Wednesday, 11 January 2017

At Sixes & Sevens

Welcome to the New Year!

2017 will of course mark the 30th Anniversary of the events of 1987, which was a huge year for touring car racing on a global level. There were classic victories, major upsets, incredible drives and the biggest swinging dick of all, the first FIA World Championship for Touring Cars. With such a packed year there's no way I'll be able to provide any sort of comprehensive coverage, but I'll give it my best shot, kicking off in early February with some things every Peter Brock fan would prefer to forget.

Yes, we'll get to that.

But right now, I'd like to start the year with what nobody else in motor racing seems to be doing – looking to the future.

With the Falcon dead and the Australian-made Commodore dying, the V8 Utes category will be wound up this year... which ironically means it's looking strongest of all the Supercars series, thanks to the new SuperUtes formula. This will replace the Falcodores with the bigger, squarer, dual-cab Yank Tanks favoured by today's tradies, such as the Ford Ranger, Holden Colorado, Nissan Navara, Mitsubishi Triton and maybe even the Volkswagen Amarok, as driven by my Dad. So we can speculate what that'll look like.

Apparently they'll also have diesel engines, which is nice, and they'll be made by applying a $60,000 racing "kit" – including a control ECU, roll cage and aggressive bodykit – to a donor road car. This means they won't be specially-constructed racing cars, which is a thing I really, really approve of. It means the series won't need manufacturer involvement to keep ticking over, and even more importantly, there'll be a connection between the cars out on track and the ones out the back in the car park. V8 Utes has always been lighthearted fun, and it looks like that'll continue into the new year. Expect lots of flying door mirrors, much panel damage and a roaring diesel engine note. Also, a parity nightmare, but that's part of the fun too.

Supercars are still on a high at the time of writing, but we can be pretty confident in predicting that'll end within 18 months. Crowds at Bathurst have been booming the last few years, it's true, but to borrow a phrase from Arthur Berman, this is not a revolution, it's a retirement party. Australian Muscle Car magazine has wisely chalked the attendance figures down to a handful of factors, the most important being, a) a sharp reduction in "the dickhead element" thanks to those notorious alcohol limits, and b) everyone knows now is their last chance to see a classic Ford-vs-Holden V8 battle before the music stops.

Which brings us to this.


That's the recently-unveiled 2018 Holden Commodore, which is really an Opel Insignia with a different badge. This is bitterly ironic when for damn near 30 years Commodores were Opels that had been re-engineered for Australian conditions. The original VB of 1978 was an Opel Rekord with the nose of an Opel Senator; the VT in 1997 was an Opel Omega that had been fiddled with, albeit quite extensively, to make it suitable for Australian roads. Holden's "billion dollar baby," the VE of 2007, was notable for being the first Commodore to break with this practice; the platform was entirely Holden's, and the Chevrolet-sourced V8s in the top-spec models were the only major deviations from Australian content.

But this one? Although Holden say it was "designed in Germany by the Opel team with input from GM Holden's team," it's pretty clear this is a badge-engineering exercise only. It's a five-door hatch rather than a four-door sedan; it's front-wheel drive rather than rear-wheel drive; and the performance version will feature a 3.6-litre turbo V6 (230 kW and 370 Nm) with AWD and a 9-speed automatic gearbox, rather than the 6.2-litre V8 (304 kW and 570 Nm), RWD and 6-speed manual of the current GTS.

(For the record, a few of us wanted Ford to go down this path and rebadge the Fusion/Mondeo as a Falcon, but Ford declined on the belief that this token effort would benefit neither them nor the Falcon's memory. We're probably about to find out whether they were about that.)

In short, February 2018 is the beginning of a new era, which will necessarily bring the axe down on the current one. And you can bet your bottom dollar Holden's current fanbase won't be having a bar of it. Their tastes haven't changed in 40 years, which is why nearly half of all VF models sold have had V8 engines. The fleet sales that used to prop up local manufacturing are gone, leaving just the enthusiasts who buy for emotional and nostalgia reasons. So on that basis, you can be sure they won't be buying a 2018 model. And you want to know something fucked up? There's nothing even slightly fucked up about that. With its softer, more feminine styling and smaller liftback profile, you can tell this new one is aiming for a completely different market anyway – young (or at least young-ish), probably single, working women in the cities, the ones that are currently in Renault Meganes and Peugeot 308s. One look at Ford's ongoing ad campaign, which hinges entirely on Ngaire Dawn Fair, and you know this is where the money is these days.

