ONE of the best outcomes of the Supercars eSeries has been the opportunity to unmask the drivers behind the cars – seeing them in their almost natural element but without the helmets and balaclavas that cover them in real-world racing.
It’s been successful, too; witness Nick Percat and Dog Nelson, Chaz Mostert evolving into Chaz ‘exotic’ and Rick Kelly’s excellent sim-rig building exercise as evidence.
It is a good thing, too, because the championship will need to draw on that star power when racing returns and moving into the future.
As the sport evolves beyond the tribalism of Holden versus Ford to more revolving around the individual brand names of the competing drivers it’s important that the sport continues to hold on to key names and build new ones for as long as they can.
In the last two years the sport has lost Craig Lowndes and Garth Tander, both high profile Bathurst champions with significant fan bases, from full-time competition. Sure, they still have profile but their star-power is missed from the day-to-day operations of going racing.
As good as he is, Jamie Whincup has never had a massive profile – he’s an introvert; happy to let his driving to the talking rather than media (which he does well) and building a massive fan base.
Which leaves us with a handful of what you could call ‘star’ drivers in the category now.
There’s Scott McLaughlin, of course, who had star-power before he went to Penske and has doubled that now.
Fans love Shane van Gisbergen for his out-there driving and sometimes controversial acts. You wouldn’t call him a villain, but he plays a role – he’s the Moffat to McLaughlin’s Brock, if you will.
Dave Reynolds is the company clown, who just also happens to be a tremendous driver – but he’s a go-to for media because they know there’s a chance that he’ll say something controversial.
Chaz Mostert is on the list, too, generally because he has no problem expressing himself and letting his personality come forward beyond his driving. And Rick Kelly is now one of, if not the, most experienced driver in the paddock and his ongoing TV work with Channel 10 keeps him in the limelight.
But outside of that, the drivers you could classify as being true ‘stars’ of the game are few and far between. Plenty have passionate fan bases and many, like Will Davison, Mark Winterbottom and Fabian Coulthard, have been successful over a long period – but few transcend the boundaries of the series core audience and have crossover potential into more mainstream coverage like the big-name athletes in Footy and Cricket.
Building up the next-generation of superstar drivers will be a critical step for Supercars as they seek to return to a growth phase following their current challenges, which outside of Covid-19 include sorting their next set of regulations, working through the Virgin Australia saga and then finding a new TV partner for the next three to five years.
What’s more, it’s almost certain that Scott McLaughlin will depart our shores for the ‘States when his potential pathway to an Indy Car career becomes clearer as the world rights itself. It is hard to see the Kiwi spending two decades in Supercars given his obvious potential to be a world-beater.
The sport does have an advantage in that a lot of the proper superstars of the past few decades – names like Lowndes, Skaife, Murphy – have stuck around in media roles, while legends like Dick Johnson remain accessible. That’s a bonus.
So, who’s in the pipeline from a driving point of view? Fortunately, it looks like there’s a few potentials on the grid already. Young Victorian Anton de Pasquale (main picture) has often been named the ‘next big thing’ and is the one most tip to inevitably replace McLaughlin at Penske.
Nick Percat has a loyal fan base from his time in the category and his continued stint with Brad Jones Racing has the vibe of building something of an underdog status in the field.
Todd Hazelwood has a devoted fanbase from his years of graft trying to make it to the top – he is hard working and active in engaging with the punters and would be a natural for fans to attach themselves to.
Cam Waters has the right amount of ‘mongrel’ to win races and is not backwards in coming forwards. Which is all very promising, isn’t it?
Building these next group of Supercar Superstars, or wherever the next Scott McLaughlin or Shane van Gisbergen may come from, will be key to the series’ success moving forward.
From what we’ve seen in the eSeries so far and from those looking to make their claim as the next big thing in Supercars, perhaps there is hope that the future is indeed in good hands.