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What will replace Holden in supercars?

Now the sport, currently known as Supercar Racing, faces the enormous challenge of reinventing itself without one of its two key protagonists in the immediate aftermath of General Motors’ decision to kill the Holden brand by the end of 2020.

This is a moment in the sport’s history that will define it perhaps more than ever before, or certainly at least since 1992 when organisers designed to ban imported, turbocharged cars and make it a battle between V8-powered Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores. The problem now is that both the Falcon and the Commodore are dead, killed by apathy – the Australian public simply stopped buying them in significant numbers, and they were dumped.

So where does the sport go from here? What are the realistic options? Is there anyone out there who can replace Holden, both on the grid and in the hearts of the fans?

In the short-term Supercars Australia CEO Sean Seamer is working hard to come up with a plan for 2021 that can also shore up the category in the years beyond. The good news for fans is that this is work that had already begun late in 2019 when Holden confirmed it was axing the Commodore model – the current vehicle used in Supercars.

“While [GM closing Holden] is a surprise, it doesn’t change our plans,” Seamer said. “We’re going through a process, chatting with our stakeholders, including manufacturers, including GM, about what next year looks like. We’ll make a decision in the next few weeks what those plans of 2022 we want to pull forward into 2021.”

Those plans include the adoption of the so-called “Gen3” regulations, which were due to be implemented for the 2022 season and are expected to include changes to the chassis and roll-cage design used by all teams in order to accommodate two-door sports car bodies. That would allow the Holden teams to swap to the GM-owned Chevrolet Camaro, which is imported and converted to right-hand drive by Holden Special Vehicles in Melbourne. HSV is owned by Ryan Walkinshaw, who also leads the Walkinshaw Andretti United Supercars team. But while he’s previously expressed an interest in racing the Camaro, he hasn’t made any further comments about it this week, despite all the news surrounding Holden’s demise.

The catch for the Camaro is that it’s smaller body doesn’t fit the current roll-cage design, but implementing the Gen3 changes in 2021 is a possibility Seamer is open to. However, he stressed that he was mindful of the added costs too many changes would bring to the race teams; some of which are reportedly financially stretched already.

The problem is, beyond the obvious “Camaro v Mustang” rivalry, the switch to two-door sports cars would leave Supercars vulnerable to one or the other disappearing like Holden. It also leaves the question open – who else would join in?

Where to next for Supercars after the death of Holden?

Supercars are caught in a perfect storm of events that is likely to wreak unprecedented change, if not havoc, at a time when the future has never been more uncertain.

Holden’s demise was the unexpected development, with the announcement coming just as two deals critical to Supercars’ outlook were being negotiated. One is the new broadcast rights agreement that will underpin finances for the next several years, and the other is the looming sale of the business.

As well, Supercars is trying to work out what the next generation of V8 racers will look like – literally and figuratively – from 2022, seeking to attract new manufacturers and institute much-needed cost reductions.

With all this going on, the timing of the news that the end of the year will go Holden couldn’t have been worse, if only from a perception point of view. Supercars was prepared for life after the Commodore, a staple of Australian touring car racing since 1980, but not an automotive landscape without a significant General Motors presence.

On the surface, it’s like Formula 1 without Ferrari or the AFL without Collingwood.

Replacing the Commodore with the Chevrolet Camaro to compete against the Ford Mustang was always part of the plan for Gen3, the coming major rules overhaul aimed at making it easier and cheaper for manufacturers – and teams – to compete with a wider range of two-door body shapes.

Originally, Gen3 was to be an evolution of the current Gen2 rules, which themselves were an extension of the game-changing 2013 Car of the Future regulations.

While Gen2 enabled the return of the Mustang to local top-line touring car racing – and with it, Ford’s limited comeback in terms of factory backing – neither new manufacturers nor different engine configurations were enticed.

For Gen3, Supercars is again open to accepting non-V8s and even looking at hybrid technology, though not immediately.

The other problem with Gen2 is that fitting a low-line two-door body shape onto the Supercars control chassis, designed for four-door sedans, produced the mutated Mustang. Despite every recent race car being cut and shut to fit the late 1990s-based chassis dimensions, Supercars always closely resembled the donor road cars.

The Mustang racer is odd-looking, and Walkinshaw Andretti United – formerly Holden’s factory team – gave up on developing a Supercars Camaro because it would have looked unacceptably awkward.

