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Opinion

Supercars: Perhaps it's time for a change of heart?

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Roar Rookie
27th February, 2020
20

Messages from the marketplace can be confusing. Perhaps it’s no wonder Supercars have taken so long to achieve so little in terms of defining the Gen 3 regulations and the concurrent business and sporting model that the regs will operate within, forming the core of the Supercars product.

An oft-stated aim of Supercars from over ten years ago was a strategy of creating a regulatory framework that would entice additional manufacturers beyond Ford and Holden. The Car of the Future slash New Generation slash Gen 1 regulations were years in the making, with a lot of thought given to creating a framework that would reflect the Australian automotive market and ease the passage into the sport of leading automotive market participants by giving them a market-relevant motorsport platform.

At first pass it wasn’t a bad effort, and was a reasonable reflection of the Australian automotive marketplace at the time the project was initiated. It had some market relevance.

The subsequent (and current) iteration of the regulations – Gen 2 – saw an expansion of the envelope, opening the door for four-seat, two-door coupes to compete against the incumbent four-door models, again while attempting to be as market relevant as possible.

This was not an unreasonable direction to take seeing the changes in the Australian automotive marketplace and understandably setting a sports car direction as opposed to trying to incorporate the rise of the ute and SUV into the competition.

Ten years on that strategy hasn’t worked. It did look positive for a while, with Nissan, Mercedes (although not in an official capacity) and Volvo putting their money where their mouth was and coming on board, but subsequently leaving without any apparent impact on their local sales operations.

Michael Caruso tests his 2018 Nissan Altima.

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

And that sales measure is important – if a manufacturer is committing dollars to what is essentially a sales and marketing program then they will want to see a return on that spend. If it isn’t delivering incremental vehicle sales then they will stop doing it and look to direct their resources elsewhere.

So, what went wrong?

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A big slice of the answer to that question has to be around the market relevance piece – the ability of the race car to reflect as much as possible the DNA of the parent road car and the ease of passage for new manufacturer entrants into the sport (demonstrably harder than it should or needs to be).

For many people who have an interest in cars beyond that of treating them as transport appliances, the two key pieces of the attraction equation are the design or styling piece and the engine. The most extreme examples of this are displayed by the Tifosi, legendarily passionate about Ferrari’s automotive design and engines in equal measure. For the Tifosi, the true heart of a car is the engine.

The introduction of the Gen 1 and Gen 2 Supercars regulations took completely different and arguably entirely incompatible approaches to those two key elements that, in retrospect, has to be questioned.

The primary focus of the Supercars regulations has been on making the race cars a true visual representation of the equivalent road car and this has consistently been achieved quite well, but the regulations governing the heart of the car – the engine – have been (and are) lacking in foresight and vision.

The idea of forcing Nissan, Volvo and Mercedes to build Supercars-specific engines that bore no relationship to any of their road cars was ridiculous, made even more so by the fact that they all had the capability to quickly develop engines based on existing road-going models that could meet defined power and torque curves – and therefore would have been much more market relevant. Various of those engines, or versions of them, were already being used in motorsport categories elsewhere in the world.

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Supercars was having none of that. Looking back from where we are today it seems the blind adherence to the ‘it must be a 5L V8’ guideline was a major blunder.

The ‘they need to be fast and loud’ credo would have been met regardless – race cars are noisy no matter what sort of engine is in them (insert EV disclaimer here), and the uniquely different sounds and power delivery profiles of different engine configurations would have added interest to the show. Indeed, the unique note of the Mercedes engine due to its use of a flat-plane crank was a regular talking point.

Yes, there was a belated attempt by Holden via Triple8 to introduce a twin-turbo V6 a few years ago, but that was scuppered in no small part due to the proposed distribution model, which basically said if you run a Holden in Supercars you will source your engines from the Triple8 program. That sounded awfully like an attempt at restraint of trade, given that various of the Holden teams had their own in-house engine shops or other sourcing arrangements they were happy with and weren’t willing to give up lightly. The rumblings of a mutiny went away when the V6 program was quietly binned.

Which brings us to where we are today. The great volume of discussion about the makeup of the 2021 and 2022 Supercars grid all seems to be about what brand of car and what models are likely to make the cut. And a lot of that discussion is about the Camaro, which is understandable.

A big slice of the Camaro challenge is the height of the roll hoop in the Gen 2 chassis, which as it is would mean the visual integrity of the parent car would be destroyed. Various pundits are suggesting that the roll hoop change might be brought forward to allow the Camaro to take to the grid in 2021 – a justifiable, not entirely left-field decision if that’s the way Supercars chooses to go.

But none of the discussions are about what engine will be under the hood. Or what engine should be under the hood. The silent assumption is that the existing Chev-based Supercar engines used in the ZB Commodores will be installed in the Camaros and life will go as it has for the last 27 years.