Again, nothing wrong with that. The automotive world has always been a very masculine place, so it's nice to see the girls getting a word in edgeways, but it does leave Supercars with a serious question mark over their series. Having built their entire livelihood around the local manufacturers, what do they do when those manufacturers aren't anymore? I think it's safe to say the Car of the Future has been a failure – two of the three brands who joined the party in 2013, Mercedes and Volvo, have already departed (although admittedly the Mercedes company itself was never really involved). Of the stalwarts, two of them – Ford and Holden – have just lost the models they were racing and will have to find replacements. And the only other manufacturer – Nissan – is left with a car that no-one is buying and has precious little to do with performance anyway. There's no such thing as a V8 Altima.

Unsurprisingly, then, Supercars' upcoming "Gen2" regulations seem to be leaving the gate as wide open as possible, so that somebody... anybody... will please come and join us. Although they're sticking with RWD and no driver aids, just about everything else seems to be open to negotiation – the CotF chassis was designed to underpin both four-door and two-door designs, for example, and a novel engine parity formula allows almost any engine you like, as long as the sum of its power figures (measured every 500rpm) doesn't exceed 17,000hp, up to a maximum 7,500rpm (I'm working from memory here). Basically, you can use a low-revving V6 or I4 engine if you like, and make up for the shortage of revs with a turbo. Of course, this beautiful theory might be spoiled by the ugly fact of a control 6-speed gearbox, which will probably favour some engine configs over others. And as we've seen with Nissan and Volvo, getting their new DOHC V8s on a level with Holden and Ford's long-developed pushrod engines is easier said than done – they've been at this game a long time.

So unless some other engine config demonstrates a huge advantage, I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of the current-spec V8 engines survived for another decade. Following that line of reasoning, I formerly imagined Ford would keep their current (Bathurst- and championship-winning) FG-X Falcon racecars and re-skin them as Mustangs. Nissan would follow suit, turning their Kelly Gang Altimas into GT-Rs, and Holden might even come to the party with the new Camaro (which ironically is basically a Commodore with an American body). This new era of Mustang-vs-Camaro would have plenty of historical precedent, harking back to the insane Improved Production era of the 1960s, even as it raised questions of why the hell we just don't turn Supercars over to the GT3 rulebook...


And then, Holden Jossed the whole concept by confirming their Gen2 car will be the 2018 Commodore with the turbo V6. That, it seems, has killed off any thoughts of the Mustang and GT-R joining the grid – you just can't send your hero model out to get its arse kicked by a German Peugeot. So Nissan will limp on with the Altima, rumours that Kia might join the party refuse to die, and Ford... man, fuck knows what Ford will do, but it'll probably involve an EcoBoost engine.

And meanwhile the Bathurst 12 Hour will continue to grow, because whatever else it is, tintop racing is about aspirational models; it's not the cars you actually drive that matter, it's the ones you want to drive. With a plethora of brands showcasing their hero models, the Bathurst 12 Hour has that. With a 2018 Commodore, I'm predicting Supercars will not.

Hell, they're called "Supercars." They barely even have a name anymore.

Formula Thunder 5000
But the series that's generating the most buzz is also the most obvious symptom of what's wrong with motor racing circa 2017: Formula Thunder 5000, which I'm going to call FT5k just to annoy the old fogies. A modern take on the glory that was Formula 5000.

Now first up I want to admit, this has me excited as well. I might be a cynic, but I'm not made of stone, and the idea of an open wheeler with far too much power definitely gets my juices flowing. When I first heard it was being put together my mind went not just to Formula 5000, but to two lesser-known footnotes from open-wheel history in the U.S. – NASCAR's Speedway Division, and USAC's (largely failed) attempts to prop up the domestic car industry by pushing stock blocks at Indianapolis.

One of these actually preceded Formula 5000; NASCAR Speedway Division only ran for two years, 1952 and '53, and was basically Bill France's attempt to steal crowds from Indianapolis (which, given USAC was sanctioning stock car races in those days, was fair enough). The concept was an Indy-style open-wheeler, which looks more like a midget car today, but with an ordinary stock engine in place of the expensive race-bred Offenhausers of the USAC teams. Although drawing crowds at first, most of them never came back and the idea never really went anywhere. France went back to his bread-and-butter genuine stock car racing, and instead found the magic formula when he opened Daytona International Speedway in 1959, intended as a rival to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from day one.


Indy on the other hand always had a much more open approach to engine rules, at least until Tony George ruined it for everyone in '96. At one point they had a rough equivalence formula allowing for petrol, diesel, two-stroke, gas turbine, electric and even steam engines to try and qualify for the 500, on the promise that no matter what, the 33 fastest cars would start the race. The reality was that the full-time professionals with their bespoke racing engines always made up the bulk of the grid, and by the 1980s that was a problem. The Ford DFX – basically a turbocharged Cosworth DFV reduced to 2.65 litres – ended the 70-odd year run of the Offy, and was virtually unbeaten from 1979 to 1989. And far overhead, an American Bald Eagle shed a single manly tear and wiped it away with the Stars & Stripes, because despite having a badge from Michigan, the DFX was actually a product of Cosworth, based at Northampton, in the U.K.