WAU was hyper-mindful of racing a deformed Camaro because of its HSV affiliate imports and ‘re-manufactures’ Chevy’s Mustang rival.

HSV will almost certainly transform into the GM Specialty Vehicles entity mentioned as the make’s future presence in Australia and, with backing from Detroit, will want to change from Commodore to Camaro in Supercars.

Also to be considered is that, unlike the Mustang, the future of the Camaro as a road car is uncertain beyond 2023/24. A new-generation Mustang, presumably to still be made in right-hand drive, is due in late 2021, in time for its shape to be adapted more proportionately to the Gen3 rules.

Ford Australia and Ford Performance in the US are interested in continuing their involvement in Supercars, but only if there is viable competition – be it red or otherwise.

Amid this turmoil and uncertainty, Supercars management has to ensure the sport’s financial future and resolve its ownership. The former is fundamental to both.

What does Holden’s demise mean for Supercars?

Even without GM’s decision to axe the Holden name, it’s unlikely that there would have been Holdens racing in Supercars for long. It always felt like the current factory deal, which is supposed to run through to the end of 2021, would be the last one for Holden in its traditional sense.

Then, best-case scenario, the out-of-production Commodore would be replaced by a racing Camaro or Corvette – backed by GM. None of that necessarily changes.

What the Holden demise has done, however, is make 2022 the hardest of hard deadlines for Supercars. In fact, it may even be a year too late.

Before we get onto the future, let’s take a quick look at the past.

Holden, Australia’s first and only true car maker, is a local icon. For as long as there was a love affair with the midsize sedan, the Commodore was a big player – right alongside the Aussie-built Ford Falcon. Where and when did it all go wrong?

There’s no single factor that led to the downfall of a once-loved manufacturer. Some lay the blame at the feet of changing government subsidy policies that failed to protect the local industry.

The death of manufacturing on Australian soil certainly didn’t help, particularly when the famous Commodore nameplate was slapped on a front-wheel-drive European sedan that didn’t come with a V8 option, alienating even the most rusted-on of buyers.

The pivot to the SUV market, at a price point dominated by Japanese and South Korean makes, was a marketing misstep. Then there’s the simple, inescapable fact that Australia is a relatively small market with an expensive problem – the steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the cabin.

The GM business case is clear: focus on the big, profitable left-hand-drive markets (China and the US); leave the right-hand-drive markets for manufacturers better placed to wear the additional engineering costs.

Naturally, the death of Holden has sparked a wave of pessimism about the future of Supercars. Can the series really survive without Ford versus Holden?

The reality is it was going to have to anyway. With Holden announcing last year that the Commodore was being booted from showrooms, it was unlikely there would have been another factory deal centred on the four-door. The next GM spend was going to need to be for either a Camaro or a Corvette – exactly the kind of car the new Gen3 rules are likely to cater for.

The timing of the Holden demise is, however, awkward. The existing Holden deal matched up perfectly with the 2022 introduction of Gen3, which meant a swansong year for the Commodore in 2021.

And there’s every chance that will still happen.

The Commodore is a homologated Supercar (the Falcon raced on long after Ford stopped selling it), so there are no technical issues. Even if the factory funding dries up as expected, Triple Eight can go back to being Red Bull Racing Australia and play on for another year.

Sure, it’s a little weird that Holden won’t actually exist, but it’s not an insurmountable problem.

The second option is that elements of Gen3 are moved forward, something that Supercars has openly admitted is being looked at.

If GM is serious about a ‘GM Special Vehicles’ arm in Australia, then perhaps a two-door programme can be rushed through for 2021. It may well be Ryan Walkinshaw who’s best placed to make it happen. After all, his Melbourne-based HSV company converts Camaros to right-hand drive with GM’s blessing and is tipped to be a major part of the GMSV plan.

Walkinshaw had tried to get the Camaro into Supercars before but opted to wait in the hope that Gen3 would bring a control chassis better suited to two-doors.

Perhaps that’s a process that can be expedited to keep GM interested.

Will Holden be on the grid in 2021?

There are no questions about 2020, with the season now underway teams are already committed to their respective vehicles for the year. So, the question becomes what will happen to the team’s Holden currently supports, primarily the Red Bull Holden Racing Team (RBHRT).

The two parties have a contract that runs through to the end of the 2021 season. RBHRT boss Roland Dane met with the media in the immediate aftermath of Holden’s announcement and said he would sit down and meet with the management team to work out a plan for next year.