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Surely it’s time to have some sensible discussions about how appropriate the current engine regulations are?

Craig Lowndes

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

The current 5L V8 engines are iterations of what were originally road-going units that are the best part of 20 years out of date, which in no small part drives the significant expense in building and maintaining them. It’s all a bit silly when GM, Ford and Chrysler all have crate motors based on current engine designs that reliably and cheaply put out circa 600 horsepower without all the palaver that Supercars have created around their outdated 5L units.

Manufacturers that aren’t in the crate motor business invariably have some sort of performance engine in their line-up derived from a current (an important word in this context) road model – often one that is being used in motorsport competition elsewhere in the world. And the back offices of manufacturers are invariably full of car people – engineers who would jump at the chance to develop an engine for competition.

Supercars have sensibly mandated as a performance-limiting, arms-race preventing control measure a set of power and torque curves that can’t be exceeded. They have then doubled-down by creating the Engine Specification Document that is specific to each engine, with a huge and complex set of requirements that must be met, all in the name of technical parity and cost control, but when you step back and look at what they are trying to achieve you have to wonder if the whole ESD process is necessary when the desired result can be achieved by other means.

Given the defined power and torque curves that can’t be exceeded, why not let the teams and any new manufacturers tune these modern, market-relevant engines to meet the curves, seal them and be done with it, regardless of the capacity and induction system used? Cost can be capped by limiting the engine allocation per car for a season. Supercars could dyno the engines to confirm compliance with a number of standard-interface, sealed ECUs that are then held by Supercars and issued for use at random to prevent any software engineering by the teams during the course of the series.

The engine regs should be easy, an example draft could read: “At the commencement of the season engines shall be tested, verified and sealed by Supercars as meeting the power and torque curves published by Supercars across their operating rev range within one per cent. A maximum number of three engines are to be used during the course of the series. An additional engine can be made available for use in the event that two of the initial three engines suffer catastrophic mechanical failure. This will result in a grid penalty of 12 places in each race that the additional engine is utilised.”

Done. Capacity, layout and induction are all free. No need for endless lists of spec parts. Simple, easy, flexible and far more market relevant than the existing bureaucratic nightmare. New manufacturers could run whatever engine they liked, which would make a lot more sense for them and give them a lot more to work with when they sought to leverage their motorsport spend via sales and marketing activities to grow their sales.

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Fabian Coulthard leads Scott McLaughlin.

(Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Quicker, cheaper and easier than the current system, it would remove the need to keep physically measuring everything all the time and eliminates the possibility of a repeat of the Scott McLaughlin 2019 Bathurst pole lap fiasco, where the engine in question was in compliance with the power and torque curves (no performance advantage gained) but marginally out of compliance on valve lift measurements – cue a tide of irrational emotion and drama, in some cases from high-profile industry people that should have known a lot better, that Supercars could well have done without.

There’s an opportunity here for Supercars to do something to make 2021 a whole lot more market relevant regardless of what cars are on the grid, something that will be particularly effective if they are able to fast-track a Camaro to the 2021 start line.

Get some crate Chev LS and Ford Aluminator engines as test mules and work on developing a tune for each motor that delivers the same power and torque curves, to be presented for consideration by the teams as a test case for the evolution of the Supercars engine regulations to something that reflects the fact that we are now well into the 21st century, not still stuck in the 20th.

This concept has been successfully applied before in Australian motorsport, such as in the V8 Ute series, with the Fords and Holdens running road-based engines with different capacity and different induction layouts. With the advanced 21st century electronics available now, the achievement of very accurate tuning outcomes has never been easier.

I have no doubt there will be many deeply entrenched interests within the teams and their supplier base who would be resistant to changing the status quo of engine specifications and supply arrangements, but given the seismic changes that have shaken the Australian automotive industry and Supercars over the last few months, it would be nice to think that they have all got better at reading the zeitgeist and can see there are only two options here: embrace change, or wither on the vine and eventually perish. It really is getting that dire.

Having laid out the challenges facing Supercars on the relevant engine front, along with some thoughts about how to address the challenge, I will go back to my opening statement about messages from the marketplace being confusing.

Popular Australian motorsports website Speedcafe has been conducting a poll this week asking “what matters most to you in Supercars?”

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More than 12,000 responses (a statistically significant number, but from a respondent base with a greater-than-average motorsport interest), manufacturers comes in first with 42 per cent, drivers second with 23 per cent, parity third with 19 per cent, teams fourth with 12 per cent, and drum roll please, in fifth and last place, engine diversity with five per cent.

Go figure! I have no idea how you reconcile engine diversity at five per cent with manufacturers at 42 per cent. Surely they are irrevocably joined. Perhaps it has all become so confusing that even the fans don’t know what they want.

Finally, a call-out to Roar Guru Jawad Yaqub for setting in train the thought process that resulted in this article.