Kelly was the most honest of the drivers: “There can be repetition in our sport – we start, we race, we finish. But a lot goes on in the background that the punters will get to see.” 

Kelly thinks the revolution in the coverage will bring in a whole new army of viewers. Foxtel hopes he’s right.

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