the silliest V8 off-season yet
It all began many months ago, V8 Superstars circling the paddock
in uneasy merriment. Then the music stoped.
Many retained their original seats. Some chose a different seat,
or were forced to do so. Others failed to find a seat, and were
left out of the game altogether. It was said to be amicable, yet
often bitter, sometimes bitchy, and always enthralling.
With the jostling for seats now all but over, a relative calm has
descended on the Supercar paddock. It's now time for a driver
stocktake and review a silly season that was, undeniably,
the silliest on record.
Most agree the F1-style hatching, matching and dispatching seen
over the summer was long overdue. Manufacturer loyalty that
has been inherent in the dual-make category since its inception
- and, indeed, since the very early days of Australian racing -
was put to one side as drivers (among others) searched for
better deals, regardless of the badge on the car.
You would think that Lowndes' move to Ford has been at the center of the
musical chair action (green line), but
our musical chair diagram shows, most of the movement came from
the remnants of the Dumbrell/Kmart operation (in blue). This will especially
be the case if as rumored a Murphy/HRT Satellite/Kmart operation is setup.
Long-serving Castrol Perkins man Russell Ingall applauds the
bravado of some that made the switch, and says there should be
more like them.
"It's about time. There's not enough movement in V8 Supercars.
It should be like it is in F1," Ingall told the Austrlaian
Grand Prix Web Site last week.
"Things have changed a lot from the Brock-Johnson days,
when a driver-manufacturer relationship was like a marriage
that couldn't be broken up."
"That's what stops the majority of drivers from moving,
they're worried about how they will be perceived by the public
for changing camps. I think this move of Craig's (Lowndes)
will help, when they realise it's no big deal," he said.
No big deal for some perhaps, but the public backlash from many
off-season parting of ways is yet to be felt to the full extent.
Most fans were thrilled to see some movement through the summer
- that is, until their favourite driver was doing the moving.
While the 2001 pre-season drafting period involved a myriad
of players, most of the attention was centred on just one -
Motorsport's self-made celebrity, Craig Lowndes.
Many predicted Lowndes would switch to Ford (his growing
resentment towards Holden and HRT was hardly subtle) and some
even reported possible links with Gibson. But the assembled
media at a Ford-convened press conference early in the
New Year were left breathless with the announcement Lowndes
would drive for Gibson, under the Ford banner.
It was a coup that had General Geoff Polites beaming, declaring
the beleaguered Ford camp was making a comeback of monumental
proportions. Few could argue, given the arsenal now at Ford's
disposal and their concerted effort to improve their standings
on the track (and in the showroom).
But the Lowndes saga, played out through the media (read: tabloid)
for far-too-long a period, was a bitter pill for all to swallow.
A feeling of betrayal swept through the Holden Racing Team's
Melbourne bunker, and led to Lowndes/HRT relations reaching
an all-time low. Lowndes' cancelled drive with the Panoz
outfit in Adelaide, and continuing legal threats regarding
his unfulfilled TWR management contract ensured the split
was and remains a bitter one.
Just this week, Lowndes - who's been criticised by many for
not revealing the impetus behind his defection - issued a
statement to his fans, describing HRT as having, "little
flexibility and too many restrictions for us to swallow."
His on-track battle with HRT this year, fuelled by a messy
divorce after months of discontentment, should be intense.
Many of Holden's followers are still in a state of mourning,
while others are baying for his blood. Generally, Ford's
forlorn faithful have welcomed Lowndes with open arms, but some
will ensure he remains an outcast, for now at least.
Lowndes appears resolute. "Hopefully the fans will understand
the decision that I've made is one that's right for my future,"
he said recently. "I'm sure there will be some disappointed
people but on the other side of the coin there will be some excited
Meanwhile, Neil Crompton last week signed with Ford's latest
superteam, and will partner Lowndes in the endurance events
later in the year.
Crompton was replaced at Ford-Tickford Racing by another
high-profile renegade in Kiwi Steven Richards. While the
impact of Richards' defection was dwarfed in the wake of the
Lowndes furore, the news of another of Holden's heroes
sleeping with the enemy was significant.
Richards, a victim of Gibson's impulsive buy-back, was snatched
from Holden's grasp at the eleventh-hour by Glenn Seton to
replace Crompton as co-pilot.
Favourites for the seat Cameron McLean and Dean Canto were
crying foul, claiming the job was all but theirs. Both now
seem content to run their own cars in this year's series.
The Holden Racing Team was quick to rebut the costly loss
of Lowndes, signing insolvent Indy adventurer Jason Bright
late last year. Most agree the factory Holden attack loses
little with the signing of the talented journeyman.
While Bright is no stranger to a Commodore, his recent V8
history is closely associated with Ford. Many believed Bright
would renew his links with the Blue Oval should his Indy
dream disintegrate, but after failing to find the money
needed to continue his single-seater aspirations, Bright
declared: "the HRT drive was the only one I'd come back
Greg Murphy, another casualty of Fred Gibson's backdoor Ford
deal, may yet find a home with his previous employer, HRT.
Murphy was present at HRT's glitzy launch through the week
and, although he wasn't saying much, is expected to announce
a new K-Mart-backed HRT satellite campaign in the next week.
Up north, the Stone Brothers ceremoniously dumped freshman
Craig Baird and veteran Tony Longhurst from their squad,
opting for two drivers who, at the time, had never driven a
V8 Supercar. The team made no secret of their disgruntlement
of Baird and Longhurst, or of their commitment to a driver
David Besnard - snapped up by SBR on a long-term deal mid last
year - has since thoroughly impressed in the Lites class and
endurance races, while the reputation of the team's other
recruit, Marcos Ambrose, precedes him. Both, particularly
Ambrose, left promising overseas careers behind in favour
of the Stone Brothers proposal - a significant coup for
Australia's Supercar formula.
Tony Longhurst refuses to be forced into Motorsport's
semi-retirement home, and may yet find a full-time seat for
the 2001 season. Legal action against his enforced SBR
layoff could be pending - perhaps, setting a dangerous precedent
given the long list of those made redundant over the summer.
And that's just those that made the back pages.
For now at least, the 2001 V8 Supercar grid looks largely
settled. All fans can hope is that the action on the track will be
as absorbing as that which occurred off it.