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Conrod, Straight: Issue 11

9/2/2010 11:02 (Michael Shaw) - A long time has passed since the last time I wrote a Conrod, Straight. This hasn’t been through a lack of intent, more a combination of time, ideas and more time. But today I stand before you...oh hang on, sit, wrong again. Some days ago I sat before a computer and typed.

Anyway, let’s get on with this already… I have recently had some time to reflect on the history of Australian touring cars and what this will mean for its future.

Starting with the history, until the introduction of the AU Falcon and VT Commodore in 1998, it was possible to still be competing with a car built in 1992. There was even one VL Commodore, which had been converted to the 1992 VP specification, still running around in the Development Series not too many years ago.

When Tony Cochrane and SEL joined with TEGA to revamp and rename the Australian Touring Car Championship and its awful category name of Group 3A, the series went from a lowly dozen cars competing at some events to a consistent 29 car grid at every round.

This was a remarkable achievement and a turnaround that many companies would be envious of. In motor racing circles, this level of increase in popularity only occurs after a major (positive) change to the format and competing vehicles.

Many would argue, myself included, that until a few years ago, VESA pretended anything that happened prior to their takeover was not ‘V8 Supercar’ but merely some other history. But most would agree, the series as we know it has been running with more-or-less the same format since late 1992 and is therefore about to begin its 19th year.

And if you look back at Australian Touring Cars, there has been a general trend of a giant rule and format shake-up approximately every 10 years. So the current model has definitely outlived its predecessors.

But what will the sport look like in another 10 years? Where will V8 Supercars head from here? The answer I kept coming back to is – nowhere.

I should point out at this juncture that this answer reflects more upon my views on the current lack of direction in the Australian car industry, than of my opinions of how the sport is being run.

With power comes great responsibility (damn you Spiderman!). VESA, as the ‘powers that be’, now have the unenviable position of deciding where the series will go to next. The plan is for a ‘Car Of The Future’ or a ‘Car Of Tomorrow’ – I can never remember which one it is and both names are stolen from elsewhere anyway.

I am not privy to the precise details of this new vehicle but the aim appears to be getting around a couple of potential series killers.

The first is the potential closure of local manufacturing at either Ford or Holden, caused by either a lack of funds or lack of parent company. Both are genuine possibilities and the latter was not too far from happening to Holden, with General Motors having been under US Chapter 11 protection. Losing the very Australian ‘Ford v. Holden’ nature of the competition through the death of either model would have serious ramifications to survival and promotion of the series.

The second potential series killer is already half way to fruition. Holden will shortly begin production of a small car, the Cruze. While Commodore production will continue unabated, it is a signal that Holden saw the need to diversify and (re)introduce an Australian built small car.

Ford announced and then rescinded their decision to build the Focus locally, hoping the large car market claws back some overall market share so that they can afford to continue building cars in Australia.

To continue this digression into road cars for a moment longer, I recently had a Falcon XR6 hire car. It was quite a reasonable car but it lacked the precision and build quality of European and Japanese built cars. The rear view mirrors were distorting and I am unable to get either the seat low enough or steering wheel high enough to fit comfortably, an issue I’ve noticed since the AU,. I’m not a large person so I don’t know how some others can drive this car.

On the positive side, the gearbox, especially in ‘Performance Mode’ worked well for an automatic. The seats were comfortable, the steering weighting wasn’t too light (an old Falcon foible) and when you put your foot down, the car lifted its skirts and went with aplomb – though as a life-long manual driver, it still felt like an eternity for the skirts to be lifted.

To explain my digression into examining the intricacies of the road going version of what we see on the race track, there are many who suggest that the formula to replace the V8 Supercars should be pure production. On this, I completely disagree.

You only need to glance at the current production car series to see that while it is enjoyable to watch, it will never get the backing required to be Australia’s top level category. The rules and regulations that would be required to balance at least the pointy end of the field would be even more laborious and mind-numbing than the current V8 Supercar rulebook – and remember this is coming from someone who actually gets some enjoyment out of not only reading, but interpreting the language of the rules.

So to continue down the production car path, we’d need to then restrict the entrants in the field, and decide ‘do we want to return to multi-class racing?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, where do you draw the line as to classes? The current production car field has Mitsubishi Lancer Evos battling with HSVs and we all know what happened last time a Japanese manufacturer lead the way.

Even if the classes remain as they are, the balance falls against Ford. So now we run the risk of alienating one of the three local manufacturers. Make that two, as Toyota aren’t even competing in the top class and the Toyotas that are competing lower down, Corolla Sportivos and Celicas, are no longer in production.

Taking the ‘no’ direction on multi-class racing, we can manipulate the top tiers of current production cars; combining two classes, and attempt to boost the racing potential of the Falcons. Assuming this can be done, we now have a reasonable variety, but technically no Holdens.

You’d have the HSV GTS, Falcon (or possibly FPV F6), Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru Impreza STi, maybe VW Golf R, BMW 335i (which are generally not very competitive at the moment) and one or two others. This is a great variety of vehicles but not exactly a common every-man approach that the V8 Supercars have capitalised on so well.

To solve this problem, we can reduce the maximum price and therefore knock off the HSVs, BMWs and potentially the Golf. This leaves us with the Commodore SS, Falcon XR6 Turbo, Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru Impreza STi. Now try to keep the parity... Then try to keep everyone’s interest...

Put into very simple terms, the cars just won’t sound right AND pure production car racing just won’t work at this level.

What are our other options?

There’s a Group A-style formula, where the cars are generally based on road-going models but this runs the risk of specialist models being created, which no manufacturer can afford in the current climate. Plus the parity issue remains – no manufacturer wants to stay losing for many years with no hope of improvement (even during the Holden domination, Ford still had hope thanks to Blueprint).

We could go down the Group C route but, for all intents and purposes, this is where we are now. Where we are now is restricted by what the manufacturers are building.

This leaves us with one course of action – a unique sub-frame that is capable of having panels from numerous different manufacturers fitted. Guess what? That’s what’s happening.

While it is a very NASCAR model, this has also been successfully recreated in Germany with the DTM cars built on the same formula.

We now await the results of the Car of Tomorrow Panel to see whether they follow NASCAR by having loosely related car shapes, DTM with their carbon fibre wings, scoops and mid-door exiting exhaust or take their own direction. My hope and expectation is that the decision follows a unique path.

If we extrapolate the current cars just a little further, we can have a single underpinning chassis which can accept a Commodore, Falcon, Toyota Aurion or even a BMW or Mercedes-Benz shape over the top. This way the cars will genuinely look like their road-going counterparts, with the ability to have varying length and width bodies depending on the car.

We don’t require the level of aerodynamic equality that NASCAR needs as we don’t run on ovals. There is also no need to go over-the-top in design. A simple wing, side skirts and front splitter are all that’s required for each car.

It’s not as though it’s a big stretch to convert the current V8 Supercar category model, as externally the vehicles currently only have 4 panels in common with the road cars – front doors, bonnet and boot. The chassis is chopped and changed enough to be considered unique.

The final point I have is that this is also the next logical stepping stone for Australia’s premier racing cateogory. The Group 3A formula was an evolutionary step from Group A. And apart from the wing package, a VP Commodore ‘V8 Supercar’ could have competed in the 1992 ATCC with very few changes.

But, because there is always a ‘but’, the real risk still remains with what becomes of the manufacturers. In 5 or 10 years time, will there still be cars manufactured in Australia and what will they be?

Release Date: 09/02/2010