This could not be borne, so USAC upped the maximum capacity for non-turbo engines from 5.2 to 5.8 litres – the same as NASCAR – in the hope that some of that U.S.-bred tuning expertise would trickle through to Indianapolis and allow all-American engines to compete. There were a couple of minor successes, like Mike Mosley winning at Milwaukee after starting from the back of the grid, but overall the idea was a bust. They'd simply left it too late: IndyCars were getting ever-slimmer because their engines were getting absurdly compact (the Chevy/C of 1993 fit inside a 22-inch square). Any engine big enough to match them on power would be too big to fit inside the chassis, and without that needle-like air penetration the whole concept was dead in the water.

But it excited me in a primal sort of way, the idea of shoehorning a 358ci NASCAR-bred V8 (especially one from the early Noughties when they were making 10,500rpm and 700 kW) into the back of an IndyCar and sending it out to bludgeon Michigan Speedway. I could imagine that sonorous, rolling boom, those exposed intake trumpets, maybe even a set of dragster-style stack pipes... I'll admit it, the first time I ever thought I should make a mod for rFactor was a modern take on the NASCAR Speedway Division.

Well, historical Formula 5000 racer Chris Lambden has done more than make the mod for rFactor, he's made it in real life. The Formula Thunder chassis is a Swift design rejected for Formula Nippon, so it's already FIA-approved and crash-tested. The engine will be a 5-litre Ford Coyote V8, which provides 425 kW and a wicked soundtrack. The gearbox is a Holinger and activated by an F1-style paddle-shift. In fact, regardless of design, just about everything but the engine will be produced by Australia's quietly underrated cottage motorsport industry. It all looks pretty damn awesome, except for one thing – that stupidly huge retro air intake.

Lambden admits that's the thing that gets the most comments, and says the feedback is about 90% positive to 10% negative. Well, I don't mind admitting, I'm part of the 10%. They had a nice, crisp, modern-looking car sitting there, and then ruined it with a shitty 1970s throwback. And for what? Because motor racing is struggling to get the crowds it had ten years ago, so they're doubling down to keep the fans they've got – the crusty, angry, Seventies-worshipping boofheads who put them into this dead end in the first place. But the more they pander to the older generation, the more they put off the younger. And not to be rude, but in the next decade the older generation is due to start dying, so this isn't what you'd call a sustainable approach.

Ford knew it, so they they pulled out of V8s and hired Ngaire. And for the first time since 1999, they're ahead of Holden on the sales charts.

So, much as it makes me moist, what we've really got here in FT5k is just another nostalgia-driven spec series. Like Touring Car Masters. Like V8 Supercars, for that matter. It might be awesome this year, and I really look forward to watching it, but will it still be around in a decade? I'm not so sure.

So what's the solution? Well, who says there is one? It was the Baby Boomers who loved their cars and defined themselves by the question of Ford vs Holden. If you're my age, the issue that spilled blood and lost you friends wasn't Ford vs Holden, but Mac vs Windows. If you're younger again, it's probably Android vs iPhone. Throw in that every month or so there's another thinkpiece pondering why Millennials don't like buying expensive things, for whatever weird reason, and it becomes clear that my gen just doesn't care about cars that much. That's hard for a revhead like me to accept, but it seems to be a fact. And it means the era when motorsport was a huge, mass-participation event are probably over for good. Oil is basically dead, and once self-driving cars arrive in force, you can bet an increasingly large segment of the population will choose not to bother (Side note: Look for self-driving trucks first, that's when you'll know it's for real. Technology always trickles down from Military to Commercial to the Private sector. The U.S. Army has already found a use for self-driving trucks, and as fuel prices rise expect transport companies to be next, cutting their costs by turfing their drivers... and look, it's already happening in the mines).

Once that happens the skills of the racing driver will become much less relatable, the passion for the sport will fade, and it will become a niche hobby for the wealthy, like horse racing is today. Think about it: do you know anything about riding a horse? Do you even care? Well your grandkids will probably give your mad driving skills that same look of blank incomprehension. Oh, the big prestige names in motoring will likely keep building sports cars for the enthusiasts, but they'll be tiny production runs compared to the old days (meaning expensive). And thanks to the massive upcoming energy crisis, which has barely even cleared its throat yet, these cars will have tiny, incredibly efficient engines with only modest power, making their performance with extremely light weight instead. Fiat Chrysler have already decided this is what their Alfa Romeo brand is now for, and BM-"Ultimate Driving Machine"-W will more than likely follow suit... and indeed, they've arguably made the first of these new sports machines with the Alfa Romeo 4C and BMW i8. Six-litre, two-tonne barges like the Commodore GTS will be viewed less as cars and more as hate crimes.

So enjoy your FT5k grandad. Just remember, it's not a revolution, it's a retirement party.

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