AJ Allmendinger sealed the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship after battling Austin Cindric to the line for the win at Bristol, in a final lap that had plenty of contact.
Taking time to pause, reflect and ask the question of 2019 Supercars Championship – “Parity. Are we there yet?”
Unlike Formula One and Moto GP, Australia’s Supercar Championship doesn’t have a traditional mid-year break. For a long time the traditional “pause and reflect” point has been at the conclusion of the first tranche of ‘sprint’ rounds – right before the commencement of the two-driver endurance events that form the ‘competition within a competition’, the Pirtek Enduro Cup.
Having just concluded the Pukekohe sprint round, we are able to look back at what has been, to date, one of the most diversely chaotic, controversial and challenging years in the history of the category – and to look forward to the upcoming enduro events, sequenced in a way that has never been done before.
Looking back, there have been two interrelated things that have dominated the season to date:
• Scott McLaughlin’s performance in his new-for-2019 DJR Team Penske Mustang
• The raging debate about ‘technical parity’ that the new Mustangs have ignited and the actions taken by Supercars to address what many have perceived as being an imbalance between the Mustang, the new-for-2018 ZB Holden Commodore and the new-for-2013 (okay, not so new anymore..) Nissan Altima.
There can be no doubt that Scott McLaughlin is having a truly outstanding year by any measure and he appears to be a worthy repeat champion-in-the-making.
Currently nearly 600 points ahead of his nearest rival and having just broken Craig Lowndes’ 1996-vintage record for the most wins in a season, it’s obvious Scott and the new Mustang are a tremendously synergistic combination.
Why so much controversy?
So, why has this year been one of the most diversely chaotic, controversial and challenging years in the history of the category?
That the recent Pukekohe event saw the introduction of an unprecedented sixth round of in-competition technical changes to address parity issues provides a pretty good pointer to the problems that have bedevilled the VASC competition this year!
“One big happy family!”
Supercars underlying philosophy has been one of establishing ‘technical parity’ between the models eligible for competition. The methodology and outcome has been the source of vigorous debate among competitors, fans and officials throughout the history of the category.
On an event-by-event basis it can be argued that they have historically done a good job. Measured by the differentials in qualifying results the top ten are frequently separated by less than a second, often it’s the top 15 or more. There isn’t a high level category of motorsport anywhere else in the world where this is consistently the case.
In 2018, under the auspices of an initiative to introduce the Mustang to Supercars as a replacement for the Falcon (last produced in 2016), Ford’s global high performance division, Ford Performance, was engaged to underpin the development of the new entrant.
No previous new entrant to Supercars had been developed by an organisation with the resources, global experience and depth of knowledge that Ford Performance brought to bear on the task. The fact that such a high-profile organisation was involved was rightly hailed as a feather in Supercars cap at the time.
In the latter part of 2018 there were frequent positive media releases from all stakeholders hailing the progress of the project, with a particular emphasis on the very high level of ‘technical parity’ that had been achieved between the new Mustang and the incumbent Holden Commodore and Nissan Altima.
This culminated in the completion of Supercars VCAT (aerodynamic testing program) in early December and the announcement of final approval of the design by the Supercars Commission on Dec 12th – complete with statements from Supercars and representatives of the Holden (Triple Eight) and Nissan (Kelly Racing) homologation teams who took part in the VCAT testing to the effect of ‘it is the closest the three models have been in terms of aero’.
The final Dec 12th word goes to Supercars CEO Sean Seamer, “All I know is everybody is happy with the outcome, everybody has signed off on it and we are ready to go racing in Adelaide.” That happiness didn’t last very long…
“Oops! Didn’t see that coming!”
After the first two events (six races) delivered six Mustang poles and six Mustang wins (five being achieved by McLaughlin) a lot of the happiness evaporated and the dogs were well and truly barking!
‘Aerodynamic advantage!’ cried some, ‘Centre of gravity (C of G) advantage!’ shrieked others! But, clearly there wasn’t an aerodynamic advantage – how could there be after the ‘closest ever’ aerodynamic results from the VCAT testing?
The bottom line is that Ford Performance et al. simply delivered a ‘better mousetrap’. In doing so they exposed significant gaps in Supercars technical regulations and the inadequacies of the homologation process – particularly the VCAT component.
Supercars were forced to act, and so began the ‘great Supercars parity debacle of 2019’.
