Context and relevance for motorsport decisions

| Photographer Credit: Euan Cameron Photography

The announcement’s timing might have been better managed – right before the first round of the 2020 V8SC championship, GM Holden’s announcement of its demise as a brand and a motorsport force.

It’s been covered in excruciating detail all round the mighty halls of the media but simply: GM will no longer support the H-brand nor will it make right hand drive cars.

No denying the V8SC teams were surprised – their championship is half GM Holden, so at least that many are going to be making some difficult choice in coming weeks. Not to mention the mechanics, engineers, tyre changers, lunch makers and PRs.

Mark Skaife sniffed away tears taking about the shock announcement. Jamie Whincup was sad on twitter, but remembered how good the Commodore race cars was at popping enormous smoke-choked victory wheelies. Ford (NZ) was gentlemanly and statesmanlike. Walkinshaw Andretti posted a nice commiseration on twitter. The DJR operation – champions in Mustangs no matter what Roland Dane threw at them –said “Holden was always a fierce rival. A great Aussie brand coming to an end is sad for our country, no matter your allegiance.”

Similarly, the NZ version will be a sore and sorry looking category when it next hits the tracks. So this is some of the context, or back story. Not only are they running old (and thus commercially irrelevant) cars, but after the messy schism over the Supertourer and NZV8 series, the Kiwi motorsport hardly needs more uncertainty. In the current BNT championship, there are just five Holdens from a not-so-inspiring total of 13 cars.

The reluctance of the teams to stick with the concentrated five week south-north ‘heart’ of the championship gave some indication of the difference between the V8s and the scratch-built but very professional teams of the Castrol Toyota Racing Series.

For owner-operators, the five week commitment is huge. Even if you fly back in between rounds, the most you can hope for is two and a half days keeping things bubbling along in your business.

Then it’s away again to the next round. Just ask some of the stalwarts who regularly run in the series, or former champions like Johnny Mac. Even – from personal experience – working media for a series or driver is absolutely draining. You arrive at the end of the five week period and just want to collapse for a couple of days – though of course you can’t.

There could be few more loyal ambassadors for an automotive brand than Greg Murphy. He told TVNZ News last night that the Holden announcement had caught many by surprise and it was ”gutting” for all who have had a part to play in the brand’s racing success. Holden, he said, leaves a difficult gap to fill. The teams who have run Holdens across the ditch – in the main show and the supports – will now have to make their own decisions about a way forward.

“Motorsport has to try to create something that can fill the gap and have relevance.”

There it is – the ‘R’ word.

Which brings me back to the announcement I referred to at the beginning of this piece, and which I then sidestepped.

BNT V8s Pukekohe Race 1 2020

Yes folks, TCR is on its way. It’s really on its way. So much so that MotorSport New Zealand has announced (yesterday) that the BNT NZV8s will be replaced by TCR at the end of this current V8 race season.

That would mean the next round of the current series at Hampton Downs March 28-29 is effectively the flying farewell for the BNT V8s – as a premier class anyway. BNT V8s have been the premier Touring Car championship series for three decades or more though it has evolved considerably in that time. Does anyone recall the one-make TraNZam Lite class that kinda started all this?

MSNZ competition manager Elton Goonan says the governing body believes that TCR better reflects what local vehicle distributors are selling which increases the potential for support from them.

“Confirming that TCR NZ will compete for the New Zealand Touring Car Championship title is a big piece of the puzzle complete for us. It adds another incentive for teams and drivers to join what is a huge success worldwide and gives drivers a recognised platform to compete on.”

It is certainly a bold move on the part of MSNZ, promoting a category to championship status when it hasn’t run a race yet in New Zealand. Full credit to category manager Grant Smith for hanging in there both with ARG and with MSNZ. Turns out Confucius had something after all – water does indeed wear away stone.

These 2.0-litre screamers are current machinery and they get updates to keep them competitive; they are a global spec so we can look for drivers from other countries coming here to race, and our drivers will likewise be able to go jump in a car at Sepang, or Buriram, or Zuhai or Pau and be familiar with the characteristics of their steeds.

Personally, I have no doubt TCR will be a huge success here, not least because of the ‘R’ word.

Relevance? They have it in spades. Try a current-model works-built VW Golf GTi for 85,000 Euro. Or save 20,000 Euro and go for a Honda Civic. That one’s a Walkinshaw car. Seat, Audi, even Toyota – they are all there for the picking, or if you win that massive Lotto this weekend you could go to one of the factories and pick yourself out a new one. It gets expensive when you go to buy one from Oz, though this Astra is brand new at $250,000 AUD.

There’s a rumour a couple of northern hemisphere team managers –BTCC types – had been looking at bringing a TCR car or two here for the summer until the plug was (temporarily) pulled. They did come down, though, to check out TRS and other aspects of the local scene. Quite what they thought of the 11-13 strong V8 grid is anyone’s guess.

It would be good to think this hiatus will give drivers and teams a chance to sort out their muddles and be ready to race when things kick off later this year. I certainly hope we don’t have to rely on the Big Burnt Country to bulk up our grids past maybe the first round.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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  1. Mark Baker

    One further complication: ARG had quite the convincing preso when they launched TCR last year at the CRC Speed Show. Part of it was their ‘agency’ dealings for some of the key car brands. Assuming they want a businesslike return on their investments, will that mean they will seek to choke off other routes of supply? Or will they deny or delay update packages for those who have bought their cars by other means?
    ARG is indeed going to find itself going up against a very exciting TA2 category with Australasian cars rumoured to start at $140k.
    In the end the winner could be motor racing itself – a New Zealand summer series featuring TRS, TCR and TA2, never to have the likes of the farm utes looming in the shadows of ‘premier’ championship class status

    Mark Baker

  2. Mark Baker

    Some shrapnel flying around between Monday and now:

    Financial and human effects
    Even if we accept official figures for the cost-cutting Gen II initiative there is a significant cost to the withdrawal of the Holden brand– each Aussie team has two cars, each of which costs $250-300,000 to build (less engine); engines cost upward of $50,000 Australian each. Those figures are official, and apply after cost-cutting measures including component commonality were introduced. And even if they are correct, each team currently running Holden has until the end of 2021 to re-settle with another brand – assuming other brands want ‘in’ where Holden went out.
    Beyond the hardware, there is a people cost too. In the retail network about 75 per cent of Holden’s 800 direct employees in New Zealand and Australia are expected to lose their jobs. The company’s remaining 200 or so staff will handle the brand’s ongoing service and warranty commitments.
    No such certainty exists for the Holden teams, many of whom are on year-by-year contracts. Over coming months, the engineers, tech staff, mechanics and operational staff will start to move away from teams still running Holdens. Where they end up remains to be seen, but they take with them massive resources of institutional and technical knowledge. As always, the most employable and most ‘mobile’ will go first.

    Mark Baker

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