The most likely outcome is Holden will pay-out the remaining year of its contract, which is likely to be a small amount in the grand scheme of the $US1 billion bill GM is facing to wind up the company and pull out of all right-hand-drive markets including Thailand and New Zealand.

From a racing team point of view, every single Holden team in pitlane will likely have placed a call to Ford by now to see if they’d help them swap to a Mustang for ’21. But they’ll probably end up racing their Commodores for at least another year, and possibly longer if no new manufacturer’s join the sport. Don’t forget, and the Ford Falcon won the Supercars Championship in 2018 after shuttering production at Broadmeadows in 2016.

What now for Supercars?

Supercars Australia CEO Sean Seamer faces an incredibly difficult few months as he tries to come up with a plan to save the sport. The category was aiming to introduce its ‘Gen3’ regulations for the 2022 season, which it hopes will encourage more manufacturer involvement.

With Holden gone, Mr Seamer admits that those Gen3 rules – or at least elements of them – could be introduced in 2021 to help find a replacement for the Commodore.

“While this news [about Holden] is a surprise, it doesn’t change our plans,” Mr Seamer told CarsGuide. “We’re going through a process, chatting with our stakeholders, including manufacturers, including GM, about what next year looks like. We’ll make a decision in the next few weeks what those plans of 2022 we want to pull forward into 2021.”

Will General Motors race something else?

The sudden departure of Holden may accelerate the Gen3 plans, with many within the industry optimistic that the Chevrolet Camaro can be drafted in as a replacement for the Commodore.

Speaking at the announcement of Holden’s closure, both GM International chief Julian Blissett and Holden chairman Kristian Aquilina spoke of plans for a GM Specialty Vehicles business that could be set-up to sell limited numbers of niche models – like the Camaro and Corvette.

Holden Special Vehicles already runs a similar program, importing and converting the Camaro in Melbourne. That company is owned by Ryan Walkinshaw, who also runs the Walkinshaw Andretti United Supercars team. He has previously talked of his interest in racing the Camaro but has been blocked by the regulations.

The expectation is that Gen3 will alter the rules to allow the Camaro in. But that puts a lot of pressure on a relatively small business to fill a very big hole left by Holden. But with support from Supercars, it’s highly possible that the Camaro could be on the grid in 2021.

What is highly unlikely to ever be in a Supercars starting line-up is the Corvette. Even if GM continues with its plans to sell it in Australia (likely through HSV dealers), Mr Seamer ruled out allowing the new mid-engined sports car into the sport. He believes trying to find a competitive balance between the front-engined Mustang and mid-mounted Corvette would simply be too hard, as well as too far removed from the touring car concept that underpins the sport.

Who would buy Supercars?

The first group wanting to buy Supercars is the Australian Racing Group (ARG). This well-financed disruptor has emerged in the past year, funding the establishment of TCR 2.0-litre touring car racing, S5000 V8 big-banger open-wheelers and an end-of-season international event at Bathurst.

ARG is backed by reclusive property developer and racing enthusiast Brian Boyd – a long-time patron under his PAYCE and Paynter Dixon sponsorships of multiple classes.

Boyd has deep, deep pockets and a desire to run racing in this country. His motorsport lieutenants are former Wilson Group CEO John McMellan – a big racing backer when he headed Hong Kong-based parking, security, medical and storage conglomerate Wilson – and ex-Volvo Australia boss and Supercars 2IC Matt Braid.

Their rivals for control of Supercars are a band of rich team owners. Think Roger Penske, Roland Dane, Walkinshaw and eccentric Erebus Motorsport patron Betty Klimenko. Their takeover bid is being organised by amateur racer Tim Miles, a financier who brokered Archer’s buyout, which resulted in a multimillion-dollar windfall for team owners. 

There’s a whole other conversation about how reliant a series should be on manufacturers, and whether Gen3 should be purely built around fast, loud cars that are dirt cheap for privateer teams to run – even if there’s no relevance to the automotive market.

These are all things that, with the Holden-and-Ford rivalry still ticking along nicely, Supercars had time to ponder. What this Holden news has done is made nailing down the direction of Gen3 a matter of urgency.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that Supercars is deep into selling its TV rights, with the current deal to expire at the end of this year. Potential broadcast partners will want clear answers on how the series will look beyond 2020.

A sedanless future has always been coming, but it’s never been coming quite this fast. Until recently, Gen3 could have been delayed until 2023 if needed. Now that’s simply not an option.

Even 2022 feels like it may be a year too late.

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