• Mar 27. – C of G reviewed and ballast raised – Mustang 28kg in roof, Commodore 6.8kg in roof. Note that a ‘C of G spec’ hadn’t been defined or mandated in the regulations until this point..
• Apr 23. – Mustang aero changes (significant ones)
• Jun 14. – Commodore aero changes
• Jul 8. – Ballast lowered for Altima, Commodore and Mustang
• Aug 5. – Nissan Altima aero changes
• Sep 4. – More Commodore aero changes – with little transparency
Needless to say, this whole sorry saga has been extremely embarrassing in the context of the Ford Performance involvement. They have issued numerous tightly-worded statements and you are left with the impression they think they are dealing with a bunch of antipodean hicks.
And their highly-compliant-to-the-rules ‘better mousetrap’ has now been nobbled five times relative to the Commodores that dominate the grid.
State of play
For the many critics who take the view that the Mustang (still) has an unfair technical advantage, it’s worth noting that there are five other Mustangs in the field – and they aren’t filling positions two through six.
Second is Shane van Gisbergen in his Commodore, followed by Commodores in positions five, six and eight, with the highest placed Nissan being in 12th!
With the exception of the Nissans, the current score board looks pretty even between the brands. The yawning chasm between first and second is all about McLaughlin’s exceptional talent and consistency rather than any technical advantage that he has access to.
As it stands the racing is actually pretty good right now and it looks like we have (finally?) reached a relatively level playing field on the parity front – but there’s no doubt that the saga has hurt the category, with a recent poll of Supercars fans seeing over 85per cent of 10,000+ respondents answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Has the quest for parity caused too much damage to the category?’
In what looks like an attempt to save face and assert control, Supercars have just (Sep 18th) announced a ‘new and improved’ VCAT process. This involves an active suspension system that can accurately measure downforce and drag at different ride heights in real time to be utilised ahead of the 2020 season.
It has the stated aim of reducing downforce by approximately 15 per cent and thus improving the racing….and achieving a higher degree of technical parity with the hope of avoiding a repeat of the 2019 saga.
A real opportunity
If running cars up and down an open airstrip with load cells attached to the suspension was the best way to quantify aero outcomes then that’s what F1 and NASCAR would be doing – but they don’t, because it can never be a controlled environment where truly accurate, repeatable, verifiable results can be obtained.
They use the controlled environment of a highly-configurable rolling-road wind tunnel and sophisticated data-capture technology to ensure incredibly accurate, repeatable outcomes.
And that is the technology that needs to be rolled into the homologation process going forward to ensure that the debacle we have experienced this year isn’t repeated.
Yes, we don’t have those facilities here in Australia, and yes, there is a cost to taking cars overseas to do the testing – but there has been significant unplanned costs this year as a result of getting it so badly wrong in the first place, both direct costs to the participants and collateral costs to the Supercars brand – 85 per cent of 10,000+ is a statistically significant number.
A further opportunity lies in what Supercars haven’t yet announced – a root-and-branch review of the technical regulations that allowed the ‘better mousetrap’ to slip through in the first place.
There’s no dispute that the Mustang was a huge step-change AND that it was 100per cent compliant with the technical regulations as written.
Well-framed regulations and homologation processes would have prevented one of those two things happening and eliminated the problems we have experienced this season.
Well-framed regulations would possibly include an agreed ‘true-up’ process to be applied to new model entrants after a certain number of events, keeping the process clear, open and transparent rather than the reactive ‘rush to the gate after the horse has bolted’ response of this year. (See what I did there? Mustang… horse…).
Nobody would dispute the fact that writing complex technical regulations using proactive foresight rather than reactive hindsight isn’t easy. However, given the timeframes are measured in years and the tremendous technical and functional capabilities available within the Supercars community (race teams, suppliers, category administrators etc.) and from external sources (Ford Performance might be interested in an external consulting gig…) it is very hard to believe that the category couldn’t do a lot better in this area.
If we are being honest, there has been a history of ‘open to interpretation’ from the early days of the category.
The opportunity is there, and with an increasingly crowded marketplace, e.g. the successful local launch in 2019 of the globally popular TCR franchise and the impending start of the S5000 category, Supercars really can’t afford to have another stumble of this magnitude.
I look forward to better outcomes for Supercars in 2020 and beyond.